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THIS REVISED EDITION CONTAINS:
*Updated chapters on land, oceans, elements, evolution, humankind, civilization, and management
*New sections on consumption, globalization, environmental security, refugees, international terrorism, the rise of information technology, china, and more
*Powerful new illustrations that convey a wealth of information
Copub: Gaia Books
The sphere of rock which is our home originally coalesced from the dust of ancient stars. Orbiting the huge hydrogen furnace of the sun, bathed by radiant energy and the solar wind, the globe is white hot and molten beneath the crust: continents ride in a slow dance across its face, ocean floors spread. And between its dynamic surface and the vacuum of space, in a film that is thin beyond imagining, lies the fragile miracle we call the biosphere.
When the first astronauts circled the Earth, millions of listeners heard them describe the beauty of the planet, "like a blue pearl in space", and were caught up in a moment of unprecedented human revelation. Since then, much has been written about "Spaceship Earth" on whose finite resources we all depend. And the more we explore the solar system, the more singular we understand our world to be. The atmospheric mix of gases, for instance, is entirely different not only from that of nearby planets but from what would be predicted by Earth's own chemistry. This extremely unlikely state of affairs appears to have arisen alongside the evolution of life, and persisted, despite all possible accidental perturbations of cosmic travel, for perhaps two billion years. Life, by its very presence, is apparently creating and even maintaining the specialconditions necessary for its own survival.
It was a group of space scientists devising life-detection experiments for other planets who first stumbled on this phenomenon of the self-sustaining biosphere-and named it Gaia, the living planet. Since then, we have begun to learn much more about the planetary life-support systems which rule our lives-sadly, mainly by disturbing them.
Within this life realm, every organism is linked, however tenuously, to every other. Microbe, plant, and animal, soil dweller and ocean swimmer, all are caught up in the cycling of energy and nutrients from sun, water, air, and earth. This global exchange system flows through various transport mechanisms, from ocean currents to climate patterns and winds; from animal travel to the processes of feeding, growth, and decay. Information, too, flows through the biosphere-reproduction transfers the store of genetic coding to new generations and creates new experiments as learning and communication occur between individuals. And throughout the life zone, change and diversity, specialization and intricate interdependence are found at every level.
It is with this remarkable planet, and what we are doing to it, and to ourselves, that this book is concerned. UFOs apart, we are unlikely to find another Gaia.
Though we live in a largely humanized world of suburbs and cities, governments and wars, each of us carries within us the birth and death of stars, and the long flowering of Gaia.
Evolution is usually dated from the emergence of life, that "almost utterly improbable event with infinite opportunities of happening" (Jim Lovelock). But this event itself was a stage in a process that has continued since time, as we know it, began-when, some 15 billion years ago, the Big Bang sent pure energy flooding out into a waking universe.
As this energy dispersed and the universe cooled, a patterning set in, and stable "energy structures" emerged in a new order known as matter. Over billions of years, the particles, atoms, and elements of matter formed and were processed and reprocessed in the heart of stars, until a higher order emerged-life itself.
Our probes into space have found life's chemical precursors widely distributed. Indeed, space seems to be littered with the "spare parts of life" awaiting the right conditions for assembly. On our primeval planet, these conditions were found: the fierce energies of radioactivity and ultraviolet radiation, and the abundant presence of hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and water. In Earth's oceans, the first strands of DNA, and then the self-replicating double helix, could well have formed and broken countless times. But once the seed was set, the birth of the biosphere had begun.
Over nearly four billion years, the experiments, the increasing diversity, and complexity continued until, as the life-support systems of our planet stabilized, a still higher order of complexity emerged-intelligence and conscious awareness.
Throughout its 15 billion years, the pace of the universe's development has been accelerating, each new wave of innovation building up to trigger the next, in a series of "leaps" to further levels of change and diversification. Compress this unimaginable timescale into a single 24-hour day, and the Big Bang is over in less than a ten-billionth of a second. Stable atoms form in about four seconds; but not for several hours, until early dawn, do stars and galaxies form. Our own solar system must wait for early evening, around 6 p.m. Life on Earth begins around 8 p.m., the first vertebrates crawl on to land at about 10.30 at night. Dinosaurs roam from 11.35 p.m. until four minutes before midnight. Our ancestors first walk upright with 10 seconds to go. The Industrial Revolution, together with all our modern age, occupies less than the last thousandth of a second. Yet in this fraction of time, the face of this planet has changed almost as much as at any but the most tumultuous times in the prehistoric past.
