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          Gaia’s Geological Perspective: Episodes Since Genesis

                         “Well, I never!”

                                             --- Mark Twain

Call me Gaia.  I have been majestically speeding around the star that you call the Sun ever since the solar system formed in this remote outpost of the Milky Way Galaxy.  You humans study me and call your studies “geology” or “deep ecology”, but it is all existential physics and holistic biology to me. 

Elemental physical forces have been fundamental in determining my nature and how I came to be.  Gravity is the most obvious of these forces.  I was born, along with my seven sister planets, more than 4.5 billion years ago when the accretionary forces of gravity caused matter orbiting the Sun to collide together, forming large masses. 

My early days were wild, believe me!  Matter was flinging with energetic abandon through space way back then.  The entire universe had begun with an initial Big Bang more than nine billion years earlier, and fiery masses and cosmic dust had been hurtling forth from this explosive materialization of matter for eons.  Long before the solar system came into being, untold numbers of stars had existed and forged new elements from primordial hydrogen and helium, and then been blown apart in intensely colossal supernova explosions.  The debris of these stars eventually contained all the elements of matter that now exist on Earth, including the elements most critical to life:  carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, iron, phosphorous, sulfur and potassium.

At the dawn of the solar system, asteroids, planetisemals, meteors, comets, frozen gases and cosmic dust existed in an ‘accretion disk’ in orbit around the Sun.  As this matter consolidated in dramatic collisions, some of it eventually came to form my dense inner core and hot outer core and thick mantle and thin rocky crust, and my oceans and my atmosphere as well.  A similar process created all the other planets and moons in the solar system.  Lots of other matter still whirls around the Sun, captivated by the powerful gravity of the Sun’s gigantic mass, including a large ‘belt’ of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and millions of chunks of icy debris in the far-out Kuiper Belt, and countless comets in the Oort Cloud on the outer reaches of the solar system.

Every month, as the sun sets, a full moon appears to you humans, looming up brightly on the horizon to the east of wherever you are.  The full moon’s visible crater-pocked surface provides silent testimony to the impressive impacts which took place during the early days of the solar system’s formation.  Similar impact craters would be everywhere evident upon my surface, except for the fact that the processes of vegetation and mountain building and erosion and tectonic plate movements have continuously altered my landscapes and obliterated this evidence of impacts that took place during my formative years.

I’ve surely seen a lot of comings and goings in my time.  I was a lifeless and inhospitable mass of matter for much of the time during my first 500 million orbits around the Sun.  Then, sometime thereafter, a form of primordial life was sparked into existence in the early oceans from proteins and inanimate nucleic acids and the energy of sunlight.  Life proliferated into a wide variety of single-celled organisms, and yet I made more than 3 billion additional circuits around old Sol before primitive single-celled species of life stumbled upon a way to organize together to form more complex multi-cellular forms of life.  And I have made another 540 million more orbits around the Sun since then, during which time a marvelous diversity of life forms have been born and adapted to prevailing conditions and left genetic progeny before dying out in a wondrous eons-long kaleidoscope of evolving plants and animals. 

More than 99% of all species of life that have ever lived in my ecosystems have long since become extinct.  Nonetheless, there are between 10 million to 100 million species still alive at this very moment, and every one of them is a descendent of earlier ancestors back along the branches of the tree of life. 

Another of the fundamental physical forces of Nature that have defined my existence is the energy generated by nuclear reactions in the Sun.  This light and heat energy drives my water cycle and influences my weather patterns and allows plants to photosynthesize nutrients that feed and sustain essentially all forms of life in my biosphere.  The key to a deeper understanding of life is to be found in a clear comprehension of the physical nature of light and energy and atoms and molecules.  An infinite variety of conditions of soil and temperature and sun exposure and food sources and competition and water distribution and physical barriers to movements of different species have all contributed to the evolving creation of a plethora of different habitats that have become defining ranges and distributions for each and every species of life. 

The nature of necessity has shaped all forms of life to exist in a dynamically adapted balance within the constraints of the conditions in my many places.  Plant life has adapted to and profoundly influenced my physical and chemical cycles, so it is as fundamental to my nature as the falling of the rain or the movements of the tides.  Photosynthesis by plants is as basic to me as the erosion of mountains and the flowing of rivers and the blowing of the wind.  My ecosystems are the sum total of all the habitats and life forms created in conjunction with these natural cycles and characteristics. 

My ecosystems provide “services” that are critically valuable to the human race.  These services are optimally provided when my ecosystems are in a healthy state.  My wild lands and forests and riparian habitats and wetlands and coral reefs provide food and timber and fish and raw materials, and they serve as nurseries for wildlife on land and in the sea.  My forests are critically important in helping determine patterns of rainfall and fresh water flows, and in the regulation of the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in my atmosphere.  These gases help establish and maintain global temperatures in a range that is propitious for all current forms of life.     

The single most notable feature of my land surface, when you regarded from space, is the green color of an incomprehensibly vast number of tiny living photosynthetic “machines” which utilize water and carbon dioxide and sunlight to create basic forms of energy that serve as “food”, either directly or indirectly, for every living thing.  The green than you humans perceive as the color of plants is a result of the pigment in plant’s chlorophyll that absorbs light in the blue and red parts of light’s spectrum and reflects the green.  So the color that you associate the most with plants is actually that of the light for which the plants have the least use!  This paradox indicates that there may be illusion in all realities, even on a physical level. 

You human beings have imagined a lot of curious ideas about me in the course of your tenure on my surface, but you simply don’t know the half of it.  When you are being generous in heart and mind, you refer to me as Mother Earth, and you’ve even come up with enlightened ecological views of me that recognize your natural interconnectedness and interdependence with my ecosystems.  But most of the time your geological studies are blindly utilitarian, and your sciences collaborate with industrial efforts to focus on finding better ways to exploit my assets with more rapacious and often destructive efficiency.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know:  From the perspective of you human beings, everything is all about you.  You figure that you are just such miraculous beings that a special Creator, visualized in your own image, must be responsible for your seemingly extraordinarily intelligent design and the equally marvelous and complex nature of other forms of life and the universe itself.  The magnitude of miraculousness of the biochemical processes involved in plants’ photosynthesis, which creates carbohydrates that support all of life, are just as amazing as the processes of respiration by which the mitochondria in almost all of the trillions of cells in each human body transform food into the energy needed to power your every activity.  Every form of life is essentially eating carbon dioxide and transforming it into ‘food’ using the energy of the sun, so maybe your God should actually be pictured as light itself.

Those of you are perplexing who gullibly cling to superstition and ideology and dogma and religious revelation, and to self-serving doctrines that justify advancing selfish short-term-oriented interests without any overarching sense of responsibility.  For your own good, you should give greater respect and appreciation to my providential biotic wonders.  What’s with your obsessive and damaging exploitation of my resources without honoring a more responsible stewardship of my environs?  I say unto you, please feel free to gather in a corner and ignore these words completely, oh, Ye of great faith but little true understanding!  Your myopic and solipsistic lack of insight and imagination is really rather confounding, because you deny larger truths at your own peril, and that of all future generations. 

You are like a self-aware kind of red blood cell that courses around the human body thinking it is the whole purpose of existence, rather than in reality being an interdependent part of a body in a grander scheme of things.  In such a state of misapprehension, and unfortunately for yourselves, you are failing to recognize that my health and the well-being of my habitats and ecosystems are critically important factors in your vitality, now as well as in the future. 

The impacts of your human activities have become so pervasive and harmful that they could cause abrupt and irreversible changes in my environmental conditions within the next few decades.  Your reliance on industrial agriculture and the chopping down of vast tracts of my forests, together with mindless consumption and the reckless burning of fossil fuels, are activities that damage my highly evolved natural systems.  As a result, you foolishly endanger the future prospects of yourselves and most other forms of life in my biosphere.

You humans have already usurped half of my land surface for crops and timber and mining and animal husbandry and development and recreation.  In doing so, you are upsetting the natural balance of my vital ecosystems.  You must collectively learn to stop denying the important realization that my ecosystem services in a healthy state are crucially important to your survival and well-being!

Fish Finally Discover Water!

The British scientist James Lovelock was the first person to recognize the obvious:  my existence!  He has now written a new book titled The Revenge of Gaia.  It contains much valuable perspective, particularly about the risks of global warming and climate change to my biological diversity and the health of my ecosystems.  But the title of this book is preposterous.  I am NOT a vengeful being.  In fact, I am not partial to any particular species of life.  I am as impersonally indifferent to outcomes as a carbon dioxide molecule.  I do not feign some sort of Olympian detachment, nor do I have some sort of inscrutable divine sense of absolute justice.  It is a misapprehension to see it that way.  I am dispassionate and selfless beyond fathoming. 

Everything takes place within and about me in accordance with what you think of as the ‘laws’ of Nature.  This natural order is an aspect of reality, independent of your thoughts and theories and biases and subjective judgments and belief systems and quantum mental gymnastics.  Every form of life has lived and died and adapted in every instant in the über-context of these natural laws, through good times and bad, abiding practically forever.  This is the order of Nature.

