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The Solar Connection
December 24, 2008 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Rethinking Earthrise. On the 40th anniversary of the NASA's Apollo 8 mission [caution: weird JFK animation], which answered Stewart Brand's epochal, LSD-inspired question "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" with an unforgettable image of a seemingly fragile and isolated blue planet, Nature editor Oliver Morton -- author of a new book on photosynthesis called Eating the Sun -- disputes the notion that the Earth is fragile and isolated. "The fragility is an illusion," he writes. "The planet Earth is a remarkably robust thing, and this strength flows from its ancient and intimate connection to the cosmos beyond. To see the photo this way does not undermine its environmental relevance -- but it does recast it."
posted by digaman (39 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sorry, I forgot to remove an extra "the" from the FPP. I didn't mean to type "teh NASA."
posted by digaman at 9:04 AM on December 24, 2008


The planet Earth is a remarkably robust thing,

Everything living on it...maybe not.
posted by jonmc at 9:20 AM on December 24, 2008


Speaking of LSD, I'm all freaked out now because not only did I just read Clock of the Long Now but just seconds ago I was designing a tiny, toy version with a coworker.

COINCIDENCE?!?
posted by DU at 9:25 AM on December 24, 2008


Everything living on it...maybe not.

Everything living on it now, you mean. But even in a Jonathan Schell insects-and-grass nuclear holocaust scenario, it seems likely that after several million years of isotope decay - not long at all in the total lifespan of the Earth - new species would be pushing into whatever ecological niches existed then. You wouldn't get primates again, of course - but that's probably a good thing.

From Gaia's point of view, we're a nasty but short-lived infection. She'll be all right.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:27 AM on December 24, 2008


You might not even have to wait for the isotope decay.
posted by no_moniker at 9:34 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


DU, nothing about LSD is a coincidence, particularly the aspects of it that are utterly coincidental.
posted by digaman at 9:36 AM on December 24, 2008


The earth is a giant rock. Of course it's "robust" The ecosystem that it supports, less so. And the current climate is even less robust. Remember, there was a time when all the worlds oceans were covered in Ice, and there was a time when there were no polar ice caps. There was a even a time when there was no oxygen. All of these changed due to biological processes acting on the climate and atmosphere.
posted by delmoi at 9:41 AM on December 24, 2008


When you get down to the root of the thing, every single atom in the entire universe influences every single other atom in the universe. We live in the coolest fucking universe in the entire universe. We also live on a pretty wonderful planet as a result of that.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:43 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


We're never going to destroy "nature", or the entire biosphere. From a pragmatic, antrhopocentric view, we just better be careful we don't shit on it too much while we're still completely dependent on it. Perhaps we should also start thinking about the kind of world we want to coexist with, and whether our actions will lead us there.
posted by mollweide at 9:50 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


However, delmoi, since Morton is talking about photosynthesis and not geology, he's specifically talking about the ecosystem. His perspective is valuable.
posted by digaman at 9:52 AM on December 24, 2008


every single atom in the entire universe influences every single other atom in the universe. We live in the coolest fucking universe in the entire universe.

The universe an inkblot. A really, really big inkblot. It's whatever you make of it.

What freaks me out is that those atoms are 99.999999999999% empty space.

There is no there there.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:52 AM on December 24, 2008


The Earth is a giant rock of course, but the biosphere itself is only a thin film surrounding it. Something useful to remember in a universe that has things like supernovas, gamma-ray bursters, and large asteroids ready to cause a KT Event.

On a cosmic scale, life on Earth IS fragile, and we're alone, surrounded by uncaring space. Hence the importance of the pictures from Apollo 8, showing Earth as a unity. As the astronauts themselves said in their Christmas speech:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth".
posted by happyroach at 10:02 AM on December 24, 2008


We live in the coolest fucking universe in the entire universe.

