Op-Ed: One giant leap ... on Earth


Earthrise courtesy NASA. Trash pile courtesy Eva Ekeblad/flickr

14 September 2009

It's clear we do not yet understand our own time and are seriously mistaken about the geography of the future.

A new map for our planetary era
Part 1: One giant leap ... on Earth
Part 2: The fate of our fragile civilization

Editor's note: The Daily Climate today presents the first in a series of essays by Dianne Dumanoski building upon conclusions in her recent book, The End of the Long Summer.

By Dianne Dumanoski
for the Daily Climate

The image is grainy: A black-and-white shot of astronaut Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the moon, with the self-conscious declaration "... one giant leap for mankind." This summer's 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission celebrated a footfall widely regarded as the emblematic moment of the twentieth century, rekindling hopes of voyaging to Mars as the next logical step in humanity's "Space Age."

The unifying force of an age is its predicaments.

- Jacques Barzun, historian

But it's clear that we do not yet understand our own time and are seriously mistaken about the geography of the future. When future historians look back on the twentieth century, this quick visit to the moon will surely look like a minor event compared to the giant leap humanity took here on Earth. The greatest challenges of the 21st century will not be those of the space age, but rather urgent earthly ones in a new planetary era that arrived in the second half of the 20th century. If any single event marked this profound watershed in the human journey, it was the sudden appearance of a yawning hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica first reported in May 1985. With the explosive, exponential expansion of modern industrial civilization following World War II, human activity reached a scale great enough to disrupt essential, but invisible planetary systems, in this case, the ozone layer which shields the Earth from deadly ultraviolet radiation. The human enterprise had become agent of risky global change.

The barest statistics are simply breathtaking. In the past two centuries, while human population increased sixfold from 1 billion to now more than 6 billion, the world’s economy grew roughly sixty-eight-fold. It took all of human history for the global economy to reach the 1950 level of $5 trillion; in this decade, the world economy expanded that much in a single year. The gross world product, which stood in 2008 at $65 trillion, could, according to economic forecasts, reach $275 trillion by 2050. Though technology and efficiency have made great strides, the growth of the global economy has consistently outpaced these gains, making the planetary impact ever greater. Thus, global carbon emissions have grown 40 percent since 1990, the base year for reductions under the Kyoto climate treaty.

The past sixty years in exponential overdrive have been transforming the Earth on a scale and at a speed that is mind-boggling and unprecedented.

The past sixty years in exponential overdrive have been transforming the Earth on a scale and at a speed that is mind-boggling and unprecedented. This great burst of profound and still accelerating change has been altering everything everywhere on Earth. By it sheer magnitude, human activity is transforming the oceans and the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and unhinging the grand global metabolism that maintains the conditions necessary for life. The Earth system has never experienced changes of these types on this scale and at such rates before. So we face not just a climate crisis caused by burning fossil fuels, but a broader planetary emergency, driven an increasingly gargantuan human economy, which is pushing the Earth system far beyond its normal operating range. 

The eminent historian Jacques Barzun noted that “the unifying force of an age is its predicaments.” When I contemplate the possible implications of pushing the Earth system to such extremes, I often see in my mind’s eye a fish in an aquarium fiddling with the controls that regulate the tank. If this experiment continues, it promises to confront us in coming decades with conditions on Earth that are beyond anything in the 200,000-year evolutionary history of modern humans, or in a worst case, beyond anything encountered by our distant ancestors in the past 5 million years. This radical experiment with the Earth’s metabolism is our predicament, the unifying force of our planetary era.

Dianne Dumanoski is an award-winning journalist and author, most recently, of The End of the Long Summer.

Contact Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer@dailyclimate.org

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