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The health of our planet will surely be one of the leading concerns for governments and citizens worldwide in the coming years of this new century. Like no other issue, with the exception of nuclear war, international terrorism, and pandemic disease, the quality of the natural environment stands as a single issue capable of dominating the public agenda, unifying opposing interests, or threatening the very health and security of humanity.
The twentieth century has been given many labels, from the "American century" to the world's bloodiest century. But, it can also safely be called the "environmental century," for better or for worse. No other century in human history witnessed anything close to the rate of human population growth and both the rate and sheer magnitude of loss of wetlands, forests, topsoil, agricultural lands, and species of flora and fauna. Advances in technology made possible the whole-sale degradation of nature on a scale heretofore unimaginable, as human activity has been linked to global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps, gaping holes in the protective ozone layer, and declining fish populations in the great oceans.
At the same time, scientific progress has helped unlock many of the deepest mysteries of the Earth and its varied ecosystems and habitats. Armed with this knowledge, we are now better equipped to understand, prevent, and repair damage to our natural world. But, perhaps most important, the previous century gave birth to an awakened environmental consciousness, which spread across the continents with the assistance of global communication technologies.
The previous century saw environmental education promoted in the classroom and placed at the forefront of the public policy agenda. By the close of the century, an awareness of the extent of damage done to the planet resulting from this new scientific understanding of ecosystems and biodiversity produced Earth-centered philosophies, eco-friendly consumerism and commerce, and the greening of politics.
Such environmentally-rooted philosophies, attitudes toward shopping, and behavior at the polls, more so than advances in scientific understanding and technology, must figure centrally in any effort to protect or restore the natural environment in the new century. Indeed, environmental problems and the public, political, and personal responses to them are at a crossroads.
The path humanity will choose is uncertain, but most agree that we cannot continue as we have in the past. Relentless development and unmitigated growth are luxuries we can no longer afford. All this makes the already complex calculus of environmental politics and policy even more complex … and more important. And the answer lies with our students, our next generation of influence!