Scientists Issue Humanity Another Warning…Yet Again

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

July 29, 2015

Human domination of the biosphere likened to rapid discharge of a battery

With ever greater frequency it seems, reputable scientists are sounding the alarm that industrial human civilization is overpowering the Earth – or more properly the biosphere – and in so doing, risking its own well-being and maybe even its very survival.

If they are right, man’s much vaunted “conquest of nature” may prove to be a short-lived Pyrrhic victory indeed.

The latest warning appeared on July 14, 2015, in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It takes the form of a paper entitled, “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind.” The authors are two engineers from the University of Georgia and a biologist from the University of New Mexico.

They make the case that the Earth is like a gigantic chemical battery that stores a fraction of the sun’s captured energy in the hundreds of billions of tons of living biomass found in forests, other ecosystems, and in enormous stores of fossil fuels, which were once biomass back in the ancient reaches of geologic time. (Those fossil fuels have trapped and stored – for more than a hundred million years – what has been dubbed “ancient sunlight.”)

The energy of this “battery” was built up incrementally over eons beyond count through a “trickle-charge” from photosynthesis. Through the alchemy of photosynthesis, green plants exploited the sun’s energy to fix carbon and store energy in the form of the covalent chemical bonds linking together long chains of carbon atoms in organic molecules.

The surface of Planet Earth was once desolate molten rock and utterly lacking in life. Yet eventually (3.5 billion years ago) simple, single-celled organisms arose and ultimately evolved the ability to convert the sun's rays into chemical energy; then, over the ages life exploded into a planet-cloaking tapestry of incredible diversity and abundance.

Yet in just the last few hundred years, write authors John Schramski, David Gattie and James H. Brown:

…humans extracted exploitable energy from these living and fossilized biomass fuels to build the modern industrial-technological-informational economy, to grow our population to more than 7 billion, and to transform the biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity of the earth.

Schramski et al. go on to explain how this swift “discharge” of all the potential energy embodied in organic compounds has fueled domination of the biosphere by humans, loss of natural habitats and their transformation to agriculture and cities on a vast scale, mounting carbon dioxide emissions and related changes in climate and sea level.

Logging Operations
Laying waste to the biosphere.

The scientists calculated that 2,000 year ago, the biosphere held about 1 trillion tons of carbon as living biomass (“standing biomass”). Since then, Homo sapiens has eliminated almost half of this standing biomass, with just over 10 percent being lost in the last century alone.

Most of the losses were from deforestation, hastened by the advent of large-scale industrialized farming (“agroindustry”) and the need to feed a fast-growing human population. As more and more biomass is eliminated, the planet’s stored energy ebbs away. But this biomass is needed to sustain the biosphere’s food webs and biogeochemical cycles.

Author Schramski told Science Daily:

If we don’t reverse this trend, we’ll eventually reach a point where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can no longer sustain us. As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest.

Professor Brown, at the University of New Mexico, has written earlier about the energetic limits to economic and population growth. In a 2011 paper for which he was lead author in the journal Bioscience, he and his co-authors wrote:
 
Mainstream economists historically have dismissed warnings that resource shortages might permanently limit economic growth. Many believe that the capacity for technological innovation to meet the demand for resources is as much a law of human nature as the Malthusian-Darwinian dynamic that creates the demand. However, there is no scientific support for this proposition; it is either an article of faith or based on statistically flawed extrapolations of historical trends.

Coal mining operations
Surface mining for coal – first step in converting
fossilized solar energy into usable energy, waste
heat and carbon dioxide (and other pollutants).

Brown and colleagues concluded:

We hope the evidence and interpretations presented here will call the attention of scientists, policymakers, world leaders, and the public to the central but largely underappreciated role of energetic limits to economic growth.

To date that hope remains unfulfilled. Instead, as journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has written in The New Yorker:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

The recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper provides still more documentation of that stark reality.

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