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Making the Best of a Messy Real World
Mike Treder   Dec 18, 2009   Ethical Technology  

We face an uncertain future. And there are no easy answers.

To be stable and functional, an ecosystem requires balance. Too much fluctuation in any of a number of variables can result in runaway extremes of temperature, acidity, drought, and other conditions that will leave the system unfit for most of its living inhabitants. (Just look at what happened in the Biosphere 2 experiment when researchers couldn’t manage to maintain a healthy balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.) Rapid change within an ecosystem almost always leads to mass extinctions.

Our Earth is an ecosystem, the largest and most complex in the known universe. We’ve been lucky over the last 10,000 years or so to have experienced a period of significant stability, a time when temperatures, precipitation levels, and atmospheric composition have stayed remarkably consistent. This Holocene Epoch, as it is called, has allowed human civilization to arise and flourish.

Unfortunately, the rapid growth of our cities and our industries is producing an impact that threatens to destabilize the complex ecosystem that supports us. We may be reaching a tipping point where we will be unable to control the runaway effects that could undo all that we’ve managed to build in the last ten millennia.

Human civilization has had a stable childhood. Over the past 10,000 years, as our ancestors invented agriculture and built cities, the Earth remained relatively stable. The average global temperature fluttered slightly, never lurching towards a greenhouse climate or chilling enough to enter a new Ice Age. The pH of the oceans remained steady, providing the right chemical conditions for coral reefs to grow and invertebrates to build shells. Those species, in turn, helped support a stable food web that provided plenty of fish for us humans to catch. The overall stability of the past 10,000 years may have played a big part in humanity’s explosion.

Now, ironically, civilization has become so powerful that it can reshape the planet itself. “We have become a force to contend with at the global level,” as Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, puts it. Humans have changed the chemistry of Earth’s oceans, lowering their pH and causing ocean acidification. We are shifting the composition of the atmosphere, raising levels of carbon dioxide higher than they’ve been in at least the past 800,000 years.

That’s Carl Zimmer, in an article for NOVA Science. He continues:

A number of scientists have warned in recent years that if we keep pushing the planet this way, we will cause sudden, irreversible damage to the systems that made human civilization possible in the first place. Typically, they’ve just focused on one of these tipping points at a time. But in today’s issue of the journal Nature, Rockstrom and 27 of his fellow environmental scientists argue that we have to conceive of many tipping points at once. They propose that humans must keep the planet in what they call a “safe operating space,” inside of which we can thrive. If we push past the boundaries of that space—by wiping out biodiversity, for example, or diverting too much of the world’s freshwater—we risk catastrophe.


The Earth has nine biophysical thresholds beyond which it cannot be pushed without disastrous consequences.
Ominously, we have already moved past three of these tipping points.

One of the key tipping points those scientists highlight is biodiversity loss: the depletion of species through mass extinction.

That’s the subject of a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times by Jeff Corwin, the author of 100 Heartbeats, The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species. He says:

There is a holocaust happening. Right now. And it’s not confined to one nation or even one region. It is a global crisis.

Species are going extinct en masse.

Every 20 minutes we lose an animal species. If this rate continues, by century’s end, 50% of all living species will be gone. It is a phenomenon known as the sixth extinction. The fifth extinction took place 65 million years ago when a meteor smashed into the Earth, killing off the dinosaurs and many other species and opening the door for the rise of mammals. Currently, the sixth extinction is on track to dwarf the fifth.

Corwin points out that there are many factors contributing to this dangerous decline in diversity, including overpopulation, loss of habitat, global warming, and species exploitation. The black market for rare animal parts is the third-largest illegal trade in the world, outranked only by weapons and drugs, he says.

He emphasizes that our concern should extend well beyond a few beloved species:

It’s important to understand that this is not just a race to save a handful of charismatic species—animals to which we attach human-inspired values or characteristics. Who wouldn’t want to save the sea otter, polar bear, giant panda or gorilla?

These striking mammals tug at our heartstrings and often our charitable purse strings. But our actions need to be just as swift and determined when it comes to the valley elderberry longhorn beetle or the distinctly uncuddly, pebbly-skinned Puerto Rican crested toad or the black-footed ferret, whose fate is inextricably intertwined with that of the prairie dog. The reality is that each species, no matter how big, small, friendly or vicious, plays an important and essential role in its ecosystem. And we’re in a race to preserve as much of the animal kingdom as possible.

