Friday, May 29, 2009

What the future looks like

As the planet faces the most dangerous century in its 4.5bn-year history, astronomer royal Martin Rees looks into his crystal ball

Martin Rees
The Guardian,

What does the future hold for our small blue planet and its inhabitants? Photograph: Blue Line Pictures/Getty Images

It would be foolhardy to venture technological predictions for 2050. Even more so to predict social and geopolitical changes. The most important advances, the qualitative leaps, are the least predictable. Not even the best scientists predicted the impact of nuclear physics, and everyday consumer items such as the iPhone would have seemed magic back in the 1950s.

But there are some trends that we can predict with confidence. There will, barring a global catastrophe, be far more people on Earth than today. Fifty years ago the world population was below 3 billion. It has more than doubled since then, to 6.7 billion. The percentage growth rate has slowed, but it is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The excess will almost all be in the developing world where the young hugely outnumber the old.

If population growth were to continue beyond 2050, one can't be other than exceedingly gloomy about the prospects. And the challenge of feeding such a rapidly growing population will be aggravated by climate change.

The world will be warmer than today in 2050; the patterns of rainfall and drought across the world will be different. If we pursue "business as usual",

CO2 concentration levels will reach twice the pre-industrial level by around 2050. The higher its concentration, the greater the warming - and, more important still, the greater the chance of triggering something grave and irreversible: rising sea levels due to the melting of Greenland's icecap; runaway release of methane in the tundra.

Some technical advances - information technology, for instance - surprise us by their rapidity; others seemingly stagnate. Only 12 years elapsed between the launch of Sputnik and Neil Armstrong's "one small step" on the moon. Many of us then expected a lunar base, even an expedition to Mars, within 30 years. But it's more than 36 years since Jack Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, the last men on the moon, returned to Earth. Since that time, hundreds of astronauts have been into orbit, but none has ventured further.

The Apollo programme now seems a remote historical episode: young people all over the world learn that America landed men on the moon, just as they learn that the Egyptians built the pyramids; the motivations seem almost as bizarre in the one case as in the other. The race to the moon was an end in itself - a magnificent "stunt", driven by superpower rivalry. Thereafter, the impetus for manned flight was lost. But, of course, we now depend on space in our everyday lives (GPS, weather forecasting and communications). And robotic exploration has burgeoned. Unmanned probes to other planets have beamed back pictures of varied and distinctive worlds.

I hope that by 2050 the entire solar system will have been explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft. Robots and "fabricators" may enable large construction projects, using raw materials that need not come from Earth. But will people follow them? The practical case for sending people into space gets ever-weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturisation. But I'm nonetheless an enthusiast for manned missions - to the moon, to Mars and even beyond - simply as a long-range adventure for (at least a few) humans.

Each mobile phone today has far more computing power than was available to the whole of Nasa in the 1960s. And advances proceed apace. Some claim that computers will, by 2050, achieve human capabilities. Of course, in some respects they already have. For 30 years we've been able to buy calculators that can hugely surpass us at arithmetic. IBM's "Deep Blue" beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But not even the most advanced robot can recognise and move the pieces on a real chessboard as adeptly as a five-year-old child.

Deep Blue didn't work out its strategy like a human player: it exploited its computational speed to explore millions of alternative series of moves and responses before deciding an optimum move. Likewise, machines may make scientific discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains - but by testing out millions of possibilities rather than via a theory or strategy.

But will we continue to push forward the frontiers, enlarging the range of our consensual understanding? Some aspects of reality - a unified theory of physics, or a theory of consciousness - might elude our understanding simply because they're beyond the powers of human brains, just as surely as quantum mechanics would flummox a chimpanzee.

We can with some confidence predict continuing advances in computer power, in IT, in techniques for sequencing and interpreting and modifying the genome. But there could, by 2050, be qualitatively new kinds of change. For instance, one thing that's been unaltered for millennia is human nature and human character. But in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and "cyborg" techniques may start to alter human beings themselves.

And we should keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts on the fringe of science fiction. Flaky American futurologists aren't always wrong. They remind us that a superintelligent machine is the last instrument that humans may ever design - the machine will itself take over in making further steps. Another speculation is that the human lifespan could be greatly extended, something that would wreak havoc on all population projections. At the moment this hope leads some to bequeath their bodies to be "frozen" on their death, in the hope of some future resurrection. For my part, I'd still opt to end my days in an English churchyard rather than a Californian refrigerator.

