Address from the Editor-in-Chief

Significant Achievements of 2019 (28th) Blue Planet Prize laureates

The 28th Blue Planet Prize (2019) was awarded to Professor Eric Lambin (Belgium) and Professor Jared Diamond (USA).


This result was, indeed, quite unexpected for me; one of the prize winners was Professor Diamond, the world's master of knowledge, who one may not instantly think of as an environmental scientist. As you know, he is the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, and he has also written many other books. All his work shows us that he has travelled the world on his own two feet. We stand in awe of his ability to publish so many books while busy doing research. He earned a doctorate in physiology, but also gained a comprehensive understanding of both nature and humanity, a completely different field from that of his specialization, proving he is indeed a master of knowledge. I was under the impression that the Blue Planet Prize originally targets researchers specializing in the global environment. Jared Diamond can be described as a super-environmentalist that has practiced the goal of environmental studies, whose purpose is to predict the future of the earth.


Are environmental studies effective in changing the future of our planet? The target of this field of study is the earth as a whole and human history. Considering current environmental issues such as climate change, the most important mission of environmental studies is to predict a range of possible future conditions. Developing environment studies so that these goals may be achieved may not be as feasible as we hope. However, when I learned that Professor Diamond had won the award, I reread his books and watched discussions between Professor Diamond and young people in a program produced by NHK, Japan's national broadcasting service. I've come to think that if there were 20 people like Professor Diamond traveling around the world discussing issues via the Internet, environmental studies would develop into a field that could change the direction of our future. Professor Diamond is a person with significant potential to change our future, and I would say that he should have received the Blue Planet Prize earlier.


Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there are 20 people like Professor Diamond in the world, because so few are as knowledgeable about the earth's environment as Professor Diamond is. Professor Diamond devoted his time and resources to becoming the expert he is. It requires great intellectual capacity and a significant amount of time to comprehend the history of all countries and regions. However, I think the most important requirement is having an extremely focused and unique sense of curiosity. I call this intellectual endurance, which is the intelligence and curiosity needed to seek complete understanding. Few people have been to as many regions of the world as Professor Diamond, few have verified individual conditions as carefully as he, and no one has theoretically analyzed temporal progress as extensively as he has. Professor Diamond is currently the foremost intellectual giant in the field of global environmental studies for sure.


It is not difficult even for laypeople to understand why Professor Diamond has received the award. You simply need to read his Guns, Germs, and Steel and two other books in the series to gain an understanding of his achievements. While academic papers in environmental studies can be daunting, Professor Diamond's work is quite easy to understand. If you have not read his books yet, please do. His ideas and thinking will both surprise and impress you. Read Guns, Germs, and Steel at least, then you will understand what I mean.


The other award winner, Professor Erick Lambin, is a young researcher in his 50s (born in 1962). He contributed significantly to the establishment of the method used to analyze changes in land use employing satellite data. The real reason for the award is his research methods. He did not merely analyze satellite data mathematically and developed a technological method of clarifying the land use. Simply speaking, Professor Lambin clarified changes in land use, something impossible to do with satellite data alone, using a combination of socioeconomic data and satellite images (called the "people-to-pixel" approach). Professor Lambin developed this method in the mid-1980s through his research in Sub-Saharan Africa when he was a graduate school student. He applied this method to his studies and achieved important results that established the basis for the analysis of land use.


What specifically did he accomplish? When he was a graduate school student, he was asked by his instructor to conduct fieldwork in Burkina Faso, in the African Sahel. At that time, Professor Lambin realized that he could not ascertain actual land-use conditions by superimposing satellite images on existing maps. He was wise enough to actually talk with native tribespeople, obtain information from them, and analyze it in combination with the satellite data. The results showed extreme similarity to information obtained from satellite images.


It makes sense when you think about the maps they used, which had been created with data obtained years earlier. The native tribes that he spoke with provided the latest information. Because the relationship between the on-site information and land use was clarified, he could better interpret the land-use information he obtained from satellite images. One example of this is that when farmers expand crop production such as corn and soybeans to produce biofuels, farmland further encroaches on forest land because the demand for food continues. This may seem obvious, but Professor Lambin was able to document it with satellite images.


Professor Lambin says, "If we destroyed forests by overlogging, life would not be able to survive because the forests preserve biodiversity, influence climate, and control the hydrologic cycle. We need to adopt the green procurement system to solve the problem." When we look at the high use of paper in Japan, it appears that consideration of forests is lacking, as Professor Lambin has pointed out. The Japanese government decided to start addressing the issue by shifting from hardcopies to tablets to share materials within ministries and agencies. As individuals, we can choose to purchase paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for making copies and printing. The wood pulp in FSC certified paper has been sourced in an environmentally friendly manner. This purchase system is called green purchase. Public organizations in Japan are required to use green purchase, and environmentally friendly companies also voluntarily promote green purchase. Unfortunately, however, the level of recognition in the nation remains extremely low.


The lesson of the story is that direct contact between the researcher and local residents led to the creation of a body of knowledge that translated into practical use. This researcher successfully demonstrated the essential characteristics of environmental science. The basic goal of environmental science is to analyze individual human activities and clarify its relationship with changes in the earth's environment to predict the future of the environment and human lives.


Itaru Yasui
Former Vice-Rector, United Nations University
Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo


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