I don't play favorites with any specific plant or animal, or with any particular species of life in my biosphere.  I have developed a dynamic and almost uncanny ability to recover from biotic catastrophes by cultivating a broad diversity of life forms that have evolved many different replication and reproductive and survival strategies in infinitely variable habitats.  After a natural cataclysm takes place, like a meteor impact or a devastating tsunami or a wildfire or a clear-cut of old-growth trees, the relative equilibrium is upset and new competitive forces come into play.  After such disturbances, a process of natural succession takes place.  The species that initially colonize a destroyed forest eventually give way to others, for instance, until finally a stable and dynamic equilibrium is reached in mature old-growth forests or other ‘climax communities’, and a harmonious balance is reestablished.

I am an entity that is simply not attached to outcomes.  Make no mistake about it, to me nothing is good or bad, and nothing is right or wrong.  Obviously things can be fortunate or unfortunate from the perspective of specific individuals or groups, but to my whole self in the long term, all is relative.  For instance, consider the 'nemesis meteor’ which struck the Yucatan 65 million years ago.  The resulting conditions drove the dinosaurs to extinction and the event was a terrible calamity for almost every living thing alive at the time, yet it created many new opportunities for different animals to evolve into the void left by the catastrophe.  This, in fact, was how large reptiles were driven to extinction and mammals and eventually humans came to dominance.  Come what may, my biosphere has an almost eternally long history of survival, so no matter how severe the damage you humans inflict on my biotic wonders, it is likely that life will go on, long after your species has become extinct. 

I do not grieve for any species that has ever disappeared from my habitats.  It is YOU for whom the bell tolls.  It is you who are choosing to act in ways that are leading to resource depletion and ecological deterioration and population overshoot and probable collapse of your civilizations.  Bold changes in your behaviors are within your individual and collective capabilities to achieve.  Thus, your ‘salvation’ is up to you.  Take my impersonal advice:  seek a better knowledge of my true nature;  and respect me;  and radically reorganize your activities to be compatible with my health and biotic diversity.  Do this for yourselves, for your own common good!

Me, Me, Me, Me, Me

The human race never ceases to be impressed by every tremor in my interior, and every time my hot innards erupt, and each time my crustal faults are revealed.  I chuckle at all the deities you have invented in thousands of different cultures since prehistoric times when your species first emerged from the shadows of your mammalian ancestors.  “Zeus did this …”;  “God did that …”;  “Goddesses did such and such …”.  HELLO!  I am right here!  I am not a hypothesis;  I am more than a perspective, and more than an illuminating and valuable way of looking at the world.  I am natural reality.

One of your more creative thinkers, Michael Pollan, has written about “The Botany of Desire”.  In his book by this name, he insightfully considers the fate of plant species from their point of view.  He delves into the successful proliferation and transformation of varieties of apples, and tulips, and marijuana, and potatoes from their native places of origin and their original genetic characteristics into, respectively, sweeter, and more dramatically beautiful, and more potently intoxicating, and more genetically profitable forms.  Plants have achieved this biotic success by taking advantage of a mutualism similar to the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and pollinators.  By appealing to human needs and desires, plants have effectively manipulated people into selectively growing and breeding and propagating them around the globe, with results that are generally evolutionarily propitious for both human beings and the plants themselves.

This way of looking at things from an alternate point of view should be enlightening.  It should free one to perceive and embrace important bigger picture perspectives.  Other ways of seeing the world would be more accurate and valuable, especially when they are focused on being more holistic.  Like MY whole-istic point of view!  Appreciate it!

You call yourselves Homo sapienswise humans.  ‘Wise’, my core!  Most of your stories about me throughout history have been fanciful and pathetically anthropocentric.  They are often mere superstitions and geomyths.  It is amazing how simplistically credulous and naïve you are!  So many of your beliefs are transparently fueled by hope and fear, and driven by vanity, pride, compensatory arrogance, greed, control drives, selfishness and self-centered hubris.  It’s no wonder that clever old Mark Twain became so famous for satirizing your far-flung foibles!

I must hand it to you, though, in one regard:  modern scientists and philosophers and ecologists have made great strides in honing in on a roughly accurate and ever-improving Big Picture understanding of my physical and chemical and meteorological and ecological processes.  Deep ecologists in recent decades have even begun to appreciate a more wholesome and holistic view of me and my biotic communities.  This gives your species some hope that you will begin to act more wisely and ethically and sensibly in the future -- for your own sakes!

Knowledge, not ignorance, will prove to be of paramount importance to you, if you are to survive and prosper for long.  If you are to endure and leave me habitable to your future descendents for even 100 years, or a thousand years, or a million years, you will succeed only by working in greater harmony with other forms of life in my biosphere, and by refraining from upsetting the fine balance of my climate and atmosphere and waterways and healthy habitats and ecosystems and biotic diversity.  Get it together!

A Shifty Aside from the Author

You just gotta love Gaia.  She’s like the best of Mom and Dad, and God, and the most generous benefactor ever.  She is demonstrably indifferent to our hopes and fears, but in general her self-regulatory processes are amazingly propitious to our existence, and to that of all other forms of life on Earth.  Ken Burns’ recent film series about our wonderful National Parks highlights many beautiful natural places, but there are assuredly many more, and the processes that make the world so wonderful are providential beyond comprehension. 

It may seem odd to imagine Gaia speaking to us, because Gaia is not ‘a being’ in the way that we think of ourselves as individually conscious and aware beings.  But think about a bee community living in a hive built in the cavity of a tree.  Such a hive of bees cannot be fully understood in a context of individual bees alone, because there is such a profound interdependence between the specialized functions of the hive’s queen and its workers and its drones.  The entire bee society of the hive must be understood to find out how the hive is built, and how food is gathered from the pollen of wildflowers, and how the queen bee mates with drones, and how the next generation of bees is fed and supported, and how swarming takes place. 

The beehive community essentially has an instinctive social organization that cannot be comprehended by the study of specialized individuals alone.  The hive community does not ‘think’ as a being, but it operates as if it is one single entity.  Likewise, no species of plant or animal can be analytically understood independent of the habitats and ranges in which it lives.  Nor can it be accurately understood independent from the interconnections with other species upon which it relies.  As the famous naturalist John Muir noted, everything is hitched to everything else.

A knowledge of genetics is necessary to understand the heritage of individuals, and of entire species, and of all of life.  A knowledge of chemistry and physics is necessary to understand the context of how life exists and how any individual is able to perform the functions required for survival.  A knowledge of soil nutrients and the photosynthetic process and capillary action and microclimates and sun exposure and the hydrologic cycle are necessary to understand how plants prosper.  In turn, make no mistake about it:  every animal is either directly or indirectly dependent upon plants. 

So, in a sense, a Gaia-level understanding is a more accurate way of really comprehending the world.  Gaia has great capacities for resilience and spontaneous healing, especially when in a healthy state.  All species are essentially actors in a co-evolutionary dance of survival, and all rely on mutualism for continued existence. 

This discussion itself is analytical, yet we must recognize that the synthesis of knowledge often contains the truest understandings of life and the world and Gaia, and the most valid and holistic concepts.  Our perspectives are constrained by the limitations of our senses and the subjectivity of our perceptions, and by curious shortcomings in our views of the world and our assumptions.  Existence is a wonder beyond fathoming, and one that is best understood by cultivating an awareness of the whole and being mindful and appreciating existence.  We should find ways to accept ephemerality and embrace uncertainty and transcend our petty conflicts and honor the sublime and celebrate the nature of our own spiritual essence.

The miracle of Earth’s biosystems far exceeds what is generally understood.  The process of photosynthesis by plants and trees produces oxygen that we breathe, and it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  The water cycle is driven by heat from the sun, which causes the evaporation of water from oceans and lakes and the evapotranspiration of moisture from plants, and these processes in turn lead to the formation of clouds that subsequently drop vital precipitation around the planet.  Even the dynamics of plate tectonics are crucially important to life, for they help drive a process that allows our planet to achieve long-term climate stability by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and burying it in sedimentary rocks.  Movements of the Earth’s crust are caused by the inner heat of the Earth which percolates around in convection currents of hot magma that well up from beneath the planet’s rocky crust.  These action occasionally result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which can be devastating and scary to people, and yet it is a necessary process for life on Earth.

A Window on the World

Imagine opening an enormous window in the sky out over the middle of the Pacific Ocean and walking out onto a lofty terrace with the most marvelous vista to the west ever afforded.  What you see is what Oliver Morton describes in his Introduction to Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet.

“Here’s what happened today.  What really happened.

Dawn broke first in the Pacific:  because our international date line is in the middle of our largest ocean, that’s where the day’s dawn always breaks first, its tangential light reflected from a million waves and a few container ships into an empty sky.  What wasn’t reflected lit up the upper layers of the ocean, a soft new light for the fish and that which they fed on.

