A Tale of Two Ocean Lectures

A life-sized model of the Right Whale "Phoenix", Sant Ocean Hall NMNH

Last night I attended the 10th Annual Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture hosted by the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The lecture was “The Once & Future Ocean[UPDATED: published version of talk added], given by Paul Falkowski and was unexpectedly and rather delightfully wide-ranging in its scope, and it touched on several themes discussed here and elsewhere re: the larger sustainability questions, reaching beyond the current events we face and speaking to the underlying processes that led us to them in the first place.

I suppose I had expected it to be somewhat like this recent lecture at Scripps (“Ocean Acidification – What is it? Why Should We Care?” by Andrew Dickson):

I was quite mistaken. Now, don’t get me wrong- the Dickson talk is serviceable enough, and one could certainly do worse for an introduction to, as Dickson puts it, “our other CO2 problem”. I’ve added it to my A/V resources section.

Falkowski’s talk was simply a different beast altogether. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that there will be a videocast of last night’s lecture, but Falkowski is re-presenting it at Scripps some time next month, and hopefully it will be recorded then- I’d rather not butcher it by attempting to piece the whole thing back together by memory, so I’ll just mention a few of the parts that stood out to me.

Falkowski and Shirley Pompini walk through Sant Hall after the lecture

He has been lecturing quite extensively this year due to the anniversaries of Darwin’s birthday and publication of the Origin, and evolution was at the forefront of his presentation. Lateral gene transfer figured prominently, as did the amazing redundancy of photosynthetic organisms in the “tree of life” (especially compared to say, mammals). The evolution of our atmosphere is essentially “an emergent property of microbial life on Earth”- created and now maintained at relative equilibrium by feedbacks between microbial metabolism and geochemical processes. He emphasized that a relatively few number of genes in effect were responsible for the operation of life on this planet.

The biggest surprise for me was his discussion of humans and Red Queen dynamics- in this context the concept that species coevolve with their habitats (vs. a particular predator/prey or parasite/host dynamic). Falkowski contends that through speech, and subsequently our development of the concepts of “economy” and “wealth” (and also religion, though he skipped that portion with our audience), humans have “freed” themselves from the Red Queen constraint, allowing them to plunder their environment in a manner that is essentially decoupled from evolutionary fitness. With enough wealth, he snarked, it doesn’t matter how stupid or unattractive you are- you will still be able to reproduce and pass along your genes.

He listed the breath-taking impact humanity’s footprint has had ecologically- that we are consuming/exploiting ~42% of terrestrial net primary production; we have displaced, extinguished, or impacted virtually every extant vertebrate species; we have altered the flow and chemical form of virtually all freshwater on Earth; etc. Our population trajectory necessitates that we will have an even greater impact in the years to come. Thus:

Clearly such a condition is not sustainable. Perhaps most disturbingly, no off-ramp is visible in the trajectory of human domination of the Earth’s ecosystems. Economic policy simply is at odds with biogeochemical reality, and money cannot substitute for microbial metabolism.

Falkowski is not optimistic about the future of apex predators (although he noted repeatedly, “the microorganisms will be here long after we’re gone”). After discussing the perverse reaction industrial interests have had to the melting Arctic (Essentially, “Great, we can ship directly from Russia to Canada now!”), he predicted that polar bears would be doomed to extinction. It would just be too easy, he said, “for some shipping magnate to say, ‘Whatever, I’ll pay the $50,000 per bear.'” rather than accept regulations that might conserve them.

There was some discussion of rising atmospheric CO2 and its uptake by the ocean, and the effect that this is having and will have on marine life. Jeapordizing the ocean’s function as a carbon sink was mentioned. It was striking, however, how comparitively little Falkowski seemed to think that these basic, and by themseleves incredibly disturbing aspects of our impact on the ocean mattered if we did not more generally find an “off-ramp” from our path of unsustainable consumption. And to head off the inevitable cries of “ludditte!” and “misanthrope!”, he noted that our best chances lay in intelligent investment in sustainable technologies as well as education of the developing world- pointing out that photocatalyzed extraction of hydrogen from water would provide virtually limitless clean energy, but in the US, investment in it amounts to a paltry $10 million/year (or less than 1/10th of the bonuses AIG executives received that are currently causing a political firestorm in the US, which itself is “less than one-tenth of one percent of the total amount of bailout money given to AIG in one form or another”).


4 responses to “A Tale of Two Ocean Lectures

  1. rustneversleeps

    For anyone in the vicinity, Paul Falkowski is presenting at the University of Toronto on April 7, 2009 – part of the Centre for Global Change Science Distinguished Lecturer Series. “The Biology of Greed and the Future of Humans”

  2. Thanks for this posting. I watched the entire Dickson talk and thought it was very good–I like his style and upfront admission of what is and is not known with confidence. And great quote by Neils Bohr (~ “prediction is difficult, especially when it involves the future”!).

  3. I thought it was good as well- I wouldn’t even have compared the two had I not watched/seen them so close together and been happily mislead by Falkowski’s title.

    I would say that I’d like to see such a recent presentation as Dickson’s mentioning some of the studies tentatively indicating harm to macroscopic ocean fauna like clown fish and Humboldt Squid. So much of the focus has (justifiably) been on diatoms, forams, coccoliths and the like which people are largely unfamiliar with.

    It might drive the point home more forcefully to warn the audience that emissions could turn baby Nemos into amoral inbreeders. If that doesn’t work, some of them may be horrified to hear they’ll be denied their favorite calamari.

  4. rustneversleeps

    tb, I attended Falkowski’s lecture at UofT. They distributed this essay beforehand, which is basically the outline of the talk you heard as well. He had updated it with material from his paper in Science last May, etc.

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