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A Better Kind of Earth Day


Pinatubo eruption

Pinatubo's 1991 eruption was a small one in geologic terms.

US Geological Survey photo

Earth Day comes each year, offering pablum instead of insight, and I don't see a healthy respect for the planet coming from it. There's a dangerous strain of thinking about the Earth as we move into this new millennium. It's the delusion that Earth is ours and that its best use is to be our cradle, that Earth is supposed to be a nice place, and if it turns against us then we are to blame. Earth Day is no longer a teach-in about science, but a tepid sermon on the evils of technology.

But Earth is not our friend. Earth does not share our moral sense. Earth is not acquainted with respect or perfection or retribution. We are here to celebrate Earth Day only because Earth is a lucky planet and, so far, we have been a lucky species.

Let me recap some of what geologists have taught us.

Life: A Tenacious History

Earth formed along with the Sun, a star born in the hot wreckage of a supernova that enriched it in freshly made heavy elements. Earth was at just the right distance from the Sun to enjoy liquid water. Its balance of ingredients, heavy elements included, ensured it a radioactive heat supply. Earth has always had a good supply of warm water.

Water kept Earth livable after the great bombardment of 4 billion years ago, the final stage of planetary formation, that left all the solid planets (and Mercury, Moon, and Mars to this day) paved with impact craters. Water lubricated its interior and eased the melting process, helping maintain geochemical variety in its crust through constant plate-tectonic mixing of the mantle. None of our sister planets had this boon.

The oldest rocks extant testify that Earth had life 4 billion years ago, the moment it was possible. Internal heat kept microbial life alive underground even when "snowball Earth" conditions covered the whole globe with glaciers during the Proterozoic Eon—then happened again and again.

Extinction, the Biologic Default

Life is tenacious, but catastrophe after catastrophe pushed it to the edge. Volcanism, cosmic impacts, global glaciations, atmospheric upsets, oceanic stagnations, and continental rearrangements killed thousands of species. Several well-documented mass extinctions wiped out most of Earth's species during the last half-billion years alone, the Phanerozoic Eon.

Surely these events happened in earlier times too, although the fossil record is too sparse to prove it. Surely they have not stopped. And surely they have no moral meaning.

One highly successful line of living things was erased after 200 million years—the trilobites. They finally perished at the end of the Permian Period from a long series of cataclysms, in the greatest mass extinction we know of. The dinosaurs, too, endured environmental insults until an enormous impact event at the close of the Cretaceous Period left the world first burned to the ground, then shrouded in freezing darkness for many months.

Humanity, the Frail Latecomer

Compared to these events, the human species and its million-year struggle with the Pleistocene ice ages are a minor drama. Our disruptions in the balance of nature, the deserts enlarged and rainforests leveled and species exterminated, are small items in the big picture. Those things happen all the time in geologic history, and Earth recovers with scarcely a scar.

When the next great volcanic episode or asteroid impact or ocean-current flip-flop occurs, then we'll see what kind of mastery we have over planet Earth. Even ordinary climate variation severely tests our ability to survive. Earth is not fragile—we are. Earth doesn't need to be saved—we do.

Toward a Better Earth Day

One of the deepest impulses in human culture, said the mythologist Joseph Campbell, stems from the unavoidable conflict of two things, the necessity that we must kill to live and the empathy we feel for what dies. That conflict leads to rituals that "primitive" societies follow, apologizing for the killing we must do. The people still kill, but not lightly.

Today's Earth Day ritual is all empathy and no necessity, a sign of lost balance. We celebrate our love for Earth but repress our need to exploit it.

So perhaps a more fitting thing to do on Earth Day is to release a new species that we have intelligently designed to thrive in our degraded environment. Or to take precious metal, render it back into worthless oxides, and scatter it in the sea. Or to publically destroy a single redwood tree, along the lines of the Burning Man celebration, just to acknowledge the power we have to do so. If our culture can let the government put innocent people to coldblooded death, and if it can watch its cultural heritage be rewritten for the profit of entertainment corporations, then these aren't outrageous suggestions.

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