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At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.
The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They include the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.
Technology can potentially provide solutions to many of the environmental problems we face today. But technological innovations often come with unforeseen consequences. Pierrehumbert said we should be wary of becoming too dependent on technological fixes for global challenges.
“The trends are toward layering on more and more technology so that we are more and more dependent on our technological systems to live outside these boundaries,” he said. “It becomes more and more like living on a spaceship than living on a planet.”
“It becomes more and more like living on a spaceship than living on a planet.”
The Earth has faced shocks before, and the biosphere has always recovered. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the planet apparently froze over — becoming “Snowball Earth.” About 66 million years ago, it was jolted by a mountain-sized rock from space that killed half the species on the planet, including the non-avian dinosaurs. Life on Earth always bounced back from these shocks.
“The planet is going to take care of itself. It’s going to be here,” Richardson said.
“There’s a lot of emotion involved in this. If you think about it, the American ethic is, ‘The sky’s the limit.’ And here you have people coming on and saying, no it isn’t, the Earth’s the limit,” she said.