What happens when we get the Fundamental Concept wrong?
Misdirection happens. Miss-prioritization happens. People find space for denial. We focus on symptoms and not the cause. We enable the convenience and illusion of false narratives to be given equal credibility with reality. More critically, you cannot solve a problem when you miss-define or miss-diagnose it. We aim instead, as Joel Saladin(*1) suggests, at the bull’s eye of the wrong target.
Too often I see headlines, banners, posters, like the following:
Climate change: Carbon emission promises ‘put Earth on red alert’
26 Feb 2021
Can the Earth Be Saved?
10 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP SAVE OUR PLANET
Save the Earth
50 easy ways to save the planet
The ‘Blue Marble’, aka our incredible planet is in trouble
When we say that the planet is in trouble, we deny the truth. When we say ask if the earth can be saved, we imply that the problem is the Earth’s or the Planet’s – a problem not of our making. And if the problem is not of our making, then it is not our problem to solve. We can create a self-serving narrative where we are just an innocent bystander and not a causal agent.
But truth is
THE PLANET IS FINE –
THE PLANET DOES NOT NEED SAVING.
Planet Earth is 4.54 billion years old (+/- 50 million years) (*2). The earliest fossil record of life is 3.5 billion years ago, but chemical evidence indicates early microbial life could date back to 3.7 billion years ago (*3). The early atmosphere was high in methane and without oxygen since photosynthesis did not begin until 2.5 billion years ago (The Great Oxidation Event) when cyanobacteria evolved (*4). It would not be until 800 million years ago that multicellular organisms would evolve(*3). .Biodiversity would take center stage during Cambrian Explosion (Cambrian Period: 541-485 million years ago) (*3). By the end of the Cambrian Period nearly all the major forms of life had representation and the foundation of our current ecosystems had been established.
We, Homo sapiens, originated in Africa about 315,000 years ago(*5). About 200,000 years ago, we began our diaspora from Africa. By 40,000 years ago, we were well established in Eurasia and, by 15,000 years ago, we were the sole surviving species of Hominids (*5).
In Earth’s history there have been 5 mass extinction events. Those are short geological periods (2.8 million years) in which approximately 75% or more of all the species on earth are lost (*6). The big 5 are:
Ordovician-Silurian Extinction: 444 million years ago 85% of all species lost(*7)
Devonian Extinction: 365 million years ago 75% of all species lost(*8)
Permian-Triassic Extinction (the Great Dying): 252 million years ago 90% of all species lost(*9)
Triassic-Jurassic Extinction: 210 million years ago 80% of all species lost(*7)
Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction: 65 million years ago 76% of all species lost(*7)
While there was a tremendous loss of life in the extinction events, each of those events provided the opportunity for new species and new ecosystems to evolve and adapt to the new climates of Planet Earth. Every species has an optimum range of environmental conditions in which that species is most energy efficient. The more time that organism spends in temperature exposures, altered atmospheric chemical make-up, water quality, quantity and form that exceeds its optimal range, the more vulnerable that species is to death.
For example, in the Ordovician, some 500 million years ago, atmospheric CO2 ranged for 3000-9000pmm(*10). Today the CO2 level is approximately 416ppm(*11). While that is much lower than the record highs, it is still significantly higher that the 180-280ppm range (*10) that hosted and supported early humans as we developed cities, civilization and agriculture.
As to temperature, the Ordovician global average temperature was 10°C (18°F) higher than today(*10). During the Last Glacial Maximum (23,000-19,000 years ago) the average global temperature was 7.6°C (47°F) or some 7°C (13°F) colder than 2019(*12 ). While that is average global temperature, the Arctic was 14°C (25°F) colder than the average global temperature(*12 ). In March 2020, the averaged global land and ocean surface temperature was 1.16°C (2.09°F) above the 20th century average of 12.7°C (54.9°F) and the second highest in the 141-year record (*13).
As species become extinct, ecological interactions are weakened and broken contributing to the disapperance of other species. “Extinction breeds extinction” as species loss cascades through an ever increasingly fragile ecosystem that falters and then collapses(*14) . Of all the species that have every existed, 99% are extinct(*7).
As the planet stabilizes into it a new climate dynamic, new species evolve and the diversity of life on earth continues in a new form. The planet has repeated this process from no life to first life to mass extinction to second life to today, the 6th cycle of life.
