It's a Small World
Spring 2011

Science and Environment

It’s a Small World

Dan Cloer

Celebrating the establishment of the International Association of Chemical Societies as well as Marie Curie’s 1911 Nobel Prize, the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of Chemistry. The theme, “Chemistry: Our Life, Our Future,” may be significant in more ways than sloganeers intended: after a century of chemical tinkering, we wield the two-edged sword of our increasing knowledge ever more boldly. How might our dreams of a synthetic utopia end? 

Once upon a time, life on earth reached a critical point: it had eaten itself into a corner. The growing population had unwittingly consumed its energy resources faster than they could be renewed. It was the first ecological crisis. If there had been headlines at the time (or eyes to read them), they might have exclaimed, “Buried in Our Own Waste; Miracle to Restore Food Is Only Hope!”

Fortunately for all of us (according to the mainstream story of evolution), that miracle did occur. It was called photosynthesis.

Life’s first misunderstanding of environmental cause and effect is known as the heterotroph hypothesis. It says that almost 4 billion years ago the first bacteria-like cells on earth were consumers, feeding on the ambient organic nutrients in the primordial soup in which they lived. Of course, the cells did not know this food resource was nonrenewable, nor was there an environmental protection agency to point out the inherent flaws in their system. If food is churned into waste, and the waste is never cycled back to food, then trouble is brewing. But who knew?

If we imagine Barry Commoner having written as a single-celled ecologist about 3.5 billion years ago, we might read something very like his later discussion of overstepping natural boundaries. Concurrent with the first Earth Day celebrations and an awakening of the ecological mind-set in 1971, he wrote, “The total rate of exploitation of the earth’s ecosystem has some upper limit, which reflects the intrinsic limit of the ecosystem’s turnover rate. If this rate is exceeded, the system is eventually driven to collapse.”

The savior of those first organisms was not knowledge, nor was it the revival of an ecological ethic; according to the evolutionary story, it was a bio-technological revolution that came out of nowhere. The new chemical pathways of photosynthesis brought miraculous changes to the planet. “The world,” writes paleontologist Richard Fortey of this time period, “was growing into an interconnected web of life, chemistry, oceans and geology. . . . Life made the surface of the Earth what it is, even while it was Earth’s tenant.”

Photosynthesis cultivated a new type of environment as well as a biochemical means to recycle carbon back into the primitive food chain. The process absorbs carbon dioxide and builds sugars, the carbon backbone of the biosphere’s energy economy. Oxygen is released as a waste product. An ecosystem of dependence between consumers (who used the oxygen to enhance the release of energy from carbohydrates) and producers (who built the carbohydrates) had begun.

As the story continues, this change in composition of the atmosphere then gave rise to the ultraviolet-shielding ozone layer. In time this filter protected the generation of more complex forms of life. By 600 million years ago or so, multicellular life was abundant enough to leave its traces in the fossil record. The mysterious time period called the Cambrian Explosion of life had begun.

Our existence today, from the evolutionary perspective, hinges on these ancient biologic events.

Mind Over Matter

Early chemist William Prout (1785–1850) argued that the elements follow their own set of miraculous rules to make life possible. “Instead of jarring and clashing which might have been expected from so many conflicting elements, . . . the general result has been, that all have finally settled down together into that harmonious state of equilibrium . . . so admirably adapted for the existence of organic life.”

These rules, Prout insisted, are “sprung from the will of an intelligent and omnipotent Creator. . . . When we see adjustments so wonderful, and such wisdom displayed in those parts of creation which are intelligible to us, we cannot imagine that the Being who made them all would act otherwise than with wisdom.” As the prophet Isaiah wrote even earlier, the Creator did not design the earth to fail (Isaiah 45:18).

Whether the planet’s biochemical beginnings are the result of design or chance, the historical details remain sketchy and under intense scrutiny by researchers. The role of chemistry—the chemical basis of life and of environmental stability—is unquestioned. Great mysteries remain, the question of life itself being most prominent. We may have a good elementary model of the atom: its protons, neutrons and electrons are now primary-school topics. And chemists have a very good working sense of how atoms interact. Fortey notes, however, that “life is not just a matter of chemistry: it is a cooperation between molecules to produce a consequence infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.”

While there remains much to learn, we have put what we do know to fantastic technological use: in the last century we have refashioned the world according to our chemical imagination. The United Nations designation of 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) is an acknowledgment of human genius at understanding the chemical basis of our world and making hands-on, practical use of that knowledge. Chemistry (and of course physics, which describes the rules of atomic structure) is at the heart of technological progress. As one textbook says, “the study of chemistry is the study of our society itself. Examining either without an understanding of the other leaves a void of ignorance about the modern world.”

Chemistry Rules

The IYC is based on the benchmark year of 1911 because of two historic events. First, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She had already won the 1903 prize for physics—the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. To earn two was even more remarkable. (See “Marie Curie: Blazing a Trail.”) Second, the Conseil Solvay, the first-ever physics conference, was convened 100 years ago. Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay invited the world’s top physicists, a who’s-who of the day including Curie, Albert Einstein, Henri Poincaré and Ernest Rutherford among others. The conseils have met regularly ever since and are today perhaps the best-known international conferences in physics and chemistry.

Dissecting the physically invisible basis of existence began long before 1911, however. In the early 1800s, John Dalton provided a fundamental understanding of how materials operate chemically: like children’s interlocking blocks, physical matter is built through the interconnections of smaller subunits. In a sense anything—a rock, a tree, a person—can be reduced to a collection of chemically indivisible parts. These elemental parts, the atoms themselves, are conserved and used over and over again. Chemistry is the study of where they go, how they interact, and how the properties of individual materials shift and morph into new properties when combined in new linkages. The big world is made of the small.

All of this interplay, as Dalton discovered, can be measured and predicted. Such quantitative analysis is the heart of the modern synthetic world. We catalog our chemical sense on the Periodic Table. A major breakthrough of the late 1800s, its 92 natural atoms comprise what could be called the list of ingredients to build a universe. That grid of symbolic letters and cryptic numbers provides us with predictive insight. All that is, in a material sense, is found here; this is where the micro- and macrocosm meet. Just as the alphabet is the basis of every written work, so the Periodic Table signifies the atomic beginnings of all that exists or can be manufactured in the physical realm.

A 1921 secondary school text summed up the optimism associated with our expanding understanding of chemistry: “An inevitable duty has fallen to us to present the changes in our national appreciation of the importance of chemistry brought about by the Great War. We find in it not so much the opportunity to depict the horrors of poison gases and frightful explosives, as to point out the constructive effect of the national realization, under pressure of necessity, of our own ability to supply our human needs, and thus to emphasize the fact that chemistry has not yet exhausted its ability to make humanity live better.”

The authors’ conclusion continues to carry us forward: “Where there is a chemical will, there is, perhaps, also a chemical way.”

Our Synthetic World

The chemical world we have created over the last century is part of what the IYC celebrates. Without the knowledge of how stuff works, of the chemistry of matter and the physics of matter’s interactions, little of what we see around us today would exist. Synthetics, by definition humanly invented materials that do not exist in nature, are the bedrock of the modern world. If one imagines plucking out all plastic, polyester, nylon, microfibers, fiberglass, polyvinyls, polyurethanes and epoxies, there would be little left.

The chemical signature of our activities, and in fact life on earth in general, has the capacity to be planet-changing. Our impact has simply been greatly accelerated over the past century. Does this matter? The real question is whether the gains are worth the costs. But we are only now beginning to understand the costs. “Everything must go somewhere,” Commoner noted, reminding us that the materials we create using our chemical know-how never disappear. A 2006 study regarding the mix of 100-plus “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) infused into vehicles to give them that new-car smell noted that “the public is constantly in contact with a wide variety of potentially harmful VOC’s due to cleaning supplies, lubricants and fuel by-products. Because of the potential toxic nature of many of these compounds, additional knowledge of the levels of these organic compounds in the car’s interior is required in order to determine human health impacts.” 

Findings such as this have led to legislation requiring that businesses post warnings of ambient VOCs and other low-level toxins. But placing a placard neither reduces toxicity nor changes practice. Or is this just an unnecessary response to the increasing level of technological sophistication for detecting ever-smaller amounts of contaminants? Does the enhanced ability to discover various chemicals in, for example, the blood of pregnant women indicate danger?

Just as the jury is still out on the cause of the worldwide decline of amphibian populations and the more recent mass deaths of bees and birds, so science cannot directly connect effect and cause in a world interlaced with synthetics. While individual chemicals are tested for their potential harm, the possible effect of multiple chemicals remains a mystery. This has not gone unnoticed. But because of the size of the problem, even the most concerned scientists are skeptical of successfully overcoming it. A 2009 international report notes that “widening the approach from a few well-studied pollutants would require determination of critical effects for each chemical or chemical group, which is a gigantic task and would require identification of thresholds associated with mixtures of chemicals, an equally daunting challenge” (“Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”).

Even with all that we have done, our technological/chemical innovation is still in its infancy. The synthetic chemical industry is morphing into the bio-synthetic industry. The business of inorganic chemistry will remain, of course, but the new era of modifying living things to make new chemicals is on the horizon. “Until now,” Princeton University researchers noted in a 2011 paper published by the Public Library of Science, “most advances in synthetic biology have relied on collections of parts—genes, proteins, and regulatory elements—derived from sequences that already exist in nature.” They ask, “Must the toolkit of life be so restricted?”

Such remarks present an interesting contrast to more cautious voices. In what they called a “proof-of-concept paper,” the 29 coauthors of the “Planetary Boundaries” document outline nine key factors that appear to be critical for planetary equilibrium but are under human assault. Using a term coined by Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen to indicate the new age of man’s influence on the planet, they write: “The Anthropocene raises a new question: ‘What are the non-negotiable planetary preconditions that humanity needs to respect in order to avoid the risk of deleterious or even catastrophic environmental change at continental to global scales?’” (See “A Change in the Air.”) 

They argue that exceeding the boundaries of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, ozone, fresh and salt water, land, and plant and animal life will have consequences that cannot be easily remedied: “The thresholds in key Earth System processes exist irrespective of peoples’ preferences, values, or compromises based on political and socioeconomic feasibility.”

Unintended Consequences

In The Logic of Failure, often considered a classic look at the problem of unintended consequences, Dietrich Dörner describes the dilemma. When we conduct an experiment, or in other words carry a certain plan forward, one imagines it would be normal to monitor the results. It seems natural that “even negative results provide us a chance to apply correctives and in that way help us improve our future behavior.” But this may not be so normal. Dörner’s next comment, “Or so one would think,” implies human obliviousness. But why would we turn away from responsible follow-up?

One way to avoid negative results of our choices (and the realization of incompetence), Dörner says, is to pretend that the future is out of our hands once a decision to go forward has been made—that what happens next is now on a ballistic course out of our further control. Like launching a cannonball (rather than a rocket that can be steered and redirected or even aborted), we develop and execute plans with the assumption that all will go according to those plans. “That is odd,” Dörner writes, “because we would expect that rational people faced with a system they cannot fully understand would seize every chance to learn more about it and would therefore behave ‘nonballistically.’”

But, he continues, “if we never look at the consequences of our behavior, we can always maintain the illusion of our competence. . . . Preserving a positive view of one’s competence contributes significantly to shaping the direction and course of our thought processes.”

Dörner’s conclusions are especially significant as we consider the International Year of Chemistry and the good as well as the poor results that have built up over the last century. At many levels of observation, technology has improved the lives of almost every human on earth to some extent. But we can see only so deeply. And even though the veneer of technological modernity is not all that deep—and is in fact very thin for billions of people—it covers the globe.

Predicting the negative outcomes of those technologies has always been the weakest link in the chain of scientific discoveries. This shortcoming leads to either unforeseen or worse-than-anticipated results. Sometimes even recognizing the true nature of the negatives is challenging. Is man-made climate change a political hoax or a legitimate cause for alarm? Is the alchemy of synthetic chemicals we create and release lost in the vast scale of things “out there,” or are we unwittingly contributing to the dissolution of the natural fabric of the biosphere itself? As an April 2011 conference at Stanford University asked, “How can we connect the dots?” (See “The Missing Dots.”) 

The National Academy of Sciences summarizes the growing concern: “Ecosystem services are the benefits that ecosystems provide, and they result from interactions of plants, animals, and microbes with one another and with the environment. The delivery of ecosystem services is affected by changes in biodiversity, habitat fragmentation and conversion, alterations to biogeochemical cycles, and climate change. The inextricable linkage between human civilization and the ecosystem services upon which it relies is at the core of environmental sustainability.”

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

We are often stumped or out-maneuvered by the complexity of the situations we create. “As a rule we do not give adequate attention to the characteristics of processes that unroll over time,” Dörner writes. “What we did yesterday is lost in the obscurity of the past, and what we ought to do tomorrow is in utter darkness.” Evolutionary psychologists might argue that natural selection has created us with a very short attention span; our motivations focus on immediate reward or punishment.

“Thought is . . . always rooted in values and motivations. We ordinarily think not for the sake of thinking but to achieve certain goals based on our system of values,” says Dörner. He notes, “Our brains are not fundamentally flawed; we have simply developed bad habits. When we fail to solve a problem, we fail because we tend to make a small mistake here, a small mistake there, and these mistakes add up.” Of course, the problem is that we do not recognize the mistakes piling up before disaster occurs.

Once a problem does reveal itself, engineers dissect the chain of failure, following the debris field to piece together the sequence of breakdown. The Challenger and Columbia space shuttle tragedies, the Chernobyl meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon blowout are just the banner events (among many more-subtle failures) signaling times when we lost hold of the reins and our creations spun out of control.

Every driver knows that to drive faster than visibility allows is to invite disaster. During this International Year of Chemistry we should remember that what we don’t know can hurt us, and that a cavalier attitude is risky indeed; the ubiquitous interlacing of our synthetic creations with the natural world has unpredictable consequences. Assuming that all will turn out well because I am satisfied for the moment is dangerous. (See “Looking Uphill.”)  

Too Complex to Predict?

“The basic principles that govern the earth are well established and commonly agreed upon by all scientists,” say the authors of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. They note, however, that this consensus has not brought any sort of unity to the discussion of what should be done now. What must we do based on what we know? They continue, “Although you can go to a bookstore and find books that explain the tenets, principles, and rules for everything from golf and dominoes to taxes, judo, and war, there’s no user’s manual for how to live and operate on the earth, the most important and complex system known.”

Discovering a lens through which one could see the best path forward, thereby minimizing mistakes from the beginning and recognizing them early when straying off the path, would of course be most helpful and effective. In this sense effective would also mean sustainable, good for the long term.

It is this problem of failing to grasp the long-range perspective that is found throughout the human experience; it has been our Achilles’ heel since the Garden of Eden. Knowledge has consequences. Critical errors in judgment and putting short-term gains ahead of long-term results are endemic to us. These are errors of spirit, not simply a deficit in rationality, knowledge or logic. This being so, there are spiritual principles that would shine a light on the path we seek. (See “Precautionary Principles.”) 

As the story of the first bacteria tells us, the chemistry of life itself plays a role in the operating system of the earth; even the little things matter. According to the story, evolution provided the miraculous solution to that early ecological crisis. Certainly everything we know and experience in the world today reveals that all life exists in an intricate chemical balance with the planet itself. In what could be viewed as an inconsistent position, however, scientists put far less faith in the evolutionary process to step in and save us today. Environmental sustainability expert Tim Flannery sums up in his book Here on Earth: “The truth is that no other species can perceive environmental problems or correct them, which means that the responsibility for managing this world of wounds we’ve created is uniquely ours.”

The big picture that emerges from the UN International Year of Chemistry is simple: both individually and collectively, we must behave with care. In the big scheme of things—the wide universe and its uncounted span of galaxies and planets—our sphere of influence is rather small. But in this one place our influence is supreme. While impersonal omega events such as asteroid hits, stellar collapse or tectonic disasters are certainly possible, as the human population increases and our environmental and chemical impact expands proportionately, it is the little choices we make that will add up to make or break our species.

It is a small world after all.