We are developing a Cassandra Complex, we who chime into silence about what we ought to call the Climate Catastrophe. I suppose humans are not biologically programmed to respond urgently to a threat that seems distant. Behind the scenes, the scientists studying our Earth's patterns rapidly revise the outlook in the direction of more severity, and quicker consequence. They are dismayed, surprised, in awe of the snowballing effect. Mark you this: not one -- not one -- study that we've found, in a review of literature from the last four years, has indicated a serendipitous mitigating influence previously undiscovered. All the new discoveries are painting a scene increasingly grave. Like blind men, the scientists have been groping what they thought was the unseen elephant not discussed in our national conversation; what they found they had hold of was rather a dragon.
Indefinite proposals about cleaner energy in the future are not enough. 54 miles-per-gallon vehicles in 2025 is not enough. It is a start; but, by then, we will have sailed far out into the sea of our own peril.
In the absence of answers to my open letter (see below), I am left to muse. Modern people are subject to a back-breaking load of cynical realism. We convince ourselves that there is no hope, and we forget the unfathomable successes that people have accomplished in the past. Since our government is beset by greed and corruption, and bought out by groups who care, each, about their one thing, and only that one thing, we are unsure what it feels like to take a common action, to agree on something.
In short, we have lost perspective of our life here on Earth. We have the equivalent of a major asteroid heading on a collision course with Earth (as one well-known climatologist put it), yet, instead of being discussed in every living room, barbershop, supermarket, and deli, not to mention the halls of government, only the most dramatic developments -- like the record loss of arctic sea ice this year -- get briefly reported. We are muffled in the soft, suffocating grip of human affairs.
Let's step back a bit. When was the last time you looked at the sky? I mean, really considered it, not just glanced upward and gave the names of what you saw: sun, clouds, moon, stars, blue, blue, blue.
When you stare into the blue, you are looking about 370 miles of atmosphere. A bright object, such as the daytime moon, can be seen, even though it is 225,000 miles away. As night falls, of course, you can see much further: generally, about 17,010,518,400,000,000,000 miles out into space, and 2.9 million years into the past. Compare this with the approximately 100 miles that you can see, in the clearest conditions, looking to the horizon on Earth (on a very open plain), and we might suppose that upwards is where we will look if we really want to get a handle on our lives, find the vantage point from which we can see our existence in context. Indeed, our ancestors, without artificial lighting, did interact with the ocean of the Universe as directly as they fished in the earthbound sea.
But, we moderns are fixated on life, on the terrestrial sphere. Actually, we are indoors most of the time. The EPA estimates that a typical American adult spends 90% of her time inside buildings, and, this year, the Nature Conservancy reported that as little as 10% of American children describe themselves as spending time outdoors every day. The main deterrents to enjoying nature? Heat and bugs. When it comes to considering stars and galaxies, most of us seem to regard them as an exravagant celestial wallpaper, less relevant to our daily lives (even though we are starting to realize how truly odd the whole Universe is) than our ancestors considered them to be (though they believed the starry heaven to be unchanging).
This is true of our thinking about our own sun. For one thing, we’re not supposed to look directly at it. This keeps our gaze level with the ground, and it also makes us compartmentalize our knowing of the sun. On a clear day, for instance, we will note that “it” is hot, that the day is “sunny;” but when was the last time you completely considered the sun for what it is: an enormous star, one million times the volume of the Earth -- a thermonuclear reactor sending a tidal wave of energy out through the solar system, washing over the Earth every single second. The only thing protecting us from roasting under the eye of the sun (and freezing to death in the dark night of near-absolute-zero temperatures), the one thing, is Earth’s atmosphere.
The atmosphere is an absurdly thin veil, comparable to the peel of an apple, and it is a mere one-percent of that atmosphere that creates the Greenhouse Effect which makes our existence possible. These gases constitute less of the air than does O2 that we breathe into our blood, itself only 16% of the atmosphere. It is not surprising, then, when we consider that we are dumping 100 times the amount of carbon-dioxide into the air every year than do all the active volcanoes on Earth, that we can really change the characteristics of that one-percent of the atmosphere. It is a real game of chicken that we are playing. The sun is a massive entity, storming our shores at every moment. We are only lucky that our shelter has been so secure up until now.
Let’s take a further step back, however, and really survey the situation. What, after all, are we who challenge humanity to do something about climate change fighting for? In the future, several incredible events will unfold. About 600 million years from now, the sun will have appreciably increased its radiation, accelerating the weathering of silica rock formations, which will lead to a dramatic decrease in carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere -- to the point that most plant life (and therefore, most animal life) will be unable to survive. Even later, the Earth’s axis of rotation will begin to wobble chaotically, sometimes pointing the north or south pole straight at the sun for millions of years. This, too, will wildly upset what climate and habitat zones remain on Earth.
Finally, in a bit more than 1 billion years, the sun will have increased its radiance by 10% or so, and this is expected to trigger a runaway greenhouse-effect, due, this time, to water vapor, such that the oceans evaporate totally into space. The Earth will then endure as a dry sphere of stone and metal, until some 7.5 billion years from now, the sun, now expanding into a star form called a “red giant,” engulfs our planet within its corona, vaporizing it.
So, what is the point of forestalling environmental ruin at this point? Knowing what we reasonably predict about the future of the Earth and the sun, and the unlikelihood of our being able to do anything to successfully change that outcome, why not leave the party early? We are triggering an early round of catastrophic global warming, but we’re not “out-of-line,” ethically, with the big picture, are we?
Well, first of all, there are, in fact, methods being designed, on the occasional sleepy Sunday afternoon, for moving the planet out of harm’s way from the sun. However, that is not the reason to fight 21st century climate change.
People sometimes deride environmentalists as trying to keep things precious and perfect forever -- in other words, failing to embrace change. But, that is not in the cards, and not the point. The reason to save life on Earth now is that we’re only halfway done. 600 million years is also about the amount of time that life has significantly populated the planet. There is a quality to life on Earth that is more important than its longevity, and that is its intricacy.
The intricate weave of life, intelligence, and communication on Earth is what makes it possible for us to have a long perspective, to appreciate Deep Time, even though humanity has only existed for a tiny beat of the geological record. What Buddhists call the co-dependent arising of reality on Earth is only in midstroke, a magical creation, and we are not yet in a position to evaluate its importance.
There is, in short, so much going on here. It is a typically human attitude to both assume that we have the index on the complexity of the orchestration, and also that the significance of this symphony exists (if it does) somewhere in the future. Our planet is bleeding off a signal of life into space, and perhaps into the structure and the meaning of the Universe itself. If we’re going to shut down the transmitter, if we are going to kill the oceans and drive the lands into drought and make the storms unforgiving, if we’re going to bring hell to Earth, let’s be damn sure we’re doing it for a better reason than our forgetting to look up.