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BIOSPHERIC CHANGES ARE THREAT MULTIPLIERS John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological.

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Presentation on theme: "BIOSPHERIC CHANGES ARE THREAT MULTIPLIERS John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological."— Presentation transcript:

1 BIOSPHERIC CHANGES ARE THREAT MULTIPLIERS John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A. April 2010

2 A THREAT MULTIPLIER IS ANOTHER AGENT IMPACTING A CURRENT SITUATION. IT OFTEN CREATES A COMPLETELY NEW SET OF PROBLEMS, BUT ALSO MAKES EXISTING PROBLEMS WORSE.  Changes in biospheric conditions may heighten pre-existing ecological stress on Earth, especially when resources become scarce.  Changes in the biospheric life support system may affect such entities as agricultural productivity, the hydrologic cycle, ecosystem services, and the regeneration of natural resources.  The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that nearly two-thirds of ecosystem services were in decline globally. 1  Irreversible change in the biosphere’s health and integrity will introduce a significant disequilibrium in both ecological and social systems.

3 A SEEMINGLY INNOCENT CHANGE IN A PART OF THE BIOSPHERE CAN CAUSE IMPORTANT ALTERATIONS AND BECOME A THREAT MULTIPLIER. Climate change is exacerbated by global warming, which damages the biosphere. Synthetic nitrogen increases corn crop production, and corn removes carbon dioxide from the air. However, synthetic nitrogen can reduce soil’s organic matter content because it stimulates soil microbes that feed on organic matter. 2 The introduced “cane toad” in Australia is a major continuing threat to the indigenous biota because it preys on a variety of native species. Dams and levees (e.g., to prevent flood damage) substantially alter the hydrologic cycle. The freshwater Asian clam has colonized the cooling system in steam-electric power plants, interfering with the cooling process. It may have entered North America in a freshwater aquarium whose contents were later dumped into North American freshwater.

4 THE BIOSPHERE IS A HIGHLY INTERACTIVE SYSTEM, AND DAMAGE TO A SINGLE, MAJOR COMPONENT (E.G., THE OCEANS) WILL LIKELY PRODUCE A RIPPLE EFFECT THROUGHOUT THE SYSTEM.  A major biospheric change is the shift of marine waters from slightly alkaline to slightly acidic.  This change affects calcium utilization by marine organisms for shells and other structures.  Loss of protective calcium shells will increase predation and affect the entire food web.  More acidic oceanic water will reduce carbon dioxide absorption from the atmosphere, thus increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Oceanic water changes will affect the rate of climate change, which will then affect agricultural productivity and the spread of tropical pests and diseases.

5 THREAT MULTIPLIERS CAN HAVE MANY EFFECTS, SUCH AS SPEEDING UP THE RATE OF GLOBAL WARMING.  Arctic ice melting is clearly not good for polar bears, but this biospheric change “could cost global agriculture, real estate and insurance anywhere from $2.4 trillion to $24 trillion by 2050 in damage from rising sea levels, floods and heat waves...” 3  “Everybody around the world is going to bear these costs.... The Arctic is the planet’s air conditioner, and it’s starting to break down.” 4  A worst case scenario is that warmer temperatures could cause massive releases of frozen, hydrated methane in the ocean beds and Arctic soils. 4  Geo-engineering techniques to reduce rate of global warming may produce one or more unintended deleterious side effects.

6 HOMO SAPIENS IS A PART OF THE BIOSPHERE AND IS AN IMPORTANT THREAT MULTIPLIER.  Economist Daly 5 remarks: “We do not satisfy our needs in any arbitrary sequence but seek rationally to satisfy our most pressing needs first.”  In meeting the most pressing needs first, little thought is given to the health of the biosphere.  Humankind also has the power to reduce the number of threat multipliers.  Altering a “throw-away” lifestyle will reduce threat multiplication.  If everyone in the world lived as individuals in the United States do, humankind would need five planets to support it.

7 ALL HUMANS MUST ELIMINATE THREAT MULTIPLIERS, WHICH WILL REQUIRE BOTH CHANGES IN LIFESTYLES AND CONVERSION OF WASTES INTO BIOSPHERIC RESOURCES. The core belief that led humankind into this trap of threat multipliers was that technology could always find a substitute when a resource was depleted. 6 Human technology may be the worst threat multiplier. The abundance of resources provided by technology and fueled by cheap, abundant energy has led to the present predicament of overpopulation, ecological overshoot, climate change, and destruction of the biospheric life support system. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum states that growth is controlled not by the total of resources available but by the scarcest resource at the time of the year of greatest scarcity. The time of greatest scarcity for many resources will be determined by climate change.

