Planet Earth has never bothered to speak—until now. What follows is an unedited transcription of Planet Earth’s remarks to this reporter.
I am Planet Earth. I am sure you have seen pictures of me, which have, lately, been accompanied by your pleas to save me. I am bloody sick of all the posters and dire warnings about my fate by you trumpeting, self-absorbed critters presuming to speak for me when, of course, it is, as usual, all about you. So, here is my response, although I do not expect any of you to listen, or care, especially as I am not going to bolster your hollow sense of self-importance.
Let me begin by saying that the pictures you have seen of me are only a snapshot of my life, and a very brief moment at that. I would like to share the history of my earlier life as well my thoughts about my future so you will know, really, who I am and not presume to speak for me.
My life began over 4 ½ billion years ago. That’s billion. I know it is hard, if not impossible, for you creatures of not-even-an-eyeblink to grasp, but it is important for you to appreciate the entire arc of my life before you make claims on my behalf.
The first billion years I lived a simple but volatile life. I began as a molten ball of metals and minerals, bombarded by asteroids and cosmic debris large and small, and even experienced a cataclysmic collision with another planet. All this added to my mass and girth. I was roiling with volcanic activity, enveloped in mixture of gasses (none that you would find pleasant), formed a crust, and water condensed on my surface. Above is a simulated picture. Obviously, no actual pictures exist, but you get the picture. During this time single-celled life, anaerobes, appeared and thrived in the methane, ammonia, water vapor, neon, and carbon dioxide gaseous haze that surrounded me.
After about a billion years or so, cyanobacteria appeared. These are also single-celled life forms, but unlike the anaerobes, they rely on the novel process of using energy from the sun to synthesize water and carbon dioxide to create carbohydrates; a process called photosynthesis. Oxygen is a waste product. The oxygen produced was mostly absorbed in my oceans, seabed rock, and land surfaces. I experienced a relatively steady atmospheric state for the next 2 billion years where anaerobes continued to flourish; oxygen did not constitute an appreciable part of my atmosphere.
Take note: This very brief account covers 2/3 of my existence. What follows in a more detailed description of the next 1/3. Should you be keeping score (and you should), you, homo sapiens, have been around for .02% of this remaining 1/3.
Oxygen Holocaust! Oxygen Catastrophe! The Great Oxidation Event (GOE)! “The greatest pollution crisis!” These terms and phrases describe what occurred about 1.5 billion years ago, when the oxygen content of my atmosphere rose from .0001% to 3%—a 30,000 fold increase. Sunlight and oxygen were lethal to almost all the existing life forms and I became enveloped in a bubble of poisonous gas: oxygen.1
Terms like “Oxygen Catastrophe” and reference to oxygen as a poisonous gas call your attention to your use of words that you think are “objective.” Words like “pollution,” which doesn’t really mean anything to me; it is a self-serving value-loaded assessment, like “weeds” and “disease,” and the best one: “invasive species.” “Invasive?!” As if there are boundaries, like your imaginary, militantly enforced political boundaries, that have been breached by “alien” species, often imported by you, requiring extermination because they disrupt your sense of order. Want to know the most “invasive” of species on the planet at this moment? Look in the mirror.2
The oxygen content continued to increase, giving rise to radically new forms of life. Multi-celled life began around 1.5 billion years ago in this hyper-oxygenated atmosphere, but the bizarre menagerie of clinging, crawling, burrowing, flapping, splashing, slithering creatures didn’t make their appearance for another 750 million years. One of the hallmarks of these creatures is they are fragile; they don’t last long. Slight changes in my temperature or atmosphere, relative to what I have experienced, result in wholesale extinctions. 444 million years ago, glaciers amassed at my poles; 85% of the species died. Life reformed, rejuvenated, then 60 million years later enormous volcanic eruptions caused oxygen concentration to plummet; 75% of the species died.
Once again, life reformed, rejuvenated, and once again, after a period of stability, massive volcanic eruptions raised sea and soil temperatures by 25 to 34 degrees, the sea surface temperature at my equator reached 104 degrees, oxygen levels plunged, and the atmosphere filled with methane and other greenhouse gasses; 96% of all marine species perished and 75% of land species died.
