One of the big problems I have with the debate about global warming — and, indeed, much of the environmental movement — is that it seems to be based on a fundamentally flawed precept: that there is a “natural” state of the earth, of nature, where all is in equilibrium.
History and science tells us that just ain’t so.
Earth’s history is a history of change and evolution and adaptation — often violent. The Earth was born of fire and dust and chaos, took millions of years to cool down and solidify. The elements have fought constant wars for dominance, earth and air and fire and water constantly struggling and changing and reshaping the globe. And amid all this chaos, life was born.
Life, as Michael Chrichton noted in “Jurassic Park,” is a stubborn thing. It simply won’t allow itself to be exterminated. Since the first single-celled organism first came into being, life has refused to allow itself to be exterminated.
And lord knows the universe has tried valiantly to rid itself of this infestation called “life.” Most spectacularly, when the dinosaurs were at their peak, a catastrophic event (now largely believed to have been an asteroid) struck the earth and wiped out nearly all life.
But some survived, and started up Plan B. The reptiles hadn’t worked, so the mammals got a shot.
And we’re still going strong.
The elements that the environmentalists seem most concerned about are the ones that have been changing since the very beginning. Global temperature? The Earth of the dinosaurs was considerably warmer. After the asteroid, it was colder. And we’ve had several ice ages that were considerably colder. Ocean levels? The earth was far, far wetter in the time of the dinosaurs — much of the United States was underwater. Biodiversity? There were times in Earth’s history when new species were exploding like popcorn in a microwave, as Nature took the “shotgun approach” and tried literally everything under the sun (mutations from solar radiation is believed to have played a major role in evolution) to see what worked, and what didn’t, in the quest to see what were the most survival-biased adaptations.
We’ve seen examples in our own lifetimes. With the spread of people across the United States, the wolf was driven nigh into extinction. But other animals — mainly the coyote — stepped up and took the wolf’s place in the ecosystem.
In the macro scale of the Earth, the influence of Man is highly debatable. A single volcanic eruption can utterly dwarf whatever effect our own pollution generates — and, in the cases of Mt. Pinatubo, Mt. St. Helens, or Krakatau — occasionally has.
And in researching this piece, I discovered something I had never heard of before: the Toba Catastrophe Theory, a single massive volcanic eruption that is believed to have nearly wiped out all life on earth — including all but 2,000 to 10,000 human beings. I’m not certain even the “worst-case” scenarios of nuclear war ever posed that great a threat.
But simply saying “the world is too big, and we are too small” to dismiss concerns about Man’s influence on the Earth is too simple. We don’t know what might trigger yet another cataclysmic change in the Earth’s climate; it could very well be a case of “the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” or it might not. We need to learn a hell of a lot more than we do now about the situation, and we need that data before we make huge changes in our way of life. “We had to destroy our civilization in order to save it” would be a tragic epitaph.
But one thing we do know, and it puts the lie to Al Gore’s book and movie: the Earth is not “in the balance.” The Earth has no “balance,” it is in a constant state of change and flux. We may or may not be able to shape that change, but there is no single “natural” state of the Earth that represents a perfect, idealized, static, trapped-in-amber definition of the “right” conditions on our Earth. There is no “balance” that we need to preserve or restore — rather, there is a constant, if beyond glacially slow, change and evolution that will, one day, no matter what we do or do not do, will end in the death of the Earth.
And when that day comes, if we are still bound in our terrestrial crib, we, too will die. Whether or not we drive a Hummer or a Prius, whether or not we use aerosols, whether or not we use pesticides, whether or not we toss that scrap paper into the recycling bin or the trash can.
Because, in the long run, we’re all dead.