We can make one firm forecast that's important for all "citizen scientists". There will surely be a widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what applications it's prudent or ethical to pursue.

It's sometimes wrongly imagined that astronomers, contemplating timespans measured in billions, must be serenely unconcerned about next year, next week and tomorrow. But a "cosmic perspective" actually strengthens my own concerns about the here and now.

Ever since Darwin, we've been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past. But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. No astronomer could believe this.

Our sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it's got 6bn more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding universe will continue - perhaps for ever - becoming ever colder, ever emptier. As Woody Allen said, "Eternity is very long, especially towards the end". Any creatures who witness the sun's demise, here on Earth or far beyond, won't be human. They will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug.

But even in this "concertinaed" timeline - extending millions of centuries into the future, as well as into the past - this century is special. It's the first in our planet's history where one species - ours - has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life's immense potential.

Suppose some aliens had been watching our planet for its entire history. Over nearly all that immense time - 4.5bn years - Earth's appearance would have altered very gradually. But in just a tiny sliver of its history - the last few thousand years - the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signalled the start of agriculture. The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose.

Then there were other changes, even more abrupt. Within the last 50 years - little more than one hundredth of a millionth of the Earth's age - the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves (TV, cellphone, and radar transmissions.) And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles launched from the planet escaped the biosphere. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could confidently predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when the sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spike less than halfway through the Earth's life - these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed?

If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next few decades? Will final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the objects launched from the Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?

The outcome depends on political choices. But those choices can be influenced by effective and idealistic scientists, environmentalists and humanists, guided by the knowledge and technology that the 21st century will offer.

'We know what to do: why don't we do it?'

Africans - and especially African women - will suffer most from climate change. Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai intends to help them

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai has spearheaded the planting of billions of trees across the world and is now leading the fight to save the world's second largest forest, in Congo. Photograph: Martin Godwin

Wangari Maathai's office in fuming, downtown Nairobi is full of citations and mementos, but there is one special photograph. It's of her and Barack Obama planting an olive tree in Uhuru park in the city centre in October 2006. It could be any two celebrities posing for a routine photo call, but there is a strong connection between the spiffy, young American senator on his way to the White House and the flamboyant older woman dressed in canary yellow who had just become the first African woman to win a Nobel prize.

The link between them is known as the "Lift". In 1960, 300 Kenyans were awarded Kennedy scholarships to study at US colleges and universities. One of the first was a 22-year-old economics student called Barack Obama, a Luo from west Kenya who was picked to go to a college in Hawaii. With him was Wangari Maathai, a 20-year-old Kikuyu from the highlands heading for Mount St Scholastica college in Atchison, Kansas. Both stayed in the US for five years and both returned personally transformed to a newly independent Kenya.

It was a heady, liberating time. Obama Sr had just married a Kansan and fathered the boy who is now US president. Maathai returned with a masters and "a determination to work hard, help the poor and watch out for the weak and vulnerable". The spectacular results of the scholarship simply reflect, she adds, the potential of people anywhere to flourish if given the opportunity. In London this week for Prince Charles' climate change meeting with 20 Nobel laureates, Maathai, now nearly 70, cut a lone, if flamboyant, figure: she was the only woman, and with Wole Soyinka, one of only two Africans. Yet, she pointed out, it is women and Africans who must bear the brunt of climate change and pay for the west's profligacy. (About which, she had some interesting points to make. "You must understand that what is happening in the west with the credit crunch has been happening for decades in Africa," she told her audience. "The banks are not regulated. We cannot access money, and only a few people can buy houses. Europe is catching up with Africa. When we were campaigning against African debt we were told that it could not possibly be paid off. Many countries collapsed." As for western democracy, and Britain's parliamentary crisis, "the elites have become predators, self-serving and only turning to people when they need them. We can never all be equal, but we can ensure we do not allow excessive poverty or wealth. Inequality breeds insecurity.")

And while the scientists, academics and politicians talked of technological shifts and the need to bring the best brains in the world to bear on the problem, the former professor of biology at University of Nairobi said bluntly that the answers were known. "We all know what to do. Why don't we do it? The question is, how are we to ensure something is done?"

