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Sunday, April 17, 2011

O2 VISIONS >What do we want to be when we grow up? (video)

Puberty on the Scale of a Planet

As I put together the post on  the role of boosted intelligence in meshing infinite human aspirations with a finite planet, it brought to mind a theme that has been tugging at me for years now. It’s the question of how to blend data, uncertainty and values to produce a worldview and way of life in a time of great change, risk, opportunity and complexity.
As an introduction to this question, I offer below a version of a talk I’ve been giving of late, named after this blog. It may be the only time you’ll see the word puberty in a discussion of environmental sustainability. To a modest extent, I’m trying to take the approach Murray Gell-Mann has extolled in discussing the value of taking a “ crude look at the whole.”
The answers are starting to emerge, in large part thanks to the ongoing discussion here (in other words, largely thanks to you). But for now, here’s a framing of the question...




9 Billion People + 1 Planet = ?

At a quickening pace, humanity is etching its signature across the Earth, diverting waterways and downing forests, spreading  pythons to the Everglades and American  bullfrogs to Bordeaux, extracting minerals used in cellphones from a last patch of gorilla habitat, altering the atmosphere,  knitting the land with roadways and the sky with contrails. For two generations, the nascent environmental movement railed against this process. Like many, I was weaned on that scary sensibility. Population was a ticking bomb. Spring threatened to be silent. I still admire those who led the call for cleaning up the mess people had created in the rise and spread of industrialized, consumptive living.
But lately I’ve come to see those recent dirty decades less as malfeasance (mind you, there have been plenty of dubious actors) and more as an inevitable phase, a transition as natural — and volatile — as puberty.
The real question is, what comes next? As its moment on Earth has arrived, H. sapiens, one of nature’s great experiments, has necessarily had to have a selfish, muscle-flexing, exuberant adolescence. It is only natural for a young person to break things, burn things, kill things, to be mean and even nasty sometimes, if only to learn how that attitude can bite back. In a youth’s life, mistakes are not only inevitable; they are vital.
In fact, by one measure we truly are a teenage species at this moment. There are currently about 1.2 billion humans between the ages of 10 and 19. Some demographers have recently concluded that this so-called “ youth bulge” could well constitute the largest single generation that will ever exist (as long as humans are restricted to this planet, at least). This pulse of youth is not only intensifying pressures on resources, but also providing fodder for extremist movements and contributing to social unrest as employment fails to keep up. If provided with education and opportunity, however — perhaps as simple as a micro-loan of $200 to buy some tools — those in this generation can be a force for progress.






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A group of youths danced around a car they had set on fire in a Paris working-class district Wednesday night, the seventh night of clashes.
Continue on to nytimes.com 



There comes a time in almost everyone’s youth when those remarkable human traits, self-awareness and empathy, catch up with potency, when you pause and reflect, when you first look back at the muddy tracks you just left across a floor and conclude that you are the person who needs to mop things up. Most people go through this transition successfully and become responsible citizens. Most of us would not leave the scene of an accident.
Now it may be humanity’s turn to go through  the same kind of transition. All species that have preceded people as planetary powerhouses never had to worry about such a coming of age because, as far as we can tell, they had no inner mirror or global view. They pressed on like bacteria on agar or rust on iron, pushing out to peripheral zones where only the absence of essentials prevented them from advancing. People have eternally pressed outward as well, but with a difference. Through the rise of human civilizations, individual communities came to the realization that they could not be perpetually wanton, that they had to store seed for spring, that if they stole from their neighbors they would probably be robbed in kind, that if they stained a river and sickened those downstream, there was nothing to prevent the next upriver village from fouling their waters. Over time, norms evolved. Neighboring countries followed suit, entering peace pacts and economic agreements. And most recently came global treaties, first to establish mutually beneficial rulebooks for issues like the treatment of prisoners of war, more recently to foster fairness in trade and enact shared standards for protecting the globe’s commons –- its atmosphere, biological veneer and seas.
But, so far at least, these have just been baby steps. That is not surprising. After all, one could argue that it has just been 40 years since we really got our first good look at ourselves.
Some have even put a date on that epiphany, December 24, 1968, which happens to be right around the time I shot that little bird. If there ever was a moment in human history that put all of our travails and disputes in context, it came on that day, when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, the three astronauts on Apollo 8, became the first humans to orbit the Moon. Anders had spent nearly an hour photographing craters and other features on the surface, charting possible landing sites for subsequent flights. When he was done, Borman began adjusting the spacecraft’s attitude, tilting the nose back up in line with the horizon. As he did so, an object came into view floating in space just above the blazingly bright pocked moonscape.
It was the first “Earthrise” ever witnessed by human eyes.






