Yesterday, a good friend and valued colleague sent me a link. Entitled Scientists discover a stem cell that causes heart disease, it points to work published in Nature: Communications by UC Berkeley scientists, who seem to have isolated a stem cell that sits dormant within an animal’s blood vessel walls for much of its/his/her normal lifetime, then spurs the growth of less-than-fully functional cells. Song Li, the principal investigator, and his team offer this as an alternative to blood-vessel scarring as a cause of heart attack and stroke. It’ll take a lot of work by others to reproduce or contradict these findings. But should the findings be confirmed, and should they apply to humans as well as to mice, they may lead to new approaches for heading off these terrible threats to human health and extending life.
This was the point that intrigued my Earth-scientist friend. “OK, it seems we can extend life indefinitely. Now we need to do the same for the planet we dominate.”
His statement’s a bit of a shorthand, isn’t it? As a 4000-mile-radius 12×1024-pound ball of iron (32%), oxygen (30%), silicon (15%), magnesium (14%), sulfur (3%), nickel (2%), calcium (1.5%), aluminum (1.4%), and other stuff (1%), the Earth is in no immediate danger. However, as a life-sustaining medium for its existing surface eco-systems, the planet’s future looks problematic. That according to another recent Nature article: Approaching a state shift in the Earth’s biosphere, this published by another UC Berkeley scientist, Anthony Barnosky, and his colleagues. Barnosky et al. review the evidence that the global ecosystem, like its smaller, more local components, might be subject to sudden, irreversible change, and that such tipping points might be near.
Hard to say, which challenge – extending human life…or extending the viability of the planet that makes that life worthwhile and pleasurable – is the greater.
It may not matter all that much. The reality is, we have to address both.
[And truth be told, there’s a third dimension to our 21st century challenge. Some among us might be reluctant to admit this, but addressing our spiritual condition might be the necessary starting point. Before you balk, run a simple thought experiment. Imagine first that you have found – independently of and external to your physical and financial circumstances, your fame, your power, or health – a basis for meaning in your life, your relationships, and your work. Imagine that this basis has less to do with what others do for you than what you are able to do for them. Imagine that you focus each day, in each task, on what energizes you. Then, whatever the outcome, you’re likely to enjoy every day of your life. Now imagine instead, that you are unable to find any meaning or purpose in your life larger than your bank account, or your material success (measured by any metric…your choice). Imagine that you’re spending each day striving and driven, and finding yourself at day’s end drained and spent. Then regardless of the outcome, you’re likely to find yourself dissatisfied, empty, wanting more. Note that this is a choice, and you and I alone make it. No one else, and no external circumstances, however fortunate or terrible, can influence our choice either way.]
In a way, the two pieces of research have a similar story. Ecologists have long-noted that the Earth’s biota have over the course of billions of years modified conditions at the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere to suit their purposes. For hundreds of thousands of years, that’s been true of the human race as well. But recently, much as those sleeper stem cells awaken , we humans have become extraordinarily more “successful” – increasing our numbers, our per capita consumption of resources, and our rate of social and technological change – all within one or two human life spans. The result threatens to be disruptive rather than beneficial.
Stay tuned. This is where human history gets a lot more interesting. And you and I had the good fortune to stumble along into this unique circumstance…more rare (in fact unprecedented), and certainly more consequential, than any transit of Venus.
Feeling energized? Or drained?
 This particular point…focusing on what energizes you, and what drains you…and choosing to emphasize the former in all aspects of your life versus the latter…is not original with me but came instead from a speaker at this year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, now underway.