Friday, November 28, 2014
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Managing the Earth

Sometime in the next twenty years, the relationship between human beings and the natural world is going to change, profoundly and forever. It won't happen suddenly, but current scientific developments will make change inevitable. Like it or not, ready or not, these scientific developments are putting us on the road to becoming the managers of the global ecosystem, rather than just a participant in it.

I like to think about this coming revolution in historical terms. For most of the three and a half million years that beings we might call "human" have walked the Earth, they were unambiguously part of the natural system. The iron laws of evolution governed their survival, and those who couldn't compete died early and were soon forgotten. Our only defenses against a hostile world were primitive stone tools and fire - a minimal kind of protection at best.

Then, about 10,000 years ago, something extraordinary happened. Somewhere in the Taurus mountains in what is now Turkey, a group of people, probably women, began to develop a new set of technologies that would change the way that human beings interacted with their environment. We call these technologies "agriculture," and, for the first time, they gave human beings the power to move outside the laws of natural selection. No longer would our ancestors have to content themselves with the food that nature offered - they could start to grow their own, far surpassing nature's meager supply.

Since the birth of agriculture, human history has been a steady progression of further liberation from the restraints of nature. Instead of generating power using human and animal muscles, we developed machines that could liberate sunlight stored in coal and oil. Instead of relying on natural defenses against diseases, we developed antibiotics and the other tools of modern medicine.

The result is that human beings are no longer really a part of nature - the survival of our species no longer depends on our ability to compete in the Darwinian jungle. We depend on our social structure and technology, rather than on our genes.

Today, we are poised to take another giant step, one that will bring us back into the natural system of our planet rather than remove us farther from it. For the first time in history, we are starting to understand how the living things around us work, how all the pieces fit together.

Some of these advances are theoretical, allowing us to build computer models of complex systems like continent-wide forests or entire oceans. Others are more mundane, involving long-term experiments and observation of smaller ecosystems, such as plots of prairie grass or swamplands. Finally, of course, we have the spectacular advances in our knowledge of genomics, the science that lets us understand the basic mechanisms that operate inside all living systems, including humans.

Together these new areas of science will allow us to manage the ecosystems on our planet, predicting the effects of human interventions, anticipating the flow of natural cycles. We truly have the power to become the managers of planet Earth.

This is not a responsibility we can shirk. The analogy I like to use involves the homely example of caring for a suburban lawn. You can decide to mow the grass, in which case you produce one kind of ecosystem, one kind of future. Or you can decide not to mow the grass, in which case you produce another kind of ecosystem, another kind of future. Either way, your actions determine what happens to the lawn. The one thing you cannot do is fail to decide. No matter what you do, even if you decide to do nothing, the future of the lawn depends on you.

In fact, our relation to the planet will be like that of a gardener to a garden. The gardener doesn't destroy his plants indiscriminately, but he does regularly pull up weeds. The gardener doesn't "conquer" his or her plants, but studies them to produce the garden that is desired. Most importantly, the gardener does not manage the garden for the sake of the plants, but for some other goal - to raise food, produce flowers, or just to look pretty.

In the same way, human beings are on the brink of being able to manage the planet, and the decisions we make will determine what the future of the planet will be. Given the phenomenal rate at which science advances these days, it is not too early to start thinking about how we are going to handle this awesome new responsibility.

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