Toward a stewardship of the Global Commons:

engaging “my neighbor” in the issue of sustainability

By members of the Critical Issues Committee, Geological Society of America


Part V


A. R. Palmer, Institute of Cambrian Studies, Boulder, CO
and E-an Zen, University of Maryland, College Park, MD



At all scales, from microscopic to megascopic, from atoms to galaxies, natural processes are interconnected. The discrete categories that have given rise to the increasing proliferation of academic disciplines and subdisciplines are nothing more than an artifact of the human mind. 


The concept of a grand scale of connectivity in natural systems is already familiar to most Earth scientists.  By contrast, laboratory-based studies commonly make efforts to simplify any system being studied so that cause-and-effect relationships can be brought into focus and verified by repeated observations.  Although the two approaches are mutually complementary, this point has not always been made clear to students or the general public, much less political and social decision makers.  Sadly, policy decisions that directly impact civilization today and the Earth for generations yet to come too often make the mistake of assuming that we can independently alter or modify one element of a natural system and not expect changes elsewhere.


On the grand scale, the theory of plate tectonics brought together information from many seemingly independent scientific disciplines to present to the world a general conceptual framework for understanding everything from global climates and the genesis of mineral deposits to an understanding of many natural hazards and the peculiar patterns of present and past biogeography.  The uplift of the Himalayas, the closing of the Isthmus of Panama and the restrictions of Arctic oceanic circulation, all significantly influence the system of global climate as strong feedback elements which positively and negatively contribute to maintaining equilibrium of a constantly changing dynamic system. 


Dynamic crustal forces have played a role in the production of economically accessible concentrations of fossil fuels, mineral phosphates and metallic minerals.  We are constantly learning more about factors contributing to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and the frequency and violence of their occurrences.  Shifting geographical configurations as continents have broken up or merged and as global sea levels rise and fall over millennia have powerfully influenced biodiversity.


At the other end of the scale, molecular biology is showing that there are many genes common to all organisms, including humans, and that affect our development in subtle ways.  Some of the development of civilization can be attributed to the success of molecular biology and pharmacology in increasing the longevity of human beings.  Unfortunately, compounds produced and consumed by human beings for their positive health benefits can also damage human beings and disrupt other living systems in unforseen ways.  And out of these studies of molecular biology has also come much of our understanding necessary for chemical and biological warfare.  Our increasing understanding of the subatomic world inside the atom has led to remarkable breakthroughs in medical technology, but also to terrible weapons of mass destruction.


The point of this year-long series of essays is to show the interconnectedness of a series of concepts that are not necessarily related in all of our minds and those of “our neighbors”.  The concepts of the global commons (Part I), the context of humanity (Part II), the consequences of doubling time (Part III) and the limits to resources (Part IV) are all interconnected components of a much larger concept — sustainability.  There are more still to come.  Together, they provide a basis for evaluating the challenges facing us during this new century if we continue to grow as we have been growing in both human population and resource consumption.


Because so many of the core concepts of sustainability are components of the basic training of in the Earth Sciences, Earth Scientists have a personal responsibility to make sure that these concepts and their interrelationships are understood and internalized by ourselves and “our neighbors” – or at least brought into the forefront of our consciousness.  Natural processes are intricately related and changes in one process or parameter can feed back to other processes and parameters, often with unanticipated consequences.  Events in the oceans such as temperature changes in the southwest Pacific affect the atmosphere, which affects the terrestrial hydrosphere and biosphere.  Events in the lithosphere — mountain uplift; volcanic eruptions — affect the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere.  Human activities affect all of these “spheres”, even including the cryosphere; witness advances of glaciers, changing patterns of sea-ice flow, sea-level rise, permafrost stability, changes in snowfield area…


The separate lines of inquiry formulated by various disciplines of the Earth Sciences, when viewed as a whole, are mutually dependent and complementary.  We now call this big picture perspective Earth Systems Science.  But we can take one further step and see that when we discuss the human impact on Earth and its ecosystems, even Earth System Science is only a subset of the entire picture of Environmental Systems Science.  Other areas of natural science, social science, political science, and all the other areas of human inquiry that aspire to the designation “science”, contribute to the consequences of our decisions in the personal and public domains.  In our exploitation of the Earth’s endowments, we have the potential to unravel or tangle this complicated web if we fail to appreciate the interconnections.


Use the ideas in these essays in conversations with students, with colleagues at work or in other academic disciplines, with friends, and even with strangers – these are “our neighbors”.  The grass roots in a democratic system will require nurture if our common lawn, human civilization, is to have a future.  Communicating our thoughts, understandings, and the spirit of inquiry as Earth Scientists can become a vital element of these interconnections, perhaps in unanticipated ways.

Return to Introduction
Guidelines to Sustainability Literacy
Part I: Stewardship of the Commons
Part II: Understanding Deep Time
Part III: Doubling Time

Part IV: Sustainability and Resources
Part V: The Connectedness of Everything
Part VI: Ecological Footprint and Carrying Capacity
Part VII: Spaceship Earth: There's No Place Left to Go
Part VIII: Part of the Global Ecosystem
Part IX: We Live in a World of Change
Part X: What Do We Mean by Sustainable World?
Part XI: Cultural Context of Sustainability
Part XII: We Have The Option of Choice

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