Friday, December 11, 2009

Polar Cities and 1859

Making Sense of 1859

from crop diversity seed vault blog:

“Celebrate” is too strong a word perhaps. But this year we observe the 150th anniversary of a combination of events that are still shaping our natural and political environment like nothing else.

In tiny Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the United States, Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in 1859. The Age of Oil was born. Drake’s well produced a paltry 25 barrels a day, not much compared to more than 70 million pumped today globally.

Oil transformed the world. The consumption of it – upwards of 850 billion barrels in total since Drake struck oil - also released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. C02 levels shot up from 290 parts per million to 390, and global temperatures rose by 1C over the century and a half. Call this an unintended consequence of replacing whale oil in lamps. That was Drake’s initial motivation for extracting the oil.

How do we know about the connection between C02 and global warming? Because of another discovery made in 1859. Speaking before the Royal Institution in London, John Tyndall explained that C02, methane and water vapor in the atmosphere trap heat, making the world warmer than it otherwise might be. The higher the concentrations, the more heat retained. The science of global warming was born – born in the same year as the industry that would give rise to the practical and urgent need for the science.

If only we had connected those dots back in 1859. If only more “leaders” were connecting them today!

We now know that we cannot continue to put ever-increasing amounts of C02 into the atmosphere. Actions have consequences. In fact, the consequences of past actions are already in the pipeline. Global temperatures are rising. Glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Extreme weather events are multiplying. And agriculture is beginning to feel the pinch.
What to do? That’s the question.

That question brings us back to the remarkable year of 1859. One more world-changing event occurred that year. And it holds at least one of the keys to how we might address the issues raised by Messrs. Drake and Tyndall.

The event, of course, was the publication by Charles Darwin of On the Origin of Species.

1,250 copies were printed of the first edition (one of which was just auctioned by Christie’s for $170,000).

Darwin didn’t exactly rush his work into print. For more than two decades he had, as he put it in his autobiography, painstakingly “collected facts on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domestic productions…” In barnyards, fields and gardens, Darwin witnessed the results of evolution. Not evolution through natural selection, but through artificial selection carried out by farmers and gardeners. On crops. It was arguably the clearest example for Darwin and his contemporaries of change over time by means of selection.

Darwin brought together four grand observations or theories to explain evolution. First, he noted that there was diversity. Individuals of a species were different. Second, there was inheritance of traits. Differences were heritable. Third, natural selection acted upon the differences. The odds favored adaptive traits that therefore were accumulated. And finally, with time, evolution was the result.

Today, one way or another, we all follow in Darwin’s footsteps. At the Trust we work to conserve the diversity that will allow the adaptation and evolution of our agricultural crops in the context of climate change and other challenges.

Darwin ended On the Origin of Species by referring back to the four elements – diversity, inheritance, selection and time - that together account for evolution: “There is grandeur in this view of life,” he said, “from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”

One hundred fifty years after Tyndall explained global warming and Darwin explained evolution, wouldn’t it be beautiful and wonderful were we to honor them by the simple act of connecting the dots they showed us?

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