Do you see a pattern? Let me continue, just so you get the full scope of my quite recent experience with oxygenated life.
After many millions of years, life regenerated only to be mostly destroyed around 200 million years ago by, you guessed it, another round of huge volcanic explosions. Carbon dioxide levels quadrupled, temperatures rose by 5 to 11 degrees, and many species perished. The next round of extinction was precipitated by a novel cause: an asteroid crashed into my surface raising the dust and killing 76% of all species.
A period of relative stability gives rise to new species. My environment changes, most species die. Stability is achieved for a while, novel species arise by adapting to the new conditions. Things change. They die. Repeat. What has remained stable during this oxygenated stage is not species, but the predictable cycle that leads to their routine rise and fall.
Narcissism. You only see a very small sliver of Planet Earth’s existence—that which directly applies to you. The stability you think you see is self-serving. Your time horizon, while conceptually encompassing, is woefully blinkered and overwhelmed by your own needs, your own concerns, your own dread and panic. But this is your biological destiny. All life is about self-preservation, is “narcissistic” about its own interests, its own importance; driven, determined, desperate to preserve its own life. You are trapped by your own biology. I understand. But your grandiosity is particularly grandiose. That too is your birthright, born, as you are, with a head size so huge you cannot even support it for the first 6 months of life. This should have been a warning to you; a clue of your inability to manage your own brain and, ultimately, to be destroyed by it.
But you have distinguished yourself. Every other species has perished because the environment changed beyond their ability to cope. You have, yourselves, changed the environment that will end up killing you. That is a first. Something that sets you apart. God-like, if you will, which is a term you like to apply to yourselves. Congratulate yourselves—this, too, is one of your biological instincts.
I am rather young, not even middle aged, as I have another 7 billion years ahead of me. My existence has been marked by dramatic, abrupt, tumultous change, often precipitated by unexpected events and surprising developments. I know my future will continue to be riotously volatile and cataclysmic. This does not surprise me—it is the cosmic order. Look up. Look around. Steady states are brief (cosmically speaking). You are simply an insignificant dust mote. Even to me, an only slightly less insignificant pile of cosmic debris, your presence does not comprise an hour’s worth of my time, using your temporal metric.
So, you see, you are not saving me, Planet Earth. It is not my termination that looms—it is yours. And, to put my attitude toward your ending in terms you can understand: “I don’t give a shit.” When you finally leave, which will be much sooner than you think, if I happen to notice, my response will be: “Adios.”
The sun has been a source of veneration, worship, and deification throughout human history. The pantheon of sun gods is extensive and spans cultures, continents, and times: The Egyptian sun gods, Ra, and the oldest know monotheistic god, Aten; Inca, Mayan, and Aztec sun temples and rituals of human sacrifice to the sun, giver of life; North American tribes sacred sun dances; the Hindu sun goddess, Surya, creator of the universe and the source of all life; Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, the great divinity illuminating the heavens; the Greek sun gods, Helios and Apollo; the Druids of England and their Stonehenge, built as part of their solstice worship; the Sun Day worship of Christians, which was legislated by the Roman emperor, and pagan-turned-Christian, Constantine, in honor of the Sun, which he called “Unconquered Sun, my companion”.2
We modern, indoor-dwelling sophisticates who possess more “advanced” religious beliefs, or whose world has been desacralized by a secular worldview, typically view such obsessions as pagan sacrilege, or as historical curiosities. But, yet, perhaps, might the sun still be fervently worshiped by us, although shrouded from our awareness by our smug sense of superiority? Might we be unenlightened?
Burn, Baby, Burn
Manure, peat, and coal. Trees, whale oil, and petroleum. Animal bones, natural gas, and corn. Such a bizarre diversity of things, yet they all are united by one essential fact: All have been used by humans to keep us warm and light the darkness. We have survived, and thrived, at the sacrificial altar of these “burnables”. It is difficult to imagine how, or even if, human life would be possible without them.
The common element of all these “burnables” is that they are composed of organic material; once a part of life in some form. This is obviously so for many “burnables”, like peat, trees, and whale oil. Less obvious are coal, petroleum, and natural gas; all perished life that has been compressed in the earth for millions of years.
