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Last Updated: 05/20/2004
Pura Vida
Jerald L. Schnoor

Jerald L. Schnoor marvels at the popular Costa Rican greeting of Pura Vida.

While visiting my daughter who is studying in beautiful Costa Rica, I ran across the salutation pura vida among locals. Literally translated it means “pure life”, but I came to learn that it is much more than that — almost a philosophy. It means that everything is in its right place, or life is unfolding as it should. I thought, “How inspiring!” The country is still very poor by Western standards, yet the citizens have a Zen-like perspective and optimism about things. And I thought how we in the environmental community could use a little dose of that perspective (not always so gloomy, not quite so shrill). Indeed, there have been tremendous improvements in the environment, human health, and quality of life through the years, and we shouldn’t ignore or forget these positive developments. Consideration of such progress strengthens our objectivity and brings balance to our arguments. It’s “big picture” stuff.

In the past 100 years or so, we’ve had the advent (invent) of automobiles, airplanes, electrification, antibiotics, radio, telephones, televisions, nuclear power, nuclear weapons, the Green Revolution, vaccinations, digital computers, the Internet, and genetically modified organisms — for better or worse. Over-consumption in this post-industrial age, coupled with population growth, has created an inevitable tension with the environment.

But sometimes we forget what life was like in the “good old days”, when food poisoning, measles, mumps, whooping cough, small pox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, polio, childhood rheumatism, goiters, tuberculosis, and body lice ran rampant. Cities were dirty, smelly, and rodentinfested. Sewage was not treated, water was not disinfected, and jobs were dangerous. And people died, especially children. Life expectancy was about 45 years in 1900.

Today, in many countries we enjoy cleaner air, purer water, and better health as a result of better medicine, sanitation, and huge public and private investments in pollution control. But sometimes we lose perspective by concentrating on the environmental challenges that lie ahead. The writer James Branch Cabell observed in his 1926 book entitled Silver Stallion, “The optimist claims we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” Perhaps it is not so much a matter of optimism or pessimism, but rather whether you believe that ever-greater technology will serve to overcome our increasingly complex environmental problems. Many are doubtful.

According to Talbot Page (in Ecological Economics, 1992), “Economics used to be the dismal science; environmental science is now taking its place.” But is that as it should be? Futurists in 1895 thought that the greatest, most intractable problem of cities in the 20th century would be the accumulation of horse manure in the streets. (Careers of seers are short before unemployment comes calling.) Certainly, we could be dead wrong about which environmental problems will prove to be the greatest of the 21st century.

Still, I must admit to being transfixed by the potential effects of global warming as described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 3rd Assessment Report of 2001, a consensus document vetted by hundreds of the world’s leading environmental scientists and engineers. Their findings indicate that we must find a way for poor countries to develop while the global economy transitions out of the fossil fuel age. The report reminds me of another Latin American proverb: “El major doctor da las noticias más malas,” which translates as “The best doctor often gives the worst news.” Even the most confident of technological optimists should be given pause by the IPCC assessment report. As for me, on balance, I think that we as a human species have an incredible, inordinate ability to respond to crises. We will muddle through. Pura vida.


Jerald L. Schnoor


Pura vida


First published at:

University of IOWA Professor joined United Nations UPEACE guest lecture series and delivered a keynote speech on “Global Change and Energy Alternatives”. A graduate of Iowa State University, Professor Gerald Schnoor received his Phd from University of Texas. He taught at Yale, MIT, Stanford and was a visiting Professor at Swiss Fed. Inst.Tech in Switzerland. He is now Allen S. Henry Chair, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering; Co-Director, Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research; Professor of Public Health, Dept. Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of IOWA. He is also the distinguished editor of the prestigious journal Environmental Science and Technology. He has chaired many advisory boards and his pioneering breakthroughs in the field of Environment has won him many a laurels.