With the rapid advancement of science and technology during the past decades to centuries, ever more chemical and physical processes seem to be controllable and exploitable by mankind. This advance largely increased population numbers, life expectancy, and health for many. Concomitantly however, this progress also had, and continues to have impacts on the planet Earth, its ecosystems, habitats, biodiversity, and resources. Climate change, albeit being an important issue, is of course not the only challenge mankind and life on Earth are currently exposed to. As an interested contemporary natural scientist, one may therefore ask two questions:
One may argue that already the first question cannot be answered objectively and might strongly depend on the circumstances the asked person lives in. This might especially be true for many people that currently live in materially less privileged societies. I would therefore like to assume here, that the answer to the first question is yes and I attempt to contribute a few thoughts to the second one.
Technology and life can be largely and simplistically regarded as means to “control” material and energy flows. Be it a plant that controls the flow of electrons from water to carbon dioxide driven by sunlight [i] or a human controlled combustion engine that utilizes the flow of heat (mass and charges) to harvest mechanical energy. Biological (eco-)systems, including us, that evolved, are practically governed by relatively low material and energy flows per mass of being, due to bio-physical constraints. With the control of fire and domestication however, humans obviously changed the game and came into the possession of technology that allowed a very large increase in the energy flow “through” their hands, a process that did not stop until now. As a result, and somewhat automatically, humans came about to dominate other species (and other humans), ecosystems and finally the planet through technology. This domination cumulated in the nowadays often cited Anthropocene of which large environmental changes and exploitation are a part of. In my opinion one of the main challenges for current and future generations of natural scientists and inventors are therefore, to resolve the somewhat inner conflict of technological development, economic and population growth with that of sustainable development goals as set out by the UN.[ii] These goals include improvements in the living conditions of people and simultaneous preservation of natural resources and their services.
But how to? What are the most sustainable forms of agriculture and forestry that avoid erosion and soil depletion and that provide enough high-quality food, fiber and renewable raw materials for 8 billion people on 150 Mkm2 of land (2 ha per person) [iii] despite leaving space for endangered species and not significantly altering global natural cycles? What energy and resource input does such an agriculture require in the long run if it works at all?
What are the most sustainable means of material and energy use for housing, transportation, communication, and healthcare whilst avoiding waste and pollution?
Two very over-simplified possible answers to that are the following: either increase the energy density per area and “improve” the biology of plants and animals through breeding and biotechnology, or expand the area and keep the density and biology “constant” by expanding agricultural land on the expense of natural habitats or non-habitable land. Both approaches are already followed, the first one most simply by tapping into fossil energy (the area below the land and sea), the second one by adding new agricultural land to the existing one by land use change (mostly deforestation and irrigation). In my opinion a substantial qualitative change towards real sustainability would require other, more sophisticated technological approaches than that. This would include the tapping of new energy sources, and most likely significant changes in the type of material, food, and energy consumption and re-use patterns. Techno-optimists expect that human genius will tackle these questions. The real solutions for that are open for discussion.
FibreNet as a consortium of very divers people with interdisciplinary backgrounds does contribute to such solutions by improving the utilization of natural resources, but at the same time considering and mitigating negative environmental impacts of their utilization. Most importantly it trains students by teaching “the big picture” and simultaneously educating experts in their field. I am therefore very much looking forward to the coming 1.5 years within the FibreNet community and the solutions it provides with respect to improving our current socioeconomic system through science and technology. As a skeptical to moderate techno-optimist I bet on a future that can merge the technological with the biological world in one way or another, to improve the living conditions of a large fraction of mankind. The aim of this should be to sustain Earth as a habitat for the seemingly endless, diverse forms of life and a “green” planet as a base for other explorations.
[i] living systems are not heat engines
[ii] UN Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015, 70/1. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
[iii] The approximate current land area of planet Earth (150 Mkm2), agricultural land is about one third of this (50 Mkm2), forests are 40 Mkm2: https://ourworldindata.org/land-use, retrieved 2nd of June 2020.
Rupert Kargl, PhD
University of Maribor, Slovenia
Graz University of Technology, Institute for Chemistry and Technology of Biobased Systems (IBIOSYS), Austria