"The Story of Earth:
The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet
Robert M. Hazen
(New York: Penguin Books, 2013)

"Change will come; may you have the wisdom and courage to adapt"


Introduction I


Climates change, sea levels change, the rains and winds change, the distribution of life across the surface and within the seas change. Rocks and life continue to co-evolve, as they have for billions of years. Humans can no more stop global change than we can alter the Earth's trajectory through the cosmos. Nor can we destroy life on earth, nor even stop its inexorble evolution. Life has ensconced itself in every niche of the globe. Life abounds in frozen Arctic ice, in boiling acid pools, in rock-encased pores miles underground, and on wind-borne dust specks miles above the ground. Whatever stupidity we might inflict upon ourselves -- whether we cause global temperatures to rise a dozen degrees, or poison our air and water, or decimate fish stocks in the sea, or even unleash our collective nuclear arsenals in a global holocaust -- life will go on. Humans may disappear forever, but microscopic life will scarcely miss a beat. For billions of years to come, Earth will continue to whirl daily on its axis in its annual odyssey about the Sun. For billions of years, ours will still be a living planet of blue oceans, green lands, and swirling white clouds. From space, Earth will be no less beautiful than it is today, humans or no. p. 281
    Make no mistake. There cannot be the slightest doubt that human activities of the past century have initiated dramatic changes in atmospheric composition, and changes in climate must follow as surely as the laws of physics. The concentration of carbon dioxide and methane, both efficient greenhouse gases, have climbed at rates unmatched in hundreds of millions of years. Such changes are amplified by our rapid denuding of tropical rain forests, our efficient consumption of sea life, and our incessant destruction of habitats across the globe. Thanks to our actions, earth will get hotter, ice will melt, oceans will rise. But that is nothing new for Earth [emphasis added]. Why, then, should we care if human actions speed up the process of change? pp. 281-282

For one, imagine the suffering unleashed on a world where sea life undergoes mass death or agricultural output is suddenly halved. What of the million square miles of the most productive farmland that will be flooded, the seaports drowned, the livelihoods lost? Imagine the suffering of a billion displaced and homeless humans." p. 282

If we care to act, it is surely not in order to "save the planet." Earth, after surviving more than 4.5 billion years of constant, extravagant change, doesn't need saving. Perhaps some ethicists will focus their efforts instead on saving the whales or polar bears, for their loss would be permanent and undeniabley sad. But even the extinction of these great beasts, or of elephants or pandas or rhinos or a million other speicies both charismatic and mundane, is but a teporary loss to Earth. New great and wondrous beasts will inevitably evolve, in a geological moment, to fill those vacant niches -- perhaps in no more than a million years. Large mammals like ourseleves may suffer mass extinction, but other vertebrates, maybe the birds, will take our place. Maybe the penguins will develop big brains and grasping fingers. Whatever we do, Earth will continue to be a variegated living world [emphasis added]." p. 282

No, if we choose to worry, it should be first and foremost for our human family, for it is we who are most at risk. Earth is a great winnower of waste and error. Life in its grandeur will go on, but human society, at least in its present profligate mode, may not make the cut. We humans have the sobering potential, through either our thoughtless actions or our equally thoughtless inaction, to heap untold suffering and destruction upon our own species [emphasis added]. As we continue to alter our home world -- our "pale blue dot," to quote Carl Sagan -- at a faster and faster rate, the time remaining for effective action slips away. p. 282-283

Earth is not silent on this point; its story is there to read in the rich record of the rocks. For thousands of years, we have been wise enough to seek out the story of Earth in an effort to know our home. Let us hope we learn our lessons in time [emphasis added] p. 283