I've recently been poking around a web site posing a new kind of outreach from the international science community to the general populace to help formulate the next generation of scientific questions about "Earth Systems". The International Council for Sciences (ICSU) has put up an open page called Earth System Visioning where anyone can register and pose a question they think needs near-term scientific attention. Registrants can then vote for the questions they think are the most important. Sounds like a worthy endeavor (the open period ends August 15th so you'll need to get there quickly to be able to pose a question/comment or vote). I first read about it in an editorial piece in Science. So I figured this would be a high-quality process with participants using their real names and not just another Web commentary site that attracts anyone who can type. After perusing the questions and some of the comments, I'm not so sure. But time will tell. Take a look for yourself and let me know what you think.
The apparent point of the site is to start thinking strategically about what are some of the other important systems questions after we have spent so much time working on climate change and its impacts on society. What are some of the other things we should be working on? But it appears, at a glance, that the questions are pretty standard concerns, mostly about the environment, biodiversity, etc. and their impact on societies. In other words, the questions posed are already on the scientific agenda in one way or another.
But as I wandered through the questions and some comments I began to sense an aspect of what kinds of things were covered that I hadn't really thought much about before. All (or most) the questions revolve around what effects would be relevant to humanity from such and such phenomena. These are all the kinds of questions we've been asking all along, and, based on the sorry state of affairs in our human-constructed world (global warming and everything else that threatens our existence, let alone our comfort), we haven't been getting very useful answers!
You can't get the right answer if you don't ask the right question. Or ask the question in the right way.
The predominant theme of questions people ask about our earth system is something to the effect of: "How do we humans prosper?" We keep getting nasty answers that seem to say something to the effect that: "Sorry, but your prosperity seems to mean poverty for the rest of this system."
Isn't the truly core question for humanity to address something like: "What is the proper place and role of the human species on this planet?" Are the ultimate global existential and epistemological questions centered on humanity or should they be centered on the Earth as a whole system? Is it just about us, or is it about the unified whole? Shouldn't the intent be for the whole Ecos to prosper?
Our formulation of research questions seem to have as an implicit assumption that mankind is supposed to be the primary beneficiary of knowledge. Even our concern about the stability of the environment and biodiversity comes down to an argument that mankind is to be the beneficiary of conservation. The environment needs to be kept robust and stable so that mankind will be safe and comfortable. Isn't this just an anthropocentric view of why the world exists? What is really different here from the biblical vision of god creating the world for humans to rule?
Perhaps this is really the wrong way to frame the question. Maybe the answer we keep getting — like 42 — is because, as Douglas Adams pointed out in "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" we didn't really have the question quite right. As it appeared to the pan-dimensional beings (who took the form of mice in our four-dimensional universe) the answer is incomprehensible because we didn't actually know the right question to ask ("The ultimate question...you know, Life, the Universe and Everything?").
We keep asking what can the Earth do for us. We, maybe, should be asking what can we do for the Earth (to borrow from John Fitzgerald Kennedy). We keep asking how does this knowledge of science allow us to better exploit the Earth. How can we use this bow and arrow to kill more animals? How can we use this plow to convert more land to grow our food? How can we burn this fuel in a controlled fashion so as to allow us to go faster and farther? Maybe we should ask questions like, how much of the land is fairly taken to provide our food? How many fish should we harvest so as not to deplete the stocks?
Of course there are many of you who have already converted to asking these kinds of questions and the answers make obvious the dangers of thinking we are the center of the universe. But the vast majority of people still think that these answers help us only insofar as we can use the knowledge to assure our future comfort in some way. Let's face it, most of us still really want to have our cake and eat it too. We go so far as to ask, how can mankind live in harmony with nature? But this assumes that nature will somehow provide an ideal environment suited for human habitation and all we have to do is observe our proper limits. What if this is still the wrong question?
Try this one on for size. What are the best things that humanity can do to allow the Earth to follow her natural evolution? Given our nature to try to understand the natural world, what is our role in this evolution? Might it not turn out that we discover that our own evolution is intertwined with that of our planet as a whole? Could it be that our current species isn't the end point at all, but rather just a stop along the way? And could it be that we are supposed to be an integral part of the whole Earth evolution? Might it be perfectly natural for humanity to have contributed to mass extinctions setting the stage for the next burst of evolutionary efflorescence? I know that last idea is completely anathema to the common wisdom. We're supposed to be saving the planet, not letting ourselves off the hook for screwing things up. But I keep coming back to the fact that we aren't omniscient beings who know what is best for the Earth. We just look at what seems best for us and assume the rest.
Obviously we can't know the outcomes of evolution, but this approach to formulating questions with a different focus from just what is good for us might provide some surprising insights into where this is all going and what it all means. We're here. We act and cause things to happen. We have an effect on the world. And we got here through evolution. But so did everything else. So maybe thinking of ourselves as just components in the very complex Ecos and trying really hard to ask how we can be in tune with that evolutionary complexity might be more useful than trying to figure out how we can control it all for our safety and benefit.
It's just a thought.