Psalm 24:1; Psalm 8
It is said that the single most influential photograph of the twentieth century was one taken of the Earth from the Moon. It just changed our perspective and it started in us a subtle but significant sense that we are all citizens of the planet Earth.
Now that we can place ourselves more accurately in our galaxy and our galaxy in the context of other galaxies, we are so much more aware of our own insignificance. Psalm 8 could have been written by a modern astrophysicist when it says ‘O God, who are we mere mortals that you would take any thought of us at all?’ Our universe has gotten so much bigger that we can experience a kind of vertigo as to how tiny and peripheral our whole existence is in the big scheme of things.
At the same time, we have an expanding sense of responsibility for the earth, largely because we have the technological ability to make such a huge difference. As Psalm 8 puts it in the very next phrase, “And yet, you have adorned us humans as just less than gods.” It is our capacity to work in coordination that makes us such an indomitable threat compared to all the other higher mammals.
Collectively, we not only started hunting together, we created higher civilization. And higher civilization itself became a collective force that has become almost a life unto itself so that today nearly the entire sweep of learning over the past hundred thousand years that our species has developed on this earth, is available in a few keystrokes on the internet. “Julius Caesar’s wife? Answer: “Pompeia, granddaughter of Sulla”, and she has her own entry on Wikipedia.
Buckminster Fuller observed that the rate of knowledge doubled approximately every century until 1900. By mid-century, it doubled every 25 years. At the moment, we estimate that our total human knowledge base doubles approximately every year.
Right now, we are also living through this period of compounding efficiency. You think of an idea, “I need a cover for my barbecue grill now that the fall is here?” You look it up, find your exact model, order, pay by punching your credit card and it is delivered to your back porch from California in 2 days. 20 years ago, this was not possible. Just think of the coordinated efficiency it takes to make that happen each and every day. It makes our world speed up and it brings faraway places into our immediate contact.
Sometimes when I’ve visited the investment banks in New York and watched the high-speed trading and I reflect on how broad and deep our inner-connectedness really is world-wide, you can almost start to envision humanity as one collective entity, this enormous colony of humans working in tandem to produce this huge collective impact upon our world.
Our efficiency has made us powerful and our power has made us successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. There were approximately 330 million people on earth when Jesus was alive at the height of the Roman empire. When I was born there were less than 3 billion people on the earth. Today, there are approximately 7.1 billion now, and we project that there will be over 9 billion people on the earth by the end of my lifetime- even as our experts predict that the world will eventually achieve a stable population of about half that number.
In just the span of a couple centuries, we have suddenly found ourselves with a moral dilemma our ancestors could not have imagined possible, dealing with the unintended consequences of our own wild success as a species.
Elizabeth Kohlbert (of the New Yorker) made a trip to Panama to visit Professor Dan Wake and see for herself the disappearing frogs. Professor Wake’s graduate students reported a sharp decline in the frogs they were studying in that area, which was troubling because similar reports were coming in from Costa Rica, Ecuador, California, and Queensland, Australia.
Eventually, someone at the Washington Zoo managed to isolate a Chytrid fungus on the skin of these frogs, as it tuns out, a new species of fungus that prevents frogs and other amphibians from absorbing electrolytes through their skin, inducing a heart attack that kills them.
What is different today than in previous centuries, is the inner-connectedness of humans across the globe, so that a fatal fungus that develops in Panama can be spread to Ecuador via truck, to California via tourists, to Queensland, Australia via a business flight home. We are not exactly sure about the how and why that the frogs are being besieged but the point is that it is not because of any single thing that humans do but rather as a by-product of everything we do in toto. We are becoming predominantly impactful on our earth just lately.
It is estimated that at the time of Jesus, about 7% of the earth’s land was under cultivation for farming. Today, close to half of the earth’s land is used for agriculture. For a hundred thousand years, our ancestors worried about the dangers of the deep forests that covered Europe and our children’s stories were about kids that got lost and had to learn a valuable lesson in becoming found.
In the past century, we tipped the boat so that less than half of the Earth’s land mass is wilderness.
A few years ago, Professor Paul Crutzen was reflecting on all of this when he was at a scientific gathering and the Chairman was giving a paper in which he kept referring to the Holocene epoch. The Holocene epoch began at the end of the last ice age about 11,700 years ago and runs up to the present. Professor Crutzen suggested that the Holocene epoch was actually over. From now on, we need a new phrase to describe our era. He proposed ‘The Anthropocene’.
