Civilization's decay and an unusual biosphere limit state

Richard Brook Cathcart



Lovelock (b. 1919) mindfully conjured "Daisyworld" as a parable demonstrating that "Gaia" can be self-regulating by a strongly coupled feedback between life and the Earth (Kleidon, 2002). Description of a future global biogeochemical cycling of some of air's components in a few invented geophysical scenarios can show students a science fact and science fiction-fabricated Big Picture of our changing Earth-biosphere. Gigantism in terrestrial plants – especially for those who've mowed lawns for tuition money – seems an obvious and possibly delightful educational ploy! "All flesh is grass" is a warning about human vanity and overindulgence.



Extant ecosystem-nations may be characterized as "... the largest and most complex organisms in the [Earth-] biosphere (Smil, 1994); cities, too, are natural systems (Trefil, 1994). This concurrence of opinion allows me to effectively address the problem of the Earth-biosphere's limit state – that is, the condition at which a single, thin shell of various organic and inorganic molecules hospitable to life begins to become unfit for further use by mind-endowed creatures (Drummond, 2001). Once such a state of affairs is entered, then our Earth-biosphere limit state ought to be called a geological time epoch, since it undoubtedly marks the onset of a new planetary time period different from that which preceded it (Warren, 2001).


Terminological tribulations

Paralleling the Copernican cliché's demise (Danielson, 2001), the ecosystem cliché is collapsing because "... Homo sapiens is moving ecological systems outside the envelope of conditions that have existed over evolutionary history. This is terra incognita ..." (O'Neill, 2001). Present-day macroscopic robot exploration, and future industrial exploitation, of other Solar System terrestrial-type planets – very much terra incognitos – warrants our consideration of some biogeochemical Earth futures proposed by fatidic science fiction writers (Stocker, 1998 and Dubeck, 1994).


Around 10% to 55% of our home planet's terrestrial photosynthesis product (green plants) are currently appropriated by Homo sapiens (Field, 2001); extractions cause extinctions, which not merely eliminates species or groups of species, but terminates ecological niches. Is it possible a postulated diminished future Earthly biodiversity can weaken the role our species plays in the Earth-biosphere? Certain geoscientists have likened the Cenozoic expansion of grasslands as a "... biological force in their own right, in some ways comparable to the human rise to dominance of planetary resources ..." (Retallack, 2001; Wooller, 2002).


Our World gone to seed

Professional Mars terraformers, talented and sometimes genius humans who rightly ought to be titled "Planet Stylists" and who plan the impure art of the technological fix (Pendergraft, 1999), might well rejoice at a future Biotechnology's laboratory development of a less hardy and ramifying Cynodon dactylon from Greener Than You Think (1947). A rapid and encompassing geographical alteration – Flood-like in the Biblical sense – frighteningly envisioned by Joseph Ward Moore (1903–78), it is a science fiction novel in which Earth's land is overrun by an ineradicable, mutated domestic lawn of Bermuda Grass that started its massive ungovernable growth and global spread from Los Angeles, California's Hollywood District. Moore imagines humankind humiliated by a Hollywood product, echoing perennial film fan pleas of "More! More! More!" for identical movie products. Forty years later, a geoscience prognosticator, more or less, mirrored Moore's scenario (Perry, 1987)!


The rate of green plant photosynthesis on land as well as in Earth's ocean is high: a 1% biomass increase per year, absent a "balancing" return flow (via animal respiration, fiery conflagration, and smelly rot), would result in all atmospheric carbon dioxide gas being converted to verdure in fewer than 10 years! Quite naturally, Moore's scenario of a global "Green Hell", a chlorophyllic Chernobyl where too much of only one kind of life-form kills, is left unmentioned by lawn-cultivation's ardent commercial advocates (Vajjhala, 2000). "Green" surely symbolizes life (living vegetation's chlorophyll, Greek for "leaf green"), sickness (queasiness), death (mold), and organic inexperience! People prefer short grasslands (Harvey, 2001) – a well-trimmed lawn of atmosphere-polluting wounded grass (de Gouw, 1999) – because our species' savannah-inhabiting forebears knew from experience that it was a far safer habitat than forests in terms of other animals' predation on humans. "Tall Grass" is an indicator phrase!


