Storms, Fires and Floods. The way back to nature is blocked. What happens when the systems become ever more complicated and inscrutable?
By Niels Boeing
[This article published in: Freitag 44, 11/2/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2007/44/07441801.php.]
A half million people flee from horrific forest fires including prominent persons fearing the demise of their magnificent property – this news was dominated by a media-kindled sensation lust. However catastrophes like the current one in California offer even more. For some, they are the projections for a neo-mystical worldview in which nature takes revenge for sins committed by humanity. Gaia strikes back. For others, they are the welcome opportunity to denounce again failures of a corrupt politics that did not do its homework.
While some succumb to fatalism and think things can only go downhill, others cling to the hope of always being able to prevent such catastrophes with proper precautionary measures. Both attitudes are too simplistic. An essential characteristic of modern civilization escapes them: the rearrangement and linking of originally separated eco-systems in a world-spanning “techno-sphere.” This “techno-sphere” arises out of progressive urbanization, deregulated transportation, streams of commodities, high-tech agriculture and global communication networks.
This process is not occurring somewhere outside of evolution as a planetary accident. Quite the contrary. This process has been underway for thousands of years. “Apart from reproduction, the most natural of all human activities is the domestication of nature,” we read in an article on “Domesticated Eco-Systems” recently published in “Science magazine” by a group of researchers around US ecologist Peter Kareiva. More than 50 percent of the world’s land surface is used as pasture or arable land. In 1995, only 17 percent were still in an “original” state, without an ecological footprint of humans in the form of cultivation, agriculture or other technical utilization. The techno-sphere represents the provisional climax of this domestication.
The battle cry “Back to Nature” is really absurd. Given a world population of more than six billion people who depend existentially on this techno-sphere, this battle cry is very dubious…
The way back is blocked to us in the truest sense of the word. Unfortunately the way forward is hardly clear. The techno-sphere is not a machine that can work free of problems and risks with reasonable adjustment and regular maintenance – by means of “geo-engineering.” Rather the techno-sphere is a very complex meta-eco-system consisting of intersecting geological, biological and technical processes.
In complex systems, changing one part causes more changes that cannot be calculated in advance. On a small scale, this can be seen in local eco-systems where foreign animal- or plant species were introduced by people. The balanced food chains were mixed up which could lead to the dying out of indigenous species.
Technical developments are now added that increase the complexity – and susceptibility for catastrophes. The profusion of dwellings in coastal areas (8500 square miles in Europe alone) is one drastic example. Exceptional geological or climate events like a tsunami or hurricane bring more death and destruction and strike whole national economies. More refugees need care, more insurance cases are settled and the damages to a condensed infrastructure are enormous.
On the other hand, expanded transportation- and communication infrastructures promote the growth of megalopolises at the edges. Los Angeles and its surrounding areas grew by four million people in the last seven years. The number of residents in the commuter cities Palmdale and Lancaster to the north rose tenfold in the last 30 years. They offer a wider target than before the fires kindled by hot desert winds.
Even within technical systems, the susceptibility for breakdowns increases on account of inscrutable chains of effects like the extensive power failure in the northeast of the US and eastern Canada in August 2003. The investigative report identified a serious deficiency of the energy provider First Energy in the control system of its network and the junctures to surrounding net operators. The methods for surveying this technical system in its totality were inadequate. This mega-accident in the electricity supply of one of the most industrialized regions of the world was due to the investment behavior of the electricity supplier. Economic de-regulation, competition and profit fixation prevented modernization of its infrastructure.
Global warming on account of the greenhouse effect represents the most momentous case in which geological, biological and technical processes could intensify to a catastrophe. Transportation, energy production, agriculture and a short-term conversion of local eco-systems release vast quantities of greenhouse gases that at the end harm the whole techno-sphere.