When it made landfall in the north, the sun swept over the tundra like water up a beach;  a couple of hours later, at the other end of the world, it broke like a wave against the mountains and pastures of New Zealand.  Soon it was filling the rice paddies of the Philippines and the shallows of the South China Sea.  And every time the sunlight hit something green - something truly green, not something painted green or dyed green:  something with a greenness that grew - the most important process on the planet began again.

When the light shown on the greenness, the greenness welcomed it, and comprehended it, and put it to use.  The greenness was chlorophyll, a pigment.  It was arranged in pools and the sunlight’s energy bounced from one molecule to the next like a frog across lily pads before reaching the subtle trap at the pool’s center, the three-billion-year-old trap where the light of the sun becomes the stuff of the earth.  As the trap’s jaws snapped shut on the sunlight, the spring that powered those jaws pulled electrons from a nearby water molecule, breaking it up into hydrogen and oxygen.  The hydrogen was used, along with the stream of electrons that flowed up through the trap, to turn carbon dioxide into organic matter.  The oxygen was discarded.

In every plant reached by the dawn this extraordinary mechanism came to life millions of times over.  There are hundreds of thousands of pigment pools and sunlight traps in every green cell, hundreds of thousands of cells in full-grown leaves.  And once awakened by the light, the flow of electrons through the leaves did not stop until darkness fell.  The carbon dioxide to which those electrons were channeled was turned first into a sugar and then into all sorts of other molecules.  Some of them were used to thicken the plants’ stems, to lengthen their leaves, to enrich the soil beneath them and to colour the flowers still held tight in their buds.  The rest were used to fuel the processes that make such growth possible.  Light made life;  that is what photosynthesis means.

If the light-driven flow of electrons stopped, on this day or any day, so would everything that evolution has wrought.  The planet wouldn’t stop turning;  dawns would still arrive with impressive regularity.  But they wouldn’t matter.  No more datelines.  No more dates.”

“… The greenness of life is so important and all-pervading that evolution has tuned our eyes to discriminate among it various hues more precisely than among those of any other colour, and so shaped our brains that we take solace in it.  The green, we know without thinking, is good.

We don’t just enjoy seeing the green.  It shapes the possibilities of our lives.  More than two billion of us will have tended to the eaters of the sun in some way today.  We will have hoed the ground for them, planted them, fed them fertilizers.  We will have picked their fruits, dug up their nutritious roots, fed them to our livestock and ourselves.  We will have made their carcasses into fabrics and furniture and firewood.  We will have tended to some of them simply for their beauty – and to others because we know no finer surface over which to run while kicking a ball.

And even if we ignore today’s plants completely, if we cut ourselves off in concrete and steel, we will still rely on yesterday’s.  On this day we will burn over thirty million tones of fossil fuel to generate our electricity and drive our cars and fire our factories and warm our homes.  And all that power and warmth comes from sunlight eaten long ago.  Energy trapped 300 million years ago by trees … ended up stored in coal;  plankton like those now blooming off the Azores were transformed into oil and gas.  The carbon in the carbon dioxide we give off by burning them is carbon taken from the ancient atmosphere they breathed.”

“… As the dawn moves past Hawaii, the day is almost done.  On this day, and the next day, and every day, a scarcely conceivable 4000 trillion kilowatt hours of energy reached the top of the earth’s atmosphere as sunshine.  Some was reflected back into space and some was absorbed by the atmosphere.  Some warmed the land and the sea, its warmth driving the winds and the ocean currents.  Only a small fraction of one percent of that sunlight was captured by the pools of chlorophyll.  But this tiny fraction of a vast number is still vast:  the scrap of sunlight eaten by the plants today represented a similar amount of energy to that stored in all the world’s nuclear weapons put together.  And over the course of the day, that energy served to turn hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into food and living tissue.

And as a result the world stayed alive.  That’s what really happened today.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch:  The Evolution of the Theory of ‘Continental Drift’

The geologic history of our home planet is fascinating.  It is also curious how a heretical theory can become proven fact almost overnight.  Continental drift, for instance, was a phenomenon proposed by the German geologist Alfred Wegener in 1915.  Wegener was vilified and ridiculed for this theory for the rest of his life.  But then suddenly in the mid-1960’s, scientists studying the magnetic alignments of crystals in volcanic basalts in the oceanic crust discovered that the rocks had moved substantially from their initial position at the time they had formed.  This discovery was made due to the fact that iron crystals in molten magma essentially freeze in position as they cool, pointing to magnetic north.  Rocks that are now oriented in a direction different than what was north at the time of formation have therefore moved subsequent to the time they cooled. 

This revelation led to more discoveries and corroborating facts, and the puzzle of the dynamics of the Earth became far clearer with the new and now universally accepted mega-explanation of Plate Tectonics as a cause of volcanic activity and earthquake movements and the orogenies of mountain ranges and the creation and destruction of the earth’s oceanic crust.  Eureka!

Rocks Speak

Countless layers of rock have been exposed by the forces of erosion in the amazingly colorful and awe-inspiring Grand Staircase region of the American Southwest.  These rocks are more than a billion years old in the deepest places of the continental crust.  A rudimentary knowledge of geology and of the geophysical genesis of rock formations gives anyone who ponders it a profound appreciation of the age of the Colorado Plateau and the processes by which it was formed over the eons.  Travelers who visit the National Parks of southern Utah are familiar with the sandstones, siltstones, mudstones, limestones and shales of this variegated stone staircase which extends down from the most recent rock formations through what geologists identify as rocks from the Tertiary, Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic, and Permian geologic periods back to the Paleozoic Era and before. 

The Grand Staircase consists of high plateaus that break into cliffs crumbling down into talus slopes and alluvial fans and outwash plains and canyons with remnant towers and pinnacles and arches and natural bridges.  Volcanic ranges intrude into this fascination geologic jumble, providing a revelation of slow-motion evolutionary change characterized by a “punctuated equilibrium” of more rapid physical changes in which mountain building and erosion take place most dramatically during epic event episodes like flash floods and landslides and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and glaciations.

Erosion-exposed layers of sedimentary rock, angled askew from the horizontal plane of their formation, tell a compelling story of the physical processes of lithification and uplift which have taken place over unfathomably long periods of time.  Curvilinear striations of lithified sand dunes;  stream-rounded pebbles embedded in conglomerate stone;  veins of quartz in granite;  beautiful crystalline structures of exotic minerals;  ancient seashells found in continental rocks;  glacial moraines;  and the impressive evidence of volcanic eruptions all contain their own secrets of their genesis long ago.  Geologists and naturalists have learned a lot about the planet we live on, and the knowledge we can gain from studies of the natural world can provide us with a provocative understanding of who we are, and of how we fit into this marvelous world, and of how we would be well-advised to live in better harmony with natural processes and ecosystems.

Geologic understandings expose the archaic misunderstandings that are incorporated into the pre-scientific myths and superstitions and fictions that underlie the ideas of those who wrote the world’s holy books.  It is curious and astonishing that people still literally believe in the Biblical stories of Genesis and the genealogies of the Old Testament from the time of Adam and Eve to the time of the legendary Great Flood.  Those who cling to these stories in light of better understandings of the actual age of the Earth and its geophysical evolution are foolish, especially in light of the overwhelming evidence of the concomitant biological evolution of life in its multifarious niches and ranges.  Ancient creation stories are simply not credible.  They are similar to hundreds of archaic creation myths that humanity has invented over the millennia.

The known facts of geology are awe-inspiring, so it is odd that some people prefer to cling to stubbornly blind ignorance.  It is compelling to contemplate forces of rock formation, mountain uplift, erosion, earthquakes, and volcanic activity.  Likewise, it is a marvel to gain knowledge of endless eons of causes and effects, of the natural succession of forests, of tectonic plate movements, and of the physical evolution of mountain ranges, outwash plains, volcanic peaks, valleys, lakes, meadows, coral atolls and deep ocean trenches.

Irony sure is an entertaining damsel.  Utah is the most conservative state in the Union, and the Mormon religion flourishes there, advancing a dogma that denies an ancient age to the Earth.  Yet the rock formations found in Utah provide cogent and awe-inspiring evidence of rocks and fossils that definitively contradict the ignorance-oriented conceptions of the Book of Mormon.  Mormons marry their atavistic dogma to a social conservatism that in many instances impedes solutions to the serious global problems facing humanity like overpopulation, resource depletion and global climate disruptions being caused by voluminous emissions of greenhouse gases. 

The first time I visited Box Canon Falls on the southern edge of beautiful Ouray, Colorado, it had two features which were not present when I returned five years later.  There used to be a colorful billboard-sized painted diorama along an interpretive Nature Walk which depicted an evolutionary continuum of various species of life from the ancient Paleozoic Era to the Mesozoic Era to the Cenozoic Era.  That exhibit has for an unknown reason disappeared.  The viewing area was still there which pointed out a dramatic “angular unconformity” of rock layers:  billion-year-old layers of black slate and white quartzite have been uplifted into a vertical position, and on top of them are many layers of sandstone from another much later period of sedimentary rock formation that lie perpendicular to the ancient layers of rock.  In an ironically extreme contrast to this compelling evidence of more than a billion years of rock formations exposed by the faulting of the Colorado Plateau and the subsequent erosion by streams and glaciers along the Ouray Fault, the first time I visited this narrow canyon I was approached by an evangelizing white-shirted Mormon who tried to convince me of the absolute truth of Mormon doctrines, which dogmatically deny that the Earth is older than 6,000 years, as the faithful think is revealed by the Book of Mormon and the Bible.  Honestly!