I was under the impression that Earth was in the unfashionable outskirts of the galaxy, kind of like a cosmic Nassau County.
posted by jonmc at 10:20 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't get the whole thing about the Earth "looking" fragile from space. What's fragile-looking about it?
posted by The World Famous at 10:20 AM on December 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's barely a here here. And that has made all the difference.
posted by digaman at 10:25 AM on December 24, 2008


Famous, Google "Earthwise" and "fragile" and it comes up a lot.
posted by digaman at 10:26 AM on December 24, 2008


*rise.
posted by digaman at 10:26 AM on December 24, 2008


Oh well, throw another endangered species on the fire then.
posted by Artw at 10:32 AM on December 24, 2008


Endangered Species Meats are soooo 2007, Artw. Extinct meats are the thing now.

*munches Stegosaurus jerky*
posted by jonmc at 10:42 AM on December 24, 2008


A great book on this subject is The Home Planet by Kevin W. Kelley (Editor). The photos are accompanied by excellent quotations from astronauts, like this one:
After eighteen days of a space mission I was convinced that all visible space—the black emptiness, the white, unblinking stars and planets—was lifeless. The thought that life and humankind might be unique in the endless universe depressed me and brought melancholy upon me, and yet at the same time compelled me to evaluate everything differently.

Nature has been limitlessly kind to us, having helped humankind appear, stand up, and grow stronger. She has generously given us everything she has amassed over the billions of years of inanimate development. We have grown strong and powerful, yet how have we answered this goodness?

—Yuri Glazkov
posted by No Robots at 11:09 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


From Gaia's point of view, we're a nasty but short-lived infection. She'll be all right.

Look, I'd be the first to admit that I'm a hypocritical blend of misanthropy/tragic cynicism about what we've done to this planet and "we're part of the Universe achieving sentience, which is pretty fucking cool" idealism, but this sort of tripe is as banal as it is cruel. The "world" may not give a flying whit about human suffering, but that doesn't mean people who deign to speak for an anthropomorphic projection of their home planet should so casually dismiss it by likening suffering humanity to an "infection," however much of said suffering may be self-inflicted. Speaking of ink-blots, I usually "read" the Earth-rise photo as evidence of the fragility of human endeavors (and our inevitable annihilation) and not that of our host, but I guess that's Rorschach for ya.

Then again, maybe I'm just post-Solstice grumpy. Whatever. Happy freakin' holidays. Sorry if this came across as a personal slam, Joe B.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:22 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the take-home message is not that Earth is fragile, but it is isolated. Earth is pretty much a closed system with a thin layer of gases protecting us from damaging radiation and supporting life. There's a steady energy input but matter must be constantly recycled. We are screwing up those cycles by our resource consumption and pollution. Ain't nowhere else for those pollutants to go. So, yes, we are fouling our own nest and it's the only one we have.
posted by binturong at 11:32 AM on December 24, 2008


I don't get the whole thing about the Earth "looking" fragile from space. What's fragile-looking about it?

I've seen it described as looking like a marble. Marbles are made of glass. A lot of things made of glass are fragile.

Pretty weak, but that's all I got.
posted by shponglespore at 11:44 AM on December 24, 2008


but it is isolated. Earth is pretty much a closed system

That quite misses one of the provocative thrusts of Morton's piece. Would you describe an elaborate fountain linked to an ocean deep enough to provide billions of years of water as a "closed system"? That's what the sun is, and we're dancing on (and pissing in) the fountain. As far as pollutants go, yes, we're stuck with them for now. But as far as energy goes, we're orbiting a nearly infinite supply, at least in the human scale of time.
posted by digaman at 11:52 AM on December 24, 2008


As are Venus and Mars.
posted by Artw at 11:54 AM on December 24, 2008


I don't get the whole thing about the Earth "looking" fragile from space. What's fragile-looking about it?

"The thickness of the ocean lithosphere or the relatively solid skin of the earth under oceans is only 41 miles, which in relative terms is much thinner than the skin of an apple." - US Geological Survey Science Challenge.
posted by SPrintF at 12:01 PM on December 24, 2008


I'm not worried about Earth, but I am worried about me. Environmentalism isn't about preserving the planet -- it's about preserving humanity on the planet.
posted by incessant at 12:41 PM on December 24, 2008


Environmentalism isn't about preserving the planet -- it's about preserving humanity on the planet.