Meanwhile, around the planet there are massive die-offs of amphibians, the canaries in our global coal mine. When frogs and other amphibians, which have existed for hundreds of millions of years, start to vanish, it is a sign that our natural world is in a state of peril.

Bat and bee populations are also being decimated. Without bees, there will be no pollination, and without pollination, the predator that is decimating these other species—humankind—will also be headed toward its own extinction. Yes, there is a certain irony there.

A major contributing factor to the shocking rate of species depletion that we’re witnessing is rapidly increasing ocean acidification. And, once again, this changing variable is largely a result of human activity:

Oceans absorb about 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere from human activities each year, says a new U.N. report released at the Copenhagen talks this week. That helps slow global warming in the atmosphere, the focus of the Copenhagen talks.

But carbon dissolving in oceans also forms carbonic acid, raising waters’ acidity that damages all manner of hard-shelled creatures, and setting off a chain reaction that threatens the food chain supporting marine life.

By 2100, the report said, some 70 percent of cold water corals—a key refuge and feeding ground for commercially popular fish that also are food for seals and otters—will be exposed to the harmful effects.

Ocean acidity could increase 150 percent just by mid-century, according to the report by the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

“This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems,” it said.

The average acidity of oceans’ surface water is estimated to increase measurably by the end of the century and will affect marine life, according to Peter Brewer, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

“The total quantity of carbon dioxide that we’ve put into the oceans today is around 530 billion tons,” Brewer told journalists on a fall fellowship program with the Honolulu-based East-West Center. “Now, it’s going up at about 1 million tons an hour. You can’t keep doing that without it having some impact.”

Dead Sea

Here’s the real problem.

If we can’t succeed in slashing our global carbon dioxide outputs within the next decade or two, then global warming could reach a tipping point where the only way to prevent the worst impacts of climate change—droughts, floods, killer storms, pestilence, crop failures, pandemics, disastrous sea level rise, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees—will be seen as many to be an all-out effort at geoengineering.

And the irony is that the most popular schemes for geoengineering—those most likely to be attempted—will either do nothing to reduce ocean acidification, or in some cases could even make it worse. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Techno-rapturists among our reading audience might be quick to respond with glib answers about miraculous nanotechnology solutions that are just around the corner, or the promise of a superintelligent friendly AI who can take over everything and solve all our troubles just like Daddy would.

Unfortunately, all those naive fantasies of easy fixes run smack up against the actuality of human politics, economics, greed, inertia, and the seemingly intractable difficulties of producing sudden dramatic improvements in the morass of a messy real world.

The best we can hope for is significant, meaningful, but incremental change. It’s not as alluring as dreams of utopia, but if we want a better future for ourselves and our children—or, more realistically, a future that’s not considerably worse—we have to focus on what can be done and get to work on that.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


great article mike! All i would like to add is that by looking at the ecosystem as an emergent complex system we can overcome most of the problems with climate change, although as you pointed out some those technologies might make things worse, but then again the ecosystem is an emergent complex system, so many different things will contribute to the balance of it, however, that “balance” does not have to look exactly like it is today and was 10 years ago, 40 years ago, or 150 years ago, the understanding of “ecosystem balance” in itself will change.  However, the loss of species is of course a very sad thing and something we need to continue to consider.

Excellent article!

Your choice of title here is almost prophetic. After the rather dismal results that finalised in Copenhagen last week, this could well have read, “Making the best of a real messy climate summit”. And so instead of a signed and agreed treaty between nations we have an “accord”!

“Accord” : definitions

1. Harmony of people’s opinions or actions or characters
2. Concurrence of opinion
3. A written agreement between two states or sovereigns
4. Sympathetic compatibility

Can we really rely entirely upon politicians to solve these global issues? I am beginning to realise that waiting for politicians and governments to show some leadership here may be pointless and time wasting, thus I have decided upon my own resolve to reduce my carbon footprint by reducing my energy consumption - directly.

