New goals for fundamental science

Makarieva A.M., Gorshkov V.G., Startsev A.A. On the occasion of the Year of Ecology 2017 in Russia.

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Since its origins science has been on the forefront of man's struggle against a hostile environment. In the long run, with the discovery of electricity, internal combustion engine and inorganic fertilizers our living standards have drastically improved. Today the majority of people in the developed countries have never starved or worked to physiological exhaustion. In this aspect modern people have for the first time in the history of modern civilization caught up with the aboriginal inhabitants of the natural environment where our species originated. Indeed, humans residing at an ecologically sustainable density in a highly productive tropical ecosystem with an optimal climate did not overwork to gain food; in consequence, they had never had a stimulus to develop science and technology.

Thus, science and technology have ultimately solved this monumental task - to provide human beings, forced to live outside their native environment, with food, clothes and shelter without overworking. Where this task has been solved, the scientific and technological progress expectedly ceased to further improve human conditions. (The very idea of "improving living standards" implies their suboptimal status.) As for the fundamental science, it moved on beyond the scales of time, space and energy that are pertinent to human existence. Intense studies in the field of high energy physics relate to energy scales far exceeding those of nuclear physics, while astrophysics is penetrating the Universe's depths from which we are separated by millions of light-years. As time goes, people are beginning to perceive the rapidly diminishing returns of the investments in science and technology [1]. The authority of science in general and scientists in particular declines.
[1] Mokyr J. (2013) Is technological progress a thing of the past? VOX (CEPR's policy portal).

This situation is dangerous, since never before in its history has the humanity been dependent on science more than it is now. Our exponentially growing civilization is unstable. The apparent security of the modern life styles is ephemeral. Human population has grown up to near ten billion - this number is several orders of magnitude higher than the ecologically sustainable population numbers of other animals of comparable size. Moreover, modern humans consume per capita about fifty times more energy per unit time than they would in their natural ecosystem. Anthropogenic impact went beyond the biosphere's sustainability threshold: soils, water and temperature regimes are rapidly degrading world over.

A new challenge for science has emerged. How to preserve the achieved level of progress? How to avoid an ecological collapse and the associated global social chaos and a worldwide decline of living standards?

To solve that task novel approaches seem necessary that would replace the historical confrontation between science and biosphere. Such approaches are apparently taking their time to show up. In the meantime environmental problems continue to be addressed along the conventional scheme - struggle with industrial pollution. "Struggle with pollution" capitalizes all the conceptual depth of human interactions with the global environment.

A major white spot in modern science relates to the question of how nature works when undisturbed by humans: how natural ecosystems - forests, bogs, oceans - sustain themselves. How did it so happen that life in these ecosystems never discontinued and their environment remained suitable for life for hundred millions of years? It is namely this stability and persistence that make natural ecosystems distinct from all, without exception, anthropogenic biosystems including our global civilization.

Historically, in those countries who championed the scientific and technological progress - and who nowadays continue to determine the global scientific agenda - the imperative of an anthropogenic transformation of nature has been most influential. In consequence, wild nature in these countries had been transformed into non-existence. In some poorer countries, on the other hand, where natural forests still exist, there is neither a solid scientific base nor a strong stimulus to study natural ecosystems. Here high population numbers and the associated low living standards dictate a rapid process of selling out the remaining natural resources; natural forests are being exterminated. The situation in Russia and Brazil is, in some aspects, more favorable: besides an independent scientific base these countries still preserve ecosystems with only minor degree of disturbance over much of their territory [2].
[2] Kobyakov, K.N., Shmatkov, N.M., Shvarts, E.A., Karpachevsky, M.L. (2015) Loss of Intact Forest Landscapes in Russia and Effective Forest Management in Secondary Forests as Its Alternative for Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Rural Development. XIV World Forestry Congress, Durban, South Africa, 7-11 September 2015.

The interdisciplinary concept of biotic regulation was formulated in Russia; some of its aspects are currently developed by an international team of scientists. It offers a quantitative proof for the statement that the environment remains suitable for life owing to the impact of life itself. The stabilizing environmental impact of natural ecosystems is proportional to the area they occupy. It follows that natural ecosystems protected from human exploitation should be allowed to operate on sufficiently large global areas - such that their cumulative impact is sufficient to keep the global environment and climate in a stable state. When the stability threshold of natural ecosystems is overcome by human interference, the environment will degrade to an unsuitable for life state irrespective of whether we humans continue to directly pollute it (e.g. by emitting carbon) or not.

Modern humanity owes to science not only all of its achievements; science is equally responsible for the ever growing fragility of our world. Our civilization will stand a chance of escaping the approaching ecological collapse if and only if the fundamental science does allocate some of its huge internal resources to focus on the problems of stability (not growth!) - of the biosphere, human society and global environment. One specific task in this endeavor would be to study the ecological peculiarities of Homo sapiens as a big animal species, one of the many in the biosphere. In this article we will briefly discuss two from the longer list of the most important stability problems: the water cycle and human mental health in an overpopulated world. In the concluding section we consider the fundamental ecological problem of big animals as destabilizers of terrestrial ecosystems.

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Where does water come from?

In 2015 the authorities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declared that the next year would become the year of the last wheat yield [3]. This statement was conditioned by the depletion of the underground water reserves in this desert country where the population numbers have tripled over the last forty years. A recent grain exporter, the country remained without water. The available estimates [4] indicate that a similar catastrophe threatens many key agricultural regions of the world, including California, India and China.
[3] Halverson N. (2015) What California can learn from Saudi Arabia's water mystery.
[4] Famiglietti, J.S. (2014) The global groundwater crisis. Nature Climate Change 4: 945-948.

While population numbers in those regions where science was developing remained low, there was enough water. Thus, no incentives existed to study where this water comes from. In consequence, modern science cannot boast significant advances in understanding how the water cycle works, let alone how it can be stabilized. The problem is as follows.

(To be continued. Stay tuned by subscribing to our news here.)