Japan’s space agency and NHK broadcasting company filmed a new view of the lunar “earthrise” last year. (Credit: Copyright JAXA/NHK ) UPDATE, 12/25 : The Genesis reading by the Apollo 8 astronauts, and Christmas in Deadhorse (Alaska).] Forty years ago today, the Apollo 8 astronauts, the first...


The reactions of Borman and the others were captured in a tape recording. “Oh my God,” Anders exclaimed. “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up!”
One of the resulting photographs set Earth in sobering isolation in a way that its inhabitants had perhaps never appreciated before. Interestingly, while the mission planners at NASA had anticipated virtually every activity of the astronauts, hour by hour, minute by minute, they had not foreseen the simple emotional power of looking back at the fertile home planet over the barren shoulder of its sterile moon.
From that point on, our worldview has been steadily enriched, as ever more expeditions, satellites, and sensors have been lofted into space or deposited in the oceans to study, photograph, and measure everything from plankton blooms to urban sprawl. Observations in real time are only one facet of the self-awareness revolution. Ever-expanding understanding of the planet’s distant and recent geophysical and biological past has helped put the human impact on the planet in context, and opened our eyes to natural perils that have only been hinted at in the blink of an eye we call history.
Some of our actions are the equivalent of faint static behind the stronger signal of natural variations in droughts, storms and the like. But other research has shown that human actions have put us in the planetary driver’s seat even though we have not yet passed driver’s ed. Scientists have recently concluded that people are the dominant force shaping ecosystems. We have up-ended the oceans’ web of life,  removing 90 percent of the mass of great predatory fishes that were there a century ago. And, through the use of pesticides, genetic manipulation and antibiotics, humans are  now said to be the dominant influence on natural selection, the engine of evolution.
Perhaps most consequentially in the long run, we are altering the insulating power of the atmosphere by raising the concentration of a trace, but influential, greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, more than a third in 150 years. We are well on the way at least to doubling its concentration compared to levels that were the norm for more than 800,000 years and likely far longer. A century of science has built a robust understanding that  this trend is nudging the planet’s thermostat in ways that are already perceptible and could be disruptive both for us and for ecosystems from the tropics to the poles.
The view ahead is afforded by the newest scientific tool: simulation. For three centuries, science relied on two practices to advance: observation of the world and experimentation to test hypotheses about what made things work. But because there is only one Earth, and it is already in the midst of a planet-size experiment – the buildup of greenhouse gases – the only way to test various outcomes is to build mockups of the planet using equations.
The ongoing explosion of computer power has allowed geophysicists to construct ever more detailed  mathematical “stunt planets” that can be subjected to all kinds of abuses that could not be done safely or responsibly on the real Earth. Integrated with lessons from the past and observations of current changes, the models — while still highly imperfect — have created a picture of a planet that will be increasingly under our sway for generations, indeed centuries, to come.
Not only is knowledge exploding in volume, but it is also spreading around the world as satellites, fiber-optic cables, and other communication links knit communities and the global knowledge base. This is happening at every level of society. Governments have initiated the first  Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an attempt to link satellites and other environmental monitoring technologies into a single database. Squatters in shantytowns in Africa and Asia now are linked by the Internet through a network of “ Shack Dweller” associations, through which they trade information on common issues. Cell phones allow Kenyan farmers, still lacking a lamp at home, to get the price of corn before heading to market. Hundreds of millions of computer users have downloaded their own personal worldview, Google Earth.
There was a Russian geochemist,  Vladimir Vernadsky, who in the 1930’s foresaw a day when the globe evolved from simply being a common habitat for myriad species to being what he called a “ noosphere,” a planet of the mind, a place where ecology and enlightened human intelligence meld.
We’re nowhere near anything like that. But the turbulence of our times, reflected in everything from terrorism to the thawing of the iconic frozen seascape of the Arctic, hint that a great transformation, for better or worse, is in the offing.

About Dot Earth

Andrew C. Revkin on Climate Change
By 2050 or so, the world population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life. In Dot Earth, which recently moved from the news side of The Times to the Opinion section, Andrew C. Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits. Conceived in part with support from a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Dot Earth tracks relevant developments from suburbia to Siberia. The blog is an interactive exploration of trends and ideas with readers and experts.



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