When former astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell addressed a group of Rotarians at an international conference in the early 1970s, he warned that peak oil was on the horizon and that the American economy wouldn’t be sound forever. Thirty years later, his warnings have become today’s reality.
Mitchell, D.Sc., founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, discussed his latest focus—sustainability and the need to raise awareness about the issue—at a seminar on carbon neutrality on Dec. 15 at Fordham University.
“Now we’re talking population, water, deforestation and species extinction. I sound a lot like I did 40 years ago,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have a lot of time. It will either get better if we do something about it, or it will get suddenly worse.”
Mitchell acknowledged the naysayers on climate change with a quote inspired by German physicist Max Planck.
“Progress isn’t made by convincing skeptics, but funeral by funeral,” he said.
Mitchell was a pragmatic young test pilot, engineer and scientist when he traveled to the moon in 1971 as part of the Apollo 14 mission. He described the journey as his “dream come true.”
Space exploration symbolized for him what it did for America as a whole—technological triumph of historical proportions, unprecedented mastery of the world in which we live and extraordinary potentials for new discoveries.
But an epiphany on his return to Earth changed how Mitchell saw his place in the universe.
“The stars were so bright and, seeing that, I realized the molecules that were in my body were created by an ancient generation of stars,” he said. “It became personal. Those were my molecules. The understanding that we are one with the stars moved me toward the sustainability issues we are talking about today.”
Mitchell faced a critical challenge. As a physical scientist, he was accustomed to directing his attention to the world beyond himself.
“I thought perhaps a deeper understanding of consciousness could lead to a new and expanded view of reality in which objective and subjective, outer and inner, are understood as equal aspects of the miracle and mystery of being,” he said.
After his moon mission, Mitchell sought others who felt the need for an expanded, more inclusive view of reality. In 1973, he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences—derived from the Greek word nous, meaning something close to “intuitive ways of knowing.”
The highly respected scientist discussed several reasons for a change in the way we approach sustainability, including the alarming growth of the world’s population.
“It has more than doubled since 1975 to over six billion people,” he said. “We are consuming Earth’s natural resources at an alarming rate. Our global natural resource base cannot support a population of more than two billion people consuming at the level of Western cultures.”
Mitchell said major changes in thinking and lifestyles are required as developing nations naturally aspire to the consumption levels of the West.
“The historic mission to the moon demonstrated America’s capacity to meet technological challenges and accomplish the impossible,” Mitchell said. “The same willpower and scientific prowess can be directed toward achieving a healthy and sustainable environmental future.”
“We can do it,” he continued. “Is it easy to do? No. But we have to try.”
To change things around, Mitchell said, there must be more personal, civic, corporate and government responsibility and incentives. He said he had a lot of faith in today’s youth, who seem to be getting the message.
“Watching the young people’s presentations today brought tears to my eyes,” Mitchell said, referring the presentations at the seminar by high school students and Fordham graduate students on issues of sustainability.
The seminar, NYC: Carbon Neutral by 2020, was sponsored by Fordham’s chair in global sustainability in conjunction with TreeFriends: Using the Arts to Transform Our Relationship to the Natural World and the Coalition for One Voice.
“Fordham has a deep commitment to social justice,” said James A.F. Stoner, Ph.D., professor of management systems and chair in global sustainability. “Many believe the greatest social injustice today is the damage current generations are doing to the planet’s capacity to support future generations. Contributing to global sustainability is among Fordham’s highest priorities.”
Stoner’s graduate students gave presentations on projects on which they are currently working, such as reviving congestion pricing in New York City, making the University carbon neutral by 2020 and finding ways to advance Fordham’s curriculum to be more in line with a sustainable mindset.