It is an acknowledgment that humans have transformed close to half of the world’s land surface; we’ve dammed or diverted more than half of the world’s rivers. The nitrogen from our fertilizers is now greater than that produced by the rest of the natural order. Humans take a third of the fish off our coastal waters. I could go on.
And Professor Crutzen was also concerned about human production of green house gases. He won his Nobel Prize for discovering that certain compounds (from methane and burning fossil fuels) actually widen the ozone hole that opens every year over Antarctica. Left unchecked, he predicted that this ozone depletion would significantly increase the global temperature.
In short, human impact on Earth is now so substantial that it deserves to be the predominant descriptor for our age. Drawing upon Professor Crutzen’s insights, we have tried to measure just how much carbon dioxide is the by-product of human civilization. At the moment, we estimate that we contribute about 9 billion tons a year. We also estimate that this number is growing at a 6% annual percentage rate.
Projecting back, we have estimated that since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, humans have added about 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, a by-product of our advanced civilization.
Projecting forward, as you know, is a much more difficult task, fraught with speculation. Sea level rise, weirding weather trends, and species extinction are all predicted if this trend is left unchecked. How long that will take is quite complicated, subject to greater speculation in projection models. So there has grown up a whole cadre of people that love to poke fun at other people’s faulty models and make sport of them, some of them regularly published in the Wall Street Journal.
Poking partisan fun at the exaggeration of the environmental left aside, we are quite likely to live through a few significant climate changes in this century that will dramatically impact us. It is quite likely that Artic ice cap will continue to melt. It is quite likely that sea levels will rise. And it is quite likely that our oceans will increase in acidity enough to have big implications for our coral reefs around the world. What it means for our actual weather patterns, we can’t really say with any confidence, but since our biggest weather patterns are largely determined by ocean currents, the changes could be quite significant.
I don’t know if you have seen the time-lapse photography of James Balog, who has been photographing pictures of the retreating glaciers in the Artic. It occurred to him that he was watching something that the future might not ever see, these massive glacier fields, so he started taking pictures of them once a day. And then he put them together in a film so that you could see what is taking place if we could only zoom out a bit for a better perspective. The result was a steadily disappearing river, just a bit at a time, but pretty quickly retreating if you think in terms of decades and centuries.
Surely one of the biggest challenges that we will face as we try to get our mind around this challenge. Across the short span of our lives, quite naturally we would like to have all the creature comforts we can have and all of the perq’s of advanced civilization. Can we actually expand our imagination to try to think and act in ways that are longer and broader than our lifetime?
As the CEO of a major energy company put it to me, “Americans want to be 1) environmentally healthy and 2) they also want to drive their SUV from a climate controlled home to a climate controlled office and 3) they want to do it cheaply. I can give you two out of the three, pick two.”
The challenge of global warming, of developing an environmentally sustainable higher culture, is probably the broadest moral challenge we have ever faced as a species. Professor Sagan is right in his video that we used to open this reflection, the challenge is how we are going to live together on this one planet we all call home. Few people understand exactly how the disparate symptoms of global warming fit together and fewer people still have a wise idea of what our sustainable living will actually look like in the future. As with all of our biggest challenges, the most important variables in coping with the future problems have not yet been invented and some of them will be real game changers.
And this challenge ought to bring us together quite broadly progressives and conservatives, developed countries and undeveloped countries because we are seeking an arsenal of solutions rather than just a few and the actual productive change will require all of us to play a new role in the future. We all want to pass on to our children’s children the same experience of wonder and mystery that we first experienced in our encounters with nature.
I’m marching today in New York, not because I have all the answers. But because I want my grandsons to know that I intend to pass on to them a world as wonderful as the one I inherited. I want them to know that I am willing to make changes sooner rather than later. All of us want to evolve towards less pollution, less of a negative human impact on our climate. This is our one and only home and no one will come from outside to help us solve this. This is our challenge.
Oh God, who are we mortals that you would even consider us at all? Who are we that You would care for us? And yet You have endowed us so that we are just less than gods ourselves. You have crowned us with honor. You have made us responsible for the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish in the sea.
O God, your excellence courses throughout our huge universe. Amen