Eyes on the Horizon, All Hands on the Ramparts

February 20, 2014

Looking up from the task at hand can yield new insights and priorities. Sandcastle at Sunset on Morro Strand State Beach, Morro Bay, CA. Credit: Michael "Mike" L. Baird, Creative Commons License

On the beach in Cornwall last year, with my kids and their cousins, we tried to hold back the tide. We built great walls of sand, reinforced with the occasional surf-board between the rocks. And for a while it worked, but then the water outside began to pile up. There was a breach as water trickled over a low-spot. We fixed it, but then there was another, then two at a time, three, four.

For environmentalists our work often feels a lot like that — we are the emergency services for the planet.

A fire here, a species there, a forest somewhere else. We rush to it, scrambling resources and people-power, plugging holes and shoring up the defences. We’ve lost a lot of course – forests, species, grasslands, coral reefs, but we’ve also saved a lot. It’s hard, frustrating, but ultimately there is real good in what we are doing.

And once a year, from this frenetic activity a group of us come together and look up. Our task is called horizon scanning: we have to stop, to gaze into the future and see what’s out there.

What trends, or tools, or opportunities may be coming up that none of us, in the frenzy of everyday work, have paid enough attention to. There are 20 of us, but we come from all walks, and we reach out and consult to thousands. This year we considered ideas submitted from over 350 people. You can read all our findings at Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The job is part seer, part market analyst. We try and sift through the noise to spot trends and see hidden issues or opportunities.

We need to seek out the stories that may be just brand new, or may suggest we’re reaching a tipping point between an idea and a reality. Species resurrection for example — straight out of the pages of Jurassic Park.

It was once a bizarre science fiction but is now quite thinkable, even doable. Within years at most, it looks as though we may be able to rebuild species from DNA, and that means bringing back lost species too — not dinosaurs, but maybe recently extinct species for which we still have good DNA samples, perhaps even woolly mammoths from body parts frozen in the Arctic permafrost.

Another major development might be seaweed harvesting: not for food and chemicals, which we’ve been doing for decades, but for biofuels.

If it works this could scale up to transform coastal waters over vast areas world-wide. Algae wouldn’t take up valuable agricultural land — and its processing into biodiesel is simple and far less energy intense than terrestrial plants; it could yield far greater profits than fishing.

Our job is to provoke thoughts, not to form views.

Would it be good to resurrect extinct species? Could we release them into the wild? What are the risks? How would algae farming impact nature? Or fishing communities? At scale could this renewable energy make a difference to global carbon emissions? Could there be other co-benefits, such as reducing fishing pressure and removing pollutants?

As we gaze further into the distance we are interested in the “possible but unlikely” categories, particularly where the potential impacts of the unlikely could be vast.

There has been a slow rise in the background chatter about snakes dying of disease. Twenty years ago similar observations were made about  frogs and were ignored. These were the first warning signs of a major new disease, the chytrid fungus, that has decimated frog populations and led to local extinctions all around the world. Could something similar be happening to snakes?

And what of Antarctica — the nations who managed this last fragile wilderness have agreed, in principle, to keep it as if it were a national park, never to be exploited for minerals or hydrocarbons.

Mining and pollution would lead to irreversible damage in this most sensitive of continents. But several countries have started to increase their geological exploration. The Russians have more boldly stated their intention to explore for hydrocarbons and the Chinese are building a new base that lacks the scientific justification required under the Antarctic Treaty.

More worrying still is the fact that the other nations who are party to the treaty are not raising their voices in dissent.

The list of issues includes new and evolving technologies and tactics, such as probiotic therapy for amphibians or self sustaining genetic systems for controlling non-native invasives, as well as familiar challenges that are re-emerging with new vigor, such as the loss of wild rhinoceroses and elephants driven by crime syndicates.

The scan is far from comprehensive, but it is not just an intellectual exercise. Every now and then we could all benefit from looking up from our emergency work on the flood defences.

We need to look around. In so doing we might find new solutions we’d never thought of. We might spot the next catastrophic wave and be more ready for its impact.

And even if we go back to plugging the same hole in the dam, we can take strength from looking at the vast team working alongside us. And sometimes, we even find a bucket or a surfboard to borrow.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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