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  • Careful with that eradication

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2009
Diane Laurin

This is what can happen when you mess with Mother Nature. In 1985, Australian scientists developed a program to kill off non-native cats on the island of Macquarie, a United Nations World Heritage site, because the felines were preying on native burrowing birds (see the February 2009 Journal of Applied Ecology online). Freed from the predators, the island’s rabbits, also non-native, bred as rabbits tend to do devouring native vegetation and wreaking havoc on Macquarie’s landscape and ecosystem.

Now ecological intervention isn’t new, and clearly this isn’t the first time that managing an ecosystem has produced unforeseen complications. Those who are loyal to the idea of balancing resources in accord with the needs of humans are far from buffaloed. Today prominent scientists, world leaders and citizens are calling for more unified systems of Earth’s management – systems that would grow out of cooperation among leaders in research, technology, politics, social science and economics. Critics dismiss the ideology as arrogant or, at best, a pipe dream.

Not so fast. Our early failures are not much different from those that preceded some of our greatest achievements. History suggests that, with time and industry, we may succeed in developing new, enlightened and resourceful ways of balancing our lifestyles, our planet and our resources.

Almost 90 years ago, Soviet geochemist Vladimir I. Vernadsky wrote that humans were becoming a geological force, shaping the planet much as geological forces such as water, wind and earthquakes do. He envisioned a society enlightened by science that would lessen the impact of humans on Earth and its resources, calling it the “noosphere,” a planet of the mind or “life’s domain ruled by reason.”

“We’ve come through a period of finally understanding the nature and magnitude of humanity’s transformation of the earth,” Harvard biologist Dr. William C. Clark told Andrew Revkin of The New York Times in 2002. “Having realized it, can we become clever enough at a big enough scale to be able to maintain the rates of progress? I think we can.”

The satellites, imaging technology and computers already exist, and there are voluminous libraries of data and imagery already collected. Earth summits are becoming more plentiful and environmental concerns more familiar.

In many senses, we’re just out of the gate. The tasks are daunting: Tens of thousands of decisions must be made to gain every inch of progress. Hurdles such as cost, consumption and the hoped-for alliance of vastly different countries, cultures and governments lie ahead. But weigh that against the prospect of a world coalition dedicated to monitoring and balancing all the forces on the planet.

Imagine that. I can.

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