Why the Earth doesn’t need saving (but we do)

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

My cousin used to drive a battered Subaru Leone wagon. You know the kind: it was the low-slung, boxy prelude to the sleek and ubiquitous Outback, and like all ancient Subarus that survived to see the twenty-first century, it was baby blue and puttering slowly but steadily home from the moon. At least, according to the odometer.

It was the kind of car that separates a certain breed of dirt-under-the-nails environmentalist from their well-heeled, Prius-driving counterparts. Accordingly, plastered to its rattling rear bumper was a sticker bearing a wry inscription: “Save the Humans!” implored a Greenpeace-esque whale, entreating tailgaters and passers-by.

At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a darkly humorous joke. A decade later, I think it’s the best environmental slogan I’ve ever heard. That’s because the sentiment it mocks—the notion that humans could and should ‘save the Earth’—is misguided at best and preposterous at worst. Us humans are the ones with serious cause for concern, not the planet. The tongue-in-cheek sentiment of that bumper sticker is dead on: we are the ones in need of saving.

Source: Flickr/jsmif

Is this bumper sticker ironic or prophetic?
(image via Flickr/jsmif)

Let me be the first to admit that this sounds a tad melodramatic and more than a little unscientific. But I am a scientist (a geologist, specifically) and here, I will endeavor to convince you that this is the most rational conclusion to draw from the vast and heavy weight of geologic evidence.

Consider, for perspective, just these select episodes of the Earth’s long and incomprehensibly violent past:

For the first billion years of its existence, our whole sphere burned with angry flames of primordial rock. An entire planet made of lava that shuddered under an unrelenting rain of extra-terrestrial shrapnel—asteroids and comets and bits of other planets that failed to form from the solar nebula. One impact of a Mars-sized object was so catastrophic that it peeled off a wave of molten crust, thrusting it into orbit to become the moon.

In the relative calm of an adolescent solar system, life on Earth evolved, but sheepishly, out of sight, in the dark depths of the early oceans. Above water, the planet bore no resemblance to its current state. The continents had barely begun to grow, rising like fat to the top of a stockpot above the churning mantle. Carbon dioxide cloaked the planet in a torrid haze—concentrations may have been 25 times higher than they are today—trapping the precious radiation of a faint young sun and preventing the seas from crystallizing into solid ice.

The atmosphere then would have poisoned human lungs because it lacked even the slightest trace of oxygen. This gas did not become a major component of the atmosphere until about 2 billion years ago—half the Earth’s age—when the first photosynthetic bacteria belched it out in an accident of metabolic chemistry. For ninety percent of Earth’s history, nothing colonized its continents, not even so much as a chewing-gum smear of lichen. From afar, the planet would have looked aqueous and dull, lifeless and static.

Around 600 million years ago, after the Earth thawed from a bout of global glaciation known as Snowball Earth, life bigger than a grain of salt evolved for the first time. And then it was eradicated by a rogue meteor. And then it proliferated again. And again was flattened. In all, natural forces have quashed the diversity of life a staggering five times. The largest episode, when nearly all marine species went extinct 250 million years ago, may have been caused by the arrival of a new and highly successful bacteria that destroyed the environment that nourished it (sound familiar?).

pull quoteIn the last one million years alone, great ice sheets have waxed and waned at the beck and call of slight wobbles in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Armies of glaciers rode back and forth across Canada and the American Midwest. Antarctica and Greenland swelled and overflowed, together sucking three hundred feet of sea level into their frigid masses. These ice sheets came and went in a matter of millennia, radically transforming the planet with each revolution.

Basically, it boils down to this: the Earth has seen it all and there is little scientific doubt that until the sun explodes—engulfing the planet in burning garlands of hydrogen and helium about five billion years from now—the Earth, like the Dude, will abide.

Good story, I know, but can it help us make sense of the world we live in and the problems we face?