The reason why we burn life in its various of forms is: energy. We all know intuitively what energy is. We feel it in our body, we “have energy” do something; to push, pull, lift, twist, throw—to do work. The remarkable transformation of human life wrought by the Industrial Revolution was launched by the discovery of the physical laws governing energy, force, and work. These terms have very precise meanings and measurable values, and we have invented many clever ways to put energy to work.
The most important form of energy that, literally, drives our modern life is heat. Heat, derived from “burnables”, combust in engines that propel us and ignite in furnaces that heat us. Furnaces also generate electricity that lights the night, animates the machines of our modern world, allows commerce and communication across the globe at the speed of light, gives life to our digital world—and so much more.
Where does all this “burnable” energy come from? Plants. And where do plants get their energy? The sun. Plant photosynthesis converts solar energy into potential energy that is stored chemically in the molecular bonds of glucose. Carbon dioxide and water are combined to create these sugars, and oxygen is released in the process. Plants then “burn” this stored energy to grow, flower, and develop seeds. Humans, and all other animals, survive by devouring plants and other animals, converting the stored energy in other living forms into their own chemical “batteries” that store energy to be used for growing, “flowering”, and “seeding”.
The heat and light created by “burnables”, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, is the captured energy from the sun radiated millions of years ago, stored in compressed organic matter, released into intense flame. The sun—rekindled in our furnaces.
The Cost of “Burnables”
All the energy and work fueled by these furnaces is purchased at a steep cost: Exhaust. Deadly exhaust. The process that converted carbon dioxide into glucose and released oxygen is reversed; oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide is released. The released carbon dioxide that we send into the sky is trapped in the atmosphere, covering it like a blanket, preventing the sun’s energy from escaping the atmosphere, heating the planet. Ironically, and tragically, our obsessions with “burnable” furnaces has led to our frying ourselves, and many other fellow organisms that share the planet with us.
Our voracious need for energy, as heat and light, has ravaged the planet. Vast areas have been denuded and polluted, millions of species killed or hunted to near extinction, entire mountain ranges reduced to rubble or riddled with miles of toxic tunnels. The benefits, however, have been great. Our modern life, with all the comforts of home, a cornucopia of food, life-saving medical treatments, and unimaginable goods and entertainments are the bounty of our quest for heat and light.
We moderns are the most fanatical worshipers of the sun. Almost everyone across the entire planet kneels to the sacrificial sun alters, dreads even a momentary halt in the offerings, and pursues “burnables” with fanatical religious fervor. Prior, “primitive”, sun worshipers were but simple beginners. We are appalled by the images and revulsed at the thought of the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, standing at the top of their sun temple, holding up the beating heart of a just-sacrificed victim to the sun. Yet we are oblivious to the colossal planetary destruction of life, human and otherwise, wrought by our own, much more ruinous sun worship practices.
We are on a trajectory akin to Icarus who was given wings of feathers and wax but warned to not fly too close to the sun. Icarus, however, did not heed the warning. He rose into the sun, his wings melted—and he tumbled to his death.
We, too, are being warned of the self-immolating consequences of our “burnable” sacrifices; that we are “flying too close to the sun”. Will we heed the warning? Does Icarus’ fate await?3
Hello, sun in my face. Hello, you who make the morning and spread it over the fields and into the faces of the tulips and the nodding morning glories, and into the windows of, even, the miserable and crotchety–
best preacher that ever was, dear star, that just happens to be where you are in the universe to keep us from ever-darkness, to ease us with warm touching, to hold us in the great hands of light– good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. St. Augustine
We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.
Physics of Time
This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.
Psychology of Time
The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful, and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time. Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.
Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of “past, present, future” helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.
Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes, and fears—how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. As I change my goals, aspirations, and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.
Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process influenced by attention and expectations, thereby under constant reconstruction and renovation.
Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others, and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2
Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering, and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing, and forging new expectations and anticipations).
The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage, and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.
Being and Non-Being
Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a “human being”, a noun, but we also are “be-ings”, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.
