The human-inhabited Earth is a complex adaptive system dashing towards an irreversible tipping point
Earth as a complex system: Feedback loops and tipping points
Far more than the sum of its parts, the Earth is a living, breathing, dynamically self-organizing organism: A complex adaptive system (1), it is endowed with diverse and interdependent entities that interact in time and space, feedback loops between these, and systems-level tipping points. A reinforcing loop results in change in one direction being compounded by more change, while a balancing loop results in change one direction being countered by change in the opposite direction (2) – in an ecosystem for example, predators act as balancing loops on prey, keeping populations in check. If reinforcing loops are too strong or balancing loops too weak – as a result of internal and external pressures on a system – a complex system may enter a threshold-dependent critical transition associated with abrupt, irreversible shifts in both form and function (3) – a tipping point.
To date, anthropogenic critical transitions have been documented in a variety of real-world systems, including coral reefs, lakes, savanna grasslands, and – at the largest scale – the global climate (4–7). In particular, both the Greenland ice sheet and the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, the system of surface and deep Atlantic Ocean currents that distribute heat globally, may now be “close to a critical transition” (8,9). The Amazon rainforest, Arctic tundra, and boreal forests are also rapidly losing the carbon they store, driving a spiral of further heating (10), while European forests may have already reached their own tipping point (11,12). Two properties make these dynamics particularly pernicious: 1) within the system itself, the slow dysregulation of feedback loops tends to remain insufficiently noticed until the actual critical transition occurs – meaning these tend to occur abruptly and unexpectedly, and 2) effects on Earth systems are synergistic, meaning that the damage incurred is not added but multiplied – and one tipping to a different state could trigger the tipping of others. Consequences are rapid and catastrophic. As a result, warns environmental reporter George Monbiot, “Earth systems could tip before 2050”.
Traditional conservation and climate policies have emerged, step-wise, in response to a growing awareness of Earth systems threats
Conservation and climate change policy: A brief timeline
- 17th and 18th centuries, Europe: Stemming from concerns about the degraded sate of British forests and timber shortages, the first call for their preservation and the replenishment of new tree canopy, widely considered one of the most important precursors of contemporary conservation initiatives, was presented to the UK’s Royal society in 1662 (13). Later in Europe, in response to teak trees being used to build ships during the Napoleonic Wars, the first conservation laws were laid forth, establishing a minimum legal size to fell a teak tree.
- 19th century, US: The over-hunting of bison, buffalo and birds of prey, alongside increased urbanization and industrialization, led to a large number of species brushing up against extinction. In 1872, the US’ first national park was established as Yellowstone National Park. In 1887, Roosevelt established the Boone and Crockett Club to promote the conservation and management of wildlife, shortly thereafter setting up a global game depository, “in memory of the vanishing big game of the world” (14). Roosevelt’s presidency saw 230 million acres of land being placed under federal protection, the establishment of the US Forestry Service, and the creation of five national parks and several national forests.
- 20th century, US: Menaced national emblem of the US, the bald eagle was given legal protection by the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which criminalized any attempt to take, possess, or sell a bald eagle – the first of its kind. Thereafter in the 1960s, Kennedy introduced the Clean Air Act to reduce and control air pollution nationwide – one of a number of new legislations in developed nations with heavy industry (15). In 1964, the Wilderness Act sought to protect large swaths of land with minimal human impact and of particular cultural, scientific, or natural interest (16). As conservation and species extinctions were increasingly found to be directly linked to climate change, the greenhouse effect, toxic spillages and nuclear testing, Nixon inaugurated the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Shortly thereafter in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed, protecting critical habitat areas and developing recovery plans for key species.
- 20th century, International: In 1964, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) first generated an official list of species facing extinction (17). In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to serve as the most important source of scientific and socioeconomic data on climate change for the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 1992, in response to environmental pollution and loss of species and natural habitats, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was established, seeking for the 2010-2020 period to “halt the loss of biodiversity” by 2020 (18). In 1997, the IPCC’s COP3 passed the Kyoto Protocol, laying forth the first legally binding greenhouse gas reduction goals – implementing the objective of the UNFCCC to reduce the onset of global warming by minimize greenhouse gas concentrations to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
- 21st century, International: In 2015, the COP21 adopted the Paris Agreement with the long-term goal of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions to maintain the mean global temperature far below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were developed in parallel, providing a holistic, global strategy combining social inclusion, economic development, and environmental sustainability.