Another Perspective

“Experience of the way of all flesh might lead you to think that hard rocks, high mountains and broad continents would be stable and lasting, while the tiny molecules of life were fleeting;  biology brevis, geology longa.  In fact, over the history of the planet, the reverse is true.  Mountains are worn down to sea beds, continents pulled asunder and ground together;  oceans open and close.  As a result, only a tiny fraction of the earth’s early crust is still available for inspection today. … Yet molecules from those shattered days are all around us today, in the form of DNA sequences.  Many of our genes are billions of years old;  some date back to the universal ancestor itself.  While the winds and waves of entropy erode earth’s heights, life maintains its inner order across cosmic spans of time.”

                                                                                          --- Oliver Morton, Eating the Sun

The Curious Genesis of Geomythology

Long before science gave human beings good explanations for natural phenomena, our ancestors sought to explain geophysical events with stories that they made up.  These stories were grounded in observation, myth, legend and anthropocentric feelings.  These understandings reflect the powerful affect on our imaginations of inexplicable events and sacred landscapes.  Such legends may actually have some survival value.

Consider, for instance, the trepidation of the ancestors of the native Klamath Indians in the vicinity of Crater Lake in the Cascade Mountains of what today is southern Oregon.  Only 8,000 years ago, a mere moment in geological time, a volcanic mountain almost 12,000 feet tall stood there.  Geologists now call it Mt. Mazama.  This mountain had been formed by a multitude of eruptions from numerous volcanic vents over the last 400,000 years.  Flows of lava from these vents had created a broad mountain which was one of the tallest in the Cascade Range.  Then, about 7,700 years ago, Mt. Mazama underwent a climactic eruption.  An estimated 12 cubic miles of magma were ejected, and then the mountain peak collapsed into the enormous empty magma chamber, creating a hole so deep that when it eventually partially filled with water, it became the deepest lake in North America.  The remnant rim of this volcanic caldera is 4,000 lower in altitude than Mt. Mazama, and 33 miles in circumference.  The slope is so steep from the encircling rim down to the deep blue lake that there is only one route for hikers to get down to the water for the lovely boat excursions around the lake and out to the beautiful and awe-inspiring setting of Wizard Island.

The ancestors of the Klamath Indians understandably regarded the mountain as highly dangerous.  Having witnessed the fiery explosions that resulted in the disappearance of more than a half mile of the summit of this great mountain, they created a story of Mt. Mazama as the home and battleground of powerful spirits.  In their legends, Llao, the chief spirit of the ‘below world’ beneath Mt. Mazama had fought many battles with Skell, the chief spirit of the ‘above world’.  In a final conflict, Skell was said to have killed Llao and thrown him into the mountain, which crashed in upon him.  A dramatic feature known as Llao Rock on the north rim of the caldera is named for this vanquished spirit.

Geomythology is the study of oral traditions that have been created by pre-scientific cultures to explain geological phenomena such as volcanoes and earthquakes and floods and fossils and other natural features of the world.  The folklorist Adrienne Mayor notes that the people in these ancient cultures often used mythological imagery and poetic metaphor in these explanations.  She states:  “Some geomyths are simply fanciful stories based on imagination or popular misconceptions, such as tales of humans or creatures that were magically transformed into rock to explain the shapes of landforms.  Many geomyths, however, contain surprisingly accurate insights into geological processes, as well as important eyewitness data from the distant past.  Modern scientific investigations have revealed that much ancient folklore about the earth was based on rational speculation and understandings grounded in careful observations of genuine but extraordinary physical evidence over time.”

Many ancient cultures, in places such as China and India and Greece and America and Australia, told tales of dragons and monsters to account for fossils of skeletons and footprints of animals they had never seen alive.  The geomythological explanations are rooted in direct evidence of prehistoric creatures, but they are not nearly as plausible as modern scientific theories which explain the evolving tree of life and the processes by which extinct forms of life have left fossilized remains and imprints in sedimentary rocks.  In any case, our best hopes for creating a better world seem to me to be found in accurate understandings, not in superstitions and myths, and definitely not in deceptions and denials of crucially important perspectives.

Manifesto Interruption - May 2010

An epic oil spill began fouling and poisoning a vast expanse of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010.  This ecological disaster was caused by an explosion on an oil rig operating on a 5,000-foot-deep oil well owned by energy giant BP.  This company took risks and short cuts in order to make bigger profits.  BP has made more than $168 billion in profits since the year 2000, but despite such huge profits, the company decided not to install a safeguard device known as "a remote-control shutoff switch” on the blowout preventer for the oil well where a subcontractor, Transocean Ltd., was using a deepwater drilling rig to “drill, baby, drill” for oil.  Such devices are required by Brazil and Norway to protect the environment from oil spills, and such a mechanism might have prevented this environmental disaster. 

BP did not install this safety device in order to save $500,000 on the drilling project.  The lack of such a safety device contributed to the explosion that completely destroyed the $350 million ‘Deepwater Horizon’ drilling rig, so it was not only a reckless environmental gambit but also a very bad business decision.  Short-term-oriented profiteering once again can be seen to be potentially irresponsible to society.  Risky deep water drilling projects now obviously need to be subjected to more thorough and sensible regulations and oversight. 

This environmental debacle exposes the incompetence and deceptions of the oil industry as well as its heavy emphasis on production technology and lack of concern for technologies related to safety and oil spill clean-ups.  It also reveals the poor government oversight and the extent to which industry has had too much sway with rule-making by federal agencies.  The Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department, had already been known to have serious conflicts of interests in its responsibilities and it had previously been seriously embarrassed by its Denver office, whose employees were found to have accepted gifts from representatives of energy companies and even partied with them and used drugs and had sex with some of them during the years of the Bush Administration.

It is highly ironic that a corporation that gives itself a company name of “Beyond Petroleum” adheres to such bad practices as skimping on safety devices and manipulating environmental rules to produce bigger short-term profits.  Revelations by investigative journalist Greg Palast show that BP had a role in the Exxon Valdez oil spill and in other oil spills in Alaska, and in the trans-Alaska pipeline.  This casts a very different light on the company’s true character than their public relations propaganda attempts to portray.

Irony is a cynical character;  she just seems to love poetic justice, even if it is dirty.  The Gulf oil spill is an ecological disaster that came on the heels of a national tragedy in which 29 coal miners died when a West Virginia coal mine exploded on April 5, 2010.  This coal mining tragedy was caused by lax worker safety concerns and violations by the giant conglomerate, Massey Energy, another bad actor in the energy industry as well as on the political stage. 

Concerns for workers and the environment too often take a back seat to making profits in our economic system.  The government is too cozy in many ways in its collaboration with industry when it allows environmental damages and harm to workers to be externalized onto taxpayers.  The costs of reasonable worker and environmental protections should be born by industry, and thus included in the cost of products instead of being externalized onto society.  We simply should not allow CEOs and investors to benefit at a high cost to taxpayers and workers and future generations.

Our national and international dependence on oil and coal involves costs that significantly exceed the price we pay for gasoline and heating oil, as well as the price we pay for electricity generated by the burning of oil and natural gas and coal.  Some of the costs that are not included are the adverse health impacts of particulate pollution and the costs associated with climate changes being caused by global warming gases that are generated when fossil fuels are burned.  Corporate propaganda disputes the common sense obligation of corporations to bear these costs.  When we allow damages to the biosphere without requiring the corporations that cause the damage to pay the resulting costs, we understate product costs and distort buying decisions and contribute to a wide variety of social and ecological problems. 

Ever-more-costly environmental tradeoffs are involved with our society’s ever-more-desperate and wasteful demands for more fossil fuels.  Drilling for oil on U.S. lands gave way to drilling in shallow waters as oil reserves were depleted, and this has given way to riskier drilling in deeper waters.  In 1985, only 6% of oil in the Gulf of Mexico came from wells drilled in water more than 1000 feet deep, while in 2009, more than 75% of oil in the Gulf came from deep-water wells.  The inescapable conclusion is that we should use our engineering smarts to figure out ways to use less energy, and cleaner ‘greener’ alternatives, rather than riskier and dirtier and more ecologically harmful technologies.

Many deny, due to greedy and narrow-minded self-interest, that human well-being is intricately tied to the health of the biosphere of our home planet.  Those who do so are perpetuating a deception that cannot be accepted.  Expedient courses of action are often just too short-term oriented to be consistent with the best plans for the greater good.  We simply should stop allowing so many costs to be externalized onto society, the environment and future generations.

