Earth Abides

Politicians agree ‘something should be done’, activists clamour for sweeping measures to be taken and most of us at some time or other have picked up a piece of litter out of compassion for our Earth.  Or walked rather than driven to save a few grammes of greenhouse gases from adding to the millions of tonnes already in the atmosphere.  All to save the planet, to try and reverse some of the drastic changes human beings have wrought on the environment.  There is a worldwide consensus that people are ruining the planet, bringing devastation that will leave the Earth barren and lifeless.

Well, that’s nonsense, the planet is fine and has no need for our help, it will recover perfectly well on its own thank you very much.  Yes the Earth is in the middle of a change but the change is not threatening the existence of life, far from it.  It does look like human activity is producing a mass extinction of a level not seen for at least 67 million years, possibly much longer.  Many individual living organisms are in danger and many species will go extinct, quite possibly including ourselves, but life itself will thrive.  All the evidence from the fossil record suggests that after each mass extinction, life returns more vigorous and diverse than before.

The problem is not about the planet but about our home.  Humanity is, to put it politely, defecating in its own bed.  If we don’t clean things up it’s us who are going to suffer, and big time.  We need to stop thinking about grand planet-saving schemes and instead concentrate on keeping our home habitable.  Each species that disappears takes us one step closer to the time when we will no longer be able to live here.  At that point, other life will emerge and take over.  Our global excesses are not threatening the planet, they are threatening us.

written by Toby Murcott, lecturer on CASE’s MSc Communicating Science, and taken with kind permission from his FirstScience.com Blog



7 comments


    Mark

    January 15, 2007

    This post makes some rather wild assumptions.

    Either that the Earth has an amazing power of regeneration, or that ‘life’ ??????? even in a basic form ??????? can survive anything.

    While it may be true that life can evolve to survive in almost any circumstances, given time. It is not true that life can just survive.

    All life on this planet has evolved to survive here, in the environments of Earth. Global warming is coming dangerously close to destroying these conditions, all of them.

    We are not only affecting the heat and air content (as a massive meteor strike would); we are causing the weather, the ocean, the heat, the composition of the chemicals in the air and water and so on and so forth to change. Not to mention huge scary things like the radioactivity in the world.

    I fear that other life will not emerge, as it has not had any time to adapt to the conditions we are forcing upon it.

    Tobs

    January 15, 2007

    With a long term view, the radiation has a life span, the ozone layer would repair itself without any humans about and one day the planet would support life again, I suspect.

    Gwen

    January 15, 2007

    Mark – (not the prof, the one in the comments) – I think you’re seriously underestimating the ability of life to survive. See also: extremeophiles. Once life – and I’m not talking about humans here – has established itself, it is very difficult to get rid of entirely.

    Toby

    January 15, 2007

    Hi Mark

    I fear you’re being too pessimistic about life’s tenacity. There are bacteria that have been revived after thousands of years in spores deep in the Earth, bacteria that have made round trips to the moon and survived and bacteria that are currently growing in the highly radioactive cooling ponds of nuclear power stations. There are bacteria that live in stones in the antarctic, in 4 Molar saline solutions, in geothermal vents up to 110 degrees C, two kilometres under the sea bed. These are tough little brutes and we’d have to incinerate the earth to wipe them out, and that means completely burning every last rock. Life is here to stay on this planet but to misquote Captain Kirk, it may not be life as we know it.

    Mike

    January 15, 2007

    Well! What a fun article!

    Let’s have a look at some of the science here.

    I dont have too much to argue with in the first paragraph, except
    to say that a definition of ‘life’ is required in order to have some
    sensible analysis.

    WRT the second paragraph:

    “Well, that??????s nonsense, the planet is fine and has no need for our
    help, it will recover perfectly well on its own thank you very
    much.”

    A bold prediction and the evidence is given by:

    “All the evidence from the fossil record suggests that after each
    mass extinction, life returns more vigorous and diverse than
    before.”

    It is definitely questionable to predict the future by ‘looking in
    the rear view mirror’. There are other dynamics involved. For
    example, the output from the Sun is increasing over time.
    Where is the evidence that the control mechanisms will cope in
    future?

    “It does look like human activity is producing a mass extinction
    of a level not seen for at least 67 million years, possibly much
    longer. ”

    I presume the “67 millions years” refers to the end of the
    dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. There is evidence
    of a massive rise in global temperature about 57 millions years
    ago and this is currently thought to be due to the release of
    methane from undersea methane clathrates. What evidence is
    there that human activity drawfs these extinction events?

    And onto the third paragraph:

    ” Humanity is, to put it politely, defecating in its own bed. If we
    don??????t clean things up it??????s us who are going to suffer, and big
    time. ”

    Well, I’m sorry but you cannot ‘buck’ the 2nd Law of
    Thermodynamics (Nobel prize in Physics for the first person to
    do so!). Change is inevitable and so is pollution. By the way,
    where’s the evidence for radiation being so harmful to life?

    “We need to stop thinking about grand planet-saving schemes
    and instead concentrate on keeping our home habitable. Each
    species that disappears takes us one step closer to the time
    when we will no longer be able to live here.”

    The latter sentence implies that our survival is linked to other
    species. Why? It also implies that keeping other species alive will
    aid our survival. Why? I doubt that it is as simple as that or that
    we are anywhere near understanding the control mechanisms
    that sustain life on Earth.

    “Our global excesses are not threatening the planet, they are
    threatening us.” Now this might be worth investigating as one of
    the control mechanisms sustaining life on Earth.

    Even if we manage to firstly understand the control mechanisms
    and go on to manipulate them, there are others dangers lurking,
    e.g being hit by an asteroid and the Yellowstone super-volcano
    blowing up.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article,

    Mike

    Mark

    January 15, 2007

    I would argue that I am not underestimating the resilience of life; rather that you are over estimating it.

    “There are bacteria that have been revived after thousands of years in spores deep in the Earth, bacteria that have made round trips to the moon and survived and bacteria that are currently growing in the highly radioactive cooling ponds of nuclear power stations. There are bacteria that live in stones in the Antarctic, in 4 Molar saline solutions, in geothermal vents up to 110 degrees C, two kilometres under the sea bed.”

    I understand that bacteria can evolve to survive any situation, I really do. But I think you miss my point.

    Life’ has to evolve to survive in a new environment. Yes, bacteria can survive in geothermal vents up to 110 degrees C, and ??????? given enough time ??????? could evolve to survive in temperatures much higher or lower than that. But the one thing that life needs in time.

    This is something we may not have. In the past 300 (ish) years, we humans have been responsible for changing the PH level of the world’s oceans, we have been responsible for changing the world’s temperature, destroying parts of the O-Zone and so on and so forth, all in measurable ways.

    If all this can be done in 300 (ish) years, what will happen in the next 300, or 600, or 1500? We are changing many different factors of all environments on Earth.

    So yes, ‘life’ could survive this given enough time. But we are doing this on a time scale far too small for any sort of useful evolution to happen.

    Jocelyn

    January 15, 2007

    I don’t agree with this. Sure the Earth might recover somewhat, but you said we should be making our homes habitable. In order to do that we have to be alive which isn’t going to happen if global warming continues. Our oxygen is being polluted by gases and cemicals that we have set off. I do agree that we have to better our humanity and I think we should fix Global Warming. Which one to solve first is the question. I would pick, without hesitation, Global Warming. The simple reason is if everyone was sick, or dieing from pollution or the other horrible effects of our actions how are we going to better our humanity?

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