Latecomers to evolution
Gaia went its creative way for several billion years, becoming steadily more diverse, complex, and fruitful. Then, in the last few seconds of life's "evolutionary day", Homo sapiens appeared-a creature that has wrought changes as great as several glaciations and other geological upheavals together, and has done it all within a flicker of the evolutionary eye. The evolution of Homo sapiens has produced a being that can think: a being that is aware, that can speculate about tomorrow, and can even plan for it.
Evolution has also equipped us to create our own form of planetary ecosystem. Whereas natural selection works through a trial-and-error process, undirected and unhurried, we can choose preferred forms of evolution, creating changes that might otherwise have taken millions of years to occur.
The greatest natural development through evolution in terms of energy conversion was the emergence of photosynthesis, two billion years ago. A mere 50,000 years ago we learned to harness fire, and thus to use the stored energy of plants in the form of wood. A few hundred years ago we moved on to exploit coal, then oil. Now, however, we are on the verge of widespread exploitation of the sun's energy through solar cells-potentially as marked an advance for Earth's course as that of photosynthesis itself. Similar breakthroughs include domestication of wild species and genetic engineering: quantum leaps to match the evolution of sexual reproduction.
Among the greatest advances of all is our ability to control disease and thus to increase our numbers. Within the last 150 years, the human population has grown from around one billion in the 1830s, to two billion in the 1930s, to four billion in 1975, to five billion in 1987, and to well over six billion in 2003. Herein we witness the phenomenon of exponential growth, a process that marks not only our increasing numbers, but also our consumption of energy and resources, our accumulating knowledge, and our expanding communications network.
Exponential growth is one of the most important concepts we shall encounter in this book. It is growth that is not simply additive (two plus two equals four and another two makes six) but is self-compounding (two multiplied by two equals four, multiplied by two equals eight). Very few people realize its implications for our future existence on Earth. For example, if Africa maintains its 2.4 percent growth rate of 2003 until 2050, its population of 860 million people will triple to 2.6 billion.
The advance beyond our entrenched expectation for exponential growth in consumption will probably represent the greatest evolutionary leap of all.
The long shadow
Today, the rise of human numbers casts a shadow over planet Earth. In 2003 we reached a total of 6.3 billion people, and we are plainly failing to feed, house, educate, and employ many of these in basically acceptable fashion. Worse, the human community is projected to reach at least 9.2 billion before the population explosion comes to an end late this century.
The problem does not lie only in a sheer outburst of numbers but also in an outburst of consumerism. More than one billion people in developed countries enjoy lifestyles that impose a grossly disproportionate pressure on our planetary ecosystem. A billion people in developing and transition countries have recently attained middle-class status and are consuming as fast as they can make it to the shopping mall. This consumerism is powered by a sudden expansion in technological know-how-we can use and misuse ever-greater stocks of natural resources, even use them up. In fact, rather than a "population crisis" or a "resource crisis", we should speak of a single overarching crisis: the crisis of humankind. The shadow stems from all of us, and it will darken all our lives.
On land, we plough up virgin areas, even though most are marginal at best. Soil, one of the most precious of all resources, is washed or blown away in tens of billions of tonnes every year. To compound this tragedy, we pave over or otherwise "develop" large tracts of productive cropland each year. Deserts expand, or rather degraded lands are tacked on to them, at a rate threatening almost one-third of the Earth's land surface. Forests in the tropics are giving way to the small-scale agriculture of millions of slas-hand-burn cultivators, at a rate that will leave little forest by mid-century. As the forests fall, species in their millions will lose their habitats, almost all forever.
In the oceans, we ravage one fishery after another. We cause dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals to follow the sad track of the great whales. We pollute the seas, just as we poison lakes and rivers in almost every part of the world. We desecrate our landscapes with growing piles of refuse, some of it toxic. In the atmosphere, we disrupt the carbon dioxide balance, triggering climatic dislocations that will upset every part of the human habitat and its enterprise worldwide.
Not surprisingly, this overtaxing of ecosystems leads to other sorts of breakdown. As more people seek greater shares of declining resources, conflicts erupt. Military conflagrations have killed more people since 1945 than all the soldiers in World War II. In fact, it is the breakdown in our social systems, our economic structures, and our political mechanisms that generates the greatest threat of all. The shadow over planet Earth will never be deeper and darker than when it is lengthened by a mushroom cloud.
Excerpted from The New ATLAS of Planet Management by Norman Myers Jennifer Kent Excerpted by permission.
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