- 2021, US and International: In the US, the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, an amalgamation of public land protection bills across the West that would protect over 4 million acres of public lands, awaits Congressional approval (19). At a global scale, the UN’s COP26 conference in Glasgow has stated priorities focused on decarbonizing the global economy and protecting communities and ecosystems – including ending deforestation by 2030 (20) – while mobilizing the financial, governmental, and societal resources to do so (21).
Today however, the world needs scalable, creative, and multipronged solutions, immediately: Disruptive Conservation
While vital to conservation and climate change efforts, current national and international policies must be buoyed by interventions that 1) shatter current conservation orthodoxy and 2) are immediate and effective by virtue of their bottom-up grassroots and apolitical nature. To this end, solutions must be:
- Nonlinear and scalable
The Earth is a complex, adaptive system – the nonlinear nature of which must be matched by policies. To this point, certain climate policies committing to 2.9°C of global heating (when catastrophic changes may occur at even 2°C) remain, while crucial, insufficient (22). Relatedly, solutions must be scalable – while critical, the scalability of methods such as carbon capture and storage stays “subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints,” according to the IPCC (23). In contrast, an approach to conservation – for example based on genetic technologies such as genetic sequencing and engineering – is, by nature, scalable: promising to capture, understand, optimize and preserve the essence of what is under imminent threat (the perpetuation of genetic information in the form of living organisms) – at scale and ad infinitum. Further, the next-generation technologies that underpin disruptive conservation strategies, such as high throughput DNA sequencing, CRISPR editing, and advanced techniques of synthetic and reproductive biology, can be deployed at scale by virtue of their self-reinforcing nature: innovations spur innovations, yielding theoretically infinite potential in their applicability to conservation and climate change.
- Creative and innovative
The recombination of distant knowledge is essential to creativity: breakthrough solutions will require divergent, out of the box, imagination-centric thinking (24). In complement, higher levels of abstraction spur disruptive innovation: we need to be considering solutions in the context of both a bolder and broader framework (25) in order to best galvanize the development, adoption, and fluid recombination of new technologies – including with direct regard to genetic engineering, genetic reconciliation, and species extension (26). As Colossal Biosciences bioethicist Alta Charro comments, “With creativity, caution, and consultation, ethical use of modern genetic technologies can help stabilize ecosystems while bringing the animals and plants who share our planet back from the brink of extinction.”
Strong diversity underpins system resilience and persistence, ensuring long-term fitness and survival (27–29): as regards conservation strategies, this means that we need a multitude of strategies to maximize chances of success. Disruptive conservation transcends conservation and climate change policy silos, addressing wildlife, wild spaces, cultural zeitgeist, and so much more – all pillars of a powerful and resilient fight for a sustainably biodiverse Earth. In species conservation in particular, interventions should preempt threats and respond in a broad-reaching, overarching manner – such as, rather than playing catch up with one threatened species at a time, by preserving all species – past, present, and future.
Finally, we need to act now. IUCN records show that 38% of all species are on the verge of extinction while 20% are in danger of complete extinction. Warns Monbiot: “To risk irreversible change by proceeding at such a leisurely pace, to rely on undelivered technologies and non-existent capacities: this is a formula for catastrophe.” (30)
The budding successes and long-term promise of Disruptive Conservation
Derived from the Latin disruptus, to “break apart, split, shatter” (31), disruptive conservation by definition reflects the ethical use of next-generation technologies to accelerate animal and ecosystem preservation – disturbing complacency and challenging the status quo while offering nonlinear, scalable, creative, multipronged and immediate solutions to conservation and climate change threats. To this end, disruptive conservation has recently been met with a series of budding successes, in particular in marine environments – through both the development of protected areas and the adoption of disruptive technologies, such as satellite-based fishing monitoring and DNA-based tracking (32). The 2020 IUCN congress corroborated that the future is, indeed, disruptive. As highlights Colossal Biosciences lead scientist George Church, “Traditional conservation efforts, while vital, have been slowly losing ground – [disruptive conservation in the form of] species de-extinction and preservation through gene editing technology represents an exciting and tangible new movement in science and conservation.”
Disruptive Conservation as a constructive balancing force
In the end, disruptive conservation initiatives including de-extinction, rewilding, and genetic reconciliation offer the chance to introduce a powerful balancing feedback loop into the complex system that is Earth – immediately reversing our destructive course. Colossal Biosciences CEO Ben Lamm concludes: “We are at an inflection point in humanity’s history where we need to ask ourselves deeply if this is the world we want to live in. The world I want to live in is one with an endless amount of species in a diverse and balanced world. Colossal is focused on that: balancing a world that humans have destroyed.”
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