Can Science Save the Planet?

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How do we study our environment? Is it too complex a thing to quantitatively describe, and thus too complex to exhibit predictable behavior? I’ve been performing a thought experiment over the past few days, tossing around such questions. I’m not sure I can really adequately describe these thoughts with words or images. Still, I’m going to try.

Individual scientific experiments tend to be specific. We look at a certain property and try to explain it with a hypothesis, then test that hypothesis repeatedly under various conditions to show if it is valid or not. If it isn’t, we head back to square one, or, at the very least, rearrange the conditions and look to test our hypothesis in a new manner. Experiments usually focus on one variable among a variety of constants. If several variables are introduced, it can be difficult to ascertain which of the variables is responsible for the property being studied.

When we look at something like the environment, however, we are looking at a complex conglomeration of variables which lead to a complex property: a planet full of living stuff, a giant ecosystem. Even the term is somewhat ambiguous. If we refer to "environment" we could be talking about a grove of trees, or the entire planet. There may come a day when we look at the "environment" as encompassing all that is around us, terrestrial and otherwise. Can science hope to adequately describe something so non-specific, let alone predict its behavior?

I’m not going to answer that question right away. Generally, we could say yes or no. No, in the sense of traditional, focus-specific experimental science described above, but yes in the sense of interdisciplinary study, incorporating models and simulations as well as traditional experiments. But the issue is deeper than that. Where does such a broad field of study fit in with the great theories of science?

Study of the environment doesn’t provide us with neat, packaged theories like thermodynamics or evolution. Those sorts of theories may be difficult to discover, but once described, they tend to be quite simple: energy isn’t lost, but is subject to entropy, or, life changes over time. We don’t have any sort of simple description or concise theory for the environment. Rather, understanding the environment relies on a host of other ideas, including thermodynamics and evolution.

I suspect that may be the reason environmental science has faced such a mixed reception in the public view. Superficial urges to "save the environment" tend to fall on either deaf or previously sympathetic ears, but often because the term is too vague. Are we speaking of rainforests or global warming? Population or natural resources? Endangered species, perhaps?

While many choose to take the party line on many or all issues, opinion may vary on individual issues. Without a simple, overarching theory, any discussion of the environment requires a bit of specification and clarification. Otherwise, one may be talking about the impact of deforestation on a local economy, while another is talking about the impact of climate change on an endemic species in another area.

Yet, (aye, here’s the rub) each environmental issue is delicately intertwined with every other environmental issue.

This is where I’m stuck, performing thought experiments and left wondering how to describe this. Is it possible to create a model of all the simple interactions which occur in environmental systems? For once, I’m afraid to give an example... but here goes:

Start at any point, be it the amount of coal being burned, or the number of women in a village who use birth control. Then, look at the direct connections with other aspects of the environment, like, in the latter example, the amount of food available in the village. That depends on the productiveness of agriculture, which depends on the presence of pollinators and the quality and moisture of the soil, which depends on the amount of weathering and erosion, which depends on the amount of rainfall, the presence of nearby forests and dissolvable atmospheric gasses. These are affected by changes in ocean levels and circulations, which depend on the amount of ice in the arctic, which depends on global temperatures, which depend on greenhouse gas levels, which are affected by the amount of coal being burned.

And that’s just one "small" loop. What happens if we factor in native species, invasive species, open space management, ranching or feedlots, our diets, our water quality, our happiness, freedom, and willingness to work? Don’t forget about the impacts of economics and political decisions. If you are as much of a science nerd as I, you probably began trying to picture a flowchart in your mind. At some point, it becomes too complex.

So, before your head or mine explodes trying to understand the whole of the environment, let us pause to wonder if such a model is even possible, even with the aid of computers. I’m afraid it would require a simulation of everything, a feat beyond our grasp, and perhaps rightly so. (I wrote a story based on that idea, a while back, that did not have a very encouraging end. It will need a serious edit before I repost it, however. Look for it here, soon.)