“Drill, Baby, Drill” may have served as a good electioneering slogan for the Republican Party, but it simplistically ignores larger issues and greater complexities.  This environment-be-damned slogan was used to rally faithful diehard conservatives at the Republican Convention in 2008, but it is pathetic from the standpoint of more rational broadminded thinking.  A national newspaper headline on May 29, 2010, made a curious understatement by asserting:  <’Drill, baby, drill’ has lost its luster>.  This slogan represents a lustily mindless and irresponsible attitude toward drilling for oil with a minimum of regulation, despite the true ramifications of such courses of action.

The whole idea of allowing Big Oil and giant corporations and banks to take environmental and financial risks and to then saddle taxpayers with cleanup and bailout costs is shortsighted and unfair and foolish and wrongheaded.  Republicans in the U.S. Senate, like Mitch McConnell and Lisa Murkowski, make tortured arguments to defend the paltry $75 million liability limit for oil companies in environmental disasters caused by offshore oil drilling, but that begs the question:  Why should fishermen and the tourist industry along the Gulf Coast, and taxpayers, be saddled with crippling costs, instead of the cash-rich oil companies whose activities are the direct cause of such ecological catastrophes?

Republicans tend to obstruct progressive initiatives for political reasons.  But it really is rather sensational that “conservatives” seem to have embraced rash risk-taking as a central tenet of their dogmas, rather than more responsible and truly conservative approaches.  The human race will have burned practically all of the remaining one trillion barrels of known reserves of oil on Earth within the next 40 years, with uncertain but likely catastrophic impacts on our economy and our home planet’s ecosystems and global climate.  So a prudent and responsible course of action would be to begin making a concerted Apollo-mission-type epic national effort to jump start an inevitable and completely necessary transition to alternative forms of energy to power our civilizations.  Simultaneously, we should obviously begin to implement bold conservation and efficient-use measures rather than squandering fossil fuels at the fastest possible rate.  

Our best national strategy would be to follow an honest and reasonable “no regrets” approach to energy policies.  This approach should be focused on actions and behaviors that are consistent with the common good and social responsibility and shared prosperity and ecological intelligence.  This ‘no regrets’ idea is the basis for the Precautionary Principle, which, as enunciated in Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, states:  “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

The insightful book titled The Corporation - The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, and also the fascinating Canadian film based on the book, titled “The Corporation”, both provide compelling understandings of the psychopathic character of corporations in their dealings with people and their workers and the environment.  A psychologist and FBI criminal profiler named Dr. Robert Hare described in the film the ways corporate behavior closely corresponds with a checklist of characteristics that the World Health Organization uses to define psychopathic personalities in individuals.  These characteristics include a callous unconcern for the feelings of others, a reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness, repeated lying, conning others for profit, an inability to experience guilt, and a failure to correspond to social norms regarding lawful behavior.  These reckless and remorseless characteristics correspond alarmingly to corporations like BP and Massey Energy, as exposed particularly clearly when disasters strike.

Apologists for the recklessness with which the human race is treating our Mother Earth and Gaia’s ecosystems say “Accidents happen”.  Joe Lieberman said exactly this just after the epic oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico, to rationalize more offshore drilling.  Such people are, of course, exactly right.  In fact, accidents are more likely to happen when precautions are valued less than profits, and when ecological integrity is valued less than short-term goals, and when people in our societies are valued less than the money that can be made and the power and privileges that can be gained by following greed-driven strategies and ideologies.  We should find ways to minimize risks and reduce the harm to workers and the extensive damages we cause to ecological habitats.

Images are often more impactful than mere words, and images of an oil rig exploding in a fireball are evocative.  So are those of enormous quantities of oil spewing out of a deep pipe and fouling beaches and killing wildlife and damaging wetlands and harming fisheries.  Images of bodies being pulled from coal mines where safety regulations were notably disregarded are also viscerally compelling.  Images like this are much more powerful than words about corporate responsibilities and precautionary principles because they force us to consider the greater complexities involved in the defense of the status quo, and of the politics that allow profit-prepossessed corporations to unduly influence our national decision-making.

See Part Three of the Earth Manifesto, (9) The Reality and Ramifications of Peak Oil, for further valuable perspective on the issue of our addiction to fossil fuels.  Environmental and political and economic concerns like these are echoed throughout Earth Manifesto writings, even a bit repetitiously, I reckon.  A modern incarnation of Mark Twain would have said so!  But it is one of the main purposes of this manifesto to bring close attention to such problems, so I will point them out over and over again, in the hopes that such understandings will reinforce the potential for the Earth Manifesto to become a force for positive change in altering our economic and political systems, which foolishly allow and even encourage such craziness.

Global Warming is Neither Myth nor Hoax!

Let There Be Light, for Deeper Illumination!

Our home planet is a marvelous place, and like many a good thing, we should respect and appreciate it rather than taking it for granted.  Like a healthy interpersonal relationship, we should ardently and responsibly work to maintain it in good condition.  We should not exploit and abuse it without regard for the future.  One vital aspect of appreciating the natural world is the cultivation of comprehensive understandings about our interconnectedness with Gaia and our interdependencies upon the health of her natural systems. 

I highly recommend watching the stunning images of our home planet by the photographer and ecologist Yann Arthus-Bertrand in his great and important film titled Home.  It can be viewed at YouTube.com/homeproject.  The messages that this film conveys are vitally important to the future well-being of humanity.

Nature provides us with a cornucopia of things to eat and materials to use in our pursuits in life.  The ecosystem services we derive from nature are also critically valuable.  We must take steps to assure that the growth of our human population and our consumption do not, in aggregate, exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth to support us.  We must in particular heed the warnings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the dangers of global warming, for it is ”the defining challenge of our age”.  We must take courageous steps to prevent the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide beyond irreversible limits, and make sure that we do not severely damage the health of the ecosystems upon which we depend. 

Scientists have determined that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million at the end of the last ice age.  At that time, so much water was locked up in glaciers and ice fields and ice sheets that sea level was 400 feet lower than it is today.  Carbon dioxide has now increased to more than 388 ppm, largely due to human activities of cutting down trees and clearing land for crops and raising animals for food and spewing out tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year through the burning of wood and enormous quantities of fossil fuels.  This concentration is increasing by about 2 ppm every year.  Many scientists think that 350 ppm is the upper limit of safe carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for many species of life, yet ‘conservatives’ ironically strive to sow doubt about whether global warming is even occurring. 

A graph of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere shows annual fluctuations, including net decreases during the times that vegetation is rapidly growing in the spring and summer in the northern hemisphere and then net increases as leaves fall and decay in the autumn and winter.  But make no mistake about it:  This graph shows clearly that carbon dioxide levels have been increasing every year from the prior year.  Google “the Keeling Curve” to see just such a graph of carbon dioxide measurements which have been made continuously since 1958 at an Observatory near the lofty and remote summit of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Wikipedia explains that the year-on-year increases roughly match the amount of fossil fuels burned per year.  There is no doubt about this, and the implications are ominous.

The trend of global warming is adding up to increasingly risky outcomes, so it is puzzling that people can be opposed to the Precautionary Principle.  Without concerted actions to mitigate increases in greenhouse gas accumulations, a point of no return may be reached where feedback loops will kick in.  Such feedback loops are processes in which the effects amplify the causes.  These feedback loops could cause warming to spike, and melt all of the Earth’s ice fields and glaciers, and significantly raise sea levels, and make storms more severe, and cause more flooding, and exacerbate desertification, and cause crop failures in many countries.  Humanity would be wise to embrace the “no regrets” stance of Precautionary Principles for the common good of all, particularly those in future generations.  See 350.org for some insights into issues related to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

California Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina recently mocked Senator Barbara Boxer’s concern that climate change could be a serious national security issue, which even the Pentagon has admitted.  Fiorina said, “Terrorism kills -- and Barbara Boxer is worried about the weather.”  This is preposterous pandering to the right-wing base of the Republican Party.  Mark Twain surely would have told us that mockery is most convincing and effective when it comes from an unassailably incisive perspective, rather than from seriously shaky ground.  It is curious to me that Fiorina seems to be irresponsibly willing to blatantly suck up to the lunatic fringe in environmental matters.  It is as if she believes conservatism must ally itself with the vociferous and irresponsible demands of Big Money corporatism, which prefers to ensure continued profit-making by proceeding like the Captain of the Titanic, “full-speed-ahead in treacherous waters”.

Decision-makers at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December of 2009 should have taken greater heed of these perspectives, and found some way to enact a bolder approach to dealing with the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Let us all individually and collectively strive to find ways to alter our wasteful and polluting ways!

Mark Twain’s Perspective

Mark Twain regarded with awe the 70,000 pound iron meteorite Ahnighito (Ah-na-HEET-o) that had been brought from Greenland to the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side in New York City.  He also marveled at the dinosaur skeletons which he viewed in that museum.  According to his friend and biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, “To him, these were the most fascinating things in the world.  He contemplated the meteorites and the brontosaur, and lost himself in strange and marvelous imaginings concerning the far reaches of time and space whence they had come down to us.”

