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

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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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