CSF101 How the earth works (session 3)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.
CSF101 (session 2) – understanding systems.

In this session (session 3) we consider the relationship between man and the planet. This is an awesome video that provokes us to think about the impact mankind has had on Earth.


I have no doubt that we hold a major responsibility for the health of our planet, and that we have been abusing, deforesting and polluting it for centuries. I’m just not entirely convinced that within the last decade man has been responsible for the directional and causal relationship between the changes in weather etc that we now see. That seems a tad arrogant to me, that man can be so mighty as to change mother nature itself. I also think that thinking in this diverts funding and activity from the really important issues – like deforestation. Remove the lungs of the world, and it is hardly surprising that CO2 levels will rise.

When I was growing up there were two very harsh winters in the UK. That was good for my family because my dad was a coal merchant! The talk at the time was about entering the next ice age. I don’t quite understand how within 40 years the scientific community could entirely change its opinion regarding the climate.

So overall I think, some of the arguments don’t stack up for me, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from our responsibility.

The video is amazing and thought provoking:

  • Microbes were the first organisms to utilise the resources on the planets, harnessing the energy from the sun, growing, and aggregating the carbon sources.
  • There is always the same quantity of water on earth. It is staggering to think of the millennia of recycling that has gone on. We are drinking water that dinosaurs must have drunk.
  • In nature, sharing is everything.
  • 70% of the oxygen comes from the algae within the oceans. Isn’t that a solution? We can’t quickly replace rain forests, but we can grow algae?
  • The earth counts time in billions of years – it took 4 billion years to make trees. That confuses me even more when we think of the last decade and I am concerned that we are not thinking in a broad enough context or time frame.
  • The trees are the vital lifeline – water, vegetable, mineral and matter. The formation of soil. So is that not part of a solution also? And further proof of how awesome trees are.

What do we know about the bonds that link the species on earth? I agree that the earth is a miracle and a mystery. I’m worried that placing the future of it in the hands of politicians, corrupted by money and their own interests, is not going to create a healthy abundant planet for future generations.

So how is current human activity changing the organisation and location of chemicals (and life) on the planet?

As noted above, I’m a little concerned that we are looking within the wrong timeframe. We can learn from physiology again. We are now all familiar with the signs and symptoms of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So here are some questions.

  1. Where do you think in the body that these diseases originate?
  2. If someone develops the disorder, do you think the disease process started within the previous month, year, or twenty years?
  3. What would be a single biological marker you might measure to diagnose these diseases?

What we know increasingly from scientific research – populations studies, animal studies that provide clues to mechanisms, and human clinical studies, is that these are problems that build up over a long time frame. As with heart disease or blocked arteries, these processes can begin in early life but manifest much later.

Science also tells us quite clearly now that these are end-stage manifestations of processes that start in other areas of the body. The links between gut dysfunction and brain dysfunction almost appear in the scientific journals on a daily basis, and even more fascinating is the role that our body bacteria may play in these processes. We are more bacteria than human after all! But see how easy it has been for science to look in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

And what about science focused on looking for a single biological marker? We now hear how people are studying the eye, looking at our sense of smell as early indicators of neurological disorders? It is a lot more complicated than we thought.

So what about the planet?

Again, I know I am a little sceptical of the politicians and decision makers with regards to solving our planet’s problems. I know how research funding, politically decided, can direct researchers off in set directions. Medical research works in the same way. We have to work out the impact that our research will have before we have conducted any studies these days. That should in theory be impossible. We need funding that is allocated in an unbiased manner, and that shouldn’t be linked to vested interests and career progressions for those conducting it.

I do hope that to understand our natural ecosystems and its relationships with mankind, we are looking holistically, and at wider time scales. What can we learn from more controlled events such as the industrial revolution, or World War I and II? Levels of pollution you might assume to peak during these times, so what was the impact? What about volcanic eruptions? That must have a devastating effect on the atmosphere and cause clouds that disrupts access to the sun’s energy.

The earth is an open and closed system

The session today really makes you think how there is a finite amount of water, amount of chemicals and amount of energy. Everything needs to be in balance – homeostasis – otherwise things go wrong, get destroyed or die. It is like a balloon dog – if you wanted a poodle but squeeze in the wrong place you’ll end up with a dachshund. (OK wiener dog if you are in the US). With a  wrong squeeze, we could redistribute valuable earth resources to the wrong place.

Balloon Dog Magenta

Image by F Delventhal, Flickr, CC By 2.0.

So ultimately for the planet we want the eternal conversion of stuff into more useful stuff. We don’t want it stuck as un-useful stuff. Resources that end up on the scrap heap. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere that isn’t recycled back to our trees, plants and algae. So it is important that we understand our natural biological processes – photosynthesis, and also our geological processes.

Might we be moving to a new epoch?

The course asks us to read this article in the Independent news paper – Anthropocene-we-might-be-about-to-move-from-the-holocene-to-a-new-epoch?

I guess that makes me nervous, because all other epochs have come to an end, and so might this one? Also I’m not sure about the definition of anthropocene , first coined in the 1960s, which focuses on human activities but not our inactivities. The definition doesn’t mobilise us into action. Again it seems a tad arrogant to me that in the billenia of our wonderful planets existence, mankind should take its place on the timeline of geological epochs. It also troubles me slightly that of the working group of 13 mentioned in the article, there were two women and a distinct lack of diversity. But if having a new epoch focuses humans and lifts them from their level of inactivity, that must be a really good thing.

Session tasks – considering how humans have effected natural ecosystems?

  • Lack of recycling of energy
  • Lack of recycling of water and chemicals back into the system
  • Disruption of the valuable ecosystems (woodlands in particular) that maintain our planetary homeostasis
  • Building and urbanisation that disrupts the natural flow of water
  • Lots of other physical disruptions
  • The never-heard of impact of nuclear testing that must surely cause massive disruption of the earth?
  • Lack of social cohesion and shared goals for the planet
  • Political corruption and vested interests
  • Inequality in the distribution of global wealth
  • Research narrow-mindedness and bias

WOW! I’ve got to link this all back to my quest of understanding EDUCATION in a more sustainable context? I guess this session has made me think about the OUTPUTS or STUFF that is ultimately valuable and is needed to be sustained. It has also made me see the difficulties in good quality / fair / unbiased / open EVALUATION and assimilation of knowledge surrounding these issues. It has made me think about the impossible POLITICAL challenge at any level, whether governmental or within an institution or group of people, that it is necessary to influence to provoke change.

Meanwhile, let’s have another balloon dog.

Balloon Dog

Image by Andy Wright, Balloon Dog, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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