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Science Conference Sunrise

May 14, 2024

When Henry David Thoreau said “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he was correct in ways he might not have imagined at the time. In terms of the present climate crisis, in wildness is also the preservation of Earth’s biotic capacity to maintain a stable climate. Though such awareness is largely missing from the mainstream response to the the climate crisis, it was well on the minds of about 70 scientists, writers, filmmakers, land practitioners, entrepreneurs and others who gathered last April in Munich, Germany for a conference called Embracing Nature’s Complexity: How to communicate the value of water- and climate-regulating ecosystems?

The conference program was ambitious, calling for “a higher perspective for restoring and protecting nature,” and asking how we might “insure a paradigm shift in our appreciation for natural ecosystems.” It’s time to go beyond “seeing ecosystem at the mercy of climate,” it argued, and recognize life as “a powerful ally” against a steadily destabilizing climate system.

The conference organizers, The Biotic Pump Greening Group, also sought to create interchange between science creators and communicators, in order to spread the information to a wider public. Now that it’s my turn to communicate, I admit to a bit of overwhelm. There was a lot of information conveyed, with session topics ranging from rainforestation in southern China to agroforestry in Portugal, from social schismogenesis (identifying yourself by what you hate,) to the role of natural biota in reducing Earth’s sensitivity to CO2 levels. Fortunately, a white paper is being produced that will cover the conference in some detail, which I’ll post here when released. In the meantime, here a few observations and thoughts as to why I think this conference was so important, with the caveat that while speaking about this conference and the science entailed, I’m not speaking for it. I’ll let the white paper do that.

Anastassia Makarieva speaking at the conference wrap up session. Antonio Nobre in the foreground.

You’ll notice in the conference title the word complexity. Complexity doesn’t always fare well amidst the reductive pressure of science, which tends to reduce complex phenomenon to their simplest, most mechanical components. A prime example is “the physical science basis” declared by the IPCC, in which perhaps the most complex system knowable, the climate system, is reduced to a single substance, CO2. Meanwhile, complexity also struggles against a constant media pressure to reduce narratives to the simplest terms possible. Add in political influence and the carbon-only climate gets further simplified to economic terms. Joe Biden says “when I hear climate, I think jobs,” and the climate’s living complexity vanishing into a soundbite.

Yet this conference called for embracing complexity, and in particular, nature’s complexity. I find that significant, something of a stance, and an inspiring one, for it indicates a certain humility that often feels lacking in modern science. I’ve also found it clarifying, providing a fresh lens for seeing life along what is perhaps its most fundamental gradient: that of the simple to the complex. If life moves in a direction, this would seem to be it, with the pattern everywhere. Life evolved (complexified) from single-celled to multi-celled organisms, and then from organisms to ecosystems. A tree begins as a single radical and complexifies into root, trunk, branch, leaf, vein, flower, fruit. A forest grows by succession from relatively simple ground-cover to complex, multilayered climax forest. We too are complexities, each of us emerging from a single zygote, the sperm-fertilized egg.

Complexity is also capability, Complex ecosystems elaborately maintain themselves at optimal states, fine-tuning over eons, interwoven and resilient. In it there seems, at least to me, a kind of biotic intelligence at work. Compared to an ancient forest a farm (whether for food or trees) is a simpleton. Compared to a farm a blue grass lawn is a numbskull. What we’ve called industrial progress would be better called industrial simplification, a stupefying of the Earth. As Russian theoretical physicist Anastassia Makarieva, a major force behind the conference, put it, “The biosphere is divided between ecosystems that work for stability and disturbed ecosystems that cannot work,” The latter far outnumbering the former.

To see just what sort of work Earth’s ecosystems are capable of, we need to widen our gaze to take in Earth’s remaining, original forests. Now into view come the Amazon, the Congo, the great northern Boreal forests stretching across Russia, Alaska and Canada, as well as the island-rainforests of southeast Asia. When looking at these forests, particularly the Amazon, Congo and Boreal, which reach thousands of kilometers inland from their respective coasts, a question forms. How do their interiors stay so wet so far from water? According to traditional meteorology, moisture flows inland on breezes generated by temperature differentials. Since cold air is under higher pressure than warm air, the flow is cold to warm. And since water bodies are usually colder than land masses, the theory predicts air will flow from ocean to land.

