Link and Comment: Adam Frank on the Earth’s Biosphere

Today’s NYT has an op-ed by Adam Frank, Earth Will Survive. We May Not., which keys off the theme of his new book, LIGHT OF THE STARS: ALIEN WORLDS AND THE FATE OF THE EARTH, just released this past Tuesday.

I’ve only just sampled the book, but what I’ve read, and this essay, present the kind of shift of perspective that I look for, and value science fiction for providing — in this case the recognition that the Earth’s biosphere isn’t about *us*, humanity. That biosphere has changed many times over the past tens and hundreds of millions of years — shaped by life. We are merely the latest form of life to be changing that biosphere, via what we call climate change.

The biosphere is a cosmic power in its own right. It’s a planetary force that channels vast energies flowing from the sun and transforms them into ceaseless rounds of blind evolutionary innovation. That power gives Earth and its biosphere a long-term resilience we must now fully imagine if we are to come to terms with the climate change we are driving.

We speak of “saving” the Earth as if it were a little bunny in need of help. We show images of gaunt polar bears on melting ice floes to elicit guilt and environmental action. But those images and stories blind us to the reality of this remarkable moment in Earth’s history.

Our planet does not need our saving. The biosphere has endured cataclysms far worse than us — and after millions of years thrived again. Even the Earth’s five fearsome mass extinctions became opportunities for the biosphere’s creativity, driving new rounds of evolutionary experiments. That, after all, is how we big-brained mammals ended up dominating the Earth rather than our dinosaur predecessors. As the great biologist Lynn Margulis once put it, “Gaia is a tough bitch.” In the long term, the biosphere will handle pretty much anything we throw at it, including climate change.

What Earth’s history does make clear, however, is that if we don’t take the right kind of action soon the biosphere will simply move on without us, creating new versions of itself in the changing climate we’re generating now. So we must be honest. The problem is not saving the Earth or life writ large, but saving our cherished civilization. From that perspective the nature of our choices changes significantly.

It’s not about saving the Earth; it’s about preserving an Earth that humanity can thrive, or at least survive, on.


This recalls a Robert Silverberg story, “The Wind and the Rain,” which I blogged about here, with this quote from the story:

The planet cleanses itself. That is the important thing to remember, at moments when we become too pleased with ourselves. The healing process is a natural and inevitable one. The action of the wind and the rain, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, the vigorous rivers flushing out the choked and stinking lakes—these are all natural rhythms, all healthy manifestations of universal harmony.

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