There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
The light bulb’s gettin’ dim
There’s meltdown in the sky
- from “Living on the Edge” by Aerosmith, © 1993
Life on the edge
Our planet supports life, and for much of human existence that fact alone was enough. Our civilizations rose and matured, and with them so too did our understanding of life on earth as well as our desire to know if there was life elsewhere.
As we looked to the stars in contemplation, we began to understand that not all of the giant rocks whizzing by in the heavens could support life. In fact, very few could – although the basic building blocks of life could be formed in more than way, and didn’t have to originate on a planet like Earth. Scientists defined the conditions required to support life as we know it, and chief among those conditions was the presence of water in liquid form. This condition narrowed the possibilities significantly. Other conditions required to support life, taken collectively, form the Habitable Zone around a star (or other energy source). These conditions include:
- planetary distance from the star so that liquid water can form,
- just the right amount of solar radiation,
- enough atmosphere & surface pressure for water to exist in liquid form
a viable temperature range for life,
- a stable enough star to give any life forms time to gestate and grow.1
The habitable zone changes over the life of the star. To support life, a planet must remain in the habitable zone throughout its entire, ideally for as long as possible over the course of the star’s lifetime.
Earth is on the inner edge of our sun’s habitable zone. Fortunately, it meets the requisite criteria, for life to exist: the atmospheric conditions & climate, the presence of water, the presence and influence of clouds, the temperatures and amount (and types) of solar radiation provide a viable environment ripe for continued biological growth and development.
“Climate” is the average long-term weather pattern for a particular area. That area may be an entire planet (“global climate”) or a region on the planet (northern, southern, or further subdivided into continental reqions, which would yield things like northeast, southeast in particular hemispheres, etc.). A particular region’s climate can include periodic weather patterns like seasons (as the Northeastern United States). A study of climate includes several factors:
When scientists talk about climate, they’re looking at averages of precipitation, temperature, humidity, sunshine, wind velocity, phenomena such as fog, frost, and hail storms, and other measures of the weather that occur over a long period in a particular place.
All these factors help determine the conditions & variability of an area, region and planet that impact the climate and the factors required for life. Changes in global climate impact the capability of a planet to support life, even if the planet is located within a star’s habitable zone (also known as “circumstellar habitable zone” or CHZ).
In short, if the global climate no longer supports the conditions necessary for life, it doesn’t matter whether the planet is in a habitable zone or not.
The formation and development of planetary life means the creation of ecosystems. An ecosystem is defined as “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.” The interactions created in an ecosystem create a form of balance for the area it encompasses: the organisms within affect, and are affected by, the environment around them. Their presence, influence and feedback will, in turn, influence that environment. External forces can affect those interactions for good or ill – in a relatively stable ecosystem, external impacts are mitigated or adapted to, or the system somehow re-asserts stability. If the disruption is severe, then the ecosystem either changes (adapts) or is destroyed.
As life, and human civilizations, evolved, many different ecosystems formed; some grew, some adapted as the environment around them changed, and some were destroyed.
There are two related nuggets of wisdom that are often quoted but rarely seem to figure prominently in the actual strategies of kings & countries with regard to recognizing the influence of human activities: the first is the Butterfly Effect2 and the second is an old nursery rhyme that begins with “For want of a nail.” 3 They both make a similar point: one small, seemingly insignificant factor can ultimately be responsible for major changes later on.
An accumulation of willfully or unintentionally ignored “insignificant factors” can have a much greater potential for major unforeseen and unintended consequences further down the line.
It is within this context of the very large, but ultimately closed, system (the giant rock) that planetary life and its complicated interactions within Earth’s climate, take place. It’s madly chaotic, creating an ebb and flow that ultimately forms a type of regulatory feedback system that is simultaneously robust and ultimately quite fragile.
Human civilizations developed and grew amid this chaos, in many different habitats and ecosystems; human beings left their mark, in one way or another, everywhere they went. Some marks were small, others not so much. The formation of large dams, for example, allowed the control of water sources in some areas but at the cost of other areas within the region that became flooded as part of the project.4
We are now entering a period of human civilization where we can see and measure the impact of our actions upon our environment, and gauge the affects with a degree of precision. We’ve become proficient, efficient and demanding enough that we’ve developed processes that can – and do – impact our environments and influence the inherent feedback systems integral to their stability. We’ve even devised a system of modeling that allows us to better understand these complex, dynamic and chaotic systems. Yet, in spite of that, our nations often make decisions based on “soft” factors rooted in the short term like costs and monetary flow or political influence instead of based on “hard” factors over the long term like resource availability, environmental impact or the near-and-long term effects of short-sighted decision making.
Such forms of decision-making have lasting consequences – consequences which are often impossible to ignore for long, painful to endure, difficult to mitigate and burdensome to change.
Global Climate Change
The influence of human civilizations on their local ecosystems and the impact upon the feedback mechanisms inherent within those systems – and their role in the balance of ecological factors, including local & global climatic conditions – is measurable. The push to ignore or play down those influences, or to deny that human activity can have any significant impact on the climate as a whole, is an exercise in futility that only serves to defer responsible action and recognition of simple realities.
Earth’s climate is going to change: whether that change is brought on by human or external factors, or a combination of the two, doesn’t matter in that regard. The fact that human activity influences climate and the environment – and that fact alone – should be all that is required for a responsible society to start working to mitigate the impact it has on these systems while striving to better understand how they work. It’s a matter of responsible maturity, particularly in a closed system with vast yet limited resources.
We have yet to advance to the point where we can counter external factors or influences5, but we can control our own growth & development, as well as the impact we have on the environment around us. Our failure to do so in any significant way beyond showboating and lip service demonstrates a crucial issue with our society: we haven’t matured enough to recognize and accept our responsibilities to the point where childish procrastination and denial hold no power over our capacity to change the course of our development, and thus to shape our destiny.
We are the dominant species on this planet. We’ve claimed that we’re advanced, in terms of civilization and technology.
It’s time to take the next step, and accept the responsibility that goes along with the mantle that we’ve assumed, and the role that we’ve claimed.
1 Habitable Zone Reading, NASA, Astro-Venture: Astronomy Training Lessons, Document #EG-2001-11-001-ARC. Note: Depending on the type of life you’re looking for, stellar & planetary habitable zones differ a bit – the zone for microbial life is much larger than the zone for larger life-forms.
2 Via Wikipedia:
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.
While Lorenz may have created the term “The Butterfly Effect,” the concept of a small change or event having significant impact on a larger, seemingly unrelated system goes back well before the term itself was coined.
3 Via Wikipedia:
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
4 The Three Gorges Dam project in China is a good example of the potential for human activity to have a serious impact on the environment & ecosystems around it.
5 We’re still impacted & buffeted about by storms, volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, fires, sinkholes, droughts…
This is the second piece in the “From Eagle to Dodo” series, which delves into the ecological, economic, security & sustainability concerns that currently challenge our status quo as a nation and undermine our ability to lay claim to the mantle of an “advanced” or “intelligent” civilization.
The series will consist of the following contributions:
- From Eagle to Dodo: A Giant Rock (published)
- From Eagle to Dodo: Global Climate Change (this piece)
- From Eagle to Dodo: Matters of National (in)Security
- From Eagle to Dodo: Mercury (Levels) Rising
- From Eagle to Dodo: Deep Waters
- From Eagle to Dodo: Food Stuffs
- From Eagle to Dodo: Aftermath
- From Eagle to Dodo: Challenging Fundamentals