Polunin, Nicholas (1909 – 1997) English Environmentalist

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Nicholas Polunin (1909 1997)
English environmentalist

Nicolas Polunin will be long remembered for two unusual achievements. First, he founded and was first editor of not one but two influential journals, Biological Conservation (founded in 1967 and edited from that year to 1974) and then Environmental Conservation (founded in 1974 and edited from its inception through 1995 when he was in his mid-eighties). Second, the readers of either journal, but particularly the latter, will remember the vivid language Polunin used in numerous editorials and other articles and texts to urge readers to start paying attention to the impact of human activities on other species on earth and on the natural environment.

Polunin credited his very public concern about such issues to a small UNESCO Conference in Finland in 1966, where he "had a sudden realization, amounting to a kind of vision, that if the world's populations went on growing and acting as profligately as they had been doing in recent decades, more and more ecodisasters would be inevitable and ultimately there would be an end to much of what was best in our civilization and conceivably to all life on Earth." He went on to say that "thereupon we decided that it was our solemn duty to do all we could henceforth to warn humanity of these grave dangers." That "quite shocking realization" led to his founding and editing of the international journal on conservation, and after he considered it "sufficiently established," a "more predominately environmental journal." Biological Conservation has become a mainstay for scientists investigating the vast range and significance of biological diversity on the planet and on the possibilities for sustainable use by humans of the biosphere. Environmental Conservation tries to reach a wider readership, one well outside the community of research biologists and is much more activist in tone and content. Establishment of two such influential journals is a significant accomplishment and they remain Polunin's enduring legacy, one matched by few other ecologists.

On the cover of the first issue of Biological Conservation, Polunin listed 30 subject headings as "the content of our subject." These included the history and development of conservation, a focus on "man and environment," disturbance and maintenance of ecosystems and the biosphere, population dynamics, threatened species and nature reserves and parks, legislation and enforcement, education and training, fresh waters and wetlands, and a list of chemical, physical and biological threats to wildlife and environment. Those 30 topics were listed only on the first six issues, but the editorial description of topics for papers (as noted on an inside cover sheet in most science journals) are almost identical in the latest issues (2002) with those Polunin stated in the first issue. Typically, however, Polunin's topical editorial in that first issue was titled "Some Warnings," suggesting that "our world is beset with many threats," including his concern about the rapid increase in human population, a concern he voiced many times in editorials in both journals. In a still relevant and prescient voice, he called for a "severe limitation of human breeding and cognate desecrating tendencies." When he stepped down as editor, the publishers noted his energy and enthusiasm as reflected in "the great wealth of material published under his guidance."

While the stated purpose in the first journal was, and remains, the widest possible dissemination of original papers on "the preservation of wildlife and all nature," Polunin's editorial directions to authors in the first issue of Environmental Conservation differed quite radically, stating that the journal "advocates timely action for the protection and amelioration of the environment of Man and Nature throughout the world...for the lasting future of Earth's fragile biosphere." Polunin's editorial language remained strong, continuing to warn about the plagues human actions were visiting on each other, on other organisms, and on the earth. Words and phrases like 'faustian bargain,' 'ecodisasters,' 'our world menaced' and 'rays of hope' were common in his editorial pleas for sanity.

He published longer statements, such as his "Thoughts on Some Conceivable Ecodisasters" in the Autumn, 1974, issue of Environmental Conservation, he organized major international conferences on the environmental future and edited the proceedings, all evidence of his world-wide influence on thinking about human-environment issues and problems. He also never lost hope, claiming in 1991 (Autumn issue of Environmental Conservation ) that there had been "recent changes for the better in the prospect of an improved future for the global environment" and listing twelve rays of hope, including "a growing realization that there are coming to be far too many human beings on our limited Planet Earth."

Nicholas Polunin was born in England to a Russian father and an English mother. He earned a First Class Honours degree in botany and ecology from Oxford in 1932, a Masters from Yale, and returned to Oxford for a PhD in 1935. One of his mentors was Arthur Tansley. He traveled widely with a number of scientific expeditions while still an undergraduate and published his first book (Russian Waters, 1931) before he completed his degree. He was a member of the party that discovered Prince Charles Island, the "last major island to be marked on the world's map." He held academic positions at McGill University, and at universities in Iraq and Nigeria, among others.

Perhaps unknown to general readers more familiar with his visible roles as editor, writer, and environmental activist, Polunin was a productive research biologist, specializing in arctic vegetation and plant ecology and, later, on marine ecosystems. His 1960 text on plant geography is one of the best known in that field and still in print over forty years later.

Myers remembered Polunin as a "scientist in the round," an appropriate epitaph for one whose legacy includes two influential international journals, ever renewed encouragement to scientists to focus more clearly on global issues of conservation and environmental science, a better informed and more aware public around the world, and more realistic hopes for a better quality of life for all humanity and for continued maintenance of the diversity of Earth's natural biota.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Bataille, A. "Nicholas Polunin C.B.E., M.S., M.A., D.Phil., D.Sc., F.L.S., F.R.G.S. (19091997). Watsonia 22, no. 2 (August 1998): 203&ndahs;205.

Myers, Norman. "Nicholas Polunin: A Scientist in the Round." Environmental Conservation 25, no. 1 (March 1998): 810.