Science and the Future of Our Planet

This blog was inspired by the book “Mann, C.C., 2018. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet. Picador.”

The world’s population is ever growing, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon. Every year, the global human population grows by ca. 83 million people1. This puts enormous pressure on the food, water and energy industries that need to support and sustain an increasingly larger human population. Meanwhile, habitats are being lost, biodiversity is declining at unprecedented rates, and climate change poses possibly the biggest threat that society has ever faced. How may we come out of this unharmed? There are two main and largely opposing views on this, amongst scientists, governors, businessmen and stakeholders alike. On one hand, prophets believe that the only way to escape societal breakdown and ecological disaster is to reduce our per capita consumption, adopt more sustainable lifestyles, and decrease our individual ecological footprint. On the other hand, wizards have faith in science and engineering, and believe that technology will continue to rise to the challenges we face.

To address the increasing food demand, wizards call into play genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which can be, and are being, used to maximise the yield of farms, improve crops’ resistance to pests, and ultimately produce more food/calories per acre. Notably, while most plants are limited in their ability to convert energy from the sun (i.e., photosynthesis) due to photorespiration, 3% of the plants on Earth have developed evolutionary adaptations (i.e., C4 photosynthesis) that make them way more efficient photosynthesisers. Successfully transferring these mechanisms into other crop species such as rice, through genetic engineering, could increase food productivity by 50%. This is what various research groups have been working on for the last few decades, hoping to crack the code in the foreseeable future to sustain the growing food demand. Contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are bad for our health2.

On the other hand, prophets argue that regardless of the extent to which science will be able to progress and advance, unless we decrease our per capita consumption, natural habitats are doomed, as they will be inevitably lost to make room for increasing farms. As habitats disappear, biodiversity and wildlife are also lost. On this note, prophets allocate a higher moral value to conserving nature, and suggest that if each one of us could be more sustainable in our lifestyle, we would be able to protect nature from anthropogenic destruction whilst still being able to feed an increasing human population.

Front cover of the book that inspired this blog.

To the concerns of water scarcity, wizards respond by proposing increased investments in desalination plants, which involve extracting salt from seawater to make it drinkable and more usable by people. They also propose building large dams, especially near cities where water demand is generally highest, to create water reserves using local rivers.

Prophets, however, disagree with these approaches, especially because of their environmental and ecological consequences. For instance, desalination plants could take a heavy toll on ocean biodiversity3. Similarly, the construction of dams can significantly affect fish diversity, and also cause deforestation, as it would require roads to be built to provide access to the dam sites4. People are also often displaced from their land to make space for dams5. What prophets suggest instead, is to promote a more sustainable use of water, with less wastage at the household level, and to increase the efficiency of the current systems.

Energy wise, wizards advocate for centralised fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources. They argue that modern energy infrastructures have been assembled over the course of the decades and cannot be dismantled overnight. Moreover, the world’s been heading towards fossil fuels recently, not away from them, and this makes it inherently hard to achieve a prompt shift away from them, which may instead take decades. Wizards emphasise that we can use geoengineering to overcome issues associated with fossil fuel use (e.g., climate change). For instance, this would involve adopting systems such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) which would capture waste carbon dioxide from sources (e.g., factories) and transport it to permanent storage sites, usually underground. As of 2017, at least 21 commercial-scale carbon capture projects are operating around the world with 22 more in development. Thus far, CCS systems look like they will be able to achieve 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 20506. Another practice supported by the wizards, which may sound even more sci-fi, includes pumping sulphuric acid in the atmosphere, a practice known as “stratospheric aerosol injection”. This practice would create a global dimming effect by generating a reflecting shield that would reflect sunlight and cool Earth7.

Prophets, on the other hand, advocate for small scale, distributed, renewable and low-impact energy sources. They also promote a more sustainable energy use, to decrease demand. Moreover, they criticise geoengineering not only for its potential environmental and ecological side effects, but also on moral grounds, since this practice would be the final touch to ultimately desacralise nature. Furthermore, the prophets suggest that the idea of fighting pollution with pollution (i.e., stratospheric aerosol injection) would be a distraction from the urgent social reforms needed for the future.

Whether the visions of prophets or wizards will prevail in the future, the situation is critical; perhaps it has never been this critical before. Urgent action is needed, whether we act in the name of nature or people, or both – though the two approaches often come with conflicting goals, morals and practices.

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  2. Nicolia, A., Manzo, A., Veronesi, F. and Rosellini, D., 2014. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical reviews in biotechnology34(1), pp.77-88.

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