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Critical Planning

Planet Earth

Only Earth's Ability
To Sustain Life is in Jeopardy

Posted on September 7,2010

When we hear words like saving the planet, what we really hear is saving the planet’s life supporting abilities. We are not referring to actually saving the planet. No, what we hear are the laments from those of us concerned with maintaining Earth’s ability to sustain life, as we know it. From a broader view, if all life on Earth perished, the planet would still be a part of the Solar System and survive until our Sun decides to croak.

That said, there are some activities man engages in that cripple the Earth’s ability to support the life forms we know. But life is sturdy stuff, so if by chance we were to screw up and exterminate ourselves, some other form of life would replace us. Remember the extinction of the Dinosaurs. When the Dinosaurs died off, life just took a different direction. The point is - that we as humans cannot affect the Earth, only the type of life that inhabits it.

If we indulge in nuclear wars or pollute our breathable air, the only entities at risk are humans and the animals that share our common requisites for living. But in the end, we have not damaged the Earth. So the real problem facing us is to recognize those activities that are harmful to humans and animals, and stop the harmful activity.

Recognizing harmful activities is easy and at the same time complicated. The interwoven fabric of life makes choosing the least damaging path for our activities very difficult. Every living entity fits into a niche that contributes to the biomass. For instance, we would like to eradicate the mosquito. Mosquitoes have caused death and disease for man as long as man has been here on Earth. So what would be the consequences of eradicating the little pests? Superficially, destroying those pesky dangerous insects might be a good thing – but wait, remember the interwoven fabric of life. Every organism is a stitch in that fabric.

Mosquitoes: To find their weaknesses; we study their lifecycle, and what makes them tick. We want to find a weakness, which will allow us to eradicate these little pests. Those studies all start with the same premise, to find a clever and economical way to destroy them. We study their mating habits, the bites they inflict upon CO2 exhaling animals, the egg rafts left floating upon the water, their aquatic life from pupae to emerging adult. We have studied the mosquito up one side and down the other. Remember, it is our desire to destroy the mosquito that leads the charge against it. Very few try to place the mosquito in its niche and look at the broader picture of the good that mosquitoes do and whether or not other ways of controlling this pest may not be better for everyone.

As it turns out, the mosquito does have a positive and beneficial side. The eggs and larvae make up a vital part of the food chain. Fish fry eat the eggs and hatched larvae. Small fish eat other things but most of what they eat is not a source of iron for them. All creatures with red blood need iron. The mosquito intrusively extracts our red blood cells and transfers the nutrients to her eggs. Young fish eat the eggs and larvae then extract the iron to enhance their blood. And having a healthy fish population is a win-win for us. The price we pay for this service by the mosquitoes is very small.

In North Alaska, mosquitoes are abundant and feed mercilessly on the caribou that migrate to that territory every year. The caribou find good grazing, but are relentlessly pursued and sometimes chased into the water just to escape the ravaging little insects. –But that is only half the story. A lot of migrating animals come to this area, and owe their existence to those ravenous mosquitoes. Migrating birds feed upon those insects and raise their young in the environment. Other animals make their living off of those animals. The area transforms into a large nursery for several animals, all because of the mosquitoes that inhabit that area.

The point in all of this, is to illustrate that solving even the most innocuous problems have consequences. By jumping headlong into schemes of convenience, we often encounter an ‘Oh-Oh’ moment and realize that we should have put a little more thought into our big idea.

Nature’s creations are not the only thing interwoven into a fabric of harmonious dependency. Our industrial systems are also interwoven. True, they are of our making, but most systems have developed a fabric as interwoven as those life forms that depend upon the mosquito. Any established system will have long tendrils that reach to all areas of our society.

This piece does not advocate maintaining obsolete and damaging man created systems. However, it does advocate for the type of thought that looks broadly at the system in question and demands an understanding of the interdependencies involved with that system. To prevent social upheaval, it is vitally important to untangle the tendrils of dependency before shutting down the system that needs abolishing.

Characteristically, our method of winding down an undesirable system is to first recognize there is a problem, and then modify the system to cure that problem. Usually our solutions to our original problem only create a different problem. This correcting method resembles trying to fill a hole by digging another hole for the fill dirt. A reasonable direction would be to bring in fill dirt from another location, provided you are not creating a problem at the source of the new fill dirt. When obtaining the new fill dirt, we don’t want to create a water runoff situation that is going to wash way more topsoil. Remember all things are interrelated.

Because of the interrelationships of all things, we could ‘what-if’ a problem until we did nothing. That is where leadership has to assert itself. Leadership looks at the data and determines that the project has reasonably accounted for potential problems. Doing due diligence and making accommodations for possible problems is one way to mitigate possible disasters.

There are many examples of ideas that seemed to be whiz-bang solutions but in the end created more problems than the original problem. One example of this is the raising of corn for fuel. All of the persuadable elements were there. We didn’t have to drill for it, it burned cleaner than gasoline, the farmers would benefit from it, equipment manufacturers would benefit, and the banks would benefit. It was a win-win for all. ---But wait; there is another side to the story left out of this seemingly perfect solution.

Corn’s other side is just as bad as the good side is good. The net effects may in fact be more harmful than the trumpeted benefits. Nobody considered what the effect on an increase in demand for corn would have on those who look to corn as a food staple. The rhetoric used to promote corn for fuel omitted those users from the equation in our zeal to triumph over the evils of gasoline. Corn is a mainstay for many impoverished families in several countries. The demand for ethanol ran up the price of corn to levels that threatened the survival of a lot of people. Corn acreages grew to satisfy the demand for ethanol and in many cases usurped land used to grow other food products. And most damaging, the farmers were using one of our most precious resources to produce ethanol – our underground fresh water supply. Our underground fresh water reservoirs are not limitless. We drain those resources at our peril, and wasting that resource to grow fuel is far worse than burning gasoline. Remember ethanol is only marginally cleaner burning than gasoline.

Thoughtful consideration of what we want to do is the key to preventing our getting things too screwed up, especially if the intent is to preserve the life sustaining ability of our planet. This piece isn’t about doing nothing to solve our problems. This piece is a plea to quit jumping off the deep end without thinking of the consequences that will certainly follow from ill-conceived rash acts.

"Inanimate objects are classified scientifically into three major categories - those that don't work, those that break down and those that get lost."
- Russell Baker


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A Physics Major at the University of Texas
Retired from the offshore drilling industry where he worked as an Electrical Supervisor, Licensed Chief Engineer, and Electrical Designer.

Robert Writes for 2 Online Magazines and three private web sites.
Interests include computers, Cosmology, Evolution, and Environmental Research.

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