On the one hand, when viewed against the long gaze of geologic time, it is tempting to conclude that we are a meteor of a species, a plague of opportunistic bacteria, devastating the planet with blind greed and the reckless momentum of self-interest. In this formulation—a riff on the standard narrative of environmentalism—the Earth is the victim and humans are the agents of doom.

For example, it’s clear that humans have reshaped the planet on geologic scales of space and significance in the equivalent of a geologic instant; we live in a time for which there is no geologic analog. In a century, humans have rewound the clock four million years to the last time carbon dioxide concentrations were this high. That carbon now permeates the ever-rising oceans, and is curdling its waters into an acidic solution that threatens to unravel the marine food web. New research even shows that the Earth now spins around a slightly different axis—in the last eight years, it has readjusted to regain its balance, compensating for the rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

And those are just the climate effects.

We have defiled our waterways with toxic chemicals, antibiotics, fertilizer, and waste, which eventually make their way to the sea. These pollutants mingle with the islands of garbage that spin, despondent, in the lonely gyres of the oceans. Our refuse even litters the slopes of the deepest submarine canyons, places that know nothing of human life save its plastic legacy. We have reworked the terrestrial surface of our planet with unflagging vigor, and its scars can now be seen from space. Every year, through habitat destruction, inadvertent besiegement, or explicit eradication, we drive scores of other species out of existence.

This all sounds dire. However, one could reach an alternative conclusion from juxtaposing the current state of affairs with a geologic perspective on life and disaster in the universe:

The planet Earth has survived far worse trauma than we could possibly inflict upon it.

Though we are powerful, we cannot grow ice sheets on command, we cannot summon asteroids, we cannot remove oxygen from the atmosphere and ocean or burn enough fossil fuels to raise carbon dioxide levels as high as they have been before. Even our nuclear waste, perhaps our most lasting impact, will become benign within a million years—the blink of a geologic eye (or 0.02% of Earth’s history).

Bad for the ocean, yes, but mostly bad for us. Photo: Shutterstock.

Bad for the ocean, yes, but perhaps worse for people who depend on the ocean for survival—which is all of us. (photo via Shutterstock)

Truly, the mess we’ve created is mainly a problem for us.

We need clean water to drink and bathe in. We need stable growing seasons to produce food and commodities. We need the billions of dollars in ecosystems services that biodiversity and the natural world provide, free of cost, and which we seem hell-bent on undermining. We suffer from extreme weather—just one manifestation of climate change—which causes death and destruction and economic hardship. We mourn the loss of the fisheries we drove to collapse and the coastal systems we poisoned with runoff. We face the intimidating challenge of protecting the world’s low-lying cities through fortification or, more likely, relocation.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, problems of environmental degradation and climate change are not threats to the Earth at large. They are challenges to human survival.

This does not excuse the collateral damage we’ve inflicted on other innocent species. We have certainly destroyed many forms of life, but we cannot eradicate life itself. Life crawled back from the hydrothermal vents and rodents’ nests where it weathered the catastrophes of eons past, and there is no reason to think we will stand it its way now. New life, different life will recover. Except perhaps not human life. Homo sapiens may be committed to the ranks of ephemeral fossil species that came and went in 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. In all honesty, we’re bound there sooner or later, as nearly every species has been before us (except possibly a few primitive strains of bacteria).

If we as a species are destined to go the way of the dinosaurs at some point, then the question becomes one of temperance. Can we focus our hefty primate brains on the formidable tasks of foresight, prudence, and self-control? Can we dampen our eagerness to hasten our fate?

Scientists are hard at work trying to figure out how long we have to choose a wiser path before the costs become too great. However, there is strong consensus that the longer we wait, the more drastic our response must be. Our prodigious intellect certainly holds solutions to the predicament of our species. But first, we must abandon the charade that saving the Earth is anything more than an act of selfish necessity. If we thrive or fail, the planet will remain, just as it always has. Our selfishness may, in fact, be our only hope of surviving.

