Tag Archives: sustainability

We are ecosystem engineers

Decorative photograph of common cuscusHumans have been ecosystem engineers since the Pleistocene, more than 12,000 years ago.  There is evidence of a tree-dwelling possum, the common cuscus, being introduced to the Solomon Islands from New Guinea more than 20,000 years ago as a game species [1].  The ecosystem is a complex system and there are unintended consequences of our engineering.  For instance, the burning forests and grasslands about 8,000 years ago changed reflectivity and absorption of heat in parts of Eurasia which altered the pattern of monsoons in India and parts of South East Asia.  The palaeobiologist, Thomas Halliday has suggested that we are such effective ecosystem engineers that is impossible to think about a pristine Earth unaffected by human biology and culture [2].  The challenge now is to re-engineer the ecosystem so that it remains habitable.  This involves handling the complexities of  the ecosystem, human society and their interactions.  The philosopher, Nabil Ahmed has written, in the context of his native Bangladesh, that it is impossible to differentiate between land and rivers, human population, grains and forests, politics and markets because they all coalesce as a single entity resulting from the legacy of interaction between politics and natural actors [3].  Everything is interconnected – more than we realise.


[1] Abate RS & Kronk EA, Climate change and indigenous peoples: the search for legal remedies Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2012.

[2] Halliday T, Otherlands: A world in the making, London: Allen Lane, 2022.

[3] Ahmed N, Entangled Earth, Third Text, 27:44-53, 2013.

Image: Exhibit in the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova, Via Brigata Liguria, 9, 16121, Genoa, Italy; by Daderot, CCO 1.0 licence

Ice caps losing water and gravitational attraction

Map of the world showing population density is greater in the regions furthest from the polesI have written previously about sea level rises [see ‘Merseyside Totemy‘ on August 17th, 2022 and ‘Climate change and tides in Liverpool‘ on May 11th, 2016] and the fact that a 1 metre rise in sea level would displace 145 million people [see ‘New Year resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014].  Sea levels globally have risen 102.5 mm since 1993 primarily due to the water added as a result of the melting of glaciers and icecaps and due to the expansion of the seawater as its temperature rises – both of these causes are a result of global warming resulting from human activity.  I think that this is probably well-known to most readers of this blog. However, I had not appreciated that the polar ice caps are sufficiently massive that their gravitational attraction pulls the water in the oceans towards them, so that as they melt the oceans move towards a more even distribution of water raising sea levels further away from the icecaps.  This is problematic because the population density is higher in the regions further away from the polar ice caps, as shown in the image.  Worldwide about 1 billion people, or about an eighth of the global population, live less than 10 metres above current high tide lines.  If we fail to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade and it peaks at 5 degrees Centigrade then the average sea level rise is predicted to be as high as 7 m according to the IPCC.

Image: Population Density, v4.11, 2020 by SEDACMaps CC-BY-2.0 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Source: Thomas Halliday, Otherlands: A World in the Making, London: Allen Lane, 2022

The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure it out

Research in British Columbia has found evidence of nitrogen from fish in tree rings.  The salmon that swim in the local rivers provide food for predators, such as bears and eagles, who leave the remains of the salmon lying around on the floor of the forest where it decomposes allowing the trees to absorb the nitrogen embedded in the bones of the salmon.  In some cases, up to three-quarters of a tree’s nitrogen is from salmon.  This implies that interfering in the life cycle of the salmon, for instance by commercial fishing, will impact on its predators, the forest and everything that is dependent on or interacts with the trees.  The complex nature of these interconnections have been apparent to the aboriginal peoples of the world for a very long time [see ‘Blinded by reductionism‘ on August 24th, 2022].  To quote Suzanne Simard, ‘Mistreatment of one species is mistreatment of all.  The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure that out’.

Source: Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Penguin, 2021.

Image: photograph of an original painting bought by the author in Beijing

Existential connection between capitalism and entropy

global average temperature with timeAccording to Raj Patel and Jason W Moore, in his treatise ‘Das Kapital’ Karl Marx defined capitalism as combining labour power, machines and raw materials to produce commodities that are sold for profit which is re-invested in yet more labour power, machines and raw materials.  In other words, capitalism involves processes that produce profit from an economic perspective, and from a thermodynamic perspective produce entropy because the second law of thermodynamics demands that all real processes produce entropy.  Thermodynamically, entropy usually takes the form of heat dissipated into the environment which raises the temperature of the environment; however, it can also be interpreted as an increase in the disorder of a system [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ on November 2nd, 2016].  The ever-expanding cycle of profit being turned into capital implies that the processes of producing commodities must also become ever larger.  The ever-expanding processes of production implies that the rate of generation of entropy also increases with time.  If no profit were reinvested in economic processes then the processes would still increase the entropy in the universe but when profit is re-invested and expands the economic processes then the rate of entropy production increases and the entropy in the universe increases exponentially – that’s why the graphs of atmospheric temperature curve upwards at an increasing rate since the industrial revolution.  As if that is not bad enough, the French social economist, Thomas Piketty has proposed that the rate of return on capital, “r” is always greater than the rate of growth of the economy, “g” in his famous formula “r>g”.  Hence, even with zero economic growth, the rate of return will be above zero and the level of entropy will rise exponentially.  Piketty identified inequality as a principal effect of his formula and suggested that only cataclysmic events, such as world wars or revolutions, can reduce inequality.  The pessimistic thermodynamicist in me would conclude that an existential cataclysmic event might be the only way that this story ends.


Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore, A history of the world in seven cheap things, London: Verso, 2018.

Thomas Piketty, A brief history of equality, translated by Steven Rendall, Harvard: Belknap, 2022.

Diane Coyle, Piketty the positive, FT Weekend, 16 April/17 April 2022.

Image: Global average near surface temperature since the pre-industrial period from www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/global-average-near-surface-temperature