Visualize the Earth during almost 90% of its history, before there were any terrestrial habitats because no form of life had yet ventured out of primordial seas.  All landscapes were rock or crumbling rock like that of high alpine peaks, or rock detritus in outwash plains.  No trees or vegetation had yet evolved on land, so there was no organic material and no soil.  In the steepest places on mountains, rock has a propensity to erode down precipitous declivities, and it forms steep talus slopes that reveal the physical principle known as “the angle of repose”. 

I evoke this picture obliquely, because the Earth Manifesto is vaguely haunted by the character Rodman Ward in Wallace Stegner’s famous book, The Angle of Repose.  "Like other Berkeley radicals, he [Rodman] is convinced that the post-industrial post-Christian world is worn out, corrupt in its inheritance, helpless to create by evolution the social and political institutions, the forms of personal relations, the conventions, moralities, and systems of ethics (insofar as these are indeed necessary) appropriate to the future.  Society being thus paralyzed, it must be pried loose.  He, Rodman Ward, culture hero born fully armed from this history-haunted skull, will be happy to provide blueprints, or perhaps ultimatums and manifestoes, that will save us and bring on a life of true freedom." 

Sometimes I feel like I too am a Berkeley radical from the late Sixties rather than a smart and earnest gal from Missouri.  This manifesto, after all, is a lofty, ambitious and quixotic endeavor designed to save the world and liberate mankind’s thinking from the blinders of corporate propagandists and vested interests and self-serving politicians and stubbornly faithful religious authorities.

Look at it this way.  At the Gaia level in the scheme of things, humanity is quite expendable.  From the standpoint of most other forms of life on earth, it would actually be a boon if we were gone already.  But our conscious awareness is surely an astounding aspect of existence, because it reflects so perceptively on the physical universe and life and evolution and the practically unfathomable expanses of time and space in which we find ourselves.  Our extinction would be a tragedy of great proportion because this pinnacle of reflective perception would be snuffed out forever.  And it would of course be a tragedy of the greatest proportion for ourselves.  Our big brains have helped us to succeed dramatically on earth, and if we want to survive indefinitely into the future, we simply must begin to figure out how to live in truly sustainable ways.

Many people believe that technology will save us, and that “the market” and its laws of demand and supply will always deliver substitutes to us as we deplete non-renewable resources and as we continue to exploit renewable resources like fresh water aquifers at rates that exceed natural rates of replenishment.  But most technological advances are geared principally for the more efficient exploitation of resources, not for conservation or moderation, and an inadequate number of new technologies are focused on creating better alternatives.  New technologies are generally opposed by powerful vested interests, and they are also often as useful for “evil purposes” like war, rather than for “good purposes” like ecologically sane initiatives to make our civilizations indefinitely sustainable.  Our curious collective failure to see how shabbily we are treating our descendents in the future surely defies intelligent understanding!

It is in this largest of contexts, which involves our legacy to future generations, that the Earth Manifesto is concerned.  The Comprehensive Global Perspective in Part One, together with the prescriptions for more sane activities in Part Four and all the other expressions throughout the Earth Manifesto, could revolutionarily affect all of humankind in positive ways.  This has been the underlying motivation for the writings in this save-the-world manifesto.  Read on!

Insights Related to Easter Island

Think about the geographically most remote outpost on Earth that is inhabited by human beings.  It is an island in the South Pacific two thousand miles west of the continent of South America.  It was known to its original inhabitants as Rapa Nui.  It had taken the human race more than 100,000 years to find Rapa Nui after spreading out from Africa to the Middle East and Europe and China and Southeast Asia.  Many millennia after early wanderers had found North America and South America, courageous Polynesian adventurers sailed the vast expanses of the Pacific on large wooden sailing canoes using ‘dead reckoning’ without modern navigational instruments.  A small contingent of them had stumbled upon Rapa Nui about 1,600 years ago, and they settled down and lost contact with their ancestors who lived on islands thousands of miles to the northwest.  They set about building an agricultural civilization that became obsessed with building monumental stone statues.

When the island of Rapa Nui was discovered by Dutch sailors on Easter Sunday in 1722, they named it Easter Island.  The island has an area of 63 square miles, and consists of a number of volcanic cones vaulting up from an ancient hot spot deep below the surface of the Earth’s crust on what is known as the East Pacific Rise.  All of the gigantic stone statues were carved from volcanic rock in a crater named Rano Raraku on the northeast side of the island.  The largest of the hundreds of stone states that were carved and transported out of this crater weighs an estimated 87 tons.  Some mad and seemingly megalomaniacal chieftain had managed to have a statue carved that would have weighed more than 200 tons, but it was too large to transport out of the crater.  Were the Rapanui short on foresight?

The people of Rapa Nui knew nothing about birth control, so their population increased steadily until they depleted their wildlife and forest resources over a period of about 1,000 years.  This ecological destruction eventually led to the complete collapse of their society.  One might extrapolate and say that many modern human endeavors are almost equally obtuse and insane in their disregard for the implications of their depletionary impacts and the extent to which they cause ecological damages.  We are not much different in the United States today, or around the globe, than the Rapanui.  We are all somewhat like the Roman Emperor Nero, who figuratively fiddled while Rome burned.

The geology of Easter Island is interesting.  A heavy basaltic chunk of the Pacific Plate called the Nazca Plate is splitting away from the Pacific Plate along the East Pacific Rise.  Molten lava erupted forth from this fissure until volcanoes there rose above sea level and formed what we know today as Easter Island.  On the other boundary of the Nazca Plate far to the east, as the plate collides with the South American Plate, it subducts into the deep Peru-Chile Trench and thence under the South American continent.  As it does so, it has created 67 active volcanoes that tower in the awesome Andes Range, inland from the coast, all the way from Colombia to Ecuador to Peru to Chile.  This is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, and yet its volcanoes are still actively adding to it today.

The North American continent was also formed hundreds of millions of years ago.  Sedimentary rocks of the Colorado Plateau can be seen to have been uplifted long after their deposition and lithification.  This process has exposed rocks that are more than one billion years old.  In the rocks there are footprints of creatures that lived before the biotic catastrophe known as the Permian Extinction which took place 250 million years ago.  An ‘angular unconformity’ of rock layers in Box Canyon, just south of Ouray, Colorado, shows that the plateau had been submerged after having been uplifted, so that layer after layer of new rock were deposited on top of old rock that had been shifted from the horizontal to vertical.

In contrast to the ancient Colorado Plateau, the beautiful mountains of the Sierra Nevada in California have been uplifted within geologically recent times – within the past 5 million years or so.  The granite of the Sierra batholith formed when the Pacific Plate subducted deep into the Earth and melted into a vast pool of magma that cooled slowly under what is today California.  This took place over a period of maybe 100 million years.  Then, relatively recently, the 400 mile-long and 50 mile-wide and indeterminately deep granitic batholith began to be uplifted.  Older metamorphic rock that covered it has mostly been eroded away long ago, exposing this wondrous granite that evocatively exfoliates according to its physical nature.  Likewise, the dramatic volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range in northern California and Oregon and Washington have also been formed geologically recently, in the past few million years, in a tectonic and volcanic process similar to that which has created the Andes.

Geologic Consequences of Plate Tectonic Activities

Mt. St. Helens is an active stratovolcano in the Cascade Range about 100 miles south of Seattle in the state of Washington.  This volcano underwent a catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980.  On that day, the top 1,300 feet of the summit of the mountain, and the entire north face of the volcano, were blasted off.  Fifty-seven people were killed and large swaths of forest were blown down like matchsticks.  Hundreds of homes and miles of highways were destroyed. 

I climbed to the summit of this beautiful 8,365-foot tall volcanic peak from the south side in 1998, eighteen years after this eruption.  A knowledgeable gal friend accompanied me who has hiked to the top of all 54 of Colorado’s mountain peaks that are taller than 14,000 feet.  We ascended through dense forest and then up past a jumble of volcanic rocks that clearly were extruded in a molten state and had solidified into all manner of fantastic shapes.  When we reached the crater rim, the view was spectacular.  To the north, the top 5,000 feet of the mountain’s side is missing.  A new dome is building in the eviscerated cone as the magma chamber underneath the mountain is being slowly replenished with more molten rock.  The 1980 eruption had poured enormous quantities of lava and ash, together with thousands of trees, into once beautiful Spirit Lake, just to the north of the volcano, raising the surface level of Spirit Lake by 200 feet.  The landscape in the vicinity has been slowly recovering since then, as trees and vegetation and wildflowers grow back in the mineral-rich volcanic soil.

Mt. St. Helens is geologically quite young.  It formed through a series of eruptions over a period of the last 40,000 years.  This compares to the older volcano fifty miles to the north, the spectacular 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier, which has lavas that date to more than 840,000 years.  The entire range of the Cascades, which extends from British Colombia to Northern California, has been created by the forces of movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates.  A relatively small portion of the oceanic crust known as the Juan de Fuca Plate lies between the giant Pacific Plate and the large North American Plate, and this small plate is slowly subducting beneath the North American Plate.  As it does so, the oceanic crust and some seawater that accompanies it are forced down under the continental crust at a 30 to 45 degree angle.  As it dives down, the basalt rock and overlying sediments melt with the heat and pressure, and supercritical fluids rise into the overlying mantle.  This causes the rock to melt and rise, creating large reservoirs of magma that are the source of all the volcanoes in the Cascades.  Similar processes are responsible for the volcanic activity all around the Pacific Ocean’s so-called ‘Ring of Fire’, where more than 90% of the world’s active volcanoes are found.