Actually, it's about realizing the error of this false, and fatal, dichotomy.
posted by digaman at 12:45 PM on December 24, 2008


I like incessant's approach, because I think it's the most honest way to approach environmentalism. I likepeople, I like civilization, and I like nature. Making sure all three exist for the long haul is important for me purely for aesthetic reasons, but then again, those aesthetics are very important to me.
posted by happyroach at 12:47 PM on December 24, 2008


As I say, there's nothing wrong with loving civilization. I myself quite enjoy international jet travel, foie gras, fast cars, and a number of other things that have been targeted by some environmentalists as carbon Bigfeet. But understanding how embedded these human delights are in larger systems, and leveraging that truth to make civilization sustainable, is part of the point of smart environmentalism.
posted by digaman at 12:58 PM on December 24, 2008


But as far as energy goes, we're orbiting a nearly infinite supply,

Yes, digaman, I said that we have a steady energy input but it is a closed system as regards the materials. They have to be recycled. And we are especially screwing up the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. Increased carbon dioxide and nitrogen gases in the atmosphere are a big part of current climate change, thanks to H. sapiens.
posted by binturong at 1:31 PM on December 24, 2008


100 million years from now, not one of our descendants, not one scrap of our DNA, nothing of us will exist. Unless we really prove we deserve it.
posted by Xoebe at 1:41 PM on December 24, 2008


I loved this article and it made me think of the Kardasev scale of civilizations and how they (we?) are expected to harness the sun and other forms of energy to survive the future:

* Type I — a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available on a single planet — has approximately 1016 or 1017 W available. Earth specifically has an available power of 1.74 ×1017 W (174 petawatts, see Earth's energy budget). Kardashev's original definition was 4 ×1012 W — a "technological level close to the level presently attained on earth" (presently meaning 1964).
* Type II — a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star, approximately 4 ×1026 W. Again, this figure is variable; the Sun outputs approximately 3.86 ×1026 W. Kardashev's original definition was also 4 ×1026 W.
* Type III — a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single galaxy, approximately 4 ×1037 W. This figure is extremely variable, since galaxies vary widely in size; the stated figure is the approximate power output of the Milky Way. Kardashev's original definition was also 4 ×1037 W.
posted by pwally at 1:57 PM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Suppose you watch a time lapse of the end of everything and you see it and say: yeah, pretty fragile. now you slow it down, and it takes billions of years in which lots happened, and you say: woah, pretty stable thing there. You, the reader, exist at some, contingent, time scale. fragility must be in the eye of the beholder.
posted by stonepharisee at 2:33 PM on December 24, 2008


I knew, when clicking the link to this post, that there would be a number of responses to the effect that we, as a species, are an "infection," or a cancer, or something the world would be better off without, and it's the thing that always makes me sad about so many of the people that claim to be "environmentalists." This pilgrim puritanism and the self-hatred of it all, pulled straight from the often absurd religions that form the backbone of the US and the rest of the so-called western world, is just so antithetical to actual progress that it just makes me wonder why environmentalists of the cynical, self-loathing ilk even bother.

The vanity of our thinking we could destroy the world is itself patently, tragically stupid, based in the kind of numb vision that can't conceive of stretches of time measured in millions and billions of years. Is the world really that fragile? Localized and highly-specialized ecosystems are fragile, to be sure, but think of something like the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which wiped out 96% of marine life and a huge chunk of terrestrial life, and you have to think that there's something less vulnerable to our biosphere than you think. Global warming raising the planet's temperature a number of degrees? We'll lose our ritzy seaside resorts, our old port cities, and see our local ecosystems in a mess, but the planet, as a gestalt, and over time frames we can't personally imagine, will be just fine.

It's not about us saving "the world." It's about us saving our place in it, and I'm one of those people who think we're a pretty special species, and one that's worthy of preservation. There's a lot of religious/new age idiot/tinfoil hat thought that we're some sort of magical animal that's not a regular animal, the Lord's favorite project, or a bunch of ninnies chasing the cosmic spiritual eschaton, but we're just animals, just like the rest, except for one notable, wonderful thing—

We invented altruism.

