Monday, August 3, 2009 - 1:30 PM

OOS 7-1: Pulse of the planet: An epidemiologist's global ecological diagnosis

Warren M. Hern, University of Colorado

Background/Question/Methods Ecologists and other scientists have been successful over the past century in describing and understanding the main characteristics and dynamics of ecosystems from microhabitats to regional ecosystems.  Many have warned of damaging ecological changes resulting from human activities.  We are now confronted with the cumulative effects of global ecosystem changes that are moving in the direction of mass extinction of many species, irreversible climate changes, and human-induced disruption of the biosphere.  It is no longer enough to list the myriad changes.  We must try to make a global diagnosis in order to understand the process we are observing and experiencing. As the 21st century begins, we find that we are being overwhelmed by our success as species. The human population, which has quadrupled in the last century to 6.7 billion today,  grows without restraint, our activities are steadily destroying the global ecosystem in which we evolved, and we occupy and dominate all major ecosystems. We are no longer a few bands of inconsequential primates roving the grasslands of East Africa as we were three or four million years ago.  The human species, through the instrument of culture, has become the dominant force of planetary ecological change.  Our adaptations have become maladaptive.   An example is energy use, which has the broadest and most severe impacts, locally and globally, on ecosystems.  Odum described cities as heterotrophic, parasitic ecosystems since they since they consume more energy than they produce.  By 2030, 60% of the global population will live in urban agglomerations and will continue drawing energy and other resources such as fresh water from distant areas. Modern cities now display retroactive heterotrophicity that extends back in time 300 million years as they tap fossil fuels that have their origins in carboniferous swamps.  As global energy consumption is expanding at a rate of at least 2.3% per year, requiring increasing exploitation of hitherto undeveloped ecosystems, this heterotrophicity has all the characteristics of a malignant process.  The most significant characteristic of malignancy is uncontrolled growth, and that is displayed in global energy use by urban populations. Results/Conclusions The human species as a whole now displays four major characteristics of a malignant process: rapid, uncontrolled growth; invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissues (ecosystems); metastasis (distant colonization); and dedifferentiation (loss of distinctiveness in individual components).  We have become a malignant ecopathologic process. If this diagnosis is true, what is the prognosis?  At this time, it is autoextinction