Most abnormally, excepting the vast Earth-ocean during long-gone periods of planetary existence, a single biotic environment exists upon Moore's landmass during one indefinite period of Earth's geological time. Stratigraphy would be impossible if only one kind of life existed through millennia: there would be no way to identify strata (layers) in a rock-body since there would not be any stratum or rocky layer differentiable by fossilized content of bedding and named as a geological formation. "Utopia" is an ideal region of static topography ("no place"); "Uchronia" is an ideal period of geological time, a "no time" period of sameness characterizing every rock section, resulting in stratigraphical continuity.


Calculation proved the total difference between the smallest and the largest living organism is 1022 (Gaines, 1993). If we assume a single hypothetical organism (James Ephraim Lovelock's "Gaia") larger than California's biggest Giant Sequoia tree, then this enormous organism would be >102 times the current volume of Earth (i.e. >10842 × 108 km3), but less than our constantly expanding Anthropocosmos. [Defined by four Sun-escaping American-made spacecraft, Anthropocosmos' interstellar boundary is the outer limit of our so-called "Global Village". Since these spacecraft are moving outwards from our Sun, the ball-shaped volume of space (and objects therein) they bound grows at a stable rate. Currently, its radius is ~70 astronomical units.]


Each mature blade of green grass, which grows from its base, in J. W. Moore's mind-stimulating fictional story, is approximately the size of a single small Sequoia semperevirens, so gigantic that a land covering "lawn" composed of them stifles and exterminates all fauna more massive than field mice. Biology theorizes vegetarian dinosaurs were relentlessly harassed by the first small mammals dwelling in Earth's biosphere. Greener Than You Think imaginatively kills off a proud, once world-dominating Homo sapiens using a common green plant treated with, and stimulated by, artificial growth chemicals, wildly grown to gigantic proportions during the course of Moore's matter-of-fact story – in effect, a true "Tragedy of the Commons", absolutely not a Green Acres-style TV comedy (Chatterton, 2002)! Just what mutagenic or teratogenic chemicals Moore had in mind isn't stated, but suffice it to say that reputable atmospheric chemists who really ought to have more commonsense have proposed using diethyl hydroxylamine to treat outdoor photochemical smog killing Hollywood's vast show-place lawns (Maugh, 1976)! And, more to the point, was modern architect Frank Gehry (b. 1929) ignorant of the devastating potential of his ghastly plan for Dallas, Texas – his "The Rainforest Enzyme" proposal – illustrated in Civilization magazine (October/November 1998, page 94)? Moore's and Gehry's Earth-biosphere epoch developmental scenarios promote something quite unlike anything portrayed as the Kingdom of God in the Bible's Mark 4:26-27. [Nowadays, irresponsible commercial chemists propose sheathing humanity's extant, as well as future, global civilization infrastructure with titanium dioxide to protect it from pervasive planetary aerial pollution (Wang, 2002); this is, most likely, an over-reaction to architecture's professional distress, such as that to be found in On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (1993) by Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow.]


"Chlorophyllic Chernobyl" – a codeword that raises the horrific public specter of atomic-scale contamination of our planet's land and water. A determined UK geologist, Robert Lionel Sherlock (1875-1948), by 1922, suspected Uniformitarianism' doctrine had been pursued too avidly, and was even then over-reaching its obvious scope and comprehensibility (Dixon, 1949); instead, he surmised, Catastrophism was likely, in the future, to return to the forward moving leading edge of hypothetical and theoretical professional geoscience discussion (Sherlock, 1922). Present-day macro-engineering's most avant-garde philosophers suspect that both the anthropic cosmological principle (Kane, 2002) and the Gaia hypothesis have, at their bases, the somewhat out-of-date cliché concept that universal organic and inorganic elements interact as a system (i.e., our Universe)! Prominent "Gaia" disciples admit "...the Gaian view leads almost precipitously to a change in philosophical perspective. As just one example, human artifacts, such as machines, pollution, and even works of Art, are no longer seen as separate from the feedback process of [Earthly global] Nature" (Sagan and Margulis, 1984). The underlying idea of Josh Storrs Hall's "Utility Fog" is to simulate the physical existence of a material object by micrometer-size robots (Hall, 1996); molecular nanotechnology intends the early perfection of nanometer-size robots to compose and decompose objects within the Earth-biosphere (See: "Nanotech: The Science of the Small Gets Down to Business", a September 2001 Special Nanotechnology Issue of Scientific American, Vol. 285, Number 3). In summary, both groups of thinkers are satisfied the Earth-biosphere can be apprehended as an open system subject to Science's misconceptions and actual misuse (abuse)! Shocking!