We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
The biosphere is a teeming, humming, buzzing,
riot of life in every earthly nook and cranny; collaborating with one another,
competing with one another, eating one another. Each species, each individual,
must rely on habits to establish a measure of stability, enabling them to
extract the necessary sustenance for survival. Habit
All life, in its many forms, from bacteria to insects, fungi to mammals, are beholden to habit, which is as elemental to life as DNA. A primal characteristic of all life is movement and endurance within time. All, also, share a common fate—the end of movement and endurance in time; death.
Habits are fundamental strategies of temporal beings
that must anticipate the future. Habits occur when a situation at Time 2 is
perceived as similar to a situation at Time 1, evoking the same response at
Time 2 that was adaptive at Time 1. The
perceived reoccurrence of familiar events “stops time”, allowing us to steady
ourselves in the face of an uncertain future. Habits create routines,
establishing an order in time with expected, reoccurring beats. Indeed, survival
depends on establishing a vital regularity within the assaultive, chaotic flux
of events, circumstances, and contingencies that threaten the delicate,
wavering, spider-thread of life.
of Differing Time Scales
Habit is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance”1. Typically, we think of habit as behavioral routines that derive from individuals learning about their environment; that habit operates within an individual, not the species, at the behavioral, not biological level.
This definition, however, need not only apply to an individual organism. Consider reflexes. From the perspective of the individual, reflexes are invariant, unchanging; no habits are acquired. Breathing, pupil dilation, digestion, heartbeat, these arise automatically without conscious prompting, effort, or control. However, from an evolutionary perspective, which encompasses the arc of the emergence of life forms and their adaptation, reflexes are, as the definition states, “patterns acquired by physiological exposure that results in increased facility of performance.” From an evolutionary time scale, then, species’ morphology and the attendant neurophysiological organization and functioning, and even DNA, can also be considered habits. What appears to be the static, immutable biological givens of an individual’s existence—the bones, pulsing blood and breathing—are dynamic properties of an evolving process within an evolutionary temporal frame. We are a composite of the individual habits we acquire over our life and species’ habits conferred to us by our primordial ancestors.
Culture adds yet another layer of habits.
Communally organized daily routines and seasonal rituals organize our bodies to
the collective rhythms of our culture. Time is regulated; our calendar and
clocks are standardized, establishing a rigid temporal grid that
individuals must adopt and internalize if they are to participate in essential
communal activities. The year rolls over to the next one on January
1; daylight savings time sets the clock ahead, then it is later set back;
school schedules, meal times, business hours, the reoccurring weekday-weekend
sequence, and many other micro-cultural regularities pervade our lives. Public
holidays, such as Thanksgiving and July 4th, with their attendant
rituals, mark time within the broader seasonal round.
Our bodies are composed of layers of habits, each contributing its own rhythms: the beating, breathing, surging biorhythms that compress eons of prior life; the habits we acquire to adapt to our unique personal challenges and circumstances; and the cultural rituals and routines required for communal life. This complex, multilayered cadence of habits comprises the music that is our song, our lives.
We are songs of life, sung, for our ever-brief
moment, within the roar of flux and chaos. Our plight is most heartrendingly
expressed in music:
Music is like the inclusive testimony of a visitor to a wondrous world. As it plays you have everything. When it stops, you are left with nothing. Which is exactly like life itself.2
We find ourselves in the place where the life-giving source of all, the sun, appears daily, yet we cannot bear to look at it for more than a few heartbeats; a truth so strong that it blinds. We are also shadowed by the event that will end our existence, forever. Death. There is no escape. It will happen, and could happen, any moment, without warning, looming over us—the promise of no-more.
We carry on as if these elemental, pressing weights do not exist. We live a dream, travel along our everyday paths, oblivious to these existential truths, elevating the mundane to pseudo-cosmic significance. The soporific effects of habit and routine confers regularity, familiarity, and banality to our daily round. We do not do this alone. We are born into the ready-made world of culture that confers established meanings, practices, rituals, and rites to stabilize the flux. These group habits, which exist before and beyond any single individual, provide comfort and assurance that our world is mastered, that all can be explained, that there is ground beneath our feet. The rhythmic incantations of habit and culture arrest time, confer predictability, and provide a home in an uncanny universe. Our eyes are diverted from the blinding light of being, and death is forestalled, moved to the cheap seats in the balcony, while we play-out our predictable days. And this must be so, for to be alive to the truth of existence with every tic-tock would be a frenzied, paralyzing, madness.
