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Expired · 19th October 2010
Ray Grigg
Dr. Robert B. Laughlin's essay in the Summer 2010 edition of The American Scholar has been getting a lot of media attention lately. What the Earth Knows, written by the former co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, represents one of the two fundamentally different perspectives that are at the roots of environmental thinking these days. As such, he has captured the contradiction of being wholly half correct.

Laughlin is correct that our Earth has experienced "all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict. And it's still here. It's a survivor," he writes. Asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, quakes, ice ages and migrating continents are all major geologic events that have dwarfed any changes humans have been able to inflict. Indeed, the cumulative influence of our carbon dioxide emissions and our "ineffective" steps to reduce them have been minuscule in the larger scheme of things. From this perspective, we could give up all cars, insulate every home, stop flying, pay carbon taxes or vote in green governments, all without any negligible effect. "On the scales of time relevant to itself, [Earth] doesn't care about any of these governments or their legislation," writes Laughlin.

Earth has its own competent way of dealing with atmospheric carbon dioxide. Climatologists may dream of the good old days when levels were at 280 parts per million. And they may worry about the 393 ppm today or dread the 450 ppm we will likely reach before 2050. But they should remember that in geologic history, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have reached 2,000 ppm. Laughlin's reminds us that about a millennium after we have burned all the fossil fuels on the planet, most of the atmospheric carbon dioxide will dissolve into the oceans – they "contain 40 times more carbon than the atmosphere contains, a total of 30 trillion tons, or 30 times the world's coal reserves." Finally, "over tens of millennia or perhaps hundreds", geochemical forces will store this excess carbon dioxide in rocks, "eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene."

All this seems reassuring. Indeed, Earth has been doing its own climate change "without asking anyone's permission or explaining itself," notes Laughlin. Barring other factors, the cooling that can cause glacial periods occurs "at regular intervals of 100,000 years". Climatologists, Laughlin argues, "go to extraordinary lengths to prove by means of measurements that the globe is warming now, the ocean is acidifying now, fossil fuel is being exhausted now, and so forth, even though these things are self-evident in geologic time."

Earth has a mind of its own and will do what it will. The average of one metre of rain per year that falls on its surface has replaced the oceans four times since the last Ice Age and 20,000 times since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Mediterranean dried up 6 million years ago, alligators were swimming in the Arctic 90 million years ago, and Northern Europe was a desert 300 million years ago – about the same time that lush vegetation was making coal in Antarctica.

Laughlin does acknowledge that the extinction of species caused by humans is a diversity loss that can "do damage persisting for geologic time." Nature never repeats itself. Just as dinosaurs will never return again, neither will the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the black rhino or the many hundreds of other animals and plants whose existence we have extinguished in the last 500 years. The impending extinction of thousand more will be final and lasting. If the Anthropocene epoch, our namesake in geologic history, is true to form, about 10 million years will be required for nature to repopulate the planet with a replacement biodiversity.

These vast stretches of time are scientifically interesting. But they don't really relate to us. Our sense of history is relatively brief. And we live mostly in the moment. The Industrial Revolution, World War II and the Exxon Valdez oil spill all seem far away. A mere trillion seconds ago – 32,000 years back – we were primitive homo sapiens recently immigrated to Europe from the origin of our species in Africa.

Our reality does not synchronize with What the Earth Knows. If high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide acidify the oceans and destroy its ecological structure and the industrial fishery that feeds us, we can't afford to wait "tens of millennia or perhaps hundreds" for nature to store the problem in rocks. Waiting for nature's solution is not an option when we consider that our cities contain but a few days supply of food for their inhabitants. Although it's informative to know that Northern Europe was once a desert and the Canadian Prairies were once a shallow sea, this knowledge is incompatible with our present use of Europe and the Prairies.

We settled in communities, planted grain and grew orchards because the soil and climate were appropriate for those purposes. We established our cities along coastlines because these locations were optimal for our commerce and travel. But change the climate or raise the level of the ocean and a minor adjustment for Earth's systems is major trouble for us. Our interests and our immediate needs are so tuned to nature's reliability that we can barely deal with radical swings in salmon runs, grain supplies or oil production. Add hurricanes, rain storms or droughts to our precarious existence and we get some measure of the huge difference between our sense of time and Earth's sense of time.

So, when we express concern about saving Earth, we are really expressing concern about saving ourselves and our lifestyles. As Laughlin's essay might remind us, our entire human history is about as significant as a raindrop during one of Earth's many fecund days. We are creatures of habit because everything we make and do and have is brief, precarious and very, very small. We just imagine that we are important. Earth will be just fine no matter what we do – different, yes, but just fine.