Unexpected Consequences

There’s an article in this week’s New Scientist (12th April 2008, p17) by William Laurance from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute entitled “Expect the unexpected” which I thought was really interesting. He talks about some of the unexpected ways in which we’re damaging the planet.

Take biofuels. Many countries, including the USA, have promoted biofuels as alternatives to using fossil fuels. Why? Because when you grow corn, the plant will “breathe in” carbon dioxide. When you put it into your car and burn it, it’ll release an equal amount of CO2. So biofuels are supposed to be carbon neutral and won’t contribute to climate change.

In order to encourage people to use biofuels, governments have subsidised them. In essence, they tell farmers that they’ll give them an additional amount of money for every gallon of biofuel they produce, on top of the amount of money they sell it for. This encourages farmers to produce biofuel because they can earn more money from it: basic economics.

So what’s been the effect of this? Well, US farmers have switched from growing soya to growing corn. This made soya more scarce and drove up the price of soya across the world. The higher soya prices then acts as an incentive to others to produce soya; you can now make more money by selling soya.

That’s lead to deforestation in the Amazon in order to clear the way for soya production. And the deforestation has lead to forest fires.

In the Amazon, the trees help to generate their own rainfall. Why? Rain falls and the dense vegetation quickly recycles the moisture, returning it to the atmosphere so it’ll rain again. As deforestation continues, less water vapour is recycled. That means less rain in the future: a feedback loop.

Anyway, I won’t repeat the entire contents of the article as Laurance gives many other examples of unexpected consequences of rising demand for wooden furniture, logging and fishing.

It does really make you think about how everything in the world can be linked together in so many ways and all impact upon each another. In some of my own physics research, I found that an increase in global temperature would lead to a greater occurrence of lightning. Effects of lightning? Forest fires may be created and nitric oxides are produced. A significant number of forest fires could reduce CO2 absorption. Nitric oxides are fertilisers: could this lead to better forest growth? Nitric oxides also lead to the production of ozone in the atmosphere which is a greenhouse gas. More greenhouse gases = further global warming. Did anybody expect that?

The fact is there are just so many different interlinked processes going on in the world around us. It reminds me slightly of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis:

The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis that proposes that living and nonliving parts of the earth are a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism. Named after the Greek earth goddess, this hypothesis postulates that all living things have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that promotes life overall.

It’s a controversial theory. Says Lovelock on climate change:

He says the global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, is simply an attempt to appease a self-regulating Earth system.

Professor Lovelock thinks the Earth’s attempts to restore its equilibrium may eliminate civilisation and most humans.

He wants a rapid end to the destruction of natural habitats, which he says are key to planetary climate and chemistry.

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