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Yesterday, the journal Nature published a paper that forecasts the earth reaching an ecological "tipping point" in the near future, as confluence of pre-existing phenomenon, such as population growth and man-made climate change that could cause a global "state shift" so severe that it radically and irreversibly transforms the biosphere in ways that life as we know it is not capa
In short, in a few handfuls of human generations, we could play a part in what could be an unimaginable catastrophe for life on earth as we know it.
The paper (the full text of which can be found here), posits that human "forcings", or influence on biological systems, have outstripped the rate at which similar factors that led to major ecological transitions have taken place. Other major planetary state-shifts involve the Cambrian proliferation of large, multi-cellular lifeforms, the Big Five mass extinctions and the last period of glacial-interglacial change (the end of the last Ice Age), some 14,000 years ago.
The concept that the authors draw from were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book The Tipping Point and the mathematical theory underlying it won the physicist Kenneth Wilson a Nobel Prize in 1982. But, as Wired points out, it is hardly a proven theory, although it has been successfully applied to local ecosystems in past studies. The paper's authors, 22 prominent biologists, are asking if the theory can be applied to such a large scale and give their best data as to how the earth could enter into such a sudden transition.
The data that the authors present shows the vast degree to which humans are affecting the biosphere. The study notes that 43% of Earth's land is covered by urban or agricultural development and that roads dissect further areas. 20% of all life generated on the planet is harvested for human consumption. Extinction rates and global temperature will be higher in 60 years than they have ever been.
The ultimate effects of these stimuli are unknown and hard to pinpoint exactly what the outcome of a global state-shift could be.
"Possible too are substantial losses of ecosystem services required to sustain the human population," the paper says. "Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased … widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result."
Similar predictions have been made by other reports and it's easy to see how a large human population, competing for space and resources that are increasing scarce, on a planet caught in diminishing biotic returns, could violently react to scarcities in food, potable water and arable farmland.
The most troubling finding (after all, the factors mentioned above aren't anything like news), is that, based on this theory, we don't know how many local systems have to reach a critical tipping point before large-scale critical transitions occur. Current models forecast only small-scale, localized change and can't account for the unknown: unpredictable biological interactions and feedback loops are just that, unpredictable. The study's authors, however, say that the tipping point for smaller, localized ecosystems is around 50% to 90% change. They go on to say that the 50% threshold globally will occur in anywhere from 10 to 15 years. At this point, we will be in danger of triggering environmental effects never before experienced by humans.
The study cautions "Anticipating biological surprises on global as well as local scales, therefore, has become especially crucial to guiding the future of the global ecosystem and human societies. Guidance will require not only scientific work that foretells, and ideally helps to avoid, negative effects of critical transitions, but also society’s willingness to incorporate expectations of biological instability into strategies for maintaining human well-being."
"Incorporating expectations of biological instability" means a lot. The specter of which, and the present-day experience of, environmental degradation and global material inequality and poverty should be enough to give people pause. But phenomena such as climate change and the political will to confront it are not something people are optimistic about. As the New York Times' Green blog points out, an accompanying paper in Nature, part of their series in the run-up to the Rio+20 global sustainability talks in Rio de Janeiro, looks at the events since the first Rio summit, 20 years ago and at which the United States promised to be a leader in the fight against climate change “failed to achieve even a fraction of the promises that world leaders trumpeted two decades ago.”
Although grassroots efforts to live sustainably are positied and demonstrated every day, on the macroeconomic scale, human production and consumption are still dictated by centralized, extractive philosophies and practices that could only possibly grow and metastisize in order to meet human need. Powerful political interests maintain this hegemony. Meaningful choice in how resources are derived and apportioned do not fall to popular participation.
A study like this, or a summit like the one set to begin in Brazil should be times to make difficult decisions in the face of what is becoming abundantly clear: the rate at which human activity is altering the planet has the potential to kill us all. If there is a possibility that human beings may be on a course, that needs to change. Too often these summits, like the Cop 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, have become toothless political spectacles where real action is shown to be impossible by entrenched, short-term political interests. That should tell us something about the inabilities and perhaps the ultimate viability of our political system as well.
“There have been big, planetary shifts before,” paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky, who co-wrote the paper told Wired. “We can see it coming. That’s the difference. The dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming.”
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