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Lord May issues a warning for tomorrow's world

Posted on 02/02/2011

Professor Lord May with the Principal, Professor Paul Layzell

Ever increasing human numbers, the emergence of new diseases and excessive demand for food and energy are just some of the challenges confronting us, warns Professor Lord May, speaking at a special sustainability lecture at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The presentation, organised by the College’s Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS) in collaboration with the School of Biological Sciences, took place yesterday (31 January) in the Windsor Building.

Humans, on average, live longer and healthier lives than ever before, with more energy subsidies and food per person. This results from our ever-increasing understanding of how the natural world works. But our well-intended application of that understanding is having unintended adverse effects.

Lord May revealed that there is a potential sixth great wave of mass extinction which seems likely to unfold over the next few centuries. Extinction rates increased by at least 100 to 1,000 times over the past century, and evidence suggests a further acceleration of ten times by the end of this century.

Lord May stressed the importance of finding other ways of new, sustainable ways of generating energy, and showed that our demand for water will by 2050 exceed resources available.

He also commented on how well our government has been doing to tackle these issues. “The commitment is there – we have legislation in place and specific targets”, he said, “but we are not putting up wind farms as rapidly as other countries such as Denmark and Germany. There is commitment to the issues, but the execution is less than perfect.”

The Principal, Professor Paul Layzell said: “Sustainability is an issue that is important for all of us, and the College has taken it very seriously with the creation of CRIS, something which we are known for and brings colleagues together to work on the challenging issues that we face today. We are honoured to have Lord May give this lecture." 

Dr Laura J. Spence, Director of CRIS, commented: "Lord May's lecture, the second in our Annual Sustainability Lecture Series, was exceptional. We were delighted to see such a wide range of people in the audience, staff, alumni and students from every faculty, as well as many external visitors. The Lecture underlined the importance of keeping a clear mind about the sustainability issues we challenge, understanding the scientific evidence available to us and taking a balanced approach to using that evidence wisely."

Professor Vincent Jansen, Director of Research, Biological Sciences, added: "In his lecture Lord May showed the pattern of change in diseases, food and water, climate change and biodiversity. All these factors put together make it clear how important and pressing a concern sustainability is for all of us.


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