International Herald Tribune
Nearly 70 years ago, a Soviet geochemist, reflecting on his world, made a startling observation: Through technology and sheer numbers, he wrote, people were becoming a geological force, shaping the planet's future just as rivers and earthquakes had shaped its past.
Eventually, wrote the scientist, Vladimir Vernadsky, global society, guided by science, would soften the human environmental impact, and Earth would become a "noosphere"a planet of the mind, "life's domain ruled by reason."
Today, a broad range of scientists say, part of Vernadsky's thinking has already been proved right: People have significantly altered the atmosphere and are the dominant influence on ecosystems and natural selection.
The question now, scientists say, is whether the rest of his vision will come to pass.
Choices made in the next few years will determine the answer.
Aided by satellites and supercomputers, and mobilized by the evident environmental damage of the last century, humans have a real chance to begin balancing economic development with sustaining Earth's ecological webs, said William Clark, a biologist at Harvard University who heads an international effort to build a scientific foundation for such a shift.
"We've come through a period of finally understanding the nature and magnitude of humanity's transformation of the Earth," Clark said.
"Having realized it, can we become clever enough at a big enough scale to be able to maintain the rates of progress?" he asked. "I think we can."
Tough Choices Ahead
Some scientists say it is anthropocentric hubris to think people understand the living planet well enough to know how to manage it.
But that prospect attracted more than 100 world leaders and thousands of other participants to the United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development, which ends this week in Johannesburg.
No matter what they come up with, ice ages, volcanoes, and shifting tectonic plates will dwarf human activities in the long run. But communities and countries face concrete choices in the next decade that are likely to determine the quality of human life and the environment well into the 22d century.