But our burden, and our gift, is that we can be aware of our plight. We grasp the fundamental truths of our existence in a primordial way: fright, anxiety, angst, as well as wonderment, awe, and bewilderment. These are the wellsprings that urge us, compel us to find our way between sunshine and darkness. Bestowed with consciousness, we are creatures of the in-between. It is terrifying and thrilling. Our challenge: to avoid being pulled beneath the waves by the under-toe of habit; keeping our heads above the surface so that we may sing our song, reveling in finding ourselves here, now, alive in the jaws and splendor of life.
We visited the Pima Air and Space museum during our stay in Tucson and I expected to be mildly interested. Instead, I was deeply touched—surprisingly so. As a kid I was consumed with books about WW II pilots and air combat, and when I saw the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B 29 Superfortress and the P-51 fighter, I choked up. The bombers were so brutal and so beautiful, and what was especially gut-grabbing was the ball-turret under the fuselage of the B-24. Strapped into a space with NO wiggle room, a casket waiting to happen, barely visible amidst the tubes, gears, and gadgets, the gunner was literally a breathing extension of the weaponry.
The bombers were industrial—not one concession to comfort or human concerns—WAR was the architecture writ large in every detail. On the B-17 and B-24, neither was pressurized and they frequently flew at altitudes of 20,000 feet or higher. They had doors that opened for gunners with machine guns so the crew endured sub-zero temperatures at high altitudes for hours.
There was a special hanger for the B-17 and the day we were there a vet who flew 28 missions in 1943 was there to talk about his experiences. 95 years old and he looked and talked like someone in their 70’s. He had interesting stories, but even more noteworthy was we were in the presence of someone giving voice to frightful happenings so long ago; the last echo of a past age.
The B-29 Superfortress, which is what dropped the atomic bomb, was the largest and most impressive of these planes. It turns out, they were very dangerous—for the air crew, because the engines had a propensity to catch fire, and accounted for more losses that enemy fire. The problem was known from day one, yet they continued to make 4,000 of them. Why? The calculus of war— its strategic importance (long range, high altitude, pressurized, heavy payload bomber) outweighed the known casualties that would result from the design. We protected civilians of opulent prosperity have been spared these types of grim calculations…as those who have been in combat know only too well.
Flight in Air and Space
The previous day we visited the Tucson Botanical Garden, a gem of artistically arranged plants from several desert regions (with local bird accompaniments). What proved to be the surprise of our visit was the butterfly house. To prevent any errant escapees, a guard was stationed at the double-doored entrance to escort visitors in, and a guard manned the exit of the small enclosure, scanning those leaving for any “hitchhikers”, before allowing them to depart through double-doors. Entering—what a sight! Amidst blooming orchids, tropical plants, in jungle-like humidity, were hundreds of winged, near weightless apparitions, filling the air. The fluttering yellows, reds, whites, browns, blacks and iridescent blues evoked an ephemeral, dream-scape. We stayed here for a long time, holding our breath, as the butterflies flitted about in their erratic flight—prompting me to ask; what kind of body-music animates these whimsical paths? Certainly not the one-two, one-two, that organizes our movement.
(An attempted hitchhiker)
Flight of the butterfly, flight of the B’s. Both lifted by the same currents— one, a bejeweled, vulnerable expression of life; the other, a steeled fist, tasked with ending it.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Randell Jarrell
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
She, downstairs, unable to sleep. I, upstairs, awake, with an injured knee. We meet, with surprise, on the stairway, stumbling in our own world’s worry. A 3 AM reunion of the elderly. We feel the end in our bodies, in our bones, as we embrace, grateful that we are here, now, together in the darkness.
December 7, 1941 …In Infamy
The searing memories of December 7, 1941 fade into the black-and-white of history, as most of those who lived it are gone from us. But the aftershocks still pulse. My father was drafted into the army after December 7, 1941, and my mother moved to Washington DC to work in the war effort, where she met my father. Seventy-three years later, Sharon and I, serendipitous progeny of that fateful day, embrace in the darkness…