Throughout the ongoing debate about exactly how, to what extent, and the ethical implications, the indisputable fact remains that humankind has altered the planet. Back when the human population was only a few thousand strong and agriculture and cooked food were the latest inventions, it was easy for the Joneses to pick up and move camp when the water ran dry, the soil stopped producing tasty wheat, or the garbage piled too high in the backyard. The same can’t be said for the populations of world cities today.
Advances in public health, industry, and agriculture have blown the human population out of the brush. There will soon be 9 billion people on the face of planet Earth! Coupled with rising affluence, our ballooning population’s resource consumption and waste outputs are wrecking havoc on natural systems. New research (see several links below for more info) suggests that within a fixed amount of space, humankind is in danger of causing our own extinction and the only way out is to discard traditional ideas of industrialization and embrace sustainability.
Courtesy Go Gratitude
The first step to bailing out humankind is to investigate how close to failure the world actually is. This was the point of a recent international collaboration: to calculate safe limits for pivotal environmental processes. The key idea here is that of “tipping points,” which can be thought of as thresholds or breaking points. Think about being pestered by your brother or sister: aren’t you able to put up with the annoyance for even a little while before you get so upset you retaliate? That’s your tipping point – the last straw that put you over the edge.
Led by Stockholm Resilience Center’s Johan Rockstrom, a group of European, Australian, and American scientists – including the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s director, Jonathan Foley – identified nine processes reaching their tipping points. Three (climate change, nutrient cycles, and biodiversity loss) have already been pushed past their tipping points, four (ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater use, and land use) are approaching their tipping points, and two (aerosol loading and chemical pollution) do not yet have identified tipping points because they require more research. The Institute on the Environment recently released a YouTube video addressing the conclusion of this new research:
Blissfully, there are things we can do to stop hurting the planet and begin patching its wounds. According to Foley’s article, we can’t let ourselves get any closer to the tipping points and piecemeal solutions won’t cut it because of the interconnectedness of the issues. Instead, we should focus on switching to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, stopping deforestation, and rethinking our approaches to agriculture.
The conclusions of this research have been well-accepted, but there has been some criticisms for 1) attempting to establish tipping points at all, and 2) for the appropriateness of the establish tipping points. If you would like more information, including commentaries, please check out the following sources:
Article in Nature: A safe operating space for humanity
Article in Scientific American: Boundaries for a Health Planet
Article in Ecology and Society: Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity
Two questions to consider as you watch the YouTube video and take a look through the links and articles referenced above are:
1) What are the consequences of being past our tipping points?
2) How do the solutions discussed prevent us from reaching tipping points?
You are encouraged to post your thoughtful answers below!
Courtesy isadoYou heard it here first, folks, unless you heard it somewhere else already: There are a ton of really old people in Japan. And when I say really old, I mean older than 100 years old. And when I say a ton of people, I mean more than 40,000 people. Considering that the average weight for a Japanese centenarian (people over 100) is about 110-118 pounds, “a ton” is really way too small an amount. There are actually about 2,280 tons of really old people in Japan.
Although the US still blows Japan out of the water with the number of 100+ people in the country (We’re creeping up on 100,000. USA! USA!), your chances of living to be a super old dude or lady are much higher if you’ve lived your life in Japan. And people on the Japanese island of Okinawa are five times more likely to live to be 100 than even the rest of the Japanese population.
Plenty of research has been done on centenarians to isolate what factors might have allowed them to live for so long, and… the results aren’t super surprising. Certain genes are associated with long life, but so are certain diets and certain lifestyles. Basically, if you want to live to be one hundred, you should walk a lot, think a lot, poop a lot, don’t eat a lot, and hope your parents live to be one hundred. Or you could just start counting your age in dog years.
What are the genetic and environmental factors that impact human health and disease? Researchers in the United Kingdom are trying to find out, in an ethical way, through a long-term research project they hope will improve the health of future generations.
Unprecedented research project
Biobank, as the project is called, will ask 500,000 volunteers to fill out a lifestyle questionnaire and donate blood and urine samples. Over the next 20 to 30 years, the information will be tracked against medical records so that researchers can study the connection between the participants' genes, lifestyles, and the diseases and conditions they may develop.
Potential benefits versus ethical concerns
Scientists hope to use the information to learn how our genes and environment interact over the years to cause illness, and to develop new methods to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.
But a project like this raises significant privacy concerns. To protect the participants, Biobank will encrypt the data it collects and make it anonymous so that it can't be traced back to the donor. In addition, only researchers approved by Biobank's ethics board will be able to use the information.