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CURWOOD: The Sierra Club has been around since 1892. But George Woodwell  ? whose advice helped inspire the launch of Living on Earth  ? worked with Fred Krupp in creating the Environmental Defense Fund, and had a part in starting the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council as well. He founded and directed the Woods Hole Research Center and has also been a science advisor and board member of the World Media Foundation, which produces Living on Earth. George Woodwell says scientists have a duty to alert the public to the dangers they see.
WOODWELL: I think the public understands the climatic disruption issue far better than our governmental leaders, at the moment, are willing to acknowledge. And unfortunately we have a very heavy corporate influence over government at the moment in the United States. I think that's a malevolent influence. Certainly as far as the climatic disruption is concerned it is a malevolent influence. Bad for the public, bad for the country, and bad for the world. They have been deliberate; these corporations have been deliberate in undermining the seriousness of the climatic disruption in the public eye, and certainly in the political eye. And the money they control influences the political eye of the world heavily. I think that is corrupt, simply corrupt. And something has to be done about it very soon. We hoped that Mr. Obama would take leadership and clean up the mess. And we really need someone like him who can do it.
CURWOOD: So how do we get there? How does society get to this place where you say we need to be for our survival?
WOODWELL: Well, if I knew how to get there, I would be pushing to get there. My perspective at the moment is that we have to have presidential leadership in the nation right at the moment. Real presidential leadership. He and the White House and his staff, science advisor and his entire administration have to step forward and say to the nation, we have a problem. Here is the scale of the problem, and here are the details of the solution. The solution involves shifting away from fossil fuels immediately, as rapidly as we can. A 20% reduction in the use of fossil fuels overnight is possible. We have in the past year used less fossil fuels than ever previously, that is in previous years. And there's no reason that we can't use much less over the course of the next few years. The objective has to be to not just stop the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but to reduce the present burden. That can be done, but it can be done only with US leadership and White House leadership within the US.
CURWOOD: Now George, you're an ecologist by profession, you're a conservationist by conviction. You've devoted your career to the understanding the interaction of different ecosystems but you've also taken it a step further to get involved with the policies and politics of things. Why?
WOODWELL: Well, if one is going to pursue a life dealing with significant issues, we have to show how they're significant and be effective. My view has been that environmental issues are indeed significant issues these days, and that they are at the core of governmental responsibility. If we step back and ask why it is, at least in democracies, that we entrust to some of our fellow citizens the business of running human affairs, then we come out with the view that those human affairs are very heavily linked to environmental issues; that the core purpose of government has to be to protect human interests and life on earth, and living on earth in fact.
CURWOOD: [laughs]
WOODWELL: And breathing clean air, using clean water, and having rules and regulations that make it fair to everyone in their access to opportunities for life. So a scientist looks at all of this and says well, we have to connect our basic biophysics and biophysical requirements to governments. So there's every reason to look at government and ask whether it's doing its job. And in many ways our government is doing its job but in many ways at the moment on environmental issues, it is not.
CURWOOD: How important is it for scientists to be revolutionaries?


George Woodwell is founder of the Woods Hole Research Center and a member of Living on Earth's board of directors. (Photo: George Woodwell)

WOODWELL: Well scientists don't want to be revolutionary of course; they want to be simply laying out the facts of the world. But when the facts of the world are not taken, not heard, and ignored in a systematic way by commerce and government, scientists have to be outspoken. And now I think it's time to be really shrill and unfortunately obnoxious because the cost of failures, failures to protect the basic bio-physics of the earth, are going to be, if we don't recognize them, civilization itself. It will lead to chaos.
CURWOOD: How obnoxious are you going to be, George Woodwell?
WOODWELL: Well, [laughs]...it's hard to say. You have to figure out where to be obnoxious. I'd have to say I think our scientific community has to make a lot more noise. We should have been and must be now in the very center of the political arguments and the economic arguments. Protecting the basic environment of the earth to protect all life and to protect people. But protecting people isn't enough. Protecting all life will protect people.
CURWOOD: George Woodwell is founder, director emeritus and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. Thank you so much!
WOODWELL: Well it's my pleasure, Steve.
[MUSIC: Steely Dan "Janie Runaway" from two Against Nature (Giant Records 2000)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: we turn our attention to O3  ? or ozone  ? an environmental challenge met with timely and effective action. That's just ahead right here on Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of the population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change.
This is Living on Earth from PRI, Public Radio International.