Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Bionic Earth - Tipping Toward Biological or Mechanical?

This month NASA released a new photo of Earth, taken by the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite. The satellite was launched in February, 2015 and actually orbits the Earth at a distance 4 times further out than the orbit of the moon. The image, below, is the first taken of the entire sunlit side of the Earth since the Apollo 17 mission took the iconic "blue marble" photo of Earth in 1972.


Data from the satellite will be used to measure ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, cloud height, vegetation properties, and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. NASA will use this data to, for example, develop dust and volcanic ash maps of the entire planet.

When you view the Earth from this distance, it seems like nothing more than a biological system. The greens hues are clearly the result of photosynthesis. The blue water is a resource that intelligent entities are likely to know is essential to life. And so even though you cannot identify any organism in particular, you can tell that earth is alive. And while this observation is nothing new, it is useful to be reminded of Earth's unique status as the only planet we know of that harbors life - especially since the image can be very different once you land on Earth's surface. Once at the surface, places may very well look something like this...


....or this...


In fact, images from further out demonstrate that more than biological processes are taking place. Consider space junk (note that the satellites in the below rendering are not actually that big, but rather are drawn larger to aid observation)...


Or, the earth at night, demonstrating the generation of electricity through technical means...


While humans are obviously biological entities, we undertake a great deal of mechanical, technological activity. The term "bionic" simply means "having artificial body parts, especially electromechanical ones." It seems clear that allowing the Earth to go down the road seen in the Matrix or Terminator movies would be a bad move. We cannot replace all of the biological systems upon which we depend with human made systems and maintain any meaningful quality of life. And it seems clear also that each small loss of biological processes on earth - though perhaps individually insignificant - reduces long term human well being when those losses are aggregated in an increasing manner (obviously if those losses are being offset by gains elsewhere, then that changes the analysis).

For these reasons I am increasingly perplexed by the tendency, even in environmental legal scholarship, for those who are environmentally concerned to advocate for tepid responses to what amounts to a global biological crisis (an observation that is admittedly anecdotal, from my review of environmental scholarship over the last decade). In the name of being nuanced, fair, balanced, and thoughtful, scholars too often understate what is needed to forestall tipping the scales too far toward a mechanical Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - at the forefront of sounding the alarm on climate change - has even been accused of responding too conservatively to the science. Apparently we have a tendency to temper the truth for fear that we will lose the audience - a large portion of which does not want to hear the truth. In this way, advocates also allow the practical difficulties of implementing the policies they would suggest get in the way of their advocacy. They see local government capture or state government self-interest or federal government constitutional constraints as rendering some policy responses not even worth advocating for. I fundamentally disagree. Over the next few years I plan to explore in my scholarship ways in which we can strike a better symbiosis between biological and mechanical systems within the context of land use planning. And some of those suggestions, while Sw1060712cd_lrnothing new, are fairly radical in nature. I believe we need to take drastic action to curb urban sprawl and other land-use maladies if we are to maintain adequate biological systems for generations to come.

Recently, I have attempted to determine what bothers me so much about the replacement of natural capital in our land use activities. I recently had an executive with Southwestern Energy speak to my environmental law class. I asked him which federal statutes he would most like to see amended or changed. I thought he would say the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act because of the sheer complexity and costs of meeting all of the technological requirements of those statutes. Instead, he said the Endangered Species Act and section 404 of the Clean Water Act (dealing with wetland fill permitting). In some ways, this is why industrial pollution per se doesn't bother me as much as the clearing of land. With enough investment there will always be technological fixes to pollution, if we are willing to spend the money and forgo the short-term benefits. The responses and controls are infinite and limited only by human ingenuity, which itself is not easily limited. But there is only a finite amount of land. This is why some of the policies that are most severely needed to maintain Earth's biological systems are also the most controversial. Telling people they cannot develop a parcel of land or a certain percentage of a parcel of land often does not go over very well. But that is exactly what is needed. We have to do a better job through land use planning of saving biological spaces, and concentrating mechanical spaces in smaller areas. Otherwise, we end up with a mishmash - a bionic system that is increasingly becoming mechanized.

In the end, we can be thoughtful, acknowledge that progress and economic development need to take place, and still feel very strongly about where and how that development should proceed. If we don't move away from tepid suggestions and toward an acknowledgement of the reality of what we are doing to the Earth's land base, we will likely find ourselves living in a world of reduced richness and that looks very different through the lens of future satellites.


- Blake Hudson

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