Astonishing Occurrences in the Physical Evolution of Planet Earth

Imagine traveling through the islands of Indonesia in 1977.  You land on the southern tip of Sumatra, the sixth biggest island in the world.   You take a rough bus ride for 24 hours from the southern end of the island to an inland body of water known as Lake Toba.  This is the largest volcanic lake in the world.  It is 50 miles long and 15 miles wide, with a large island in the middle, called Samosir Island.  The boats that once took locals and a few tourists out to the idyllic island were so dilapidated in the 1970’s that the crew would bail out the 200-passenger ferries during the entire trip across the lake.  What an adventure!  The small communities on Samosir Island are characterized by the colorful houses of local Batak people, which have distinctive shapes like the hulls of ark-like boats.

Lake Toba is an ancient volcanic caldera filled with water, similar to Oregon’s Crater Lake.  Geologists say that the Toba caldera is a remnant of the largest volcanic explosion on Earth in the last 25 million years.  This eruption took place about 75,000 years ago.  The explosion that created the deep hole that became Lake Toba is estimated to have ejected about 670 cubic miles of lava and ash.  For perspective, the 1980 explosion of Mt. St. Helens ejected less than one cubic mile of material, and as mentioned above, Mt. Mazama is estimated to have ejected about 12 cubic miles of lava and ash when it underwent its climactic eruption. 

The Toba explosion threw so much volcanic dust into the atmosphere that it caused many years of ‘volcanic winter’.  This stressed life to such an extreme degree that Bill Bryson states in his fascinating book A Short History of Nearly Everything, “The event, it is thought, may have carried humans right to the point of extinction, reducing the global population to no more than a few thousand individuals.  That means that all modern humans arose from a very small population base, which could explain our lack of genetic diversity.”

Another famous lake-filled caldera is Yellowstone Lake, which covers 136 square miles.  It is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in elevation in North America.  The Yellowstone vicinity, like the Big Island of Hawaii, lies over a hot spot in the middle of a tectonic plate.  According to Wikipedia, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot within the past 17 million years.  Yellowstone Lake lies in three overlapping calderas that were created by violent eruptions above the hot spot within the past 2 million years.  It is estimated that these enormous eruptions spewed out ash and lava in quantities exceeding 2,500 times that of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption.

Bill Bryson points out that the cycle of the supervolcano eruptions in Yellowstone have averaged “one massive blow every 600,000 years.  The last one, interestingly enough, was 630,000 years ago.  Yellowstone, it appears, is due.”  Bryson also notes that an early eruption from the hot spot below Yellowstone took place about 12 million years ago, causing so much ash to be deposited a thousand miles to the east, in what is now eastern Nebraska, that it killed a wide variety of animals there.  Fossils found in Nebraska at the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park astonishingly include early American Pliocene mammals like species of rhinoceroses, zebra-like horses, saber-toothed deer and camels.  Saber-toothed deer in Nebraska!  Rhinoceroses!  Camels!  Oh, my!  Geological history sure is amazing and awe-inspiring!!

Visualize This!

The most violent volcanic eruption in modern recorded history took place on August 27, 1883.  This was the notorious explosion of the pointed conical island known as Krakatoa, which lies in the Sunda Strait, west of Java and south of Sumatra.  Most of the island of Krakatoa disappeared in the eruption, and tsunami waves were generated that killed more than 36,000 people on the coasts of Java and Sumatra.  It is estimated that this phenomenal explosion ejected about 6 cubic miles of material. 

There are 21 active volcanoes on the island of Java alone, and 87 in the archipelago that includes the thousands of islands of Indonesia and the Philippines.  The reason that the volcanoes in this area occur where they do is that the Indo-Australian Plate is subducting into the 25,000-foot deep Java Trench and moving down under the Eurasian Plate.  As the oceanic crust of the Indian Ocean subducts under the continental crust of Sumatra and Java, it melts in exactly the same natural processes as those which are creating the Cascade Range and the Andes.  Molten magma rises towards the surface under Indonesia, creating the dangerous stratovolcanoes in that part of the world.  This region has been prone to the most explosive volcanic activity in modern times of any location on Earth. 

Check out the informative book by Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, for a very interesting conception of this event and related sociological facts!

A Brief Interlude on Geological Understandings and Plate Tectonics

‘Shield volcanoes’ exhibit another type of eruptions of molten rock.  This is a kind of volcano that pours forth streams of hot lava above ‘hot spots’ in the middle of Earth’s crustal plates, rather than at the edges.  Shield volcanoes tend to be less explosively dangerous than the Indonesian or Cascade stratovolcanoes that occur near the edges of converging plates.  The volcanoes of the Hawaiian Islands are classic examples of shield volcanoes.  Consider these mountains for a moment.

Mark Twain wrote an article about ‘The Great Volcano of Kilauea’ that was published in the Sacramento Daily Union in November 1866.  He observed: “Occasionally the molten lava flowing under the superincumbent crust broke through -- split a dazzling streak, from five hundred to a thousand feet long, like a sudden flash of lightning, and then acre after acre of the cold lava parted into fragments, turned up edgewise like cakes of ice when a great river breaks up, plunged downward and were swallowed in the crimson cauldron.” 

Mark Twain was a man with a deep curiosity as well as a vivid imagination.  He also had a keen capacity for insightful observation.  He would have loved to have been able to gain a fuller understanding of the geological forces at work in Hawaii.  But, alas!, the science of geology was still mired in relative ignorance, and many people were in denial of new ideas because they still fervently embraced a dogmatic belief in biblical literalism.  Such convictions obstruct the open-minded attitude that allows one to see reality in more accurate and comprehensive ways.  Those who believe in Bible stories regard modern understandings as heresy, instead of seeing them as having a far, far greater likelihood of being accurate and true. 

Charles Darwin published his controversial On the Origin of Species in 1859, when Sam Clemens was just 24 years old, and just four years before Sam began calling himself by his famous nom de plume, Mark Twain.  At the time, the earth-is-the-center-of-the-universe crowd was still firmly entrenched in influencing mankind’s worldviews.  And knowledge of the actual nature of the processes involved in the physical evolution of the Earth was still many decades away.  In fact, the marvelous scientific theory of ‘plate tectonics’ was not clearly articulated until the 1960’s.  The natural processes that cause earthquakes and “continental drift” and seafloor ridges, and seafloor spreading and mountain building through ‘basin and range’ faulting and folding of the earth’s crust, were still largely unexplained in Clemens’ time.  The deity Pele was the goddess in Hawaiian mythology that was said to be responsible for volcanic activity.

The geologic saga of the Hawaiian Islands makes an amazing story, and one that is too good to ignore, even though it was little understood in the times of Mark Twain.  Imagine looking down from a satellite on a Pacific Ocean that has been drained of water.  This visualization will help to fully understand the whale of a surprise that scientists had when the bottom of the Pacific Ocean was charted after World War II.  If you Google a seafloor map at “National Geographic Pacific Ocean Map”, the ideas in this discussion will be more cogent. 

The mightiest range of mountains on the planet marches from the Big Island of Hawaii to the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is between Alaska and Japan.  This mountain range begins abruptly just southeast of the Big Island of Hawaii, and extends to the island of Kauai to the northwest, and then it continues as underwater seamounts all the way to the deep Kuril Trench at the northern end.  The Kuril Trench is one of the deepest canyons in the world at more than 34,000 feet below sea level at its deepest point. 

Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world as measured from its base on the Pacific Ocean floor to its summit, towers more than 33,000 feet above the deep Pacific plateau.  All of the mountains in this 4,000-mile long range are volcanic cones with steep profiles from top to bottom.  This chain of volcanoes runs in what is a more-or-less straight line all the way across the Pacific seafloor, except for a “kink” in the line at a point northwest of Midway Island where the line of seamounts suddenly veers in a more northerly direction.  This “kink” in the line of mountains has a fascinating genesis, as does the entire mountain range itself.  Read on!

Our home planet, enveloped by a life-supporting oxygenated atmosphere, has a surface that is more than two-thirds covered by oceans.  It is like a massive ball of rock that is 25,000 miles in circumference, with an extremely dense inner core, a molten outer core, a highly viscous mantle, and a rocky outer crust.  The Earth’s outer crust is relatively thin, comprising only about one percent of the volume of the planet.  It is composed of a number of enormous slabs of rock, called ‘tectonic plates’.  These plates essentially float on the hot mantle below.  The entire crust of the planet consists of about a dozen major plates, and twice as many minor ones.  The Pacific Plate is the largest of the plates. 

