Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jewel in the Void: Thoughts On Earth Day

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet.
                                                      - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Earth and its Moon
In honor of Earth Day this year, I'd like to consider just how utterly insignificant our little blue green planet is. I mean, let's face it: it's one of countless planets orbiting one of hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy...which is itself one of countless galaxies in the known universe. Earth is not at the center of anything--not the solar system, the galaxy, or the universe--and in cosmic terms, it's really just embarrassingly tiny. If the Milky Way were the size of the Earth, the Earth would be microscopic—far smaller than any speck of dust. In terms of its size and its location, the Earth truly is utterly insignificant.


That little blue green speck is old. As many schoolchildren can tell you, it's been around about 4.54 billion years. Let's stop and consider that number. A good way to think about the enormity of a million years is that it's equal to 10,000 centuries. Take that jawdropping stretch of time, multiply it by 4,540, and you have the age of the Earth. That's pretty doggone old. That's 1/3 as old as the universe itself. So, while it may not be impressive in size or location, Earth can hold its own with the rest of the cosmos when it comes to age. It's been around. It's seen some things.

Earth is also unique, even in cosmic terms. In the entire endless abyss of space, it's the only place where we can be sure that life exists. And it doesn't just sit around existing; it's taken the place over: from salt-eating bacteria in boiling springs, to flying lemurs, to gnarled trees that first sprouted in the time of the pharoahs, life on Earth is unceasingly inventive. And it may only exist here, on this "utterly insignificant little blue green planet." As for "life as we know it," as the phrase goes, that almost certainly exists only here. Among all those galaxies out there, I find it hard to believe that there are no other living planets. But I find it equally hard to believe that the aardvark or the baobab tree exists anywhere else.

And what about us? Where do humans fit on this ancient and unique little dot in space? Some people think we're the pinnacle of evolution, and others think we're the center of creation; made in God's image.We're almost certainly neither. Our species is one branch on a tree with several million other branches, all of which all been evolving as long as we have. We are animals, yes, but animals are just one limb of that tree. Other limbs include plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea, and various families of protists, ranging from kelp forests to amoebae. Among our animal cousins, there are others capable of consciousness, of pain and pleasure, and even rudimentary culture and morality. We are undoubtedly special, but not that special.

Besides, we're newcomers on this old, old planet. Imagine that the age of the earth were scaled to the distance across Texas: about 900 miles from the swamps in the east to the deserts in the west. One that scale, the 200,000 year history of biologically-modern humans would equal about 200 feet. You could read the sign at the border from there. Human history since the beginning of writing would cover just under six feet, and a long human life—100 years—would be a little longer than an inch.

As a species, then, we're still wet behind the ears. But my point is not that we're insignificant. My point is just the opposite. We are immeasurably significant, but so is the world we live on, and all that we share it with. Pretty much everything we hold dear is concentrated on this tiny, ancient speck in the universe. Earth is not so much a cosmic mote of dust as an infinitely valuable jewel hanging in the void. Even if life exists elsewhere in the universe, there is still only one Earth, with this particular kind of life. If life doesn't exist elsewhere, then one of the most amazing phenomena in all the light years of space exists at only one point—here.

And let's not forget culture. As far as we know, human inventions like language, literature, and music; as well as great, game-changing ideas like justice and rights, exist only on this little jewel of a world. Humanity isn't some kind of blight on the planet, or at least we don't have to be. But we will be if we don't recognize that life on Earth isn't about us. We're one little piece of it—a unique and inventive piece, but also a small and recent one. As such, we'd better learn to appreciate that life on Earth is older, more complex, and more astounding than we can ever fully grasp. It's what created us and what sustains us; now and for the foreseeable future. It's been around longer than we have, evolved more creative solutions than we can imagine, and stuck with what works. Life on Earth combines deep unity and dazzling diversity into what can only be called harmony. It's not always a benevolent or peaceful harmony, but it works. It fits together. It's stood the test of time, for a very long time. 

And our cocky little upstart species has not. Our sense of the past is short, and our sense of the future shorter. We rarely look ahead a hundred years, much less a million, even though a million years is brief by earth's standards. We should. And that's just one thing we learn from the Earth. It is, after all, a parent and an elder, not just to us, but to the entire family tree of living things. As such, it deserves our respect, our appreciation, and our reverence. With all respect to the great Douglas Adams, Earth is not utterly insignificant. For us and everything else that lives on it, it's the most precious thing in the universe.