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Letter from the Editor

Incurable Optimist

Sometimes I get kidded about my optimism. But I'm no fool. I know the world is a place of heartbreak.

I contemplate the ravages of starvation among children in Sudan or Kenya, and I think of my own children, who through some stroke of luck were born into abundance. Faced with a child's hunger -- how does a parent bear such sorrow? This question led us to a man who is transforming agriculture in villages across Africa. His work could help feed millions who now cling to the edge of survival. Confronted by incomprehensible suffering, people like Pedro Sánchez envision a new future and discover solutions based on the best available knowledge, even when the data might challenge conventional wisdom.

For example, Sánchez believes that one of the keys to ending hunger is the wise use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). No subject is more controversial among environmentalists. Mendel in the Kitchen, a new book by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown, agrees with Sánchez that we should reach a greater acceptance of GMOs, especially given their promise to feed the hungry in developing countries. In his review of the book, Richard Manning, the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, points to the important distinction between the science of genetics, which is still too little understood by the general public, and the abuse of this knowledge by multinational conglomerates such as Monsanto exerting a shameful proprietary control over these promising technologies.

Science sometimes takes us to places that are tough, new, and controversial. But over time, the facts win out -- as in the virtual consensus over global climate. We know that automobiles emit hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year, pushing the earth's thermostat into the danger zone -- the direst threat of all. Yet despite this incontrovertible truth, Detroit executives still seem hooked on cars that are profitable in the short term but get fewer miles per gallon than Henry Ford's Model T. Fortunately, a hopeful, unlikely collaboration among industry executives, labor leaders, environmentalists, and former high-level government officials of all political stripes seems poised to yield a plan that will demand more stringent fuel-economy standards that are linked -- pragmatically -- to some innovative market incentives. The result could be a revolutionary breakthrough in one of the world's most dangerous cases of industrial gridlock.

The key to any solution, it seems, is an open mind.

On many issues the science is emergent and thus far from settled. Our readers can be confident that on such questions we will continue to publish independent and challenging thinking from a variety of different perspectives. After all, you can't find the truth if you're afraid of what the truth might reveal. An open mind is best when united with a courageous heart, intellectual rigor, and, yes, optimism.


Douglas S. Barasch

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OnEarth. Winter 2005
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council