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Planet Abuse

Planet Abuse

I was in Portland, Oregon, lying on a couch eating a banana. My wife and I had flown up the evening before to visit our young grandchildren and their parents. The four-hour, nonstop flight from Dallas to Portland had allowed a full day’s work in Dallas and then a night’s sleep in Portland. I thought about how incredibly fortunate I was and compared my travels with the saga of my German great-grandfather, Herman Ballerstedt. He was 16 in 1870 when his mother told him to leave, that there was no future for him in Germany because the Kaiser’s wars were consuming boys like him as cannon fodder. Herman went to the Hamberg docks and slipped onto a ship as a stowaway, with no idea where it was going. He hid in a potato sack and left the boat weeks later after it landed in Galveston, Texas. His mother lived a long life, as did Herman, but they never saw each other again – travel was too difficult. Herman became a Texas farmer and probably never ate a banana or enjoyed many of the energy-intensive things that his descendants accept as normal. He did have 16 children.

Still on that couch, I opened a book by James Lovelock, a British physician and environmental scientist I respect, to a random page. Almost 50 years ago Lovelock publicized the concept of “Gaia,” of the Earth as a very complex, integrated system which regulates itself to nurture life. The first Lovelock paragraph I read was:

“As we go about our daily lives we are almost all of us engaged in the demolition of Gaia. We do it every hour of every day, as we drive to work, shop or visit friends or as we fly to some distant holiday destination. We do it as we keep our homes and workplaces cool in summer or warm in winter. The sum total of all our pollutions has already added half a million million [500,000,000,000-ed.] tons of carbon to the atmosphere; enough, if the geological records of the Eocene period fifty-five million years ago are correct and we continue to pollute, to start changing the world so completely that hardly any of our descendants will be there to see it. We will, by thinking selfishly only of the welfare of humans and ignoring Gaia, have caused our own near extinction.”

Lovelock, a fellow of Britain’s Royal Society since 1974, regretfully opines that humankind has abused the air and other natural systems most unwisely, and that Gaia is beginning to strike back. In his judgment, civilization lived much too large in the 20th century, and the consequences of too many people consuming too much have made extinction a possibility. I asked myself what could have prevented the pollutions and depletions Lovelock details, and I was thrown back to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I was a junior at Harvard, and everyone was frightened that we were on the edge of a thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. Boston was President Kennedy’s hometown, and we felt Boston would be a Soviet target. The feared nuclear spasm did not happen, we lived, and my fertile classmates and I went on to flesh out Lovelock’s nightmare of too many people consuming too much, as did millions of other survivors who likewise reproduced and consumed.

I’m very glad to be alive, and so I considered another offbeat track. Some modern physics suggests that intelligent observation is an integral part to making the universe work as it does, and implies that intelligent life will continue once it has come into being. It’s called the “final anthropic principle” and was summarized by physicist Frank J. Tipler as follows: “Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, will never die out.” This secular idea that intelligence really matters in the cosmos (I’m confident we qualify as intelligent) complements religious traditions which consider man as the essential center of creation. I prefer either brand of metaphysics to the thought that we’re putting out our candle, but both invisible protections are way above my pay grade. On our ground, implementing informed, collective, planned overhauls of the ways we do things, soon, is our best path to protecting Gaia and ourselves.


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