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It has always been a fundamental concept of this magazine that life should have a quality, a zest, which transcends bare—or even plentiful—survival. And we are hardly newcomers to the awareness that, though world inhabitants in general and Americans in particular have more and more, they are getting to enjoy it less and less. Words such as environment and ecology are not, therefore, fresh additions to the vocabularies of our writers. Yet never have we offered a story as encompassing or as definitive of our concern in this direction as the one which begins on page 44, Mortgaging the Old Homestead.

Peter Ritchie-Calder, who wrote it, is probably the foremost science journalist in the world. Lord Ritchie-Calder was among the first newspaper writers in England to turn his attention full time to science, and for more than three decades he has written scientific articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as 30 books that include Living with the Atom and Man and the Cosmos. He began his writing career at 15 as a crime reporter, thus terminating his formal education, but his informal education has led him to become a professor of international relations at Edinburgh University, a Labor life peer and a forceful figure on numerous United Nations scientific committees.

The Ritchie-Calder article is a harsh attack on scientists, but when we asked top authorities for their opinions of it, they agreed with its general thesis. ''Most of what he says is too true," observed one noted environmental scientist. "But isn't he a gloomy cuss?"

Deeply concerned, yes, but not all that gloomy, for humor is part of Lord Ritchie-Calder's perspective. When in 1966 he was to be made a peer—in reward for a lifetime of espousing the cause of the common man—he was told he would need a formal title and that he might take it from his property. "In that case," he told the authorities, "I should be Lord Topflat." The suggestion was hastily discarded and the new peer took as his full title Baron Ritchie-Calder of Balmashannar, after the name of a hill in the Scottish town of Forfar where he was raised. The name pleases him. He always liked that hill because he had played on it as a child. It was also, he has pointed out, once the site of the town's gallows.

Now Lord Ritchie-Calder poses for us the same alternatives. Playground or gallows hill? Last week, on the day President Nixon in his State of the Union Message was summoning the nation's energies to environmental matters, Lord Ritchie-Calder was walking down a Santa Barbara, Calif. beach, stopping to crumble a blob of oil-soaked sand in his fingers and warning: "You Americans do everything bigger and better than the rest of the world. You do a bigger and better job of polluting. You are also capable of doing a bigger and better job of turning life around. The question is, will you?"