8 “THE DEVELOPMENT OF INCREASINGLY POWERFUL TECHNOLOGIES AND CONSUMPTIVE LIFESTYLES... [HAS] CREATED A MODERN CATEGORY OF HUMAN-CAUSED DISASTERS – STEALTH DISASTERS.” 3  “Stealth disasters... tend to have protracted, unobvious onsets; do not necessarily have dramatic manifestations; and often do not attract public attention until they reach a stage approaching catastrophic consequences.” 7  Ecological and social tipping points have much in common with stealth disasters.  One threat multiplier and cause of stealth disasters is the enormous disparity in resource distribution.  The amount of resources allotted to the weak in a socially stratified society is, at best, a subsistence level that sometimes results in resource wars.

9 EVEN CLOTHING CAN BE A THREAT MULTIPLIER.  Early man killed game, ate the meat, and used the hide for clothing.  Then the population grew exponentially, and the number of skins did not increase exponentially.  Fibers could be grown and technologies could be developed to weave the fibers.  Growing the fibers required part of the biosphere.  The technologies used energy and produced wastes, most of which did not nurture the biosphere.

10 ECONOMIC GROWTH IS A MAJOR THREAT MULTIPLIER BECAUSE, WITHOUT SURPLUS RESOURCES, NO GROWTH IS POSSIBLE.  Growth in consumption and population reduces resources more rapidly than no growth (i.e., a dynamic steady state).  Resources are neither infinite nor infinitely substitutable.  The biosphere is limited in the amount of natural resources that can be generated.  Decreasing natural capital to fuel economic growth decreases human security and increases risks and threats.

11 THE METRIC GIVEN MOST ATTENTION WORLDWIDE IS ECONOMIC GROWTH. BASICALLY, ONE COMPONENT OF THE BIOSPHERE (HOMO SAPIENS) REMOVES RESOURCES FROM THE BIOSPHERE, PROCESSES THEM, AND SELLS THEM TO OTHER HUMANS.  Some items, such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas, come from ancient biospheres and will not be replaced in timeframes of interest to human society.  Other items, such as gold, are not of biospheric origin, although the present biosphere may be damaged when they are extracted.  Economist Kenneth Boulding used the term cowboy economy to describe the perspective that resources are inexhaustible and wastes are innocuous. 8  Schumacher describes this attitude as “a breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay.” 9  Daly 10 uses the term growthmania to describe the unquestioning attitude toward economic growth.

12 Most anthropogenic wastes do not serve as inputs (resources) for natural systems. On a finite planet, “the solution to pollution is dilution” is not a viable, long-term strategy. The only viable, long-term strategy is to use nature’s model so that all output (wastes) can be a beneficial input (resource) somewhere in the biosphere. Implementing this strategy would serve as a “threat reducer.” THE UNQUESTIONING PURSUIT OF ECONOMIC GROWTH IS A MAJOR FACTOR IN PRODUCING THREAT MULTIPLIERS SINCE EVER INCREASING CONSUMPTION OF RESOURCES ALSO MEANS EVER INCREASING PRODUCTION OF WASTES.

13 ECONOMIC GROWTH HAS ALREADY DAMAGED THE BIOSPHERE AND CHANGED IT MARKEDLY. IF “BUSINESS AS USUAL” CONTINUES, THE BIOSPHERIC CHANGES WILL INCREASE THE NUMBER OF THREAT MULTIPLIERS.  Humankind’s world view remains cornucopian (i.e., unlimited resources).  The next paradigm shift will probably be forced by the general decrease in available resources.  Threat multipliers and increasing social inequity in allocation of resources will probably be the forcing factors in the paradigm shift.  Using technology to avoid lifestyle changes is a major factor in threatening the biosphere and the source of most threat multipliers.

14 Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Darla Donald for transcribing the handwritten draft and for editorial assistance in preparation for publication. Valerie Sutherland prepared the Power Point presentation. References 1 Watson, R. T. and A. H. Zakri, co-chairs Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-Being. Statement from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board, p Philpott, T New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health. Grist 23Feb research-synthetic-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon-undermines-/. 3 Gardner, T Arctic melt to cost up to $24 trillion by 2050; report. Reuters 5Feb 4 Goodstein, B As quoted in Gardner, T Arctic melt to cost up to $24 trillion by 2050; report. Reuters 5Feb 5 Daly, H As quoted in Dilworth, C Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, p Simon, J. L The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA. 7 Warren, J. L. and S. Kieffer Risk management and the wisdom of Aldo Leopold. Risk Analysis 30(10): Boulding, K As described in Dilworth, C Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, p Schumacher, E. F As quoted in Dilworth, C Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, p Daly, H As quoted in Dilworth, C Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, p. 93.


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