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The Limits of Us: The Producers of the Knowledge that shape the State of the Planet Michael Crow Columbia University November 16, 1999.

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Presentation on theme: "The Limits of Us: The Producers of the Knowledge that shape the State of the Planet Michael Crow Columbia University November 16, 1999."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Limits of Us: The Producers of the Knowledge that shape the State of the Planet Michael Crow Columbia University November 16, 1999

2 State of the Planet (It’s not the planet it’s us!) A dynamic interactive system of biogeochemical cycles that are being significantly influenced by an emerging intelligent life-form. This life-form has some serious limits in cognition and self-awareness as well as a number of other intellectual and physical constraints.

3 The Limits of Us Basic Argument: Our inability to understand our intellectual and organizational limits and find mechanisms to address them has placed our species’ dynamic nature and earth’s future in conflict.

4 And transformed the face of the earth - Eliminating >20% bird species - Increasing atmospheric CO 2 by ~ 30% - Intercepting > 40% of terrestrial production - Using >50% freshwater runoff - Fully/overexploiting > 60% marine fisheries - Increasing atmospheric CH 4 by >140% - Introducing >70,000 synthetic chemicals Source: W. Clark 1999

5 The Limits of Us 1) Socio-Biological Limits 2) Human Comprehension Limits 3) Limits of Science 4) Socio-Economic Limits 5) Philosophical Limits 6) Technological Limits 7) Organizational Limits 8) Personal Limits

6 Socio-Biological Limits Difficulty determining group risk Very competitive species Humans as independent free agents Limited intergenerational thinking capacity Nomadic tendency for solving problems

7 Individual Risk vs. Group Risk Outgoing longwave radiation down >1% Fixation of nitrogen up >2x Invasion by exotic organisms up >3x Sediment loads in rivers up >5x Release of lead up >20x Extinction of species up >100-1000x Data Source: W. Clark

8 Human Comprehension Limits Limited ability to understand scale effects Large number limits Limited ability to understand sustainability as a concept Inability to understand cumulative effect of hundreds or thousands of generations

9 Global Population A.D. 1400350 million 1700680 million 1800900 million 19001.65 billion 1986/875 billion (B.L. Turner, et al., 1993, pp. 1, 21) 19996 billion (current news)

10 Water: Global Effects of Impoundment in Reservoirs Since 1950, large scale use of artificial reservoirs redistribute water mass on a global scale Water held at higher elevations & eustatic response in sea level Global modeling: fractional effect on polar drift, and non-negligible effect on Earth rotation & low-degree gravitational coefficients (B.Chao, 1995, in Geophysical Research Letters, 22:24, p.3529-3532)

11 The Limits of Science The always uncertain theory that will be replaced Knowledge and insight held by a small group of highly educated elite Poor transportability of science knowledge to other decision making realms Science culture not outcome driven Poor translation between many fields

12 Socio-Economic Limits No economic tool for valuation beyond a few decades –What is the economic valuation of the Everglades over the next 500 years? Self organizing into unsustainable urban settings

13 Http:// 04/image3b.html Hurricane mitch casva mud flow

14 Marine: Fisheries Fisheries: Catch from the Sea has increased dramatically since 1950: 1800 --- approximately 1 MMT 1900 --- < 5 MMT 1950 --- 20 MMT 1980’s --- > 80 MMT (Turner, et al., 1993, p. 372)

15 Water: Global Estimated Water Withdrawals 1680 --- 100 km 3 1900 --- 466 km 3 1950 --- 1,415 km 3 1980 --- 3,600 km 3 (about the volume of Lake Huron) (Turner, et al., 1993, p. 245)

16 Urbanization 1900 - 16 Cities with >1 million people - 25% living in cities 1980’s - 40 cities with >1 million people - 50% living in cities (Turner, et al., 1993, pp.21-22)

17 Philosophical Limits Comprehending our role as the organism with the greatest effect on the natural system Limited comparative context –Why are we here?

18 Coastal Marine: After 1993 Mississippi River Flood O 2 depleted Continental Shelf bottom waters doubled in area to 18,000 km 2 (larger than the state of Connecticut) Area covers the center of a major commercial & recreational fishery Seasonally depleted oxygen level continue to cover the expanded area (Ortner and Dagg, 1995, Trans. Amer.Geophys. Union 76:10)

19 Technological Limits Historic dependence on cheap and reliable hydrocarbons Long term net effects of technological options are either unknown or poorly considered at the time of introduction and diffusion

20 Technological Limits (cont’d) Preponderance of market forces to determine technological options –“The future of the planet is always in the hands of the low-bidden.” We don’t understand the “law of unintended consequences”

21 Chemical Cycle: Global Sulfur Mobilization Global human-induced flow of sulfur now exceeds the natural flow Natural flow <120 million tons per year Human Induced 1880 --- Negligible 1950 --- <40 million tons per year 1993 --- 150 million tons per year (Turner, et al., 1993, p.415)

22 Organizational Limits Fragmented and disjointed fields of inquiry Knowledge enterprises as minimally adaptive Difficulty storing and transferring know-how –Sustainability-centric cultures vs. consumer cultures

23 Personal Limits Focus on self interest…particularly immediate self interest Overwhelming dominance of the illusion of understanding

24 Summary Serious limits beyond science need to be addressed while we continue to learn about the earth. Knowledge enterprises need to advance their cultures for learning and creative scholarship to address all limits. There is a need for intellectual leadership in an academy unable to adapt to the limits of and around its science.

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