A call to action for global protection

Civilizations throughout Earth's history have been powerless to prevent floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Today, we can foresee "stealth disasters" of our own making -- and we must respond, said geologist Susan Keiffer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on 14 February at the AAAS meeting in Chicago.

Keiffer's plenary lecture was a natural followup to an address to thousands of scientists at the meeting by former vice president Al Gore on 13 February. Together, the talks spurred an unmistakable "call to action" for scientists in environmental protection and climate change.

Keiffer, who has gained wide recognition for her work in geological sciences, called for her colleagues to "find a new role for scientists in dealing with stealth disasters in the future." She advocated a new global agency, modeled after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. This "CDC for Planet Earth" (CDCPE) would be a scientific body, with policymaking power, to protect the planet's future.

She moved her audience by describing the connections between societies and planet Earth in the past, and contrasting them with the destruction caused by many human activities today.

Natural disasters, Keiffer noted, result from "natural ongoing geological processes," such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Often cited as "acts of God," these disasters are relatively free of human involvement -- although overpopulation in the affected areas can make the outcomes much worse.

"Stealth disasters," on the other hand, are caused by humans and take time to develop. While most such disasters have affected island communities thus far, they are now becoming more prevalent in other areas.

For example, population growth has driven an expansion in agriculture near critical rivers over the years, eroding soils near our most important waterways, Keiffer said. She warned that these and other human activities are leading to spreading deserts, drying aquifers, and more severe flooding. She cited the Nile in Africa and the Colorado in the U.S. as two of the most extreme examples of disastrously modified rivers.

Disasters were not global in scale during pre-historic times, Keiffer noted. Instead, "early human societies were isolated," and the effects of distance and primitive technologies prevented any global repercussions from occurring.

Human population has increased dramatically as a result of medicine and technology, Keiffer observed, so "the effects of natural disasters have increased over time as our population has expanded." She described two time scales relevant to human activity: the geologic time scale of resource renewal, and the human time scale of expansion, growth, and consumption. Today, the rate of human activity and consumption far outpaces the slow scale of resource renewal -- a major driving force behind some stealth disasters that Keiffer believes are now occurring.

After discussing several recent disasters, Keiffer noted that humans are "the current terminator species" on the planet, causing the extinction of other species at rapidly growing rates. The profound impact of the ongoing human population increase could not be more clear, she said. To hold human populations and reduce stealth disasters, society must focus on balancing its birth and death rates, she added.

The proposed CDCPE would have a sweeping mandate, in Keiffer's words: "The CDCPE should be recognized as the lead world body for protecting the long-term health and safety of the planet and all of its inhabitants, providing credible information to enhance decisions relating to all resources of the planet, and promoting wisdom in resource use through strong international cooperation."

At the end of her talk, Kieffer added a fifth spirit to the four traditional and ancient elements of fire, wind, water, and air: the human spirit. "Humans can indeed find a stable state by moderating their own behavior," she said, calling for global partnerships to work toward ensuring the survival of our planet.

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Soniya Tambe is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, majoring in physiology and neuroscience. As a leader within the Triple Helix Journal organization, she is interested in the field of science writing at the undergraduate level. She will attend a pharmacy school program in the fall and hopes to use her knowledge of therapeutics to inform her future work in health communications. Reach her at stambe@ucsd.edu