Amazon biodiversity could fuel the fourth industrial revolution
A team of scientists led by Carlos Nobre of Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disaster published an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which they argue the need of a “new development paradigm” in which the Amazon is seen as a global public good of biological assets that can “enable the creation of innovative high-value products, services and platforms.”
This means Amazon’s biodiversity and the knowledge of its indigenous peoples could be paired by the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution.
According to the World Economic Forum, “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
The authors hope to replace the dominant economic paradigm because it balances conservation priorities with destructive economic development practices like agriculture, cattle ranching and hydroelectric projects. These practice have caused significant environmental alterations because they require intensive use of the region’s resources.
“The loss of biodiversity and continued deforestation will lead to high risks of irreversible change of [the Amazon’s] tropical forests.” In fact, previous studies have shown there are two tipping points for the Amazon; an average temperature increase of 4 degrees or deforestation exceeding 40% of the forest area.
So far the Amazon has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (in the last 6 decades) and suffered a total deforestation of about 20% of its forest area.
If trends are followed the Amazon could suffer a large scale “savannization” due to high rates of deforestation, wildfires happening more often, longer droughts and extreme weather conditions, note the authors. By 2050 50% of its forest area could be replaced by tropical savanna or seasonal forests, especially in the southern and eastern Amazon.
“We hope to start a revolution,” said Nobre in a statement. He leads a multidisciplinary group that aims to set up public-private partnerships among the Amazonian countries to bring together research and development centers, universities and businesses to make an economic use of Amazon’s diversity and its indigenous peoples’ knowledge.
But how could this be different to today’s paradigm? The idea is to “develop revolutionary innovations in multiple fields,” from the coupling of Amazon’s biological assets with the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s technologies.
“For example, a long-lasting foam produced by a species of frog has inspired the creation of new technologies for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” noted Juan Carlos Castilla- Rubio, a biochemical engineer from Cambridge University and one of the article’s co-author.
Another example presented in the article is the use of alkaloid spilanthol, found in common Amazonian plants, that numbs the tongue when ingested. It is being used in anesthetics, antiseptics, anti-wrinkle preparations, toothpaste, gynecological medicines, and anti-inflammatories.
The authors say we could use available technologies to learn and imitate the region's natural forms, processes and ecosystems. This process is known as biomimicry.
“We are rapidly coming to understand how things are created in nature, and how organisms sense their environment using sophisticated sensors, how they interpret that information, how they move about in their environment using biomechanical and kinetic principles, processes that have taken millions of years to develop, behave and function,” Castilla-Rubio said, as these could lead to technological breakthroughs.
The forest reproduces biological systems and biomimetic solutions on a nano-molecular scale, added Castilla-Rubio. They could help inspire technologies to prevent and remedy pollution, insights in designing bio-textiles and help robotic behavior and cognition.
Examples of biomimicry uses can be found in the Biomimicry Institute webpage. They include the research of humpback whales to create efficient wind power, learning from termites how to create sustainable buildings, or learning from mosquitoes to create “a nicer needle.”
All these advances take time, which is why the team has created an initiative to usher this paradigm. “We have an important choice to make,” Castilla-Rubio said. “The future of the Amazon, and its impact on the planet, lies so clearly in the balance. Time is not on our side, but we can still choose the ‘third way.’”