The reality, Maathai says, is that of the nine billion people expected to be on the planet in 2050, eight billion will be in what are now developing countries. "Climate change is life or death. We could be accused of being alarmist, but if we have faith in science then something very serious is happening. Climate change and global warming is the new global battlefield. It is being presented is as if it is the problem of the developed world. But it's the developed world that has precipitated global warming. There will be a much greater negative impact on Africa because of its geography. But instead of adapting we are scraping the land, removing the vegetation and losing the soil. We are doing things to make it worse.

"Besides, it's in the interests of the rich to help Africa adapt to climate change and preserve its forests. By allowing them to be destroyed a lot of the efforts made in the rich world will be negated and undermined."

Maathai links ecology and culture and argues that the challenge for Africa (the title of her new book) is to look to itself and reclaim not just the land, but its cultures and resources. "If the soil is denuded and the waters are polluted, the air is poisoned and the mineral riches are mined and sold beyond the continent, nothing will be left that we can call our own. Our real work is reclamation - bringing back what is essential so we can move forward. Planting trees, speaking our languages, telling our stories are all part of the same act of conservation. We need to protect our local foods, recall our mother tongues and rediscover our communal character."

Instead, "some Africans are asking themselves whether we are being exposed to a new wave of colonialism," says Maathai. "Yes, there is a grab for resources. We are vulnerable to anyone who wants to exploit us. It's like the 18th-century. Africa finds herself with raw materials but does not have the ability to add the technology. She cannot control the process. So she grinds herself without cash. Africa is paying in raw materials. She pays with her soil. In the past people entered Africa by force. These days they come with similarly lethal packages, but they are camouflaged to persuade Africa's leaders and people to co-operate."

The paymaster these days, she says, is China, which has invested tens of billions of dollars in the last decade to extract African oil, minerals, timber and land in return for roads and jobs. "China is really no different from the United States, the Soviet Union and the colonising European nations which facilitated the rise of African strong men and protected them in the post-colonial period, despite knowing of their corruption and cruelty, so they could continue to extract Africa's resources unhindered. If Africa had spent 40 years investing in education, acquiring skills, she would be in a better position now."

Maathai is western and African, local and international, a member of the elite and someone with a rural background, educated both in one of the world's richest and in one of its poorest countries. But her roots are in Ihithe, a village of peasant farmers near Nyeri in the foothills of the Aberdare mountains. The family home, where her sister now lives, nestles in a deep valley. There's a school, the By-Grace cafe, a few hundred houses, sheep on the roadside and tea plantations everywhere.

"Mother lies there," she says. "My relations live there. It's heaven. But people there do not appreciate it because we have a political and economic system that does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live. That's the tragedy of poverty."

The changes that have taken place in Ihithe since the 1950s reflect the linked environmental and social crises now burdening so much of Kenya and the rest of Africa, she adds. "I have seen huge changes. The population has grown enormously. All that area [around Ihithe] was wooded. There were small farms, full of maize, millet and sorghum. The rivers were huge and clean. There was no tea. Today we see tea, tea, tea. Mother never planted tea. Tea has become slave labour. Farming has become the production of a commodity which people cannot process or eat. You cannot process your own tea. Tea without good governance is serfdom and only leads to environmental and social problems."

But above all, she says, there has been deforestation, with the family woodlots grubbed up to plant tea and the hills all around denuded for firewood. Realisation that communities were destroying their own resources led her to start the Green Belt movement. What began as a few women planting trees is now a network of 600 community groups that care for 6,000 tree nurseries. They have together planted at least 30m trees on degraded private and public land, in reserves, and in cities all over Kenya. The movement, which operates in 30 countries, is far more than a tree planting scheme: it has become an unofficial Kenyan agricultural advice service, a community regeneration project, and a job creation plan all in one.

"There is a change taking place. We can hardly keep up with the requests [for help]. The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree," she says.

Since she won the Nobel prize, tree planting has become an essential for all countries wanting to flaunt green credentials. In 2007 she fronted a UN plan to have 1bn trees planted throughout the world. Over 3.1bn have now been planted and the target has been revised to 7bn - one for every person on earth with a few left over - by the end of 2009.

In a tumultuous life as a pro-democracy and environmental activist, Maathai has been arrested many times, imprisoned, beaten, gone on hunger strike, had to barricade herself into her house to keep the police out, stood for president and been elected an MP. Her personal life has been equally stormy. She and her MP husband, who have three children, divorced years ago: he said she was much too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. She called the divorce judge "incompetent" and was given six months in prison for contempt.

