Reaching a consensus on what is the most important place in the world would be an impossible task. For the myriad indigenous tribes of the Americas, Africa and Australasia, the forest constitutes a lifeline. In Western Africa or the Indian subcontinent, it may be the monsoon clouds that carry life-giving rains to parched lands. For over 160 million Africans from Kigali to Cairo, it is the mighty River Nile.
Yet by looking through a geographical lens, it is possible to approach this question more objectively. In my opinion, the most important place in the world must surely be the place which is most vital for long-term ecological stability and prosperity… one would think. It could be argued that this place is one of nature’s great biomes. For example, despite only constituting 6% of the world’s land cover, rainforest well-and-truly punches above its weight. Over half is found in the Amazon basin, which receives and releases moisture on a monumental scale, heavily influencing the climate of the Americas and beyond. Wider from east-to-west than the distance between Madrid and Moscow, the Amazon Rainforest is an ecological colossus. Home to over half of the world’s species of plants and animals, the rainforest is also widely touted as the source of future cancer cures – with 70% of plants identified as having potential anti-cancer properties are rainforest endemic.
A place rivalling the rainforests in importance is the ocean. One-in-two people depend on ocean fauna for protein and global trade is also reliant on the seas – 90% of the world’s goods are transported via the ocean. The ocean’s benthic zone, the region at the lowest level of a body of water is also home to the ethereal phytoplankton; a one-celled plant that processes carbon-rich nutrients and sunlight to produce up to 85% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Thermohaline circulation in the ocean moves warm waters from tropical seas towards the poles, warming otherwise frigid regions like Western Europe and cooling sweltering equatorial nations in the process. The ocean contains up to 40,000 gigatons of carbon, sixty-five times more than all of the world’s plants put together.
These huge and diverse biomes, harbours of immense biodiversity and regulators of climate, are being irrevocably damaged. Half of all historical rainforest cover has been lost in the past 100 years and if current rates of deforestation continue, forest in the Amazon could remain in only a few isolated areas by the end of the 21st Century. Even if deforestation rates fall rapidly, the impacts of climate change could render these efforts futile. As the Amazon basin warms, precipitation is decreasing, causing widespread drought-related die-offs. Brazilian scientists argue that droughts such as those in 2005 and 2010 – during which 15 gigatons of CO2 were released – are pushing the Amazon towards a climactic “tipping point” at which rainforest will become savannah.
Tasked with becoming the world’s larder and its rubbish dump, the oceans are faring no better. Huge technological advances have led to super-efficient trawling methods which have reduced the numbers of large ocean fish by an estimated 90% since the mid-twentieth century. Eutrophic fertilizers, toxic waste and vast quantities of plastic have infested the oceans – the infamous ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ constitutes an ocean landfill site which some estimate at twice the size of France. The oceans have also absorbed roughly half of all CO2 emitted since 1750 – or an astonishing 500 gigatons – triggering ocean acidification that is decimating marine ecosystems.
As alluded to in the above examples, the threats posed to the natural world today are unequivocally anthropogenic. Despite having existed on earth for over 200,000 years, humans have infinitely increased their influence since the industrial revolution, becoming undisputed orchestrators of global change. Therefore, when searching for the most important ‘place’ on earth, the question must revolve around man. And despite the fact that non-urban, natural biomes are under the most threat, it is the city which has driven global change. Urban populations consume 75% of all natural resources and are expected to double in size by 2050.
Perhaps more importantly, it is in the city where decisions are made; almost every environmental policy is concocted in a gleaming skyscraper or neo-classical hall. Whether they be UNESCO, the International Energy Agency or the United Nations Environment Programme, their decisions are invariably made in a Paris, a Beijing or a London. At the 2014 UN Climate Summit in the Peruvian capital of Lima, many world leaders advocated for a peak in greenhouse gas emissions before 2020 and climate neutrality by the second half of the 21st Century. Agreements like these, while no guarantee for success, will play a key role in worldwide attempts to stay below a 2°C warming rate – commonly recognised as the threshold between manageable change and unspeakable climactic, ecological and economic disaster.
Yet while the decisions of politicians and organisations are important, it is arguably the availability of research and technological development that is paramount to the positive (and negative) trans-planetary change. Strong environmental policies are all well and good but they would come to nothing without accurate research and statistics – repairing the ozone hole would constitute an uphill battle if we didn’t know it existed in the first place. Equally important is technological innovation – it is no good the government banning oil consumption if there are no renewable alternatives.
Although the core thesis of cornucopian Julian Simon’s controversial 1981 book ‘The Ultimate Resource’ has been widely critiqued, some of his ideas are powerful and thought-provoking. He believes that the planet’s resources are endless, thanks to the human brain’s innate capacity to invent and adapt. Yet for every Charles Darwin or Galileo there are millions of humans who do not innovate. Although fulfilling a vital role in society and economy, the vast majority work in primary, secondary and tertiary industries which do not directly increase the human knowledge-base or develop new technologies.
A surprising exception to this is the ‘quaternary’ industry. This is the industry of the researcher, the scientist and the inventor. While the rest of the world is trapped in nature’s constant cycle of life, the quaternary sector continues to embody much that has elevated the human race above the rest of the animal kingdom. Attempting to understand the world, and inventing ways to adapt and flourish. It is no coincidence that history’s most famous minds were unmistakeably quaternary. Yet how can this industry which is blossoming across the planet be quantified into a place? Research and innovation takes place across a panoply of governmental organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey, private companies like Volkswagen and countless universities. Yet is the latter that leads the pack. Although often working in collaboration with private and governmental organisations, the university itself performs much of the research and innovation – in 2009 carrying out over half of all basic research in the USA. Moreover, the university is the main nurturer and supplier of brains and expertise to other research bodies, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Environmental Resource Management Body.
Although easily misconstrued as a melting pot of bingeing teenagers paying extortionate tuition fees for shoddy lecturers, the university is paramount. These educational institutions are the focal point for every possible Plutarch to live and learn from each other and from world-renowned experts. This elevates natural intelligence from curiosity to expertise. Yet as most under-graduates depart and adopt their place in human society, there are some that remain, taking PhDs and becoming professors and researchers. Each new PhD student asks a question never before asked and thus new knowledge is constantly garnered. In a world where a clean energy supply is a top priority, constant innovation is crucial. In 1929, Robert Atkinson and Fritz Houtermans, while studying at the University of Göttingen, proved that the fusion of light nuclei could create stellar energy. The process, now called nuclear fusion, promises an endless supply of clean energy with zero waste.
Studies of a changing natural world also form a cornerstone of university research. A study taken by Stanford University, California, used IPCC estimations, ocean/atmosphere models and a series of simulations to conclude that ocean pH might be reduced by 0.77 units in the coming centuries, a level of acidity higher than at any time in the past 300 million years. Studies like this will be imperative in building a complex picture of the damage unsustainable consumerism is causing to the environment and breaking the ‘denial dam’, the refusal to acknowledge and act that has so far prevented a large-scale human response to climate change.
Just as isolated Amazonian tribes are utterly unaware that surveillance monitoring recently developed by the University of Missouri is prolonging their survival, many people across the globe underestimate the power of the university. A centre for learning and a huge source of experts and innovators, on a planet that is teetering on the brink of catastrophe, the university is the most important place in the world.
Human Geography and Languages Student at the University of Durham, and low key salmon enthusiast.