Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Day 36: Oblivious Demise

On day 34, I wrote about the death of a polar bear in town. I wrote about the interactions between wildlife and us, especially the negative interactions when large predators loose their fear of humans and start entering our towns.

I received a great comment from Anum following this post and it got me thinking. So I first want to repeat part of the comment: "It’s sad to note that even with our superior aptitude, humans are (time and time again) very capable of bringing about their own demise; all the while completely oblivious that the process is even taking place."

So many of the environmental problems were only discovered years after the fact, again I'll cite the bioaccumulation of DDT, but I will also add the problem with increased mercury concentrations in dammed lakes (notice the pun about the lakes), the destruction of the ozone layer due to the manufacturing of CFCs, the big one of climate change due to increased emissions, the acidification of the oceans, the massive fish die-outs due to an increase of nutrient runoff from industries and agriculture that causes algal blooms which consume the oxygen in the lakes, the acid rain from industries that kills entire lakes, all the problems with the Great Lakes... I could go on.

So what else is happening that we are yet oblivious to? In the idealist sense, this is one of the purposes of science, to discover the processes of nature and man's impact on nature. I am sometimes very skeptical about this purpose in the practice of science. It seems like a lot of research just follows the trend in the research, rather than really trying to figure out what is going on in that specific area of research.

This is a figure from a comic:, but the data is still relevant. The popularity of the topics changes as the public interest changes. Then research becomes dependent on public interest, and thus funding.

Take my project as an example, what nutrient limits the growth of algae in the ponds of interest? The importance of this is that nutrient input into the system is going to change due to climate change, summers with less rain so runoff does not bring nutrients, yet the nutrients may still come into the system due to the drying and rewetting of the sediment. Did you catch the buzzword? Climate change. Are we investigating climate change because that really is the driving factor in this - the increased regional temperature, the longer ice-free periods that change the precipitation patterns? Or is it the concept we are investigating because that is what we can get funding for while maybe there is really something completely different driving the changes we see? 

Will funding be a problem that will limit scientific creativity to truly discover those things which we are currently oblivious to?

The other part of the comment, the bringing of our own demise, disheartens me. Humans are part of nature, so when we start to pollute our lakes and rivers, when we start cutting down trees to the point that they can't grow back and we are left with deserts, upsetting the steady state that was in equilibrium (a global problem of desertification), or build concrete cities where the sight of a deer or even a tree is rare, we are losing our ability to live healthy lives. 

Technology and industry have always been blamed by the scientists and the environmentalists. If we didn't have cars, the personal carbon emissions would be negligible, the Alberta oil sands would be obsolete. If the extraction techniques were never invented, we would never have the Alberta oil sands. If we didn't manufacture consumer products half-way around the world, the industrial emissions and pollutants would be negligible, the lakes wouldn't be invaded by non-native species, there would be less need of the power plants, less damming of rivers, less need of oil, less oil spills, less need of coal... If we didn't have so many people in this world, well, that would make us sustainable. 

But that is not our world. 

This is:

Our industries are global, our population is only growing. So instead of blaming technology, industry, and people, instead of condemning the great engineering and design feats that brilliant minds developed, why can't we turn technology to our advantage? We face the greatest environmental problems that humans have ever seen and we have a choice: to allow these problems to bring about our demise, or to investigate and triumph over them. In science, I will investigate and I ask the engineers to apply technology to what I discover to make our civilizations sustainable and for society to band together as we would to fight any injustice.

And it is certainly possible to turn things around. There are environmental success stories around the world where there are amazing individuals working to improve the quality of water in Cuyahoga, to replant trees, conserving the habitat for chimpanzees...

So are we oblivious too to the great achievements that we are capable of? With our great aptitude, I truly believe that we can solve anything. If we do not believe in hope, and we allow pessimism to depress our thoughts, then we will fall to stagnation and decay. I prefer optimism, the kind of optimism that I feel when I stand outside after a long day of sampling and smell the fresh breeze off of the Hudson Bay, filtered by the boreal forest and the blue sky.

It is not to our demise that we will ultimately fall, but to a future where our ideas will unite minds around the world to make the quality of life better for every life on the planet.

1 comment:

  1. Another great piece Kaleigh. Thank you for shaking up the pessimist in me, hehe. It's true, that while there is a lot of destruction going on in the world, there are an equal number of people trying to make positive change.