Recently, I saw co-marketing television ads for McDonalds and the movie Armageddon. I thought it was really weird to sell fast food with a movie that shows the Earth being clobbered by a comet. "Life as we know it is being wiped out. Do you want fries with that?" The possibility that we will all be killed by a collision with a comet or asteroid is a real one. After all, the dominant life forms on Earth were killed by such a collision about 70 million years ago. We know of numerous objects in the solar system whose orbits cross the Earth’s orbit, and there are surely many more that we haven’t yet discovered. It is certain that the Earth will be hit again by a large object. The only question is, will it happen next year or in a thousand years or in a million years or in a thousand million years?
So, why don’t people worry about it? Shouldn’t we have a well-funded and well-publicized government program to locate objects that could collide with the Earth? Shouldn’t we have a research effort to figure out how to deflect a large object before it hits? Why don’t we have such a program? I think the answer is religion. I read in the newspaper yesterday (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1998-09-12) that 45% of Americans believe that the Earth and human beings were created by God much as we are now within the last 10,000 years. Another 40% believe that human beings evolved over billions of years, but that this process was guided by God. That’s 85% of our population that believes that we are here because we are supposed to be here. These people must believe that a life-destroying catastrophe could not happen because God wouldn’t go to all the trouble of making us, just to wipe us out on a whim. "God must have had a purpose, and it is apparent that we have not yet fulfilled that purpose."
This attitude is a major drawback of religious belief. Religion warps people’s sense of who we are and what it means to be alive, here on this planet. We did evolve over billions of years without God’s guidance. The Earth suits us perfectly because we evolved to suit it. A comet collision that drastically changed our environment could indeed mean the death of humankind. No one would miss us after we were gone. (Domesticated animals would have a hard time without us, rats wouldn’t eat so well, and some species of germs and parasites would lose their hosts, but no one else would be the least bit disturbed by our absence.) If we have a purpose, and if we want to survive to fulfill it, it is up to us. We define our own purpose, and we are responsible for our own survival.
This religion-warped sense of who we are affects our decisions about how we treat our environment. It is altogether possible that we are changing our environment in ways that will be disastrous for human life. We could destroy the ozone layer, melt the ice caps, desertify large areas of the Earth, and destroy a large fraction of the variety of life on Earth. These things could happen even without our help – certainly the climate has shifted in the past. But, people don’t believe that the world could get screwed up because they believe it was made for us. "The Earth is perfect for us, and God meant it to be that way. Why would he mess it up? Why would He give us the power to mess it up?" We must undertake a massive, concerted effort to understand the biosphere and our effect on it. Our future depends on this understanding. This effort could be an inspiring, unifying project to which all the world’s people could contribute and from which all would benefit. We need to understand the entire web of life and how it interrelates. We need to understand our climate and our geology and our Sun. Tending the biosphere on which we depend must be the overriding project of humanity for many centuries or millenia to come.
Our effort to understand our biosphere to date has been paltry. Take global warming as an example. The average concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased from around 275 parts per million before the industrial revolution, to 315 ppm when precise monitoring stations were set up in 1958, to 361 ppm in 1996. That is a 15% increase since 1958 and a 31% increase overall. This trend was discovered when one professor in Hawaii started a monitoring project in 1958. After monitoring CO2 levels for several years, his data showed the upward trend. It is disturbing that but for the decision of one person to measure CO2, we wouldn’t have known this was happening. There are thousands of other imporant variables that we are not measuring. Thousands of factors that could affect our survival that we don’t even bother to consider. Atmospheric gas concentrations are easy to measure. The entire atmosphere of the Earth mixes every few years, so measuring CO2 at one place is pretty effective. If we want to know what happens to the CO2 we release, measuring the concentration of gasses in the oceans is also important. Unfortunately, the oceans are much harder to measure, because they mix rather poorly. Understanding what happens to the CO2 on land is even worse. We know from greenhouse experiments that plants change their growth patterns when their CO2 level is increased - they grow faster and produce more roots and fewer leaves. But, we haven’t really got a clue how plant growth patterns around the world have changed as a result of greater CO2 concentration. Some people believe that increased CO2 is playing a role in the green revolution that is allowing us to feed our expanding population. (Artificial nitrogen fixing fertilizers and farm mechanization are other major factors.)
We know that CO2 levels are rising. We understand the mechanism by which atmospheric CO2 warms the planet. We know that we are releasing large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. We have mounting evidence that the average surface temperature of the Earth is rising. Yet, in the face of this, people refuse to believe that anything will go wrong. People don’t want to believe it, and to a large extent, they don’t want to believe it because they think God made the world. Think about it. We have a huge industry constantly, day and night, pumping carbon from the ground in the form of oil. And, another vast industry is digging carbon out of the ground in the form of coal. All of this carbon gets combined with oxygen (burned) to release energy, and most of it ends up in the atmosphere as CO2. Taken together, this vast enterprise is one of the largest concerted endeavors ever undertaken by humankind, and it all appears to be focused on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. If out intent was to warm the planet, we would be hard pressed to mount a larger or more focused project than the one we now operate. There is nothing to stop us from changing the face of the Earth if we try, and even now we seem to be giving it our best shot.
These concerns really should be top priorities for humankind, and that means that these concerns should be top priorities for our goverments. We must understand threats from space. We must understand and tend the biosphere. These should be our government policy, and they have the potential to unite humankind in a common effort with the common goal of survival. But, before this can happen, we have to get over the idea that the universe was made for us and has some kind of supernatural obligation to continue to support us.
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Last modified 1998-09-24
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