I hope you’re not too depressed at this point. Because there’s more, about how all the elements of the biosphere and humanity fit together. The Planetary Boundaries framework has two boundaries which illustrate this interaction and interconnectedness.
Planetary Boundary 5 – biogeochemical flows – red zone: “Biogeochemical flows” is a fancy phrase for use of phosphorus and nitrogen. These are the key elements which link the living and the non-living parts of our earth’s systems, and they are the main components of agricultural fertilisers.
We are doubling the natural drawdown of nitrogen from the atmosphere to make fertiliser, and the release of nitrogen and phosphorus into freshwater and the oceans is making them nutrient rich, and creating “dead zones” for aquatic life. There’s more to it, but the main point is that these flows are way past safe limits, and getting worse all the time.
This Boundary uses two global variables, phosphorus flows from freshwater systems into the ocean (which increases the risk of oxygen depletion or “anoxia” – killing all the fish), and human fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere (which flows through to damage freshwater by providing too many nutrients). A third variable is also used, at regional level, the amount of phosphorus going into erodible soils (which has the same type of impact as the nitrogen variable).
All three of these variables are assessed to be at at least twice the limits of their safe Boundaries. They are well into in the “red” zone, interfering with the cycle of life. The slightly better news is that much of this is concentrated in a relatively few agricultural regions, and changes in practice in these regions could have a beneficial effect.
Planetary Boundary 9 – novel entities – unknown: This Boundary is also the ninth in total, and final! “Novel entities” is a rather opaque description of the large and increasing range of new or rare chemicals being released onto the land and into the water and the air – CFCs and DDT are good examples. Industrial production is the cause of this, from the “dark Satanic mills” of the 18th and 19th centuries to modern industrial production. Along with the carbon released by burning coal and oil, many other chemicals are released as waste, or, more euphemistically, “by-products”.
Nuclear waste, from both production and breakdown, is another obvious example, and one that is highly charged socially and emotionally. Much nuclear waste is stored round the Earth, doing long term damage to the environment. And the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima “incidents” (don’t you love that euphemism?) were – and continue to be – destructive in the human and environmental spheres. The immediate damage done is mainly to the land (and crops) and water – the air acts mainly as a carrier, rather than being damaged itself.
Another example is acid rain, which is caused by chemical emissions, mainly sulphur from the burning of coal and nitrogen dioxide from various sources. Acid rain does what you would expect something with that name to do – it adds acidity to water, it eats away at metals and other materials, and it is harmful to life. As a phenomenon, it has moved from Europe and North America to Asia over the last few decades, as industrial production and development has moved west.
And we can’t finish without mentioning plastic products, which are largely non-biodegradable, and are clogging our landfills, creating giant garbage dumps in the ocean, and entering the food chain through fishes and birds as discussed in chapter 8.
There is no doubt that the release of novel entities is damaging our environment, and often in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. But the Planetary Boundaries research hasn’t found a way of quantifying this, or of assessing where the boundaries to our “safe operating space” might be.
So how will we know how much pollution is too much? Since we can’t quantify this, we would in a more sensible world be applying the “precautionary principle”, an ethical principle which says that if we can’t scientifically establish what damage might be caused by some action, then the burden of proof that there will be little or no damage should fall on those who wish to take the action. In this situation, would-be emitters of novel entities would need to show that the novel entities are harmless, or that the benefit of the entities is greater than the harm which will be done.
I will come back to the precautionary principle in greater detail in chapter 30. Suffice to say at the moment that it would act as a brake on a lot of innovation and new industrial methods (as well as a lot of existing ones). This has an obvious drawback – it would cramp the rapid innovation which has been so essential to the creation of much modern wealth, and to capitalism – but in a situation where we are clearly reaching limits in the Earth’s ability to sustain us, it also has an obvious advantage – it might help us retain our foothold on the planet.
The fundamental interconnectedness of all things
Douglas Adams was only slightly flippant in his use of this phrase in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”. He was referring to a profoundly important fact about how our universe, and particularly life, works.
Life is sustained not only by other life (in the form of organic food), but also by non-life (minerals, air and water as the main examples). And the elements of it flow through all of us in a more or less perpetual cycle. Semi-serious estimates of how many atoms of Shakespeare or Hitler each of us contains (somewhere between none and 20 billion, depending on who you ask) illustrate this endless cycling.
And any action we take has consequences which ripple through our world in ways we can rarely see or understand, beyond the immediate effects. For example, the use of fossil fuel for transport showed fairly immediate effects on human olfactory systems (it smells) and plant life (it kills it), but its effects on human respiratory systems (it damages the lungs) and the climate (it heats up the atmosphere and oceans) were not even considered for decades, because they were not so obvious.
But the effects, and the linkages, are real, even if we cannot see or understand them. We are part of an interconnected web of life.
The most extreme version of “how all this fits together” is James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis”, first presented in the early 1970s[i]. In it, the Earth is described as a single self-regulating system which sustains life.
