How humanity is re-engineering Earth’s life support system
14 July 2015
Author: Owen Gaffney, BEng astronautic and aeronautic engineering, is director of international media and strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a writer and interim head of communications for Future Earth
Last January, I gave a talk to Engineers Ireland in Cork about how humanity is re-engineering Earth’s life support system. A few decades ago this notion would seem far-fetched and confined to science fiction novels. Now we have accumulated a mountain of evidence that clearly indicates humanity is changing the carbon, water and nitrogen cycles, we are acidifying the oceans and we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. Without doubt, we are a geological agent.
In 2000, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed Earth has left the geological epoch we have been in for 10,000 years – the Holocene. The Holocene marked a period of remarkable stability. Agriculture developed, towns and cities soon followed. All of human recorded history has occurred in this time. Crutzen suggested that we are now in the Anthropocene. This implies we are risking the stability of the Holocene for something unknown.
Life on Earth exists in the 100 kilometres between hard rock and the edge of space – the biosphere. To get this in perspective, if you travelled west from Cork city by the time you reached Mizen Head you’d be in space. Of course, space does not begin abruptly. The atmosphere slowly peters out. By Ballydehob you might bump into a satellite or two in a low Earth orbit. And breathing would be impossible without an oxygen supply.
Our attempts at planetary engineering have not been deliberate in the sense of planetary terraforming found in science fiction novels. Our engineering is more akin to the emergent behaviour you see in ant colonies when hundreds of millions of insects follow several simple routines resulting in giant colonies. Some of these colonies are truly enormous. A super-colony stretches the entire length of the Mediterranean.
Our own super-colony now envelops our planet. We follow simple routines based on consumption and production guided by the market economy and globalisation. We are taught to consume from an early age. The “we” here are individuals, organisations and companies largely in the wealthy nations of Europe and North America and now the middle classes in emerging economies such as China, India, South Africa, Russia and Indonesia.
Humanity as prime driver of change on Earth
The unintended consequences are quite profound. In a single lifetime – largely since the 1950s – humanity has become the prime driver of change on Earth. This demands a rethinking of our worldview. Not least because we now face the very real risk of destabilising parts or the entire Earth system.
We’ve already had at least one close shave with disaster. In the 1970s Crutzen and colleagues realised manmade chemicals could enter the upper atmosphere and destroy ozone. The ozone layer protects life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. In the 1980s researchers in Antarctica noticed a massive hole developing above the continent. An international ban on chlorofluorocarbons followed. Now, more than two decades later, we can see the ozone hole is apparently stabilising and predicted to recover by the end of the century.
It is true that we have always changed the environment in which we live. When agriculture emerged first in the Middle East on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, proto-engineers dug channels for irrigation. This probably required a degree of co-operation between villages hitherto unknown. Some suggest this created the social structures of co-operation and leadership that led to more sophisticated types of organisation and eventually towns and cities.
But up until 1800 human impact was relatively small. Not least because the global population only reached one billion people in about 1804. Economic and technical innovation sparked the Industrial Revolution, which began in the midlands of Britain and soon swept through Europe, north America and then elsewhere. Population and economic growth began rising steadily, aided by artificial fertiliser production, the discovery of antibiotics and other health improvements.
On January 16, myself and colleagues published a research paper mapping the scale of change during this time. We charted 24 indicators that have changed rapidly. Twelve indicators show social and economic growth. Twelve show how this is impacting Earth.
The great acceleration in human production and consumption
We could have chosen many more but these capture the signal to noise. What is immediately apparent is that while the Industrial Revolution drove a new type of behaviour, the 1950s saw the beginning of the great acceleration in human production and consumption. It is here that we capture what looks like an unstoppable chain reaction.
The question is, how long can this go on before we do irreversible damage? Or, worse, like the straw that broke the camel’s back, we may cross tipping points in the Earth system whereby a small change causes Earth to switch rapidly to a new state, a state that may well be less conducive to our global species.
On the same day, January 16, a related group of researchers published an assessment of the risks. They argued Earth has nine planetary boundaries we would be unwise to cross, including ozone and water use. Worryingly, they also announced we’d crossed four boundaries relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation and fertiliser use. The research prompted US satirical magazine The Onion to announce “Earth 44% doomed”.
While this is an exaggeration of the results, there is no doubt we are in a danger zone. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said: “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss.” Worse still, the headlights are off, warnings go unheeded and it is not clear who is driving.
Rittel and Webber and ‘super-wicked problems’
Finding solutions is going to be difficult. Science is good at solving a particular kind of problem that can be simply described. For example, is the climate changing? Or, how does a cell work? In 1973, social scientists Rittel and Webber identified the types of problem science struggles with: so called wicked problems such as poverty, over-population or the tragedy of the commons.
This was updated in 2012 with another category of problems that add additional layers of difficulty: “super-wicked problems” where time is running out, the people who want to solve the problem caused it and there is no central control. Sound familiar?
But we also know how to bring about change in complex systems: change the mindset of the system, change the goals, change the rules and change the information flows.
The shift in mindset is best exemplified by the Anthropocene. This is a new worldview on par with Copernicus’ conclusion that Earth revolves around the sun, or Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The goals of the system are about to change abruptly this year. In September, world leaders meet in New York to agree the universal Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 goals ranging from climate change and halting biodiversity loss to improving maternal health and ending poverty. Consumption and production are in there too. This is an opportunity to reset the clock and invest in a sustainable future.
The new planetary boundaries framework provides new rules for the system – we need to find a safe operating space for humanity. Living with the boundaries allows us to do that.
Finally, the information flows are changing fast. In the last two decades the internet has revolutionised how we deal with information. But more change is under way. Science needs to devote more energy to contributing to solving these super-wicked problems. A new research initiative Future Earth is going to do exactly that.
Future Earth and the world’s largest research network
Future Earth, which began fully in 2015, has five global hubs – Stockholm, Montreal, Paris, Boulder Colorado and Tokyo. Within a decade Future Earth aims to build the world’s largest research network – greater than 60,000 researchers and more than 30 projects – to tackle the most profound questions facing humanity this century.
One of these projects, Future Earth Coasts has opened its head office in Cork. People living along coasts are on the frontline of the challenges we will face in the future as sea-levels rise and deltas sink. The key part of Future Earth will be to encourage co-design of research agendas to engage more with society. Of course, engineers are particularly important because they are building the infrastructure of the future.
There is room for considerable optimism. World leaders meet three times in 2015. First, this month, to discuss financing development; second, in September for the Sustainable Development Goals; and third in December to hammer out a new climate agreement in Paris.
This is the time to overcome inertia. The signs are good. In 2014, greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector globally remained about the same as 2013. Moreover, the ozone hole showed signs of stabilisation. But, most significantly, it is now suggested that we have reached ‘peak child’. The number of children worldwide is not increasing. The conclusion is obvious: population will begin to stabilise.
So what does this all mean for engineering in Ireland? In the Anthropocene, engineers must now consider impacts on different scales. Engineers are trained in complex systems thinking. But this must now expand to include emergent behaviour on a very large scale, social systems, and ecological impact across vast distances.
Owen Gaffney, BEng astronautic and aeronautic engineering, is director of international media and strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a writer and interim head of communications for Future Earth