Continued destruction of Earth's plant life places humans in jeopardy

July 14, 2015 by James Hataway, University of Georgia
John Schramski is an associate professor in the University of Georgia College of Engineering. Credit: Peter Frey/University of Georgia

Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth's declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable, according to a paper published recently by University of Georgia researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years," said the study's lead author, John Schramski, an associate professor in UGA's College of Engineering. "The sun's energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished."

Earth was once a barren landscape devoid of life, he explained, and it was only after billions of years that simple organisms evolved the ability to transform the sun's light into energy. This eventually led to an explosion of plant and animal life that bathed the planet with lush forests and extraordinarily diverse ecosystems.

The study's calculations are grounded in the fundamental principles of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationship between heat and . Chemical energy is stored in plants, or , which is used for food and fuel, but which is also destroyed to make room for agriculture and expanding cities.

Scientists estimate that the Earth contained approximately 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass 2,000 years ago. Since that time, humans have reduced that amount by almost half. It is estimated that just over 10 percent of that biomass was destroyed in just the last century.

"If we don't reverse this trend, we'll eventually reach a point where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can no longer sustain us," Schramski said.

Working with James H. Brown from the University of New Mexico, Schramski and UGA's David Gattie, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, show that the vast majority of losses come from deforestation, hastened by the advent of large-scale mechanized farming and the need to feed a rapidly growing population. As more biomass is destroyed, the planet has less stored energy, which it needs to maintain Earth's complex food webs and biogeochemical balances.

"As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest," Schramski said.

If human beings do not go extinct, and biomass drops below sustainable thresholds, the population will decline drastically, and people will be forced to return to life as hunter-gatherers or simple horticulturalists, according to the paper.

"I'm not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics," Schramski said. "These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of available on the planet, and once it's exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it."

Schramski and his collaborators are hopeful that recognition of the importance of biomass, elimination of its destruction and increased reliance on renewable will slow the steady march toward an uncertain future, but the measures required to stop that progression may have to be drastic.

"I call myself a realistic optimist," Schramski said. "I've gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we're wrong, but I haven't found it."

Explore further: Researcher proposes theory on how metabolism, carbon affect ecosystem

More information: Human Domination of the Biosphere: Rapid Discharge of the Earth-Space Battery Foretells the Future of Humankind, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Related Stories

Turning over a new leaf for future energy supplies

December 15, 2008

A global energy supply based on biomass grown to generate electricity and produce fuel is a real possibility. According to Prof. Jürgen O. Metzger from Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany and Prof. Aloys ...

Recommended for you

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

Physicists 'flash-freeze' crystal of 150 ions

February 20, 2019

Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have "flash-frozen" a flat crystal of 150 beryllium ions (electrically charged atoms), opening new possibilities for simulating magnetism at the quantum ...

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Jul 14, 2015
not rated yet Jul 14, 2015
just as bad as lipo batterys
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 14, 2015
I wonder what would Ted Cruz have to say on this one. That prick is part of an ignorant but also very dangerous species.
1 / 5 (4) Jul 15, 2015
(Only alternative for the future of the human energy that has just been discovered)
The latest research achievements of water science:
Discover a new scientific formula of water (Answer of the most difficult question of global hydroelectric):
Do not worry because new formula discover can solve the world environment problems (Ee>Ep+ E1at). The use of oil and gas has ended really! This new formula works with its new method (Immersion Turbines in depth of sea water in zero resultant forces). Thus in power generation, water does not exit from the dams! This is a new industrial revolution in the world. All the scientists in the world are in the shock now. With this great discovery will solve the problem of global warming too. It is a scientific fact. I found the answer a question of science that hundreds of years, scientists are looking for answers. The world change soon and new industrial revolution is start.
3 / 5 (8) Jul 15, 2015
I doubt it.
2 / 5 (5) Jul 15, 2015
Unfortunately, none of this reasoning will penetrate the thick skulls of those who believe that there are no limits to growth. Most of those idiots seem to think that capitalism will triumph over physical law.

Necessity will dictate the changes. Most every valuable lesson we learn, we have to learn the hard way. Regarding Capitalism, there's nothing in its nature that says it cannot work hand in hand with efficiency in resource utilization... in fact I'd argue it obeys the laws of Nature inherently. If something becomes more scarce, it becomes more expensive and we use less of it.
Jul 19, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3 / 5 (6) Jul 19, 2015
Please stop whining about us trying to keep you from getting cold fusion.

If you want it, go DO it!

You have our permission and blessing.
5 / 5 (5) Jul 19, 2015
Regarding Capitalism, there's nothing in its nature that says it cannot work hand in hand with efficiency in resource utilization... in fact I'd argue it obeys the laws of Nature inherently. If something becomes more scarce, it becomes more expensive and we use less of it.
Unfortunately, there are at least three kinds of situations where that doesn't work.
1) The ozone hole wasn't caused by mining of stratospheric ozone, and it didn't start shrinking because stratospheric ozone became more expensive. Price signals don't take into account externalities.
2) Price signals generated by humans with steep temporal discounting fail to deal with delayed feedback, especially of those affected are not yet alive to set prices.
3) Increased prices may elevate a scarce resource to a status symbol and increase consumption again, and/or consumers may be rich enough to destroy the resource anyway. See tuna, shark fin soup, rhino horn, ivory.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2015
Please stop whining about us trying to keep you from getting cold fusion.

If you want it, go DO it!

You have our permission and blessing
george is trying to imply that he has a posse.

Isn't that adorable? Is that anti radiation pill salesman a homey of yours? How about that hypochondriac nipponese expat living in a Romanian basement?

Formidable (the french version)
Jul 19, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2015
docile, most folk want to see that work, but it doesn't.

Nobody is holding it back. Remember the 200 mpg carburetor Detroit bought and were keeping from us? Ridiculous. There is way too much at stake and too many folk who looked into it for all of them to be in the game.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 20, 2015
There is no greater threat, to plant and human life, than that being "engineered" by the AGW Cult.
Just one case in point, is biofuels from food crops. What a "brilliant" idea that was and makes this argument for renewables totally absurd.
5 / 5 (3) Jul 20, 2015
]What is missing is a respect for the Earth, a respect for biological reality, a respect for ecology, a respect for science, a respect for life, a respect for conservation.

I note that all the Elephants that were saved by conservation efforts throughout the last half-century have pretty much been wiped out in the last 5.

In conservation doesn't work, then what will? I don't believe for one minute that putting a price tag on things and private ownership will do it.

Future generations should revile us for what we've done, and God help you if you are still breathing when they come to terms with that.
1 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2015
If one truly takes this to heart, then go buy a hand gun - revolvers are best as they don't jam - make a list of two or three people you believe the world would be better off without - be honest, you know at least that many - go and kill those people and then yourself. That will help reduce the numbers of humans killing off the Ecosphere. If you don't or won't, then shut up, because you do not have the courage of your convictions and are just whining.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.