That's not entirely accurate, but it's really a defining characteristic of our species, more in us than in any other. We protect our own, our weak, our aged. We don't do it very well, and we don't have a real firm grasp on the concept, sometimes, but we protect our own, for reasons that aren't necessarily driven by evolutionary demands. The noble ape doesn't do it, the wry and lovable dolphin doesn't, and even wise old flappy-eared elephants don't. We're the species that protects our disabled, our elderly, and our clueless. The fact that we don't do it well just points out our alibi, and it's a good one—we are a newborn species, in geological timescales, barely out of our diapers and still inclined to infantile tantrums, inexplicable rages, and the unfortunate urge to smear our crap all over the playpen.

It's just not fair to write ourselves off so easily, and with such malice. The fragility of the earth, of our earth and our place in it, is pretty clear in that iconic image, and in how things like tsunamis, tiny enough to barely register on the image, can wipe us out in the hundreds of thousands while doing almost nothing to the world as a whole. That's a selfish, Darwinian reason to watch out for the world, inasmuch as we can, but I tend to think it's also rooted in our altruistic instincts, to protect something just because it is good and wonderful and joyous in spite of its complete indifference to our existence.

I might just be naive, a wild-eyed triumphalist at heart, but I'd love to think of what we might be when we grow up, and it's going to take sober, reasonable, grown-up thinking to get us there, millions of years down the line, and the discipline to not always go back to beating ourselves in the forehead, whimpering "we're bad, we're stupid, we're unclean, we're unworthy," because that self-hatred and regular hatred are the same damn thing, the same old shit we smear around until everything stinks.

I think we're better than that, even in our weaknesses.
posted by sonascope at 3:14 PM on December 24, 2008 [10 favorites]


Great post, sonascope. We didn't invent altruism, but it seems to be an upgrade for the higher primates, and a gazillion dog owners would happily weigh in with anecdotal data of how their golden retriever pulls Little Timmy from the well. But yes -- good post!
posted by digaman at 3:47 PM on December 24, 2008


Well said, sonascope!
posted by mollweide at 3:50 PM on December 24, 2008


Environmentalism isn't about preserving the planet -- it's about preserving humanity on the planet.

Actually, it's about realizing the error of this false, and fatal, dichotomy.
- digaman

What do you mean? For a while I was really annoyed by the idea of anthropocentric environmentalism (doing what we needed to to make the environment hospitable to us, other forms of life be damned) but I've been entirely unable to come up with a cogent alternative. I don't get deep ecology, which it sounds like you're on board with.

My childhood image of environmentalism was a very anthropomorphic one - the environment was like a person we could get along with, something whose "interests" could be taken in to account and gotten along with. Does that naive view make any sense? Do we know what nature "wants"? I feel like this is the unstated feeling that underpins this environmental philosophy, and it's a really confused one at that.

Humanity is in and of the world, and requires things to be in a certain state to thrive - the composition of the atmosphere, weather patterns, the proliferation of plants we can digest, and so on. We seem to do things that are "bad" for other patterns of matter and energy we've deemed life - we eat some of them, extract the pelts and fats of others, turn some in to paper, strap saddles or test drugs on them. Deep ecology folks oppose what is felt to be a mistreatment of other species. But the decisions made as to what species and what treatment deserve scorn seem arbitrary - where is the outcry to save kudzu or mycobacterium tuberculosis? In practice, we only ever care (when we care at all!) about keeping the environment hospitable or aesthetically pleasing for us - which seems a bit shallow. The problem is, I don't see any other way, any other metric to judge environmental rights and wrongs. I'd love to hear it though.
posted by phrontist at 6:34 PM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Environmentalism isn't about preserving the planet -- it's about preserving humanity on the planet.

Actually, it's about realizing the error of this false, and fatal, dichotomy...

...understanding how embedded these human delights are in larger systems, and leveraging that truth to make civilization sustainable, is part of the point of smart environmentalism.


Wait a second -- which is it, digaman? Either my dichotomy is false and fatal (although it's not a dichotomy, because one isn't in conflict with the other, and I encourage you to explain why believing preserving humanity on the planet is somehow 'fatal' or, for that matter, 'false'), or you believe that environmentalism is about making civilization sustainable, which I'd put in the same category as preserving humanity.
posted by incessant at 9:14 AM on December 30, 2008


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