This post follows on from the previous, in the sense that there are different perspectives that anything can be viewed from, but it was stimulated by a comment on G. McPherson’s blog, made by The Real Dr. House, where he said this :
ulvfugl: Collapse means different things to different people.
The REAL Dr. House: This spurred a thought in me that I hadn’t had before (perhaps others are already there?). Global climate change may lead to ecological collapse similar to the way that runaway fever can lead to death in a human.
Proteins are long molecules twisted about themselves in certain patterns and shapes. Those shapes are largely what determine how they work. When a protein heats up to a significant degree, the bonds that are maintaining their shape break causing it to “denature” or lose that shape so they no longer work. This is how fever protects the human body: fever goes up and the proteins in the invading virus or bacteria denature, and you get better. Unfortunately, if the fever gets too high, then the proteins that make a human work start to denature as well and then the body can’t work either, leading to organ failure and possibly death. (Forgive the basic biochemistry lesson.)
So, if we think of the environment as one large body, it too can tolerate lots of variation in cold and heat. As long as it doesn’t go too far either way, then the body can adjust, and may actually benefit. However, if the heat goes too high, the body reaches a point where things don’t work anymore and organs (ecosystems) fail. Death soon follows. As this fever of AGW continues to rise, then we will start to see various systems fail – not just weather. Here are a few off the cuffs examples: pollens of entire species don’t work anymore, beneficial bacteria are unable to function, embryos don’t develop properly, endocrine systems can’t function, etc.
Fortunately, all the building blocks of life will still remain on Earth and as the forces which led to the runaway warming slowly recede, life will slowly begin to reemerge – just different from what was there before.
So of all the various “collapse” entities (social, government, etc.), ecological collapse is the one which is the most ominous – at least for everything living today. Of course, this is at the heart of what Guy has been preaching, but for whatever reason it just hadn’t occurred to me to think of it quite this way.
So here’s my response :
Thinking “of the environment as one large body” doesn’t quite work, because ‘the environment’ is approximately defined as whatever surrounds us. However, thinking of the biosphere as one large body is a very reasonable thought experiment, and has been explored by Lovelock, Margulis, and others, as in the Gaia Theory.
Gaia theory is very unpopular with certain sectors of the scientific orthodoxy. Partly that’s because they don’t understand it, so they attack various strawmen of their own creation. Partly, because they don’t understand the points I made in the previous post, and insist that only their own favoured reductionist level of understanding is valid, and partly because Lovelock named the damn thing after a Greek goddess, on the advice of William Golding, and so introduced an element of mythos, which has caused endless absurd discord, which could have been avoided if he had called it ‘Theory X’, or even the Lovelock Theory, and stuck to logos.
Scientists trained in reductionist materialist orthodoxy, which is most of them, simply cannot get their heads around other paradigms, so any suggestion of a ‘world soul’ or ‘Earth spirit’ freaks them out. But there’s no need for any such thing ( although I’m happy myself to entertain the idea ) because we ourselves grow, hold together, and function by means of some homeostatic principle about which we have absolutely no real understanding. It may be entirely mechanistic, although the placebo effect and other weirdness suggests otherwise. I mean, exactly how does the human body know that it needs to put such and such a chemical in such and such a place at such and such a time ?
But we don’t have to go along with Lovelock’s thinking. All we have to do is to postulate that the biosphere, defined as extending from the deep ocean trenches up to the stratosphere, is a thin covering, coating a rocky mineral planet with a molten core, that circles the Sun, and that it might be viewed, on one level, as a unitary living organism, just as the ant heap, or the colony of ant heaps in a meadow, were in my previous post.
So then, if it’s possible to speculate whether this ‘thing’, containing all living things, can be considered as an organism in it’s own right, we can proceed further and ask questions.
The first hurdle we hit, is that we don’t have any other of the kind to compare. If Mars had it’s own atmosphere, oceans, and biota, we could contrast the two and make some sense of the problem. But we only have Earth. It’s semantically impossible to make any sense of something if you only have the one example to go on. That’s because all meaning is constructed via metaphor. ‘This’ is ‘like that’. Our biosphere isn’t ‘like’ anything else, anywhere, that we know of.
However, we can partially get around that hurdle, because we know the Earth has a history, so we can compare previous versions of the biosphere with what we have today.
So, we can reconstruct, plus some guesswork, the 4,500 million year history, and then slice it into a set of samples, and see how the biosphere developed. This would be kinda analogous to embryology. Are there ‘developmental stages’, so to speak, that imply some sort of organising factor, or homeostasis.
You could then also consider any evidence for something like physiology. Of course, any comparisom with what we know of plant and animal embryology or physiology is likely to be very imperfect, possibly completely misleading, because as I said, the biosphere is not ‘like’ anything else. But I think we have to be humble, and put ourselves in the position of Harvey some 400 years ago, trying to understand human physiology.
If you read the literature, it appears to me that there is plenty of evidence to suggest a biospheric physiology. For example, weather erodes rock to silt and soil and this gets washed down by the rivers into the oceans, so, over time, minerals available to life on land might tend to be depleted. So, is there a mechanism that returns minerals from the ocean, so they can re-circulate ? That’s the sort of thing that we are familiar with in living organisms. Excess fat gets stored for later use, kidneys filter wanted and unwanted chemicals, etc.
Well, yes, there’s evidence for that. The salmon return from the ocean and swim upstream to spawn and then die, and they bring very significant quantities of minerals back from the oceans which fertilise – via bears, eagles, wolves, etc – the land on either side of the river.
There are plenty more examples. I’d suggest that, when the biosphere has an excess of something, which effects the homeostatic balance unfavourably, it has ways of sequestration. Hence limestone rock takes calcium out of the system, and oil and coal take carbon out of the systems.
You can probably see now where I’m going with this. If you follow the metaphor, the analogy, then Homo sapiens is like a disease organism on a human body, smallpox or TB or necrotizing fasciitis, afflicting the biosphere, and the biosphere responds, via global warming, with a ‘fever’, to try and rid itself of this pathogen that threatens to kill it.
Which leads into what Dr. House said above in his comment….
Yes, all the building blocks for life will remain, whatever happens. As I understand it, following previous mass extinction events, it’s taken 10 or 20 million years for life to recover. However, Homo sapiens will have gone ‘for good’ – if that’s the right term ?
Certainly, from the point of view of every other living thing on the planet, with the possible exception of a few domesticated species, the end of Homo sapiens would be the most wonderful thing that could happen.
And civilisation will be gone forever. Because even if some hominids survive, they will not be able to re-run history and rebuild. The metal ores and the coal and oil which we have squandered will not be available.
So, to conclude. Whether or not the biosphere is an organism in it’s own right, we shall probably never know, because we will have destroyed both it, in its present form, and ourselves…