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Scientists say Amazon biodiversity could help fuel Fourth Industrial Revolution

  • A team of researchers led by climatologist Carlos Nobre of Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters published an article today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) arguing for “a new development paradigm” in the Amazon.
  • Nobre and his co-authors write that the dominant economic paradigm of today, which entails intensive use of the Amazon’s natural resources, has led to “significant basin-wide environmental alterations” over the past half-century.
  • Nobre is leading a multidisciplinary group comprised of science and technology experts who aim to set up public-private partnerships among key actors in Brazil and other Amazonian countries in order to bring together research and development centers, universities, and businesses to make economic use of the Amazon’s diversity of living plants, animals, and insects.

Scientists say that the Amazon’s rich diversity of life and the knowledge of its indigenous peoples could be paired with recent advances in biological, digital, and material science technologies to further fuel the Fourth Industrial Revolution currently underway.

A team of researchers led by climatologist Carlos Nobre of Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters published an article today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) arguing for “a new development paradigm” in which we “research, develop, and scale a high-tech innovation approach that sees the Amazon as a global public good of biological assets that can enable the creation of innovative high-value products, services, and platforms.”

Nobre and his co-authors hope to supplant the dominant economic paradigm of today, which seeks to balance conservation priorities with environmentally destructive economic development activities such as agriculture, cattle ranching, and hydropower projects. Because these activities require intensive use of the Amazon’s natural resources, they have led to “significant basin-wide environmental alterations” over the past half-century, the team writes.

“The loss of biodiversity and continued deforestation will lead to high risks of irreversible change of [the Amazon’s] tropical forests,” the researchers add, noting that studies have shown the Amazon may have two tipping points: an average temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius or deforestation exceeding 40 percent of the forest area.

If we allow present trends to continue, the Amazon could experience large-scale “savannization” due to high rates of deforestation, increased frequency of fires, and long periods of drought and extreme weather, according to the authors. The region has already warmed about one degree Celsius over the last 60 years, and total deforestation is close to 20 percent of the Amazon’s forested area. If we don’t halt deforestation and rising global temperatures, the team predicts that half of the Amazon’s tropical forest areas may be replaced by degraded tropical savannah or seasonal forests, especially in the southern and eastern Amazon, by 2050.

But Nobre and team say that the significant reductions in Amazon deforestation made over the past decade opens up the possibility of ushering in a new, sustainable economic development paradigm.

“We hope to start a revolution,” Nobre said in a statement. He is leading a multidisciplinary group comprised of science and technology experts who aim to set up public-private partnerships among key actors in Brazil and other Amazonian countries in order to bring together research and development centers, universities, and businesses to make economic use of the Amazon’s diversity of living plants, animals, and insects.

Nobre also said that the knowledge of indigenous and traditional communities about biomolecules and the forms and processes of ecosystems, accumulated through countless generations, should be an integral part of this new economic paradigm: “Respect for this knowledge and for inclusive development must serve as the foundation for innovation models for the future of the forest.”

The Amazon and the 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.”

By coupling the Amazon’s biological assets with the breakthrough technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution — from artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing to the Internet of Things, genomics, and 3D printing — we could “develop revolutionary innovations in multiple fields,” Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, a biochemical engineer from Cambridge University and one of the PNAS article’s co-authors, said in a statement.

“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,” Castilla-Rubio added.

Other examples cited in the article include the alkaloid spilanthol, found in the flowers, leaves, and stems of jambu (Acmella oleracea), a common Amazonian plant, which numbs the tongue when ingested and is already being put to use in anesthetics, antiseptics, anti-wrinkle preparations, toothpaste, gynecological medicines, and anti-inflammatories. There’s also copaiba oil, distilled from the gum resin tapped from the copaiba tree in Brazil and used as an alternative source of fluorine-xylo for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The researchers also argue that we could use the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to learn from and imitate the forest’s natural forms, processes, and ecosystems — what’s 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, arguing that delving deeper into these natural innovations could lead to a number of technological breakthroughs.

The forest itself often reproduces complex biological systems and biomimetic solutions to problems on a nano-molecular scale, Castilla-Rubio noted, which could help inspire technologies to prevent and remedy pollution, lead to new insights in designing bio-textiles, and inform advanced applications of robotic behavior and cognition.

None of these advances are likely to be made quickly, however, which is why the team has created an initiative to leverage the capabilities and resources of technology startups, corporations, academia, governments, and philanthropists in ushering in the new Amazonian economic paradigm they envision.

“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.’”

Closeup of Spilanthes acmella flower head. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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