But there are some problems with the theory. For one, at certain times of year, the Amazon’s interior is colder, not warmer, than the Atlantic Ocean, due to the intense evapotranspirative cooling its tree cover. Plus, the mechanism of temperature gradients, in an of itself, is insufficient to bring in the necessary moisture on its own. In places where tree-cover is lacking, such breezes rain out within a few hundred kilometers, ending in desert. Yet in the Amazon, moisture increases with distance from the ocean. It would appear the forest itself is playing a role, and indeed it is. For one, it is recycling and “begetting” water in ways described by Millan Millan with his tercet, water begets water, soil is the womb, vegetation the midwifeBut the forest is also acting as a massive hydrological pumping system, known as the biotic pump, according to a theory by the same name.

The biotic pump theory, developed by Makarieva and her associate, the late Victor Gorshkov, recognizes the role of temperature gradients, but sees something else at work: evapotranspiration. Trees everywhere, especially those in the Amazon rainforest, emit large volumes of water vapor through transpiration. Water vapor rises as well from evaporation of soil moisture and rainwater intercepted by foliage. This vapor, a gas, takes up a large volume of air which, when it condenses at cloud level into rain, shrinks dramatically, creating a vacuum effect. Air is thus drawn upward to raincloud level as other air rushes in to fill the gap. The result is the the famed “flying rivers” that stream inland over the forest canopy from the Atlantic ocean. Science has know about these flying rivers for decades, but couldn’t account for them, until now, confirming what the indigenous of the region have said all along—the forests bring the rain. Complexity is capability.

Complexity is also biodiversity, beauty, harmony, stability. But might it also relate somehow to love? The conference left me wondering, for the word kept coming up. In the evening get-together before the conference’s formal beginning, I spoke with Paulo Nobre, a scientist who works with next-generation climate models, called Earth System Models. Did he want to talk about computer models? No. He wanted to talk about love. Not as a vague superlative, but as something more integral, something he had clearly given a lot of thought to and which had come to him after many years of scientific work. I wish I had a tape recording of the soliloquy, but it’s essential conclusion was was that love has powers that exceed our understanding, and provides the only way out of our multiple, converging crises.

He wasn’t the only only one. I heard the word more than I would have expected at a scientific conference. But it seemed somehow at home amidst the graphs, charts and diagrams, and I think the reason was the subject. When life is seen in its full complexity and scale, when forests are revealed as rainmakers and ecosystems as reservoirs of biotic intelligence, an awe enters that feels not too different from love.

There is a practical awareness as well, that information alone isn’t enough to stop the destruction. In the Amazon, deforestation has already begun drying the atmosphere, with rains occurring later and later in the season and fires becoming more frequent. Amazon-climate researcher Antonia Nobre, also a major force behind the conference, fears the Amazon is nearing a tipping point, where the biotic pump will fail altogether, and with it the moisture it brings. This situation is desperate, and while new scientific understandings can help guide us intellectually, the motivation to do what it takes will have to come from somewhere else, that intrepid muscle pounding beneath our ribs.

Before departing for the conference a friend asked me to “bring back some hope.” But I’m not sure that’s something one can carry on an airplane. Real hope is in the land. Every square kilometer of remaining Amazon is a square kilometer of hope. It is the same for the Congo, the Boreal, the Indonesian rain forests, intact ecosystems anywhere, really. It’s estimated 75% of Earth’s land surface has been converted to human purpose, leaving a 25% reserve of hope. That’s not a lot, and we certainly can’t afford to lose more. As for the other 75%, wherever we restore land to its original complexity, there we also restore hope.

When it came time to say goodbye, I got a big Brazilian hug from Paulo. “This is not an end, but a beginning,” he said, invoking a sunrise. That’s a good image, for knowledge is like light. It reveals. It guides. This knowledge, about Earth’s capacity for regulation and renewal, is still just cresting the horizon of human understanding, but as with a sunrise, the Earth is rolling us towards it. It feels inevitable.

Rob Lewis

Rob Lewis is a poet, writer and activist working to give voice to the more-than-human world. His writings have appeared in Resilience, Dark Mountain, Atlanta Review, Counterflow and others, as well as the anthologies Singing the Salmon Home and For the Love of Orcas. He's also author of the poetry/essay collection The Silence of Vanishing Things. Lately, he’s been writing about how the climate isn’t a machine with an engineering fix, but a living system that only can only be healed through restraint and restoration, at https://theclimateaccordingtolife.substack.com/