Lost window of opportunity

Laboratory Earth
July 4, 1997

Thanks to our environmental assaults, we are conducting a planet-wide experiment with the earth. The experiment is entirely unplanned, and we know next to nothing about its outcome except that it will almost certainly be irreversible and almost certainly be adverse for humankind. If a group of scientists took a proposal for such an experiment to a funding agency, they would be turned down out of hand.

We can learn many details of our unwitting and unprecedented experiment by perusing Stephen Schneider's latest book. It is part of the Science Masters series, that already includes books by Richard Dawkins and Ian Stewart and will in future include Murray Gell-Mann and Lynn Margulis. These books are compact accounts, 50,000 words or so, of salient scientific issues of our times. Each is authoritative and packed with cutting-edge findings, while written in a style palatable to the lay reader. They are a prime means of checking on one's scientific literacy. This reviewer, having worked for 30 years in the environmental arena, found much that was new and interesting in Schneider's book. Not so much the basic information, rather the analyses and conclusions.

I have been especially enlightened by Schneider's emphasis on the key factor of scale. Earth's climate, one of the biggest determinants of our lives and livelihoods, is a function of processes such as the movements of continents over periods of thousands if not millions of years. The same applies to spatial scales. The torching of Amazonia's forest may, through its carbon dioxide emissions and hence its stoking up of global warming, eventually cause the American grain belt to come unbuckled. Yet we remain curiously insensitive to scales beyond the most immediate and local. Ecologists, who are supposed to be the coal-face researchers into what makes the earth tick (and how to keep it ticking) often use field plots no bigger than a tennis court, which then has to form the basis for our "understanding" of ecosystems the size of continents. As Simon Levin of Princeton University has remarked, the world looks different depending upon the size of the window you are looking through.

Schneider's preferred scale is the earth itself. This means he has to span a host of scientific disciplines, and he displays remarkable expertise in climatology (his home-base field), biology, ecology, geology, chemistry, agronomy, oceanography, economics, political science, even psychology. More important, he welds these disciplines into a single integrative study that he terms earth system science, entailing analysis of the spread of deserts, the shrinking of forests, the loss of species, the accumulation of toxic wastes, and the disruption of climate itself. Likewise, he invites us to consider the face-off between ecology and economics insofar as it is economic activity that largely causes our ecological traumas.

In short, Schneider specialises in being a generalist, and he is as interdisciplinary as they come. Regrettably, they do not come very often. Whereas many scientists agree that we need as many interdisciplinary insights as we can muster if we are ever to sort out our environmental problems, they often remain wary of anyone who actually practises the stuff: "It's not the way we've usually done things" (as if the world outside the window has ever worked according to separate disciplines - or even departments).

Consider, for instance, global warming, a topic that occupies Schneider's attention for a good part of his book, and rightly so given the grand-scale dislocations it will entrain. His own professional background notwithstanding, he asserts that it is absurd to view global warming as largely a matter of climate. It entails energy systems, which are mainly based on fossil fuels, consumed with prodigal abandon because they are artificially cheap, which is because of extravagant government subsidies.

To sort out what causes global warming and devise ways to reduce it, we need to take a long look at some esoteric factors. For instance, that it would be cheaper for the German government to send home all its coal miners on full pay for life, and to close down every last mine rather than to keep producing coal at several times the world market price. We shall not come up with workable solutions for global warming until we understand the institutional chemistry, including the psychology, of political lobbying, as exemplified by the German coal debacle. Lobbying is surely one of the great corruption scandals of our times, yet apparently accepted by politicians as another form of "the way we've usually done things".

Thus speaks Schneider. He writes in an eminently agreeable style. He can be debonair and lucid while dispensing high-octane science. Reading his book is almost a "can't put it down" experience, so intriguing is his unravelling of complex issues. He touches on chaos theory, cost-benefit analysis, scientific uncertainty, future evolution, discount rates, the Gaia hypothesis, the business of business, academic politics, and science culture. One learns about much more than why it rains.

My main reservation is that the book does not go as far as it might into the communications gap between scientific research and policy responses. A rough rule of thumb is that it takes ten years for a research breakthrough to be translated into "doing something about it". This is partly because many policy makers do not like taking boat-rocking initiatives, so they turn a deaf ear to scientific imperatives for as long as they can. Conversely, certain scientists eschew the political arena. It is the politicians, they say, who got us into a mess, so let us have no truck with them. More probably, while scientists understand the flow of energy through ecosystems, they are less versed in the flow of influence through corridors of power. So the case for doing something tends to go by default, however urgent the need. And could there be a more urgent time than the present, when we have all too little time to prevent unprecedented environmental injury likely to last for centuries and millennia? Read this book and find out what is at stake.

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, University of Oxford.

Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can't Afford to Lose

Author - Stephen H. Schneider
ISBN - 0 297 81644 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £11.99
Pages - 174

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