Fifty years ago I picked up a copy of Look magazine, which had in it photographs taken during the just completed voyage of Apollo 8 to the moon. Look magazine was the “also-ran” to the more famous Life magazine, both being large glossy magazines full of color photographs. I was then a fifteen year-old science fiction fan, so naturally I anticipated eagerly the photographs from Apollo 8 that I knew would be in the magazine.
There for the first time I saw the photograph since known as “Earthrise”, which shows the Earth in the distance, surrounded by an endless black nothingness, and in the foreground the desolate and forbidding lunar landscape. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. To a science fiction fan, Earth was the place you left, a kind of boring classroom globe, minus the national boundaries, of course. Instead, I saw something that sent a chill up my spine that I still remember.
Over the past half century, at times I’ve pondered why that picture struck me so. I’ve come to the realization that the best explanation is in an analogy. It is as though I had been blind from birth, and had at some point gained my sight. For the first time, I had seen the face of my mother.
And she is beautiful beyond words.
“Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the Earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive.” So wrote the biologist Lewis Thomas, words quoted at the start of James Lovelock’s book “The Ages of Gaia”.
During the beginnings of the space program in the 1960s, Lovelock, also a biologist, had been hired by NASA to help with the search for life on Mars. While working on that, Lovelock realized that life on a planet could reveal its presence indirectly via its atmospheric composition. Earth’s atmosphere contains an enormous amount of free oxygen, which couldn’t be sustained over time without its being part of the life cycle. Why not? Because oxygen is a very reactive element, meaning that it sort of “wants”, very badly, to be combined with other elements into chemical compounds (the best example being water, H2O).
It is life that continually sustains the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. And that isn’t the only way that the presence of life affects the Earth. Without here going into the details (plenty of books etc. out there on the subject), life doesn’t simply adapt to its environment; on a planetary scale, it also adapts the environment to itself, helps to render the Earth a place where life can not only exist, but thrive.
This view of the Earth and the biosphere as an inextricably bound-together whole Lovelock named Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess. This idea was slow to gain acceptance, especially in the scientific community, and it remains controversial. What isn’t controversial is that, even in the minimalist view of the idea, the biosphere does exhibit feedback mechanisms that act to regulate the environment in ways conducive to life.
When people look at the Earthrise photograph, many tend to remark on how fragile the Earth looks, like some beautiful but delicate Christmas ornament (an appealing image perhaps because the picture was taken on Christmas Eve). It’s therefore unsurprising that the photograph was an inspiration to the budding environmental movement of the time. The Earthrise photograph helped to foster the idea that human beings with their out-of-control pollution were threatening the delicate biosphere depicted in the photograph, and that we needed to work to heal the natural world. Others mocked the idea that human activity was affecting the environment, or that we could threaten the existence of life itself.
I’m here to tell you that both attitudes are wrong, because both proceed from a flawed premise. Nature isn’t something that stands apart from us, because we humans ARE PART OF IT. Therefore, of course human activity affects the environment, our common environment.
But does human activity threaten life itself, as some environmentalists claim?
No, and here’s why. First and foremost, the fragility of the biosphere seen in the Earthrise photograph is illusory, a product of judging things by comparative size. In the Permian extinction event 250 million years ago, 96 percent of all marine species, and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates, were wiped out. Many scientists think this extinction event was caused by the unexplained release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (much larger than the current human contribution). Compared to the Permian extinction, the die-off after the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs was a mere blip.
And yet, in both cases, life survived. The biosphere, it turns out, is a lot tougher than it looks. And we humans are a lot smaller in the scheme of things than we like to admit. The biologist Lynn Margulis once remarked, “The planet takes care of us, not we it.” Far from the biosphere, Gaia, being something we need to protect, “we need to protect ourselves from ourselves … Gaia, a tough [expletive deleted], is not at all threatened by humans.”
Quite the contrary, and here’s the point of revisiting Earthrise a half century later, and both the insights and the illusions that famous photograph fostered. As we’ve seen just this past year with massive wildfires and monster hurricanes, global warming caused by our pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not only real, but poses an increasing danger, not to life on Earth, but to HUMAN life on Earth.
And that’s the takeaway point. We must stop pumping carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the environment, not because it will destroy life on Earth, but because it will ultimately destroy US.
Remember that Gaia acts, through feedback mechanisms, to foster the continuance of life. Not, it must be emphasized, human life alone.
Meaning, long before we humans are able to destroy life on Earth, Mother Earth WILL take care of us.