Eventually, Moore speculated, Earth's vital hydrological cycle (Blewett, 2001) will diminish in power; evaporating ~1.14 m/year, the Blue Planet's ocean will utterly disappear in ~2,670 years, leaving a few deep, hyper-saline lakes and much of the desiccated, salt-encrusted exposed former seafloor exposed to heating by the Sun and endogenetic radiation. Lacking any runoff, continental erosion will be nil, especially as the dense ultra-Bermuda Grass will use whatever liquid precipitation does occur. The uptake of carbon dioxide gas by Moore's "lawn" will also cause a reversible oxygenation of the Earth-atmosphere: if that oxygen mixing ratio exceeded 30% it would constrain further grass growth by spontaneous wildfires (Berry, 1999).


Moore's still-popular book pioneered the kind of imaginative extension James Graham Ballard (b. 1930) later utilized in his famous 1957 Earth-shell building (Cathcart, 2002). His colossal roofed structure would, of course, isolate Earth's core-mantle thermodynamically: it would be as if the Moon – estimated to have once formed 70% of Earth's primordial crust – had been restored to its former place as part of the Earth's crust, thereby prohibiting plate tectonics. Both scenarios are true anti-"Gaia" places not to be wished for by any sane human being. Moore's literary genre, in some sense, has been reflected in modern (non-fictional) historical writings, such as The Great Hedge of India (2001) by Roy Moxham, which elucidated the planting, maintenance, and recent near-disappearance of a "living barrier that divided people".


In 1956, John Christopher (b. 1922) posited humanity's extinction resulting from a permanent, global die-off of grass species in his novel No Blade of Grass. The total area of the macro-molecular matrix of our Earth-biosphere's living plants is ~641 × 106 km2 Moore's fictitious Bermuda Grass "lawn" would likely have a total leaf area at least equal to that extrapolation. A still-organizing American grass-roots corps of propagandized and indoctrinated child-ecologists won't truly understand biogeochemistry's theorizing so science fiction's writers should continue to have much leverage on still-forming young minds (Hern, 1993). If Moore had been a geoscientist in 1947 then surely he might have worried some about Earth's true polar wandering, a shift in the planet's solid lithosphere with respect to its axis of rotation! Earth's geodynamics change with natural and anthropogenic material redistributions: for example, freshwater reservoir impoundments increase the length of day, whilst atmospheric global warming caused by injections of carbon dioxide gas, CFCs and other stuff shortens an Earth-day's length (Franck, 2000).


Millions of years in the future the atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentration may fall to < 10 ppm, thereby provoking extant grass, or grass-like, species to again thrive, as they did during the Cenozoic, under ideal conditions for growth and reproduction (Cowling, 1999). [Note: Earth will reach perihelion on the vernal equinox during AD 6427. That means that solar-induced atmospheric erosion processes – thermal or Jeans escape and non-thermal plasma escape, will increase by a few percent.] However, Homo sapiens are today concerned, perhaps obsessively, about a measured carbon dioxide gas build-up leading to a future greatly enhanced mega-greenhouse effect (Cathcart, 1997). Scientific research has demonstrated that high levels of gaseous carbon dioxide, along with a large genome in Earth's annual species of grass, portends – all other things remaining as they are – the future artificially amplified spread of this kind of rooted vascular plant over all ice-free land (Jaslenski, 1995).


Perhaps The Futurist-reported "super weed scenario" (Anonymous, 1994) is a realistic environmental impact assessment of a possible future biogeochemical hazard! Weed-killing aerosol chemical pesticides could never be effectively used to release Earth from J. W. Moore's smothering grass monster because similar genetically-engineered plants resistant to herbicides also develop far greater ability to pollinate other plants and pass their traits on via transgenic escape (Bergelson, 1998). [Could people, or microscopic robots pluck all the weeds infesting Earth? Perhaps the infamous "Grey Goo" created by a failed molecular nanotechnology, first speculatively presented in Eric Drexler's The Engines of Creation (1986), can be foreseen to have the riotous capability of earth-munching the Earth-crust from under our feet! Robert A. Freitas, Jr. has written about "Grey Goo" from a Geoscience perspective in his WWW on-line report "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Replicators, With Public Policy Recommendations". But, that's simply a third undesirable Earth-biosphere limit state, another miserable anti-"Gaia" fiasco.] Nothing less than a planet-wide fumigation would be required to totally eliminate Moore's "Green Hell" (Fraedrich, 1999).


