Speed and (Unprecedented) Extreme Weather Events
While filming their documentaries or interviewing scientific experts, our students were told about more common extreme and sometimes sudden weather events, that took place in their locations – whether Singapore, Dubai, Perth or Munich – or in the unique locations where students had the chance to film. For example, our student visiting Lapland was told about the diminishing quality of snow, lakes that freeze much later or whose thickness increases very rapidly, making it very difficult for animals to “fish” – in a one-meter thickness.
Another group of students, who were studying industry impacts on Shark Bay (an Australian UNESCO Heritage Site) were told by a recognized scientist that the sudden, rapid events had resulted in unprecedented marine heat waves and the loss of marine sea grass which acts as a key nutrient for many species. Meanwhile on the other side of the continent, the Great Barrier Reef was experiencing four hundred times more rain than in previous years.
The Local, Connected to the Regional and the Global
As one of the groups in Munich identified, minimal sanitation conditions are not available for all the people on the planet. Sadly, more than one billion people have to practice “open defecation” which creates tremendous problems around the nitrogen and phosphorus that is contained in human residues, polluting water and soil (this is an issue for which the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation raises awareness and funding in search of global solutions).
So, as shown and remarked in the videos of many of our students, small phenomena can be a manifestation of major issues of global relevancy. Unknowingly as a tourist visiting a limestone cave, the residue from our hand can significantly modify the micro-climate and micro-ecology of the limestone columns that need thousands of years to grow a few centimeters; the abundance of swimming pools for the enjoyment of the rising middle class impacts global freshwater use; a tree that is cut down results in the reduction of precious “carbon sinks”.
And as mentioned by another group, “a mere algae bloom is in fact a manifestation of a global issue” – it often originates from excessive nitrogen inputs coming from fertilizers, a damaging cycle that “adds up” to the possible transgression of one of the planetary boundaries (biogeochemical flows).
In an attempt to create balance from the abundance of negative impacts, one group also identified the process of artificial oxygenation as a measure aiming to reduce the negative effects of those industrial pollutants. The introduction of non-native species aiming to end a devastating beetle plague is in fact a manifestation of a planetary boundaries on novel entities (a measure that has often backfired, as identified by one of our groups).
Many of these environmental issues are exacerbated by industry and as stated by some students citing the World Health Organization or the World Economic Forum, they often bring global risks (water being one of those at the top).
Human Endeavors of Global Geological Impact – the Anthropocene Epoch
Videos from our past students in both Singapore and Dubai show – perhaps like no other fast developing regions – the amplitude of a human-dominated geological era (deemed to be the “Anthropocene”). Major reclamation projects such as the hundreds of square kilometers of ‘land’ created in Singapore, or the luxury, artificial off-shore islands of “The Palm” in Dubai, are transforming and affecting entire ecosystems. Student videos indicated that Singapore can be considered a prototype city-state that illustrates geo-engineering on a small scale (as depicted in “New Water”, a film showing how recycled water is one of the main water sources of the country and whose management resembles that of a city more than a traditional nation-state).
Estimations: Picturing the Future From Current Numbers (the Future Is Already Here)
The video-assignments of our groups would frequently refer to the scientific assessments on current numbers and estimated future outlooks if current trends continue (for example, on land-system change, on remaining flora and fauna, on the millions of species that may be gone in the next 30 years).
Many of the quotes inserted in the videos captured William Gibson’s famous quote that “the future is already here although unevenly distributed”. Many scientists interviewed, therefore, pointed to things such as “even if nutrient use ceased now, there would still be a problem for the next 20, 30, 40 years maybe…”. Other videos would refer to the impact of global greenhouse gases “that will be felt for hundreds of years even if we stop now”. (On a similar note, perhaps one of the most interesting video-assignments around this was a science fiction story produced by a group of students who imagined a scenario of lack of key nutrients in the year 2047).
Scale, Key Actors, (G)Local and Multi-Scale Solutions
Engaging in a video assignment such as this one was a prime opportunity for students to acknowledge the role of the few actors (or factors) that shape major phenomena (what resembles the beautiful 80:20 principle stated by Pareto). This was often grasped by students when they realized that certain so-called “keystone species” are crucial to maintain entire ecosystems. That certain parts of a river may play a major role to provide nutrients upstream and downstream. That if the majority of the water consumed (wasted) in households comes from how gardens are maintained, then improved watering practices can have significant effects – locally, regionally and planetary. That micro-foundational habitats (such as sea-grass in coastal areas) are a fundamental part of the megafauna (that significantly sustains fishing and tourism industries) and whose protection brings, therefore, exponential benefits. That animals exposed to warmer waters may die easily and bring down with them entire food webs that are essential to other sea creatures – and marine food distributors. That the disappearance of mangrove trees may lead to coastal erosion and the collapse of entire ecosystems. That certain areas in the world (such as Western Australia) are in fact, global hotspots whose importance has planetary dimensions (so that it also becomes crucial to “transfer learning from one hotspot to another”).
Vertical farming, edible garden, denser cities… As mentioned by diverse groups, “act local, think global” is a thought that captures the notion of scaling up from concrete locations. This is precisely the idea of acting (g)locally, that can be considered as a source of optimism, particularly now, in an increasingly urbanized planet. As one group declared, champion-type actions taken by cities (on transportation, energy use, waste, CO2 emissions, or urban farming) can have a global impact when orchestrated and put in practice by multiple cities, (also stated by some student videos that looked at smart cities).
In search of solutions, many of these industry-environment issues prompted students to emphasize the need to understand the life-cycle assessment techniques e.g. of a plastic bag, of a bottle of wine and the energy and water involved in their production. Our video assignments would invite students to think about long-term plans and the many challenges involved in scaling up solutions e.g. can aquaponics be a viable business for midsize firms or can it be a massive commercial solution, with its limited impacts on water and nitrogen use?
It is this “zooming in” and “zooming out” (sometimes with the technical assistance of Google Earth) that would facilitate students to continue grasping the magnitude of industry impacts in a human-dominated planet, in which business activity is shaping a new geological epoch. Efforts in one region may be exposed as highly vulnerable if there is an absence of actors involved at multi-scalar levels.
As shown by many of our groups, the micro is connected with the macro, small items with big events, our daily life with the global picture (of global sustainability). Just think about the brutal effects of food waste from an environmental point of view. It is estimated that a huge percentage of global food production fails to be utilized – translating to water, fertilizers, land and CO2 emissions to be used in vain. In our cities, as described by one of the assignments, “cosmetic filtering” only adds to this problem, in which sellers and consumers discard perfectly edible food for mere aesthetic reasons. Changing cultural patterns is a must. Perhaps next time you are in a restaurant, if there is food left, do not be shy to ask for a “doggie bag”. Small actions have a global scale impact. Sure, “baby steps”, as one group defined them, or “small wins” are needed – in our own home, in our own office, in our own city. But sensitivity to scale is not enough. Multi-scalar and multi-stakeholder organizations and actions are needed. We will explore this topic in our next blog entry, as it has been explored in this fascinating, on-going video assignment.