Now she is trying to protect the Congo forest, the world's second largest stand of trees. If the Congo goes, she says, not only will tens of millions of people lose their livelihoods, but the climatic effects would be catastrophic and be felt as far away as Britain and the US. Britain and Norway have together put up £100m but it means working with some of the most war-ravaged and corrupt countries and companies on earth.

Ten African governments have asked her to their representative in the Congo basin initiative. "I know they want to take advantage of the peace prize and raise the public awareness," she says. "I know there is apprehension. But refusal to take up the challenge [of the Congo forest] would be wrong. I have no illusions. But there is no option." In the end, though, aid is not the answer. "Donors come to be seen as Santa Claus, bringing with them money, materials and input. The people clap and dance in welcome until the tap runs dry. At the same time, donors' money can corrode responsibility. An attitude exists that one does not have to accountable for the use of funds that have originated outside the country. Individuals and governments misunderstand or subvert the donors' intentions."

Her message in London this week has been fierce and urgent. "Nature is still being taken for granted. Yet when it is destroyed, life itself goes. Politicians [everywhere] are putting immediate needs ahead of the long term. We must challenge the decision makers. We must appeal not just to their heads, but to their hearts. I can only see getting worse things if we do nothing."

• The Challenge for Africa: A New Vision, by Wangari Maathai, is published by William Heinemann (RRP £20). To order a copy for £18 with free UK p&p go to or call 0330 333 6846

Study Links Stranded Marine Animals to Environmental Toxins

From: Doug Fraser, Cape Cod Times

In a study, recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution, Eric Montie, a University of South Florida scientist who did most of his research while a doctoral student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, found high levels of man-made chemicals in the brains and fluid surrounding the brains of marine mammals.


Working with the Cape Cod Stranding Network, Montie went to marine mammal strandings in 2004 and 2005 and retrieved the freshly dead or euthanized carcasses of 10 dolphins and a young gray seal. He used a magnetic resonance imaging machine to capture a detailed picture of their brains, to establish a baseline for future research on how chemicals could be affecting their neurological development.

Montie tested for the presence of 170 chemicals in brain and cerebrospinal fluid he'd collected from the stranded animals. He found exceptionally high levels of both the widely used flame retardant PBDE and a form of PCB.

Yale Study Finds Evidence that Damaged Ecosystems Can Recover Rapidly

From: Editor, ENN

A recent study by Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies reports that if humans commit to the restoration effort, most ecosystems can recover from very major disruption within decades to half-centuries. The study was written by Holly P. Jones and Oswald J. Schmitz and will appear in the June edition of the journal PLoS ONE. According to the study, researchers compiled information from 240 independent studies conducted since 1910 that examined large, human-scale ecosystems recovery following the termination of both human and naturally imposed disruption.

Researchers grouped the data into seven broad aquatic and terrestrial types of ecosystems, and disruptions such as deforestation, hurricane, invasive species, oil spoils, power plant and sea trawling. Most of the studies measured multiple response variables, which researched grouped into three categories: ecosystem function, animal community, and plant community. The researchers evaluated the recovery of each of the variables in terms of the time it took for them to return to their original state as determined by each study's author. The study also assessed whether recovery times were related to the magnitude of the disturbance.

Reportedly, 83 studies demonstrated recovery for all variables; 90 demonstrated a mixture of recovered and non-recovered variables; 67 demonstrated no recovery for any variable; and 15 percent of all the ecosystems in the analysis are beyond recovery.
The average recovery time was 20 years or less, and reportedly did not exceed more than 56 years. It was found that recovery from human disturbances was slower than natural disturbances, such as hurricanes. Recovery following agricultural, logging, and multiple stressors was significantly slower than all of other disturbance types.

The results of the study showed a positive relationship between the degree of disturbance and the recovery time. However, this was entirely determined by the type of ecosystem. For instance, the study states that aquatic system recovered much faster than terrestrial. Researchers noted that aquatic systems may recover more quickly because species and organisms that inhabit them turn over more rapidly. For instance, forests took the longest to recover due to the fact that forest inhabitants take longer to regenerate after logging or clear-cutting.

One potential pitfall of the study is that the uncertainty of the systems original state. The study explains that major disturbances such mass extinction combined with lower level disturbances such as pollution or climate change could create a baseline far removed from the historical natural state.