Perhaps if we all became even a little more proactive now about saving energy and reducing our usage, then our governments would then realise that we mean business. And then they may just begin to realise, (through decreased consumption, tax revenues, energy trade and other persuasions), that they indeed need to show some firm leadership. Almost everyone I speak to, (including myself), agrees that action needs to be taken now, yet we still await for the initiative from central government.

We had an energy saving initiative promoted back in the seventies through all media, simply the slogan : “SAVE IT!”  Seems that slogan applies with more weight and importance now than it ever did before.

Anyone wanting to read and download this recent Copenhagen “accord” of nations, the link can be found here

Sorry Mike, your capabilities with communications and media may well be stellar, but your lack of knowledge concerning earth’s ecosystems is massive.

Some few of earth’ ecosystems ARE remarkably stable, like tropical rain-forests, but others are massively unstable, with regular catastrophic fluctuations for which a host of species have adapted quite well, thanks very much.  Never mind that over 25% of earth’s land surface ecosystems have adapted to seasonal temperature variability sufficient to kill and shutdown almost all biological productivity (we call it winter), let us look briefly at stream, river, forest, prairie and northern ecosystems.

All of the species resident in stream ecosystems have adapted to unpredictable catastrophic events we call floods.  They do fine.

All of the species resident in applicable prairie and forest ecosystems have adapted to unpredictable catastrophic events we call fires,  They do fine.

All of the species resident in certain northern land areas have adapted to unpredictable catastrophic events we call glaciation. They do fine.

All these ecosystems and many others are very unstable.  Their residents have all adapted to this fact, and do fine.

All the failure of Biosphere 2 demonstrates is how poor our current understanding of earth’s ecosystems and biosphere actually is.

The rest of your points concerning doom and gloom fit under the category of could, might, should, oughta.  These are NOT science, merely speculation.  In fact, climatology is not science, merely anecdotal naturalistic observation followed by more speculation. LOL Tell me—what is earth’s temperature today ?  ROFL absurd.

If earth’s biosphere was so fragile that some species/event/act of god could come along and totally zap it, believe me it would have happened already in the billions of years available.  Earth would be a lifeless cinder.  But it is NOT.

While we make a total shambles of our civilization and the carrying capacity of earth’s ecosystems in the short term, in the long term, earth will abide.  Thanks very much.

Techno-rapturists among our reading audience might be quick to respond with glib answers about miraculous nanotechnology solutions that are just around the corner, or the promise of a superintelligent friendly AI who can take over everything and solve all our troubles just like Daddy would.

Nobody responded with similar answers. Perhaps we should show more respect for our audience?

If there are no “techno-rapturists” in the audience, then this sentence is redundant. If there are some, they may feel unnecessarily insulted.

I recommend we work together on the many technoprogressive initiatives we all agree upon, agree to disagree on unrelated personal preferences.

Thanks for the link Mike! But he did not respond with “with glib answers about miraculous nanotechnology solutions that are just around the corner”. Perhaps only in the last sentence:

But the only way that will happen in a realistic projection, is for the substantial mass of humanity and industry to move into space (or cyberspace or the equivalent).  And that will require nanotech.

I also think something like this is the only really viable long term solution. Of course it is far in the future, and in the meantime we must ensure that our planet remains able to sustain the biosphere, which at this moment 😉 includes our species.

I have read Mike Treder’s blog, which is devoted to the concept of molecular manufacturing. If the kind of molecular manufacturing that his blog advocates is possible, would that not make the old O’neill scenario of space colonization possible? If so, it seems to me that the best way to protect the Earth would be to promote this kind of space colonization once the relevant molecular manufacturing is possible and get as many people to migrate into space and turn the Earth into a giant park. Yet, Mike has never talked about space colonization on his blog. This makes no sense to me. What he and many others seem to forget, it was the people involved in the L-5 Society who first came up with the idea molecular manufacturing.

The kind of molecular manufacturing that Mike’s blog is devoted to should make the O’neill scenario far cheaper and easier to accomplish than when it was first proposed in the 1970’s. Why is this then not considered an appropriate long term solution to the problem of Earth’s biosphere?

I simply fail to comprehend how someone who so obviously believes in the development of molecular nanotechnology can be so blind to the obvious application of opening up the solar system to human expansion, while preserving the Earth as a park. This seems so obvious to me. How can this not be obvious to Mike himself?

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