Human Ignorance Is Growing
[Rachel's Introduction: Human understanding of natural systems is dim at best, and arguably it grows dimmer as time passes.]
Author Name: 
By Peter Montague

Some scientists may not like to admit it, but we humans are pretty much flying blind when we intrude into natural systems. Our understanding of the natural world is rudimentary at best. As a result, many of our technologies end up scrambling the natural world, replacing the natural order with disorder.

In this issue of Rachel's News we learn about three new problems --

** The mysterious disappearance of millions upon millions of bees, whose pollination services support $14 billion in farm production each year. At this point, the cause is a complete mystery, but almost certainly humans have a hand in it.

** A new virus has appeared in the Great Lakes during the past few years, and it is spreading westward through the lakes, killing large numbers of fish and thus endangering a $4 billion fishing industry. The main suspect is ships arriving from foreign ports and discharging their ballast water into the Lakes.

** The development of herbicide-resistant weeds that are creating major headaches (and costs) for cotton farmers. Monsanto's genetically-engineered cotton was created to withstand heavy application of Monsanto's most profitable weed-killer, glyphosate (sold widely under the trade name Roundup). When Monsanto announced "Roundup-Ready" cotton, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Roundup-resistant weeds would develop, because that's how nature works. When a weed-killer is applied, a few hardy weeds survive; they multiply while the others die. Soon the hardy weeds dominate -- and farmers find themselves without an easy or affordable way to manage the new weed problem. Presumably Monsanto's business plan was to stay one step ahead of nature, always having a new chemical ready to sell to farmers, to help them overcome the problems created by yesterday's chemical. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way and the farmers are hurting.

Our Ignorance is Expanding

As time passes, we should expect a continuing (perhaps even accelerating) stream of bad news about human intrusions into natural systems. In a very real sense the systems we are trying to study are growing more complicated as we scramble them, so understanding them is becoming more difficult.

Take the problem of disappearing amphibians (frogs, toads and salamanders). In 1989, scientists began noticing frogs were disappearing around the globe. They identified many causes:

** loss of wetland habitat (rice paddies turning into golf courses, for example, and swamps turning into condominiums);

** increased ultraviolet radiation arriving at the surface of the earth because DuPont's chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have depleted the Earth's ozone shield;

** stocking streams with edible sport fish (e.g., large-mouth bass) that eat tadpoles;

** acid rain and acid snow caused by combustion of fossil fuels;

** increasing droughts and floods, brought on by global warming, are taking their toll on amphibians;

** pollutants that mimic the female sex hormone, estrogen, may be interfering with the reproductive cycle of amphibians, as is known to be happening with fish;

** amphibians may have started falling prey to bacteria and viruses with which they have co-existed for 200 million years -- indicating, perhaps, that some combination of environmental insults has weakened amphibian immune systems.

The truth is, no one know what combination of these (and other, perhaps yet-unrecognized) changes in natural systems have contributed to the disappearance of frogs, toads, and salamanders all across the planet.

One thing is sure: every time we introduce a new chemical into commerce, it enters natural systems and makes the job of scientists more difficult because the system they are studying is now more complex than it was yesterday. In the U.S., we introduce roughly 1800 new chemicals into commerce each year.

As our technology expands, our ability to understand what is going on in nature declines, and we are flying blinder and blinder.

Until we take a precautionary approach, give the benefit of the doubt to natural systems, and do our level best to understand our actions before we act, we are in for an endless parade of unpleasant and expensive surprises. Yes, a precautionary approach would mean that the pace of technological innovation would slow down (compared to today's frenetic pace) -- but it would help avoid expensive problems like the loss of bees, the invasion of new viruses into the Great Lakes, and creation of Super Weeds. It might also give humans a better chance of surviving as a species.