Dean’s Message: Taking the Long View

When you really come right down to it, the solution to rational management of the global environment often boils down to one simple principle—taking the long view in a fast-moving society where more often the short view prevails. Whether it is harvesting a forest that took centuries to mature, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that will remain there for millennia or draining a wetland that has survived since the last glaciation, the challenge of sustainability is to get the needs of the present into an appropriate balance with the needs of the future. That simple idea is at the core of what we do, and the opportunities that we provide, at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Having an eye to the future is also implicit in the investments we make in the young people who come to F&ES to learn; every one of our graduates is a long-term contribution to the sustainable management of the global environment.

In my former role at Kew I had the honor of helping develop the Millennium Seed Bank, a large-scale multipartner effort to conserve for the long-term the genetic diversity produced by millions of years of plant evolution. Since the facility was opened in 2000, a global effort involving more that 120 partners in more than 50 countries has resulted in the ex situ conservation of more than a billion individual seeds from more than 25,000 different species. Most of these seeds will still be viable two centuries or more from now. The Millennium Seed Bank takes the long view. It is a timely investment made right now that provides insurance for the future.

In recent months a facility similar to the Millennium Seed Bank, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station near St. Petersburg, Russia, has found itself under fire from those who embrace the short view and, thereby, faces the possibility that its unique collections of crop plant diversity will be bulldozed to make way for new housing. The heritage protected at Pavlovsk is unique. More than 6,000 varieties of fruits, berries, grasses and grains are the lasting legacy of a collection effort that was made painstakingly over the course of 80 years and has survived wars, famines and droughts; 90 percent of the varieties at Pavlovsk no longer exist anywhere else in the world. Pavlovsk houses, by far, the most important collection of European fruits and berries, including 1,000 varieties of strawberries from over 40 countries, many of which are exceptionally hardy and disease-resistant.

The situation playing out so graphically at Pavlovsk also pertains to many other parts of the world. Slowly, inexorably, we are closing our options for the future as crop diversity gives way to the short-term gains of less-diverse, but higher-yielding, varieties. Too easily we forget that the current high yields we enjoy are inevitably temporary. We are engaged in an escalating arms race with pests and pathogens of all kinds, as well as natural challenges like this year’s floods in Pakistan and fires in Russia. We will always need to return to the well of genetic diversity for new varieties. In a world that is rapidly changing, the loss of Pavlovsk and the loss of crop genetic diversity everywhere are just two examples of where taking the long view should cause us to act now. The most famous alumnus of this school—Aldo Leopold—urged us to keep “every cog and wheel” in the midst of our “tinkering.” Without those pieces and without an ethic that looks further into the future, we should not expect that the natural systems on which we all depend will continue to operate smoothly and seamlessly.

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