Books and articles are currently hovering around urgent issues dealing with the increasingly obvious malign effects of human civilisation on the planet’s life support system. They cover diminished biodiversity, environmental degradation, the threat of major extinctions, resource crises… the list goes on.
But there is a missing link between all these, which isn't surprising because we are creatures who have to see to believe, but what biology and geological science reveal is that the earth system that is now so disturbed is ruled both by the very small – the nanoworld world of life that exists in every living cell and which evolved around 4 billion years ago in bacteria – and the great cycles of chemicals that take place in these nanomachines of life across the domains of the air, the land, the waters, and living things.
As James Lovelock proposed, these fluxes keep the earth within the bounds that can sustain life. But they do this on the geological time scale in which a million years is only an average unit. Burning tens of millions of years of stored carbon in about 275 years since the industrial revolution cannot be accommodated within this natural process. Hence our crisis.
And although we have to despair at the possible loss of many of the creatures with which we share the planet, and to try to save those we can, we have to realise that nature doesn't care which creatures play the roles in the system – it only cares about the balance. It was just as happy 252-66 million years with a world ruled by dinosaurs as it is with a world ruled by mammals and, especially, by us. And when the system fails the apex fails with it: as for the dinosaurs, so it will be for us.
7 Pillars of Bacterial Wisdom tells the story of the earth from this point of view and shows how the remediation of the planet can be achieved by acting upon what we've learnt.
The ideas are not entirely novel: Lynn Margulis stated many of these concepts in her books Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (1987). But our deep knowledge of bacterial virtuosity and their potential, in our hands, to evolve new functions to remediate the plant were unknown to Margulis. Not enough people heard Margulis’ message at the time. It is time to update it as concisely and vividly as possible.
Peter Forbes initially trained as a chemist and worked in pharmaceutical and popular natural history publishing, whilst writing poems, and articles for magazines such as New Scientist and World Medicine. A stint as Southern Arts Writer-in-Residence (1984-6) led to the editorship of the Poetry Society's Poetry Review, Britain's premier poetry magazine, where he nurtured very many young poets in the early stages of their career, including Glyn Maxwell, Sophie Hannah, Gwyneth Lewis and Don Paterson.He has written numerous articles and reviews, many specializing in the relation between the arts...
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