There is considerable scientific dispute about this particular hypothesis. But what is beyond doubt is that Lovelock’s work has led to much more research and understanding about how life and non-life on Earth are interconnected and interdependent. In parallel with this, our understanding of complex systems has also grown markedly. “Ecology” is exactly this – the study of how life-forms interact with their living and non-living environments.
One of the problems with complex systems is that they are unpredictable, for two main reasons. The first is one also exhibited by some simple systems – the famous “butterfly effect” – the fact that a small input may have a large effect. This was discovered and named by Edward Lorenz when he made a tiny change in a weather modelling parameter which caused an enormous change in the results of the model. The flap of a butterfly’s wings does not cause a tornado as such (in the sense that it is only a tiny one of many conditions that might combine to cause, or prevent, a tornado), but it might have cascading effects which have a large impact on the tornado’s formation, strength or trajectory. I give another example of the butterfly effect, starting from brewing a pot of tea, in chapter 40.
The second cause of unpredictability in complex systems is the phenomenon of “emergence” – the fact that complex systems can generate new forms or states that are different from the sum of their parts. This is not like “Transformers”, where the same set of parts can be used create different forms, but can always be returned to their original form. Emergence is like taking the parts for an aeroplane and assembling them, only to discover you’ve created a house, or better yet a tree. Or a butterfly. Or, in different circumstances, all of the above.
These last few chapters have been about the state of the land, air, water, and living organisms on earth. They have been treated largely separately. But, one way or another, they are connected, and part of many complex systems, or just one system if you accept the Gaia hypothesis.
And that means they are unpredictable, and may do things apparently quite out of character for their pre-existing state. So, our footprint and handprint on the Earth may not just be leading to the degradation of our environment – the “filth” that the Pope has quite rightly condemned[ii]. They may also be leading to completely unexpected occurrences or states, for example new forms of life or chemical which are completely inimical to human life. Evolution has already demonstrated how rapidly life-forms such as mosquitos and viruses can adapt to new threats, particularly if they have rapid reproduction cycles, but complexity adds the new threat of unexpected and quite alien events and life forms.
While the Creature From The Swamp may not quite be upon us, we have another problem with all these interdependent things – tipping points. Many complex systems exhibit resilience – the ability to adapt to changing conditions. And this is mainly dependent on their diversity, which underlies the capacity to take new paths or options when old ones close.
“Adaptation” does not mean “staying exactly the same”. It means continuously changing the environment to your fit, or yourself to fit the environment, while maintaining the essence of your existence. For example, a tropical forest needs to store vast amounts of water to sustain it. As long as it can do this, plus some other things, it can stay in a more or less stable state. However, if significant proportions of the forest are turned into pasture, the remaining forest may reach a point where it cannot store enough water to sustain itself and will die off, turning into savannah. There is some evidence that human activity has made this happen in the past[iii], and there are certainly risks of it in our future.
The point at which the forest will inevitably change to savannah land is a “tipping point” – the point at which it will inexorably begin moving from one more-or-less stable state to another. The actual change of state may not be evident at once, and may take considerable time, but once the tipping point is past, the change is inevitable.
As a species, we don’t know much about tipping points. We do know that climate change and land use are already changing the ecology of many places, sometimes for the better, but mostly for the worse, as long established ecological balances are upset – for example, making wet regions wetter, dry places drier, and arable land less fertile. But where the tipping points for wholesale change are – for example, the dying out of large sections of the world’s tropical forests – and whether we have already passed those tipping points, we have no real idea. The Planetary Boundaries framework is one of science’s early attempts to make more sense out of this problem (the “red zone” boundaries are estimates of possible tipping points, more or less).
We do know that most of our human actions are having negative effects on Earth’s ecological balances and stores of resources. And what we are doing is not just causing a bit of collateral damage. It is inexorably moving us towards or past tipping points in a whole range of complex systems on which we depend for our survival.
Pessimists like Guy MacPherson actually think we’ve gone past the ones that matter already, as set out in his ongoing article on climate change[iv].
And, of course, the negative effects are not just going in one direction – we are part of the system, and we also suffer from the feedback as things change. Not just in obvious ways, either. Bernie Sanders, an American Presidential candidate, was heavily criticised for linking the growth of terrorism based in the Middle East to climate change. Yet very straightforward linkages can be drawn between global warming, Syria’s 2006-2010 drought, agricultural collapse, mass migration, and the rise of Isis[v].
I think I should end this chapter on that cheerful note. The next chapter briefly summarises this Part, and makes some observations about what our future might look like, if we carry on this way. The next two Parts then look at how we got into this state.
[i] “Gaia, a New Look at Life on Earth”, James Lovelock, 1975; also “The Revenge of Gaia”, 2006
[ii] “Laudato Si’, On Care of our Common Home”, Papal Encyclical, 2015, para 21