Jones and Schmitz concluded that "recovery is possible and can be rapid for many ecosystems, giving much hope for humankind to transition to sustainable management of global ecosystems."

To view the research article by Jones and Schmitz, visit:

Stingrays suffering from contact with wildlife tourists, study finds

Blood tests show that the animals at 'Stingray City' in the Cayman Islands have weaker immune systems and are in poorer health than those left undisturbed

Divers at Stingray City

The Grand Cayman sandbank, dubbed Stingray City, regularly attracts up to 2,500 visitors at a time. Photograph: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism

It features regularly on lists of things people want to do before they die, but swimming with stingray may not be the life-enhancing experience expected – at least not for the animals.

A new study has revealed that stingray at a tourist hotspot in the Cayman Islands are suffering because of all the human attention. The Grand Cayman sandbank, dubbed Stingray City, is regularly swamped with up to 2,500 visitors at a time, most of whom have paid handsomely for the chance to feed, stroke and swim with the creatures.

The study highlights the risks to animals posed by the growing "wildlife tourism" industry. Experts say wild populations of creatures such as dolphins, penguins and sharks are also affected by increased contact with curious people.

The study was one of the first to investigate direct effects on the physiology of animals involved in such tourism. Blood tests showed that the stingrays at Stingray City had weaker immune systems and were in poorer health than animals not disturbed by tourists, perhaps making them more vulnerable to disease and storms.

The experts warn that the "long-term health and survival of tourist stingrays have a significant probability of being affected" and they call for tighter regulation of the industry. Similar crowded tourist sites across the world will be doing similar damage to stingray, they say.

Christina Semeniuk, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who led the research, said: "Our study is the first to definitively show negative physiological impacts that indicate long-term costs to the animals' health."

She added: "The implications of these findings will not only affect the wildlife. Reduced stingray numbers, or injured, unhealthy-looking stingrays can cause the visitor site to become less attractive and may cause a decline in tourist numbers and have an economic impact."

The stingray at the site are regularly injured by boats, the scientists found, while the crowded conditions encourage parasites. The creatures have also come to rely on hand-fed squid, which stingray do not usually eat. "These impacts can have long-term health effects, in terms of reduced longevity and reduced reproductive effort," Semeniuk said. The results will be published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Other studies have looked at the impact of wildlife tourism on grizzly bears, penguins, dolphins, sharks and lizards. "The majority of these studies have looked at changes in the animals' behaviours or their stress responses," Semeniuk said. "Each has suggested that wildlife tourism should be both continually researched and managed."

Vincent Janik of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University said: "It's an important issue, and there doesn't need to be physical contact. Even just watching animals can sometimes bring problems." Studies have shown that dolphins regularly targeted by tourist boats are more likely to be injured and to abandon their young, he said.

Swimming with wild dolphins is banned in many places because of the likely impact on the animals.

Courtney Vail of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said the treatment of captive dolphins was to blame for the way people treated the animals they encountered in the wild. "You get people trying to ride on their backs and holding on to the dorsal fin. They are trying to recreate the Sea World experience with wild dolphins."

Janik said efforts to control wildlife tourism, such as the stingray experience in the Caymans, need to be handled carefully. "If the tourists aren't there then these animals could just be hunted or eaten. The best way is to educate the operators and the customers." Many of the negative effects of wildlife tourism are likely to be restricted to local populations of animals, he said.

Semeniuk said new legislation in the Cayman Islands has recently been introduced to address the impact of tourists on wildlife. New Wildlife Interaction Zones, including the North Sound of Grand Cayman where Stingray City is located, forbid people taking marine life out of the water. Feeding wildlife will also be more strictly regulated.

But not all of the recorded impacts of wildlife tourism on animals are bad. While most wild creatures react as if the humans are predators, some see tourists as beneficial, either because they reduce the risks of predation by others, or because they supply food. This can allow the animals to dedicate more valuable energy supplies to rest and reproduction.


Dolphins: Creatures in Australia targetted by tourists are more likely to abandon their young

Killer whales: Whale watching in Canadian waters is shown to reduce animal feeding time

Penguins: Even minimal human contact is shown to double the heart rate of New Zealand's yellow-eyed penguins

Apes: Mountain gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are known to be susceptible to human diseases


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