Sunday, June 4, 2017

What does "saving the Earth" really mean?

Some fraction of my readers will have seen this bit by the late comedian, George Carlin, about saving the Earth.  George's comedy often consisted of bashing one group or another, showing their hypocrisy or absurdity, and usually incorporated a host of valid points.  This comedy segment seems to make some valid points, but I want to discuss this as if George's monologue were a serious argument, not a comedy act.

When discussing topics related to "Saving the Earth", the meaning implied by environmental concerns is not to "save the planet" for the reason he gives: the Earth will continue, regardless of any damage we're able to inflict. The planet can and likely will "shake us off like a bad case of fleas".  But the human species is poisoning itself with the by-products of our industry, and our garbage.  Look around at all the threats to our environment:  greenhouse gases, oil and toxic chemical spills, release of radioactive materials, lost of habitat for non-human species, the danger to honeybees ... the list is long and diverse. 

If we manage to kill ourselves off by means of damaging the environment, then indeed life on Earth will go on without us, but it will be very different from life as we've known it.  Our absence will be a blessing to most of the surviving species on the planet.  We can't survive without them, but many of them will prosper after we're gone.  Our domesticated plants and animals will adapt to their life without us, or die.  In a few thousand years, most of human impacts on the planet will have crumbled to dust and be mostly invisible.  A new ecosystem will be established and little or no record will exist of all our accomplishments for good ... or that turned out to be harmful

What environmentally-concerned people really mean when they "Save the Earth" is something like "Save us from poisoning ourselves and destroying the ecosystem that sustains our lives."  It's clear that barring extraterrestrial or divine intervention, the only way we can be saved is by our own deeds.  Our children and grandchildren will have to deal with the mess we're leaving them as part of their inheritance from us.  What anger and frustration might they feel for our poor stewardship of what we inherited from our forebears?  We were given the gift of fossil fuels and we're in the process of squandering that legacy on self-indulgence and greed, and there are enough of us now that it's beginning to have an impact on the atmosphere and the world's ecosystems.  The military is concerned about that future world with anthropogenic global warming and its associated ea-level rise.  Many modern businesses have recognized the inevitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources rather than continuing the folly of our dependence on the finite quantity of fossil fuels that remain.  If these very conservative segments of our society are concerned, should we not be?

Yes, George Carlin, species have been dying out for so long as life has existed, but the present extinction rate is approaching that of an "extinction event" and, given the interdependencies we're just now learning about, this can have serious consequences for the human species. As we learn more about ecology, the continuing message is that it's not a choice between us and other species - we depend on them far more than they depend on us.  We don't know enough ecology yet to make detailed predictions, but if non-human species extinctions accumulate at an accelerating pace (which is evidently happening), the impact on humans may well become critically negative at some future tipping point.

If you're just not worried about these things, then you're contributing to the challenges to our very survival we confront ... together!  We'll either address these issues and work together to solve them, or we literally could die off together as a species.  Our transient impact on the planet will be erased and repaired in our absence over a geologically short time interval (a few thousand years).  All the things in which we pride ourselves will decay and disappear; the only evidence remaining will be a deposit of our trash and its decay products, not dissimilar to the thin layer of iridium that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods.  This thin layer rich in iridium in the geological record is evidence of a colossal extinction event that ended the dominance of the dinosaurs and allowed us mammals to begin to become the dominant animals.  Not all that far above the iridium layer,  a deposit of plastic shards, glass, concrete dust, metal oxides, and radioactivity will depict the end of our "rule".   Our exaggerated sense of self-importance may be the source of our downfall.  In this world, there are no guarantees;  our survival literally is in our hands.  Our instincts can betray us. Yes, George Carlin, I worry about a lot of things, and try to do what I'm able to do about it.  Our current corrupt and environmentally-destructive political regime should worry you, too.

I close with the following poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


Loretta McKibben said...

Hmmmm... I heartily agree with a lot of your post. But you said, "A new ecosystem will be established and little or no record will exist of all our accomplishments for good ... or that turned out to be harmful." The "new ecosystem," post-Humans, whatever it turns out to be and whatever plants and animals manage to survive will itself BE the LASTING RECORD of our existence on Earth, our legacy. I hardly call that "little or no record." Any doubts, listen to an oceanographer talk about the trouble our water planet is in, the most sobering destruction in my mind since life began there. Of course, it matters what time scale you are talking, and whether or not the continents have been recycled enough to destroy the geologic evidence. Humans are causing an extinction-level event, likely equivalent to the asteroid from 65 million years ago and the other four major extinction events throughout Earth's planetary lifetime. In terms of the next several billion years, if another technological civilization--Terran or otherwise--evaluates our actions, they will see the massive dying of species in the fossil record (10 to 100 times normal) and other indicators and will likely conclude, "What a bunch of dumbasses. They had the most beautiful planet in the galaxy, maybe even the Universe, and did their best to destroy it." In our ignorance, arrogance, and stupidity, we've changed the history of the planet. And I don't agree with the idea that humans are incapable of wrecking the entire planet, that Earth will always bounce back no matter what we do to it. There is no evidence for that, but our own Solar System has many "failed Earths" which took another tweak on the evolutionary path: cold Mars, hot Venus, and Titan the frozen primordial Earth. Assault life on Earth from enough directions chemically and physcially as we are doing and it may be a real recipe for disaster. We have learned enough to be truly dangerous.

Chuck Doswell said...

I'm pretty confident you would have to work pretty hard to find evidence of humans on the planet, apart from the debris layer I mentioned, after several thousand years if humans suddenly disappeared, depending on just what happened to make humans vanish. Probably the worst thing would be a full nuclear exchange, which would destroy much of our constructs but leave a layer of intense radioactivity on the blasted remains. There might be some human survivors of that, of course. Science fiction has offered other paths for the disappearance of humans.

I also think that without constant human meddling, the planet's ecosystem would be thriving after the passage of several thousand years without humans. We might be able to wreck the planet (how do you define "wrecking"?) to the point where all life disappears, but I don't think we're there yet. Look at Bikini atoll. The worst thing I can imagine is runaway greenhouse that turns Earth into a new Venus. THAT is a remote possibility now, but ... ??? I guess opinions on this vary.

We can mess up our planet pretty badly, but the record suggests that life in some form will find a way to survive even us. We surely seem to be hastening our own demise, at least. The ecosystem thrived (with occasional massive setbacks) before we came on the scene - we depend on it for our continued existence, but it doesn't need us. The only elements that depend on us are the "domesticated" plants and animals.

As for our stewardship of the planet ... I agree it's pitifully poor.