Month: October 2010

We don’t know what we don’t know, only what we think we know, which probably isn’t very much…

In 1610 Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter.  And it was common knowledge, within scientific circles especially, that Jupiter had four moons. For almost three hundred years Jupiter had four moons, until the ‘fifth’ was discovered in 1892.

By the time Voyager space probes reached the gas giant in 1979,  Jupiter had 13 moons. Between 1892 and 1979, Jupiter had between 5 and 13 moons.

And the probe revealed another three.

So now Jupiter had 16 moons, and it was common knowledge for over twenty years that Jupiter had 16 moons.

Then, between October 1999 and February 2003, another 32 moons were revealed.

Since then an additional 14 moons have been observed, 12 of which await confirmation.

So Jupiter has at least 50 moons right now, though probably it has 62 moons, right now…well, give or take.

Of course, before these moons were discovered, they still existed. We didn’t know that they existed but this just means that we had a less developed picture of the universe.

Before the earth was round it was flat, as a matter of scientific fact. For a long time it was flat.

The same idea can be applied to the prevailing attitude towards the earth as a limitless playground for prospectors, corporations, governments and individuals that control global trade and energy policy.

We are reaching for the stars in technological terms, yet we have not yet reached a level of consciousness that honors the interconnectedness of the planet that sustains us, even though it has already given us so much and even though we are starting to get a sense, from gazing out into the universe, that the conditions favorable for life to develop are pretty rare, relatively speaking.

And yet they are embodied right here in the earth and its atmosphere, a paradise weeping for our solidarity.

Our arrogant sense of all-knowing – born out of the western colonial mold of conquering the infidels and cutting back the jungle, wiping our brow with self congratulations – all it does is to prop up the illusion that we are somehow separate from our surroundings, which gives us (or the greed and illusion that controls us) license to destroy our real heritage.

Our real heritage is the natural abundance of this planet that gave us life, that has given us food and medicines and clothes and shelter.

There are cures for HIV/Aids and all the cancers and all diseases – waiting in the biodiversity of this planet and new treatments are being developed right now from various molecules naturally occurring in plants, or by observing living organisms.  There are treasure chests of undiscovered biodiversity being clear-cut right now,  when they would yield more cash per acre, and for many more years, in terms of sustainable harvesting for herbal and medicinal applications, in combination with revenue from eco-tourism. There is technology and knowledge and resources and energy that can save us and our fellow beings who have no choice but to ride out our disregard.  There are birds and polar bears and turtles and tigers and plankton and dolphins and men and women and children dying right now in the name of greed, in the name of religion; in the name of starvation.

The earth may not be flat, and yet in a sense it still is, metaphorically speaking, in terms of how much wonder awaits us in new appreciation and new insight into the breadth and depth; the symbiosis and preciousness of life here on this burning rock hurtling around a very large flaming ball of gas, billions of miles away, that we like to call the sun.

So here’s to our brave new world. It will be what it will be, and that will be beautiful and free and full of life, and let me not forget that I am party to what that might be and that now is the time to act.

How many wonderful manifestations of being?

How many species are there on earth?

Roughly between 1.5 million and 1.8 million have been discovered and given a formal scientific name.

While no one has yet made an accurate census from taxonomic accounts published over the last three hundred years, such an undertaking would undoubtedly represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Expert estimates range from 3.6 million to over 100 million, depending on the methods used. The median of the estimates is a little over 10 million.

Even these expert estimates are, at best, educated guesses – as illustrated by their vast disparity.

The truth is that we have only just begun to explore the marvels of life on earth.

In citing some examples of how little we know, I would like to paraphrase Edward O. Wilson from his eloquent 2002 state of the nation on biodiversity The Future of Life [a wonderful starting point for anyone who wants to start to share in the contemporary reality of the planet we call home]:

While 69,000 species of fungi (a kingdom of life that has thus far yielded numerous antibiotics including penicillin and ciclosporin that have altered forever the quality of human life) have been identified and named, as many as 1.6 million are thought to exist.

Nematode worms are thought to account for four of every five animals. Approximately15,000 have been identified, and millions are thought to exist.

Our blue oceans swarm, at the microscopic level as at the macroscopic level, with little known forms of life. Research in the 1990’s revealed that oceanic bacteria, protozoans and archaeans are much more abundant and diverse than we ever could have imagined.  The visible organisms of the ocean represent only the apex of a vast and complexly interdependent interweave of biodiversity.

Another frontier is the ocean floor, which constitutes 70 percent of the earths surface. All thirty-six known animal phyla (highest ranking taxonomic sub-group within the animal kingdom) exist in the ocean environment, as opposed to ten on land. Two have been discovered in the last 30 years, with the deepest parts of the oceans still relatively unexplored.

Even the most familiar organisms are less studied than might be guessed.

About ten thousand species of ants are known to date, and this figure is expected to double as tropical regions are more extensively surveyed.

The global number of documented amphibians grew by almost one-third between 1985 and 2001.

Even new mammals are being discovered at a considerable rate. Fueled by improved technological and biological capabilities and by the urgency of vanishing ecosystems, renewed interest in the field on taxonomy continues to yield an astonishing number of new species, vertebrate and invertebrate, every year.

Many amazing accounts of biodiversity continue to pour in from the tropical rain forests of the world, where more than half  planet’s plant and animal species are thought to reside. Says Wilson: “425 kind of trees in a single hectare of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, for example, and 1300 butterfly species from a corner of Peru’s Manu National Park. Both numbers are ten times greater than those from comparable sites in Europe and North America. The record for ants is 365 species from 10 hectares in a forest tract of the upper Peruvian Amazon.”

While such richness is concentrated in these areas and remains largely unrealized, wealth in biodiversity is by no means exclusive to such ecosystems. Wilson elaborates:

“A single coral head in Indonesia can harbour hundreds of species of crustaceans, polychaete worms, and other invertebrates, plus a fish or two. Twenty-eight kinds of vines and herbaceous plants have been found growing on a giant Podocarpus yellow-wood conifer in the temperate rainforest of New Zealand…. As many as two hundred species of mites…teem in a single square meter of some hardwood forests of North America. ….

….You yourself are a rainforest of a kind. There is a good chance that tiny spider-like mites build nest at the base of your eyelashes.  Fungal spores and hyphae on your toenails await the right conditions to sprout a liputian forest.  …. Every time you scuff the earth or splash mud puddles with your shoes, bacteria, and who knows what else, that are still unknown to science settle upon them.

Such is the biospheric membrane that covers Earth, and you and me. It is the miracle we have been given. And our tragedy, because a large part of it is being lost forever before we learn what it is and the best means by which it can be savoured and used.”

How many species are there? Now that I know that we have no clue, I would like to hazard a guess.

My guess is that there is one species that holds in its hands the power to preserve at least a portion of the majesty that existed before the industrial revolution and population explosion. Now that we are conscious of (or at least have a scientifically irrefutable inkling) the impact of our energy and economic systems on the very planet that sustains us and still offers us abundance in exchange for due diligence and the responsibility of custodianship that we have created for ourselves.

So what can we do? Well, to curb the strain of the population explosion on global resources, we can start by not having kids, or by not having any more kids, or by adopting, or by having just one.

And this paper from the International Union for Conservation of Nature would be a good place to start to get a sense of where we are now.