A marine bacteria that very robustly pumps carbon out of the atmosphere and into a permanent oceanic carbon sink. From The Economist:

To sumarize, when marine life dies, some of the carbon in the remains dissolves into the ocean, 95% of which can’t be metabolized (called “refractory”). Since it can’t be metabolized, it can’t be turned back into carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, making it an actually and potentially enormous carbon sink that has been largely overlooked by marine biologists until recently. The quantity of carbon stored in these refractory molecules is about equal to the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere.

It had previously been discovered that a certain kind of bacteria (abbreviated AAPB) produces these refractory molecules when it metabolizes certain common nutrients, but on a far more robust scale than previously realized. (The main source of food for these bacteria is phytoplankton, which plays a crucial role in the marine food chain and itself is affected in complex ways by global warming).

Until now, the only known way to stimulate carbon absorption into the sea was to seed the sea with iron in order to stimulate the growth of planktonic algae. However, the introduction of iron has some serious negative side effects. With the new discovery of this very robust carbon pump (the AAPB bacteria, which pumps carbon from the carbon cycle into an apparently premanent carbon-sink), new potential exists for organically pumping carbon out of the atmosphere and into the sea, which has a large capacity to absorb it with ecological damage. How this might be done, exactly, is not yet known. 

This story is interesting in its own right, but what appeals to me most is that it highlights the complex systemic nature of the world in which we live, and the value of understanding it for working with those systems to find solutions that both serve our own particularly human interests, and simultaneously restore disrupted systems to a sustainable dynamic equilibrium.

Humanity faces a daunting challenge: Billions of people desperate to live even in what Americans would call an extremely modest level of comfort and security, and a global integrated system (comprised of biosphere, and the anthrosphere within it; the hydrosphere; the atmosphere; and the lithosphere) already strained by the relatively few who already do.  For the wealthy and comfortable few to attempt to condemn the rest of global humanity to perpetual poverty in the name of environmental sensitivity is completely untenable for both humanitarian and pragmatic reasons (you want more violence and instabililty? Try that strategy).

Our paltry attempts to solve our environmental problems with what are truly systemically superficial strategies are not going to rise to this challenge. We are going to need to effectively redesign our economic and technological systems to become more integrated with the ecological and natural systems within which they are ensconsed, and upon which they depend.

Economically, it means “internalizing the externalities,” incorporating into the prices of our goods and services the environmental costs that are currently not incorporated. Technologically, it is going to mean integrating an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the systems which comprise our world into the technologies which interact with those systems. Together, economically and technologically, it will mean constructing closed systems, in which the waste produced is the in-put in another process, and in which imbalances are addressed by tweaking the human and natural systems through which we operate in ways which restore and maintain the balance that had been disrupted.

First, of course, we need to overcome that faction of humanity more to the indefinate continuation of immediate, on-going, destructive, unsustainable, self-indulgent greed and mutual indifference. Once again, though the challenges we face together are daunting enough, it is the armies of Organized Ignorance among us who ensure our inability to confront and surmount them.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.