Even if we could create a crude simulation, would it be at all accurate? I doubt it would. There would inevitably be variables overlooked, or small perturbations in the collection of data that would throw off the results. What would we expect it to tell us? "The environment will do X." "In order for the human race to prepare for the world of tomorrow, it should do Y." Yeah, right. We wish.

All the same, the consequences of not preparing for "the world of tomorrow" could be pretty dire. Despite a few decades of naysayers and denialists, it has become common knowledge that our global environment is changing in a fairly dramatic way, and our choices and actions have an impact on that change. So, it would be a good idea to try to understand what is happening, and what to do about it. Without a doubt, we are starting to do that, but, not surprisingly, the various ideas concerning the environment are all over the map.

The question remains: how do we approach the environment, as a whole? Can we create a working, descriptive theory? Is the scientific method up to such a task? I suspect I’ll be writing more on this in the future. For now, I’ll leave the discussion up to you. What do you think?

Image of Earth via SpaceImages.com

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It's funny you bring this up - today in my Ecology class, we were discussing NEON - National Ecological Observatory Network - the newest ecological program in America. They have 335 million dollars to throw around, and they're going to be setting up a buttload of infrastructure to observe ecological processes (with little in the way of manipulative experiments) almost in real-time.

But to answer your question - not yet, and maybe never. But eventually, computer technology (in theory) will advance to near-limitless capacity (thanks to quantum computing). But if you think about it, it's not just computing power we need - we need fundamental understanding. Consider...

Imagine a system we have set up perfect observations for. We have NO error whatsoever on each and every measurement, we have EVERY possibly relevant measurement, we have MILLIONS of measurements every hour (if not minute) of every day for YEARS, perfectly documented. Could we develop a predictive model for such a system? We will probably have the computing power eventually, and maybe eventually we'll have the understanding necessary, but as it is... the stock market is still not a predictable system.

Well written, CU. And an excellent example, Grae.

Somewhere between sitting on our hands and doing something for the sake of doing something, lies the right thing to be doing... at this moment.

Well it gets tricky when new researchers realize the apparent futility of conservation. I mean...

Look at prairie dogs in the West. They're going extinct, and there is precisely nothing we can do about it. Naturally, there is plague (wiping them out like crazy, colonies gone left and right) and predation by eagles, owls, badgers, foxes, (in a few places) ferrets, and whatever else finds a liking to them. Artificially, humans are (illegally) poisoning them for farm land and they're viewed as pests. The damn things are so susceptible to extinction that any of the above factors (let alone all of them in tandem) could wipe 'em out.

But conservationists at the USGS still go out day after day and build artificial burrows out of PVC pipe, burn off grasses to encourage colony growth, implant new dogs like crazy, test plague vaccines, and everything. But they're going extinct, and there isn't anything we can do about it.

But one question is... is it even really worth it? Is there even a point? They're going extinct, no matter what - so why not encourage stability in the ecosystem that will remain after they're gone? If scientists know that what they're doing will have little (if any) efficacy, why keep putting effort into it? Isn't money better spent elsewhere?

Note that I'm playing a bit of the devil's advocate with this line of reasoning.

I'm glad to see this post drew a bit of interest--expect to see more along the same lines. (I'm just slow these days. Hence this reply coming a week late.)

Things may not be as futile as they seem... but I'll get to that eventually.

Oh, and Grae BG, you're doing an excellent job! Feel free to play here anytime.

HI,

I would like to share a story it is Free to read
the kids are makeing it into an animation but that is still a work in progress

I would like to share this with you as you are looking for new ways to see the BIG PICTURE

with love for the only planet that has life on it we can find

the Story of Women threw out time, those story's no longer told of why women and childern need to come to an understanding before we change what will be the end of Homosapians,
our kind
Humans who walk this planet
http://www.dragonlorechronicles.blogspot.com/