So what are macro-engineering's best and most practical "cure" options for this particular envisioned environmental macro-problem? Terraformers might opt to bottle the remaining Earth-ocean and remove Earth's atmosphere, storing both someplace in outer space or on the Moon; this would result in a full exposure of the shriveled Earthly "lawn" to the vacuum and cold of interplanetary space (Pieters, 2000). And, even that attempt to kill a deadly excrescence could fail (Horneck, 2001). Then, like the airless Moon, Earth's non-insulated crust would be geologically gardened by continuous natural micrometeor impacts, creating a uniquely instigated global anthropogenic stratigraphical unconformity. Markedly less intrusive, space-faring macro-engineers might prefer to construct a solar parasol to stop sunlight before it impinges Earth – especially in the wavelength range 400 to 700 nanometers – for a long enough time period so as to fatally cut-off all green plant photosynthesis activity (Hunt, 1976). Even so, herbicidal sprays would be required to kill plants (and to sterilize plant seeds) of all dormant crust-penetrating grass roots not dug up and smashed to pulp by meteors (Enquist, 2002)!


Believers proclaim God acted directly for a period of seven days to make our unique and truly beautiful world. If humanity is to be ruler of "everything under his feet" (Psalm 8:1, 5-6), then < 50 days would return what is termed "Earth-normal" (i.e., the global nature flux as it is presently maintained by its Creator). "The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed in the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how" –Mark 4:26-27. God gave us the ability to imagine technological fixes – geoengineering and terraforming are the only two professional branches of a unified "macro-engineering" – and to turn a new leaf! Edward Forrest Moore (b. 1925) first proposed the creation of artificial living plants (Moore, 1956). A successful introduction of such organisms could rival the fantasies concocted by science fiction novelists enthused and horrified by molecular nanotechnology's epochal life-abatement prospects!



Whether in science fiction, on in factual science, artifice simulating global nature has the real global nature as its guarantor (Wendland, 1985). The apocalyptic epoch contingency is often urged upon students so that they can recognize such scenarios as conceivable, yet envisioned to be avoidable (Costanza, 2000). For example, Robert B. Banks demonstrated mathematics "in which we reduce, even eliminate, the world's [human] population" by AD 2500 through a long-lasting Earth-biosphere pollution in Towing Icebergs, Falling Dominoes, and Other Adventures in Applied Mathematics (1998). Taking the opposing approach, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, in its Monitor 17: Will Time Heal Every Wound?: The Environmental Legacy of Human Activities (2001) shows that, even with Homo sapiens' extinction, our overwhelming effect on the Earth-biosphere will not fade for many millennia and, in some instances never, until the planet is transmuted when it, in a spiraling orbit, finally falls into the Sun's core (Schroder, 2001). Or, closer to our moment in the Sun during our epochal period of geological time, a future machine (other than the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Stony Brook, New York, US) might vaporize the planet (Jaffe, 2000).


Pundits use a quote from Isaac Newton (1642-1727) – "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants" – as the ultimate verbal expression of humility in persons of genius; actually, it was an insult, directed at a short statured and deformed Robert Hooke (1635-1703), during a bitter intellectual feud between these two sometimes petty-minded men! That aside, it is a creditable proper historical fact, honor of priority, that Ossip Kurt Flechtheim (1909-1998) coined the term "futurology", and vividly foresaw at least two possibilities for Earth-biosphere life: (1) wise people "... can [technologically] meliorate the tragic consequences which may befall our world ..." and (2) "... social scientists ... [don't] underestimate human stupidity or overestimate human nature ..." (Flechtheim, 1945).


Homo sapiens, as an ecologically viable unit, must prudently utilize geoscience scenarios of all sorts to maximize its survival, prosperity, and individual happiness; Flechtheim's "futurology", whether wildly wielded by science fiction or carefully applied by science fact-finders, can play a significant role in that human community-wide effort. After all, any tiny sprouting seed of innovatory thought can have tremendous potential for future bounty and beauty!



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Hunt, B.G. [to come]