Trashing Our Life Support Systems -- Eric R. Pianka

Trashing Our Life Support Systems

© Eric R. Pianka

"A fine glass vase goes from treasure to trash, the moment it is broken" --Vera Nazarian

Earth was a great and pretty durable spaceship that could have supported all its denizens for many millennia, but foolishly we humans have managed to trash its life support systems, the atmosphere and the oceans, commons that must be shared by all (Hardin 1968, 1974).

Surrealistic Painting of industrialized man (END.CIV)

Sadly, the commons have been greatly abused. We have had an enormous impact on the entire planet as well as on all our fellow non-human Earthlings. Humans have destroyed vast areas of natural habitats and fragmented many others. We have modified the atmosphere and in doing so have increased the greenhouse effect, which has changed the climate to produce ever increasing maximum temperatures with no end in sight.

Climate is driven by energy gradients. Together, the atmosphere and the oceans control climate. Ocean currents act as conveyor belts moving heat away from the equator. Changes in ocean currents have had drastic impacts on past climates and will do so again in the future.

Weather is driven by the thermal differential between the surface and atmosphere versus that of outer space, which remains cold and constant at absolute zero -273°C. As Earth warms, this energy gradient increases and climate goes into convulsions -- droughts and heat spells are intensified and storms become more intense. With the melting of glaciers and ice caps, more water enters the atmosphere, changing the hydrological cycle. Ice is white and reflects solar energy whereas land and darker open water absorbs it, producing a powerful positive feedback loop that continually enhances global warming. As the arctic sea ice continues to melt, reductions in seasonal ice cover in the future will result in larger waves, which in turn provide a mechanism to break up sea ice and accelerate ice retreat (Thomson 2014). We can expect fierce storms, more flooding, more tornados, bigger waves, and larger and more frequent hurricanes and monsoons. Weather is rapidly becoming more variable and more extreme. The exact timetable for these changes is uncertain, but data and current events suggest that climate changes are taking place during human lifetimes. A tipping point, or point of no return, has already been reached.

We are now facing a dramatic and rapid anthropogenic change in global climate -- humans have broken into the control room for the life support systems of this our one and only spaceship and trashed our sturdy ship. When coupled with massive habitat loss and fragmentation due to human overpopulation, all denizens of spaceship Earth are potentially imperiled.


"It is said that water is for cattle and farmers, that milk is for children
and blood for men." _ Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

Water is the most abundant molecule on the Earth's surface, covering about 71% of the surface of the planet. The word water is usually reserved for the substance in its liquid state, ice when in its solid state, and water vapor or steam when in its gaseous state. It is a small molecule with some interesting and unusual physical properties that arise as a consequence of its charged bipolar nature and the hydrogen bonds formed between molecules of water, which cause them to stick together. Both create surface tension. As a fluid, water is nearly a universal solvent, meaning that many (though not all) other substances can be dissolved in water. Water has a high specific heat, which means that it does not change temperature easily -- indeed, we define a unit of heat energy as a calorie, the amount of heat required to raise one cubic centimeter of water by exactly one degree Celsius. We define 100°C as the temperature at sea level of the boiling point of water (when it changes from the liquid to gaseous state). The temperature at its freezing point, when water changes from the liquid state to the solid state (ice), is defined as 0°C. Water is most dense (heaviest) at 4°C.

As they are cooled, aggregates of most other substances increase monotonically in density becoming progressively heavier -- the colder they are, the more tightly packed their molecules become. But water possesses a peculiar physical feature: ice expands, so it is lighter than liquid water (i. e., ice floats). As a result, when water trapped in rock crevices freezes, it breaks rocks (and pipes).
Earth has about 1460 x 1015 metric tonnes of water, most of it in salt water in the world's oceans (about 97%). Only a tiny amount of water flows down creeks and rivers and moves through the atmosphere. Freshwater is very scarce. Sadly, humans have polluted much of it.

Like most other substances, water moves through a dynamic biogeochemical cycle called the hydrological cycle involving evaporation, transpiration, condensation, freezing, melting, precipitation and runoff. For example, when water vapor in the atmosphere is cooled, it reaches its dewpoint and condenses to form precipitation in the form of rain, ice or snow, which falls to the ground where some runs off down creeks and rivers into lakes and the oceans. A portion of this falling precipitation sinks into the ground and replenishes soil and groundwater supplies. The sun's heat causes evaporation, which converts liquid water to vapor, replenishing water in the atmosphere. In addition, plants and animals release water back to the atmosphere via evaporation and also by transpiration (the sum of these two processes is called evapotranspiration). The rates at which water molecules move between and among these various compartments constitutes the hydrologic cycle, shown below. Human activities have altered this cycle as we divert flowing waters to agriculture and pump out deep groundwater, even exhausting some underground aquifers. Global warming is now melting ice and glaciers and raising sea levels.

Water is vital to all known life forms, that is, all those on planet Earth. It is so integral to life as we know it that many biologists cannot even envision life without water (although that might be possible). Indeed, the physical properties of water dictate critical thermal limits for living systems.

Humans have reduced or even stopped the flow of major rivers by diverting water to fields of crops or to city water supplies. We have also polluted almost all the world's freshwater ecosystems with our wastes. Some rivers are so polluted that fish cannot even live in them. As a result, freshwater fish and amphibians are some of the world's most endangered species.

Before humans usurped so much fresh water, creeks and rivers flowed and remained clean due to constant entry of fresh clean rainwater. Lakes and the oceans were also free of pollution. Estuarine waters like the Gulf of Mexico were constantly flushed out by clean fresh river water entering them. All fresh water is now polluted both with human waste and fertilizer. We intercept vast amounts of water for agriculture and apply much too much nitrogenous fertilizer, which flows off as waste. The Gulf of Mexico is under siege now because we take so much water before it gets to the gulf, as a result it has become much too saline, and, to top off this insult to injury, nitrogen has increased to toxic levels. Gulf fisheries are in great trouble even without the great BP oil spill!

In one Star Trek sci-fi story, an alien refers to humans as "ugly bags of mostly water" -- our bodies are about 60-70% water, depending upon how dehydrated we are at any given time. Humans use massive amounts of freshwater to drink, cook, bathe, flush toilets, do laundry, fill swimming pools, irrigate yards and gardens, run flowing fountains, and for recreation. Precious clean water is often wasted, such as when people leave tap water running while washing their hands or brushing their teeth. The personal water consumption of an average American is about 200 gallons per day, but when industrial and energy usage is added in, per capita freshwater usage is ten times that, more than 2000 gallons per person per day. Struggling poor people in third world countries use much less water, of course.

Most freshwater is claimed or "owned" and there is not enough to go around. Approximately half of the world's population of people do not even have adequate access to clean drinking water. One of the major symptoms of the human overpopulation crisis is shortages of available fresh water. Wars have been and will continue to be fought over water.

Last updated 11 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka