The Earth is getting warmer, and scientists mostly agree that humans bear some blame. It’s easy to see how global warming could flood cities and ruin harvests. More recently, researchers like Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School have raised the alarm that a balmier planet could also assist the spread of infectious disease by providing a more suitable climate for parasites and spreading the range of tropical pathogens (see #8). That could include crop diseases which, combined with substantial climate shifts, might cause famine. Effects could be even more dramatic.
At present, atmospheric gases trap enough heat close to the surface to keep things comfortable. Increase the global temperature a bit, however, and there could be a bad feedback effect, with water evaporating faster, freeing water vapor (a potent greenhouse gas), which traps more heat, which drives carbon dioxide from the rocks, which drives temperatures still higher. Earth could end up much like Venus, where the high on a typical day is 900 degrees Fahrenheit. It would probably take a lot of warming to initiate such a runaway greenhouse effect, but scientists have no clue where exactly the tipping point lies.
Images of slaughtered elephants and burning rain forests capture people’s attention, but the big problem- the overall loss of biodiversity- is a lot less visible and a lot more serious. Billions of years of evolution have produced a world in which every organism’s welfare is intertwined with that of countless other species. A recent study of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior offers an example. Snowy winters encourage wolves to hunt in larger packs, so they kill more moose. The decline in moose population allows more balsam fir saplings to live. The fir trees pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which in turn influences the climate. It’s all connected.
To meet the demands of the growing population, we are clearing land for housing and agriculture, replacing diverse wild plants with just a few varieties of crops, transporting plants and animals, and introducing new chemicals into the environment. At least 30,000 species vanish every year from human activity, which means we are living in the midst of one of the greatest mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale University, sees a number of ways people might upset the delicate checks and balances in the global ecology. New patterns of disease might emerge (see #8), he says, or pollinating insects might become extinct, leading to widespread crop failure. Or as with the wolves of Isle Royale, the consequences might be something we’d never think of, until it’s too late.
While we are extinguishing natural species, we’re also creating new ones through genetic engineering. Genetically modified crops can be hardier, tastier, and more nutritious. Engineered microbes might ease our health problems. And gene therapy offers an elusive promise of fixing fundamental defects in our DNA. Then there are the possible downsides. Although there is no evidence indicating genetically modified foods are unsafe, there are signs that the genes from modified plants can leak out and find their way into other species. Engineered crops might also foster insecticide resistance. Longtime skeptics like Jeremy Rifkin worry that the resulting superweeds and superpests could further destabilize the stressed global ecosystem (see #9). Altered microbes might prove to be unexpectedly difficult to control. Scariest of all is the possibility of the deliberate misuse of biotechnology. A terrorist group or rogue nation might decide that anthrax isn’t nasty enough and then try to put together, say, an airborne version of the Ebola virus. Now there’s a showstopper.
Particle Accelerator Mishap
Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, raved that a particle accelerator experiment could set off a chain reaction that would destroy the world. Surprisingly, many sober-minded physicists have had the same thought. Normally their anxieties come up during private meetings, amidst much scribbling on the backs of used envelopes.
Recently the question went public when London’s Sunday Times reported that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island, New York, might create a subatomic black hole that would slowly nibble away our planet. Alternately, it might create exotic bits of altered matter, called strangelets, that would obliterate whatever ordinary matter they met. To assuage RHIC’s jittery neighbors, the lab’s director convened a panel that rejected both scenarios as pretty much impossible. Just for good measure, the panel also dismissed the possibility that RHIC would trigger a phase transition in the cosmic vacuum energy (see #3).
These kinds of reassurances follow the tradition of the 1942 “LA-602″ report, a once-classified document that explained why the detonation of the first atomic bomb almost surely would not set the atmosphere on fire. The RHIC physicists did not, however, reject the fundamental possibility of the disasters. They argued that their machine isn’t nearly powerful enough to make a black hole or destabilize the vacuum. Oh, well. We can always build a bigger accelerator.
Before you’ve even gotten the keyboard dirty, your home computer is obsolete, largely because of incredibly rapid progress in miniaturizing circuits on silicon chips. Engineers are using the same technology to build crude, atomic-scale machines, inventing a new field as they go called nanotechnology. Within a few decades, maybe sooner, it should be possible to build microscopic robots that can assemble and replicate themselves. They might perform surgery from inside a patient, build any desired product from simple raw materials, or explore other worlds.
All well and good if the technology works as intended. Then again, consider what K. Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute calls the “grey goo problem” in his book Engines of Creation, a cult favorite among the nanotech set. After an industrial accident, he writes, bacteria-sized machines, “could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.” And Drexler is actually a strong proponent of the technology. More pessimistic souls, such as Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, envision nano-machines as the perfect precision military or terrorist tools.
From Donora, Pennsylvania, to Bhopal, India, modern history abounds with frightening examples of the dangers of industrial pollutants. But the poisoning continues. In major cities around the world, the air is thick with diesel particulates, which the National Institutes of Health now considers a carcinogen.
Heavy metals from industrial smokestacks circle the globe, even settling in the pristine snows of Antarctica. Intensive use of pesticides in farming guarantees runoff into rivers and lakes. In high doses, dioxins can disrupt fetal development and impair reproductive function- and dioxins are everywhere.
Your house may contain polyvinyl chloride pipes, wallpaper, and siding, which belch dioxins if they catch fire or are incinerated. There are also the unknown risks to think about. Every year NIH adds to its list of cancer-causing substances- the number is up to 218. Theo Colburn of the World Wildlife Fund argues that dioxins and other, similar chlorine-bearing compounds mimic the effects of human hormones well enough that they could seriously reduce fertility. Many other scientists dispute her evidence, but if she’s right, our chemical garbage could ultimately threaten our survival.