The biggest cause of mass extinctions in the past has been major alterations/disruptions to the Earth’s carbon cycle(*7). At times, change in the carbon cycle has been about rapidly increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions that also generated large lava flows. These events lead to ocean acidification and a reduction of dissolved oxygen in the water (anoxia) (*7). In other mass extinction events, atmospheric CO2 was rapidly pulled from the atmosphere by the weather of geological formations or the sequestration by plants(*7).
If we look at the environmental issues of today, we see many of the same issues. We have Climate Change –Climate Crisis, Global Warming, Rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, Sea Level Rise, Deoxygenation of the Ocean, Biodiversity Loss, Ocean Acidification, Habitat Loss, Coral Reef Degradation, Marine Heat Waves andExtreme Weather Events.
But this time, the underlying cause is the action of a single species, Homo sapiens, us.
Humans are a unique species. We are an everywhere species. We have humans living in all biomes, underwater and in outer-space. We are the only species that makes trash – and we do so purposely. We are the only species that does not live off of local contemporary resources. Our food supply is backed by a global supply chain. Humans control 57% of the flow of freshwater (*15). I can drink water from the tap, or bottled water from Iceland, France, Fiji, or multiple other places. We have been able to do this, because we are the species that uses and exploits the ancient necrosphere(*16) – fossil fuels.
The planet did not dig coal, drill for oil or frack for natural gas and then burn them to release greenhouse gases – we did.
The planet did not cut down rain forests to grow palm oil plantations, or pave the prairies, or replace meadows with concrete, bricks and steel or turn soil into dirt – we did that.
The planet did not overfish the ocean, turn whales into lubricants and fuel, or create plastic – we did that.
We released the excessive greenhouse gases that raised the temperature of the planet, which then changed the water cycle, which changed the rain, drought and fire patterns.
We reduced the capacity of the land and the ocean to absorb CO2 that lead to massive coral bleaching, marine dead zones, and ocean acidification.
The planet did not create the conditions for our recent Pandemics, Food Insecurity, or our Climate Refugees – we did that.
Those things may not have been our intention, but they are the result of our cumulative, collective and continuous action fostered by the mythology that we can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet while disregarding our environmental impacts.
We are not going to save the planet. It has been here for 4.54 billion years. Currently we are part of the 1% that makes up the speices currently living on Earth. At some point we will just become one of the 99% of species that used to live here.
The environmental issues of concerns we face are symptoms. They are responses and reactions of the current life support system of the planet to our actions.
Once we recognize and take responsibility for the reality that we, Homo sapiens, have become both a self-harming species as well as a planetary liability to all other species in the 6th cycle of life on Earth, we can focus on creating and implementing solutions.
So please, no more “Save the Earth.” The fundamental concept/question is:
WILL WE SAVE OURSELVES–
*1 Salatin, Joel. 2008. Fuel, Inc. documentary
*2 Age of the earth, National Geographic,
*3 Early Life on Earth – Animal Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
*4 The Ocean Throughout Geologic Time, An Image Gallery, Smithsonian
*5 Wong, Kate. Sept.1, 2020. How Scientists Discovered the Staggering Complexity of Human Evolution, Scientific American.
*6 Saltré, Frédérik and Corey J. A. Bradshaw. Nov. 12, 2019. What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now? The Conversation.
*7 What are mass extinctions, and what causes them? National Geographic.
*8 Mass Extinction Events, American Museum of Natural History.
*9 Hoffman, Hillel J.The Permian Extinction—When Life Nearly Came to an End
*10 Mulhern, Owen. Aug 12, 2020, A 4.5 Billion-Year History of CO2 in our Atmosphere. Earth.Org
*11 Atmospheric CO2, February 2021. CO2.earth
*12 Dunham, Will. 01 Sept. 2020. Scientists have figured out just how cold the last Ice Age was. Here’s why it matters. World Economic Forum
*13 Global Climate Report – March 2020. NOAA
*14 Earth.org. June 4th, 2020 Sixth Mass Extinction of Wildlife Accelerating- Study
*15 Dockrill, Peter. 7 March 2021. Humans Now Control The Majority of All Surface Freshwater Fluctuations on Earth. Science Alert
*16 Sala, Enric. 2020. The Nature of Nature: why we need the wild. Page 125. National Geographic Partners, LCC. Washington D.C.