An Analysis of the Implications of Technology and the Global Ecosystem
The 21st century promises to usher in innovations in technology that cannot yet be imagined, and the advancements to date have provided many in the world with unprecedented standards of living. Improved methods of transportation and communication, combined with more leisure time than ever in which to spend it has resulted in many people developing a keen appreciation for technology and what it promises for mankind; an unfortunate concomitant of these innovations in many parts of the world, though, has been an intensive assault on the globe's ecosystem in an effort to bring emerging nations into line with the productivity being experienced in the developed nations of the world. As a result, a debate over whether or not technology threatens the integrity of the global ecosystem has emerged in recent years, and pundits warn that global warming, acid rain, and the eventual exhaustion of the world's natural resources are just some of the unintended consequences of this imposition of manmade technology on earth's ecosystem. To determine the accuracy of these warnings, this paper provides an examination of the implications of technology and the global ecosystem, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. In her essay, "Gaia: Gender and Scientific Representations of the Earth," Marcia Bjornerud (1997) reports that, "Few ideas have provoked more rancorous debate within the modern scientific community than the Gaia hypothesis -- the proposal that the Earth can be viewed as a superorganism with the capacity to regulate its "body" chemistry and temperature" (89). Although the concept of the Earth as a living being is ancient, the formal scientific development of that concept first began in the 1960s when an atmospheric chemist, James Lovelock and a philosopher, Dian Hitchcock and a molecular biologist, Lynn Margulis, investigated the anomalous composition of Earth's atmosphere compared to those of neighboring Mars and Venus. According to these three investigators, the unique mixture of gases that surrounds the Earth and supports life on the planet is the very essence of "Life," which is created and maintained by the global biosphere for its own unfathomable reasons and uses. "The composition of the atmosphere, in turn, profoundly affects Earth's climate," Bjornerud says, "which has remained favorable for life for at least 3.5 billion years. In other words, life on Earth has not merely adapted to a hostile environment, it has continuously modified that environment" (90). The Gaia hypothesis in sum, then, is that organisms have acted collectively (if unknowingly) throughout the history of the world to make the environment more favorable for the global ecosystem as a whole (Bjornerud 90). Mankind's introduction of technological innovations into this carefully balanced and fine-tuned Gaiac system, though, have resulted in some predictable adverse outcomes, such as in the former Soviet Union where much of the country remains ravaged by the environmental impact of industries that have paid little attention to such controls in an effort to gain an edge on the West, to less predictable outcomes such as the growing hole in the ozone layer and acid rain.
Complicating matters for scientists and policymakers alike is the fact that the size of the ecological footprint is not static, but is rather dependent on money income, prevailing values, other socio-cultural factors and the state of technology (Wackernagel & Rees 1998:53). An approximate assessment of the four major human requirements for existence indicates that the current appropriation of natural resources and services has already exceeded the global ecosystem's long-term carrying capacity. According to Kennedy Graham's book, The Planetary Interest: A New Concept for the Global Age (1999), it may already be too late to reverse these processes:
Agriculture already occupies 4.8 billion hectares (3.3 billion hectares of pasture and 1.5 billion hectares of cropland). Sustainable production of current roundwood harvest, including firewood, would require a productive forest area of 1.7 billion hectares. To sequester the excess CO2 released by fossil fuel combustion, a further 3.1 billion hectares of carbon-sink land would need to be set aside. This totals 9.6 billion hectares, some 30% above what is available today, and 10% above all potential land. Thus there is evidence that humanity's ecological footprint already exceeds global carrying capacity. The 'global footprint' has been estimated today at 2.8 hectares per capita -- one third above the average earthshare of 2.1 hectares. That is to say, the draw-down on the planet's natural resources exceeds the sustainability level by one-third (emphasis added) (Kennedy 132).
The negative and positive impacts of technology on the global ecosystem are discussed further below.
Negative Impacts of Technology on the Global Ecosystem. It should be pointed out from the outset that biological organisms have been influencing the global ecosystem in one fashion or another since the world was created. According to David J. Tenenbaum's essay, "Where Do We Stand? Global Ecosystem Assessments Ask the Big Question" (2001), "The degradation of ecosystems is literally ancient history. Desertification -- an enduring ecosystem degradation -- gets much of the blame for the decline of ancient civilizations in the Middle Fast" (588). More contemporary examples of this process occurred during the severe soil erosion of the Dust Bowl in the U.S. Great Plains during the 1930s. This modern encroachment on the ecosystem started with unsustainable farming practices and was made even worse by a continued drought. Tenebaum reports that all told, desertification is damaging 30% of irrigated areas, 47% of rain-fed land, and 73% of rangelands today (589).
Still other examples of broad ecosystem degradation include the hypoxic "dead zones" located in the Gulf of Mexico as well as other bodies of water around the world, the rapid decline of the Black Sea fisheries as a result of the introduction of exotic species, and the intensified flooding being experienced in Bangladesh and Central America caused in large part by deforestation. According to Tenenbaum, "These and other such alterations reflect global-scale changes caused by human activities, particularly climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion" (Tenebaum 590). In the past, the impact of mankind's presence on Earth was largely restricted to a very small area immediately surrounding human settlements; these times are long gone, though, and previous methods of ecosystem assessment that sought to measure entire ecosystems, such as a watershed, mountain range, or coastline, rather than an individual tract of land or an industrial sector are no longer adequate. These approaches can no longer provide the amount of timely data required to identify methods of addressing the impact of mankind's impact on the global ecosystem. These issues have also assumed critical importance today: "Healthy organisms can only exist in a healthy ecosystem," Tenebaum points out, and "It's becoming dysfunctional to the point that the basic needs for life -- fertility of the soil, regeneration of fisheries, arable land productivity, fresh water -- all these fundamental services, nature's gifts, are being eroded" (Tenenbaum 589). This point is also made by Daniel Somers Smith, who reports that concerns about the environment are no longer restricted to specific places or even regions, but have rather assumed global proportions. According to Smith, "No issue exemplifies this shift quite so well as global warming. Because of the release of heat-trapping 'greenhouse gases' -- most notably carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels -- the earth's climate is gradually becoming warmer" (117). The most recent climate models indicate that average temperatures, both globally as well as throughout North America, will most likely rise between three and ten degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years. "This is a very rapid rate of change," Smith adds, "one to which neither human nor natural systems can easily adapt. It seems increasingly likely that climate change will both exacerbate existing environmental stresses and create entirely new problems" (118). According to this author, the most likely negative changes that can be expected in the future include:
Degradation of regional ecosystems;
Accelerating loss of biological diversity;
Disruption and instability of agriculture;
Rising sea levels;
More severe weather events like hurricanes, drought, and flooding;
Even worse air pollution (particularly ground-level ozone, which is formed during high daytime temperatures); and,
The increased spread of certain diseases such as malaria and cholera (Smith 118).
According to Bruce E. Johansen's book, The Global Warming Desk Reference (2002), over the past few decades, two important issues concerning the relationship between humans and the Earth's ecosystem have emerged. "First, human activities," he says, "including the burning of fossil fuels, land-use change and agriculture, are increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (which tend to warm the atmosphere) and, in some regions, aerosols (microscopic airborne particles, which tend to cool the atmosphere)" (50). In the wake of these environmental degradations, there have been an increasing number of predictions from the scientific community that changes in the emission levels of greenhouse gases and aerosols will change regional and global climate and climate-related parameters such as temperature, precipitation, soil moisture and sea level…