Saturday, September 14, 2019

A New Paradigm for the Earth's Ecosystem: Anastassia Makarieva Speaks about the Biotic Pump in Florence


Everything began with the idea of Charles Darwin of "evolution by natural selection." It was a dangerous idea according to Daniel Dennett, but there was nothing dangerous in it unless you misunderstood it. And we know how it was misunderstood by the various suprematists, racists, white-supremacists, white-man-burdenists, and the like. But Darwin's idea was simple: the biosphere is not static but adapts to changes in the ecosystem. That's all. There is no species in the biosphere that is superior to other species, there is no collective movement towards some kind of "progress" - nothing of the kind. Everything changes to keep the biosphere alive.

Among other things, Darwin's idea (dangerous or not) was the first attempt to understand the functioning of complex systems - among which one of the most complex is the planetary ecosystem. Curiously, the human brain, itself a complex system, often finds it difficult to understand complex systems, there must be some profound reason for this, but let's skip the subject. Rather, the concepts proposed by Darwin have also evolved - or adapted - in time. We are beginning to understand that it is not enough to say that the biosphere adapts to changes, is too simple. This is not how complex systems work. They work through the mechanisms we call feedback where each element of the system influences others.

The step forward came from James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis with their concept of Gaia, a name that describes the fact that the biosphere adapts to changes in the ecosystem and at the same time generates changes in the ecosystem. The adaptation is mutual and two-way. Feedback, in essence.

The concept of Gaia is even more dangerous than that of Darwinian evolution: you can use it as an easy excuse to say that it doesn't matter what we do to the ecosystem, Mother Gaia will take care of everything. Yeah, sure...  But the main problem seems to be that in the current debate opinion leaders are unable to understand the concept of self-regulation of the ecosystem. The debate is broken up into inconsistent and partially (or totally) incompatible ideas. A good example is what is being done in Tuscany, in Italy, where the regional government is declaring the climate emergency while at the same time promoting the construction of a new international airport in Florence. We just can't make it.

But these ideas of ecosystemic regulation are very powerful. If we ever succeed in making them part of the current culture, they offer us the possibility of maneuvering human action within the biosphere and the ecosphere at least limiting the damage, if possible in mutual harmony. At the moment it seems totally impossible, but everything changes and those who don't adapt disappear - as Darwin taught us.

We come now to the work of Gorshkov, Makarieva, and others, who over a couple of decades have developed the concept they call "biotic regulation."  It is a concept similar to that proposed earlier on by Lovelock and Margulis, although Makarieva and Gorshkov are keen to point out that it is not the same thing. Sometimes (but erroneously) Gaia is understood as a "superorganism," a form of biological life. Gaia is not that, but let's skip this topic.

The concept of biotic regulation is a profound synthesis of how the ecosphere works: it emphasizes its regulating power that keeps the ecosystem from straying away from the conditions that make it possible for biological life to exist. From this work comes the idea that the ecosystemic imbalance we call "climate change" is caused only in part by CO2 emissions. Another important factor is the ongoing deforestation.

This is, of course, a controversial position - not to say heretical. Just last week, I read a comment from an Italian climatologist who explicitly said: "The climate crisis is NOT caused by the lack of trees." This would seem to be the prevailing opinion among climatologists in the West, although studies exist (see for example this article in Science of 2016) that show exactly the opposite. The forests cool the Earth not only by sequestering carbon in the form of biomass but because of a biophysical effect related to evapotranspiration. That is, the water evaporates at low altitude from the leaves, causing cooling. It returns the heat when it condenses in the form of clouds, but the heat emissions at high altitudes are more easily dispersed towards space because the main greenhouse gas, the water, exists in very small concentrations. 

Included in the concept of biotic regulation we find the concept of "biotic pump," developed by Gorshkov and Makarieva in 2012, stating that the forests act as "planetary pumping systems" carrying water from the atmosphere above the oceans up to thousands of kilometers inland. The biotic pump mechanism is controversial but, evidently, there must be something that brings water so far into the continents.

Now, everything depends on quantitative factors that are still little known. But, if it is true that the climate is linked in an important way to the forests, and consequently to the biotic pump, then by doing what we are doing to the forests (think of the Amazons), we are destroying one of the fundamental mechanisms of self-regulation of the terrestrial ecosystem. In other words, to fight climate change it is not enough to cut CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but it is also necessary to reconstitute the forests in an intact form.

The situation is seen as worrisome by a group of Russian researchers who recently produced a document in which they recommend
the care of natural ecosystems and stopping deforestation as the main way to combat climate change. In the document, they refer to fossil fuels with a statement that seems to echo the recent piece by Franzen in the New Yorker, "what if we stopped pretending?" That is, they say, "there are objective technological reasons prohibiting the scenario when our civilization would give up using fossil fuels." Then, they go on, saying,
In such a situation, a complex approach to climate problems is necessary - the one not confined to attempts of curbing the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions like a transition to renewable energy sources, removal of the already accumulated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by technological means etc. The complex approach must include restoration and protection of natural systems as a major measure, since their degradation can lead to a climatic collapse irrespective of whether fossil fuel burning continues or not. Any considerable strategic solutions will demand huge resources from the humanity. So such solutions should be mutually consistent otherwise the climate situation will just aggravate (for example, increasing the biofuel production can lead to an intensification of deforestation).
Of course, right now, anything coming from Russia is considered propaganda, if not directly contaminated with Novichok. So, the first knee-jerk reaction to this document is likely to be ideological: of course, we have been told that Russia is little more than a service station disguised as a state, so this document can't be anything but a trick to maintain the profits of the Russian oil oligarchs and their great leader, the arch-villain Vladimir Putin.

But are we sure? That is, can we deny that climate change is not just a problem of CO2 but also of other factors related to the mistreatments we are inflicting on the ecosystem? Can we keep the fiction that all we need to do to stop global warming is a carbon tax or some similar trick? Don't we need to rethink our strategies and admit that, if our approach hasn't worked so far, it will never work? Can we learn something important from Russia? And, if this is the case, does restoring the forests give us a way to at least contain the major damage we are creating by using fossil fuels?

Whatever the case, there is a clear perception gap in the way the situation is seen in the West and in Russia. And we have to understand each other if we are to do something to try to stop the upcoming disaster. We talk about this subject with Anastassia Makarieva in Florence on September 17th. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)