December 19, 2011 | General

Climate Change Connections: The Future Revisioned

BioCycle December 2011, Vol. 52, No. 12, p. 52
Sally Brown

I always loved the scenes in Star Trek Next Generation when Captain Picard would go to the replicator and order his “Tea: Earl Grey hot.” The tea would magically appear. Picard would drink it, no teabag no dirty cup – the mess was gone. Then there was that short lived Star Trek: Enterprise, a version that took place in the not quite as distant future. Here they actually had a cook and a galley, no replicators in site. To make matters even worse, there was an episode where the ship’s engineer talked about what happened to the waste on board (recycled and used for fertilizer I believe).
No wonder that version of Star Trek didn’t last for the normal seven year run. The future is supposed to be squeaky clean with no visible mess – just brainpower and technology elevating us all. In the world I grew up in, the future was going to be bacteria-free and climate controlled. Natural processes such as growth and decay, seasonal cycles and limits of any sorts were all things we would rise above.
To a large extent, we have succeeded in realizing this vision of the future. We are generally isolated from nature and natural cycles. Municipal services take away our messes and wastes. Food comes from the supermarket, not from the soil or sea. Water comes from the tap and is always clean and potable. Stuff like pipes and counter tops come from box stores. Energy comes when you turn on the switch. Services are provided and wastes are removed. We see nature when we want to, normally during summer months on the cruise ship to Alaska.
We’ve also seen scientific disciplines diverge (please note I am making generalizations). The scientists who work with the humans fall into two categories: doctors and engineers. And the scientists who study nature are the ecologists. These ecologists are so cognizant of human impact that they try desperately to find natural systems that haven’t been touched by it.
Sadly, the ecologists’ search isn’t working out too well. Humans have had such an impact that scientists have found residues of our common household chemicals in polar bears on the Arctic ice caps that are shrinking as a result of human induced climate change. And nature has not taken too well to being relegated to viewing from cruise ships, reacting to our meddling with floods and hurricanes among other disasters. We are on the verge of exhausting the natural resources and compromising the ecological cycles that have enabled us to fantasize about being just like Captain Picard.

It is no longer possible for science, nature and humans to exist in isolation. For us to make it through the next 50 years or so, it is going to be critical for engineers and ecologists to start talking to each other, thinking about each other, working together and maybe even holding hands. If we manage to pull this off, the doctors are likely to even see benefits for human health and wellbeing.
This all became very clear to me when I attended that National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Ecosystem services conference that I wrote about a few columns back (August 2011). The keynote address was by Joel Cohen, a professor at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. He talked about the challenge of providing sustainable ecosystem services for a population that is going to be creating the equivalent of one city of a million people every five days for the next 40 years. That is the point at which our population is expected to peak and start to decline. In the whole range of ecosystem services, providing sufficient food, fuel and water for our growing population is one of the greatest challenges.
At the meeting we split into groups and tried to come up with fantastic, creative, out of the box solutions to these problems. Most of the people attending the meeting were ecologists, with only a scattering of people who worked directly with humans. Very few engineers, no urban planners that I saw, no one in charge of providing food, clothing, shelter and water for the 7 billion of us people. Listening to the groups of ecologists make their presentations I heard some new out of the box ideas that somehow sounded eerily familiar. One group suggested anaerobic digestion of animal manures as a way to both produce energy and conserve plant nutrients. Another talked about urban agriculture as a way to sustainably increase food production. People talked about waste reduction and resource recovery without realizing that there was such a thing as BioCycle magazine.
The out of the box solutions developed by ecologists bore a striking resemblance to the solutions that are being suggested by many of the visionaries that work with humans. If the ecologists are getting this stuff, how do we get the engineers (civil, environmental and agricultural) to buy in? Even more to the point is how do we get municipal officials and people who live in high rises to let dirt back into their lives?
Understanding and working with natural cycles offers the potential to provide us with food, water and energy without destroying our home in the process. To fully optimize systems that rely on mixtures of natural cycling and engineering, expertise from both sectors will be required. Shared knowledge is a great way to avoid reinventing the wheel. Bringing different disciplines together offers the potential for outside the box thinking that just might work. And assuming that this approach comes together and bears fruit, there is the issue of translating this into practice, communicating this to the people that know Captain Picard but don’t know anything about ecosystem services. Communication was the task of my group. Stay tuned.

Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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