In light of this, it seems to me that we should reorient our relationship to the natural world. Don’t rally the masses to save the Earth. The Earth will be just fine. Instead, invert the rallying cry of the conservation movement: as the ironic whale has always said, “Save the humans.”

unnamedJulia Rosen will soon complete her PhD in geology at Oregon State University, where she studies ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica to learn more about climate change. She is also a freelance science writer, an outdoor enthusiast, and a lover of this beautiful, fascinating, and indestructible planet.

 

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Does this Backpack Come in Green?: A New Semester Brings New Ways to Save (the Planet)

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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From Pink Sherbet Photography (Creative Commons)

Back-to-school time can bring on a flurry of spending, from kindergartners’ crayons to college textbooks. Several campaigns are underway to help you be a green consumer as you shop for supplies and begin your new routine.

Be a “Back-to-Cool” Consumer with ClimateCounts.org

If you’ve ever wanted to compare companies easily so you can vote for climate-friendly products with your dollars, you’re in luck. Climate Counts is a nonprofit that scores companies on their environmental practices and impact. So far they’ve scored 140 companies (from airlines and hotels to media and pharmaceuticals). By searching the site’s scorecards you can see the scores for several companies in each category, and whether they are “striding,” “starting,” or “stuck.” You can also quickly send companies a message to let them know that climate change is important to you as a consumer.

Climate Counts’ Back-to-Cool Campaign is examining back-to-school advertising across a number of categories (apparel, food products, internet/software, electronics), and educating consumers about how they can express their values to companies making these products.

Chegg Textbook Rental and Re-sale

Chegg—that name is a combination of “chicken” and “egg”—is a company that rents college textbooks, and plants a tree each for each student who rents. Chegg also allows you to resell your textbooks, putting cash in your pocket while diverting your books from the landfill and saving trees.

In my day we borrowed textbooks from the library, but in case that’s not possible where you are, Chegg might be a brilliant alternative.

Teens Turning Green and Project Green Dorm

Teens Turning Green is a network of young people who actively seek a greener way of life. They’re running Project Green Dorm, a campaign that offers on-campus students a no-frills guide to establishing and sustaining a green lifestyle at school: Buy antique and/or vintage furniture instead of newly manufactured stuff; steer towards organic and natural-fiber linens for your bed; and don’t forget to create a recycle bin! The Project’s tips range from using energy-efficient lightbulbs in your study area to carrying the “e-gadgets” with the best carbon footprint.

What are your tips for greening your school year?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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A Little Bit More: Making Do with What You've Got

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “make do and mend,” a phrase made popular during wartime to encourage people to fix anything that was broken instead of tossing it in the garbage. But sometimes, unless you’re awesome with a hammer, it can be difficult to know what to do with broken parts. Enter makedo, a DIY kit that contains eco-friendly fasteners, hingers, tools and more to help connect the stuff around you. It’s great for creating toys—from giant robots to princess castles—as well as more useful objects, such as a small boat. (I’m not joking.)

A makedo gorilla, via Flickr user OliverBishopYoung

I love how makedo encourages you to look at the world through a more eco-friendly lens, and re-examine the value of the stuff around you, by pairing imagination with sustainability. People who live in the United States throw out up to 56 tons of trash each year, according to the Clear Air Council. That’s a lot. By transforming your unwanted items into fun or practical objects, you can help reduce waste — and reduce your budget.

You can buy the makedo kit from Australia for $25 (U.S. currency). But in the spirit of wasting less, why not make one yourself? See what’s lying around in your house or shed, and check out the site for some inspiration. (Another cool website that features recycled goods is ReUse Connection.) You can also spread the philosophy of making do in your own community by reading up on makedo’s educational resources and workshops.

We’d love to hear more about environmentally conscious creativity. Anyone take on a project refashioning found parts recently?

Our series A Little Bit More highlights the “little somethings” that people and organizations can do to respond to the needs around them — things that, if done by many people all around the world, add up to make a big impact.
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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