The Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, Paul J. Crutzen is considered to have coined the term ‘Anthropocene’, using it in reference to the indelible mark that human activity has now left on our planet’s natural systems and geological record. From our position in recent history this label seems appropriate. If we were to step back and try define the very age of life on this planet however, or even that of ‘biology’ itself, it is arguable that this ‘aeon of life’ would be defined by plants and photosynthesis. Plant activity has influenced every facet of our planet over billions of years and this dominance will continue, even when the Anthropocene epoch eventually fades. Plants are the natural world order and they always will be.
The reasons for this are fundamental, in fact, so intrinsic and obvious are the principles involved that they might easily be overlooked. Plants access energy directly from the brilliant fusion reactor sitting at the centre of our solar system – our Sun. They harness a stream of otherwise useless radiation flying through space and turn it into functional parcels of chemicals, which sustain life and allow ‘stuff’ to happen. Because of this link, it is arguable that second only to the Sun itself, plants have had the single greatest influence on our planet’s history. Even the main challenges we now face as a civilisation today have their origins in plant activity. The use of fossil fuels for energy raises levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere and in so doing we harness ancient stores of solar energy that were once transformed by the pre-historic algae or swampy Carboniferous forests. Every molecule of CO2 we now release was once a free agent in our atmosphere, before being captured by chlorophyll and stored for millennia. Plants bestowed upon us this vast energetic legacy, which has enabled the very essence of our technological civilization – and its Anthropocene – to occur.
So if plants are, in some way, the origin of our problems, can they perhaps be part of our solution? It is an under-appreciated fact of plant biology in the Anthropocene that our planet’s mean, green, terraforming machines are adapting and somehow ‘losing’ a lot of the carbon dioxide we release. This is referred to as the terrestrial carbon ‘sink’. The big mystery about the sink is that nobody knows quite where it is, or exactly how it works. It appears, however, that plants are able to buffer our biosphere against some of the negative effects of human activity – and this may offer us some breathing space against sudden climate change. The terrestrial ‘sink’ is an established part of the dynamic models we use to predict global carbon budgets – and it would seem as if this were simply a tenuous ‘fudge-factor’ in these models, were it not for the principles underlying it being relatively simple. CO2 is the ‘food’ that plants live on, so the thinking is that more of it in the atmosphere means benefits for photosynthesis and so plant growth accelerates. Somewhere out there, a lot of plants may be doing well on an abundance of CO2. Finding out exactly where this occurs, or even for how long it will actually continue to operate, is another matter, however.
As the precariousness of our position as custodians of the planet becomes more apparent, our efforts are directed towards a future based on ‘sustainable development’. This ethos is usually defined as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. As part of this challenge we are taking bold new steps to develop ‘green’ technologies, and incorporate renewable energy and materials recycling into our planning. Our ingenious way of looking at the world seeks to overcome our problems by focussing on the development of new technologies, human systems or practices that will reduce our collective impact on the planet. Yet, with all this attention on innovation and rebalancing, perhaps we are overlooking something very basic. At its essence, the ethos underlying sustainable development pretty much describes what plants do – and have always done. They are the drivers of the giant biogeochemical cycles of life. They have been subsuming, recycling and transforming planet-sized quantities of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen in order to sustain every corner of our planet, since life itself began.
We need to appreciate this sense of scale for a moment, if we are to meet our future challenges. We should accommodate the power and diversity of these natural photosynthetic systems into our strategy for the future. The importance of supporting, monitoring, valuing and accounting for the benefits of plant activity should not be underestimated. By undertaking this, plants can enable us to help ourselves. Plant activity should be the principal component underlying any chosen vision for our sustainable future.
An anthropic view that tries to place us central to the problem and its solution has its place, but history suggests plants will ultimately, succeed.
Follow Alan on twitter: @alanjones_eCO2
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