Earth’s crust consists of two kinds of plates:  continental crust, which averages 25 miles thick and is as old as 4,000 million years in places, and oceanic crust, which averages 5 miles thick and is nowhere older than 180 million years.  There is a very good reason that the oceanic crust is so much younger than the continental crust.  The maximum amount of time it takes for rock that bubbles up at the leading edge of any of the oceanic crustal plates to move away from the fractured rift zones where they form, and to travel at an average rate of two inches per year all the way to where they subduct back into the earth, is about 180 million years.  Continental crust is less dense than oceanic crust, so it generally overrides the oceanic crust in slow-motion collisions at plate boundaries, and thus it continues to survive much longer.

The Hawaiian Islands have been created by the spewing forth of molten magma from a hot spot in the Earth’s crust in the middle of the Pacific Plate.  This hot spot is located below the abyssal floor of the Pacific Ocean, which lies more than 15,000 feet below sea level.  The oceanic crust beneath the Pacific moves about two to three inches to the northwest each year, so new volcanic islands keep being created above the relatively stationary Hawaiian hot spot over the long span of geologic time.  The volcanoes become dormant after sufficient movement away from their hotspot source of flowing lava, and then they become extinct.  The older the islands get, the more dramatically eroded they become.  The island of Kauai lies furthest to the northwest in the current chain of islands, so it is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, and as travelers know, it is the most dramatically eroded. 

The hot spot is currently under the Big Island of Hawaii.  Lava flows from it almost continuously through the crater of the volcanic mountain Kilauea, just as it did when Mark Twain visited in 1866.  Volcanic activity is also taking place in the newest fissure that is building a volcanic seamount just to the southeast of the Big Island.  This mountain has already been named the Loihi Seamount.  It towers more than 10,000 feet above the sea floor, but is still almost 4,000 feet below sea level.  Scientists estimate this seamount will become a new Hawaiian island in about 100,000 years when the flowing lava finally makes the volcano tall enough to reach above sea level.  But “the rest of the story” is even more interesting.  (Kudos to the late Paul Harvey, who entertained us for so long with his radio broadcast explanations of The Rest of the Story!)

Natural processes of weathering and erosion wear mountains down, and once any mountain stops being uplifted or emplaced by volcanic flows, erosive processes begin to prevail in reducing it to a mere remnant as the long geologic eons pass.  The chain of seamounts found in the Hawaiian Ridge and in the more northerly Emperor Seamounts are former Hawaiian islands that have been eroded down, and whose weight has pressed into the ocean bottom, until they no longer reach the surface of the sea.  At its farthest northern end, this chain of mountains is being slowly subducted back into the earth in the deep trenches of the northern Pacific, at the edge of the Pacific Plate. 

The most explosive volcanic activity on Earth takes place at plate boundaries, not at the more unusual ‘hot spots’ in the middle of tectonic plates like those under Yellowstone and Hawaii.  Boundary volcanoes are of basically two types:  ones at the formative edges of plates, where new oceanic crust is being created in undersea ridges, and ones just inland of the boundaries where oceanic plates subduct under continental plates.  During the process of subduction, the oceanic crust at ‘convergent’ plate boundaries melts back into hot pools of magma under the edge of the continents.  This is why earthquakes and volcanoes are common there, in this ‘Ring of Fire’ around the coasts of the Pacific Ocean where subduction occurs.  Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, South America, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Japan all have dramatic volcanoes around these plate boundaries of this Ring of Fire.

An Aside Concerning Simple but Accurate Understandings, and the “Kink”

I love simplistic understandings.  In other words, I love relatively accurate ways of seeing things, as opposed to simple-minded and preposterous ones like those contained in ancient holy books that essentially theorize that Presto! -- a Supreme Being made things the way they are, and that’s the way it is!  Mark Twain loved to tell tall tales, but he also loved deeper truths.  He was known for his irreverent skepticism, and he too would have been eager to know more about the actual geological processes that affect our planet.  Many such things have become far better known in the 100 years since his death in 1910.

The simplistic understandings that I value are those that are rudimentary versions of underlying greater complexities.  I highly recommend watching How the Earth Was Made, a History Channel video presentation which provides provocative insights and valuable perspective of the physical evolution of our home planet from its formation about 4.5 billion years ago until the current day. 

Most scientists are not good at clearly communicating their understandings.  Some, however, like writer John McPhee and physics professor James Trefil, are known for being able to explain complex topics in simple terms to non-scientists and a general audience.  James Trefil, for instance, tells readers in Meditations at Sunset exactly why the sky looks blue on a sunny day. 

John McPhee, in his enlightening book Basin and Range, relates stories of his travels with geologists around the American West where they explored rock formations that naturally revealed compelling insights.  He explains how geological understandings were deduced from such explorations, and how this led to greater comprehension of the geophysical evolution of the Earth as well as the scientific evolution of geologic knowledge.  He writes about ‘the father of geology’, James Hutton, who discovered and named the revelatory phenomenon known as an ‘angular unconformity’ in 1787 in England. 

An angular unconformity is where two contrasting layers of sedimentary rock formations lie at different angles to each other, showing that different eras of rock formation must have taken place.  The lower layers of rock had formed and then had been displaced out of the horizontal position of their deposition.  This was followed by a new era of submersion and sedimentation and lithification and uplift.  This discovery led to the confirmation that the age of the Earth has been very, very long, and NOT merely biblically short.

A period of intellectual ferment followed this discovery by James Hutton.  During this time, the entire Geologic Time Scale was fleshed out, with its Eras and Periods and Epochs, even before rock dating methods were determined to define how long ago the various layers of rock that are found around the world were formed. Geologic time is still classified into these broad categories.  This is big thinking, indeed!  The three Eras of geologic time are demarcated by the two most severe mass extinction events in geologic history, the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago and the Cretaceous Extinction 65 million years ago. 

This Geologic Time Scale resonates with evocative terms.  The last 540 million years of geologic history, in which all evidence of multi-cellular forms of life are found, is divided into:  (1) the Paleozoic Era, or ‘old life’ era, which consisted of the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian Periods.  This ended with the extensive extinction, the Permian, of most forms of life in existence at the time;  (2) The Mesozoic Era, or ‘middle life’ era, which consisted of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods.  This ended with the Cretaceous Extinction 65 million years ago;  and (3) The Cenozoic Era, or ‘recent life’ era, which consists of the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods, including Epochs like the Oligocene and Pleistocene. 

Remember This One Thing at Least

John McPhee writes in Basin and Range that if readers are going to remember only one thing from his book, it should be that the visible stripes of rock on the face of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world above sea level, consist of marine limestone.  This ancient hard rock was formed by the ‘biological precipitation’ of calcium-shelled marine organisms onto the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  These sediments accumulated into deep layers as the eons passed, and they were subsequently compressed and lithified into rock.  Then, as the subcontinent of India began to crumple into the landmass of Tibet on the Eurasian plate about 50 million years ago, the seafloor rock was driven skyward, earthquake by earthquake, eventually creating the highest mountains on Earth in the immense Himalaya Range.  The devastating earthquake in the mountains of Pakistan in October 2005, which killed 70,000 people, is one in an unfathomably long string of such events that has accompanied the crumpling uplift of these mountains.

So, finally, back to the “kink” in the line of volcanoes in the Pacific:  think again about the ancient Hawaiian seamounts that extend from the archipelago of Hawaii to the deep North Pacific trenches.  Why do these seamounts extend northwest in a more-or-less straight line from the current Hawaiian Islands along the Hawaiian Ridge to a point past Midway Island, and then continue in a more northerly direction up through what are known as the Emperor Seamounts?  The distance from the hot spot to this ‘kink’ in the underwater ridge is equivalent to the distance that the Pacific Plate has moved in the last 50 million years.  It seems probable that the reason for this change in direction of the motion of the Pacific Plate is due to a jamming of the earth’s tectonic plates that was caused by the beginning of the collision of the massive Indian island continent with Tibet 50 million years ago.  Hmmm … it all seems to fit together!

A Little More Geology, and Some Correlated Biology

The plot thickens;  Mark Twain would have loved this!  Consider for a moment what is happening at the formative edges of tectonic plates.  These ‘divergent plate boundaries’ are where intrusions of hot magma are forcing the tectonic plates to move slowly apart in a process known as seafloor spreading.  The upwelling of hot rock from the Earth’s mantle creates this movement by ‘thermal convection’.  A similar process can be observed when one looks at the boiling action of fresh ginger chopped up and tossed into a pot of simmering water.  Distinct convection currents can be seen rising from the source of heat, moving the ginger around in interesting patterns.  (Recipe:  Add cinnamon and turmeric and a pinch of cayenne and some vanilla soy milk to the ginger concoction for one of the healthiest alkaline-forming beverages ever invented.  Better for you than coffee!) 

When magma spews forth as lava at the spreading centers of oceanic plates, it forces the plates apart.  This causes a mega-majestic conveyor belt of oceanic crust that moves away from the rift zones in both directions from where they have been formed.  The eventual destiny of this new rock is to be subducted into the deep ocean trenches that border the edges of continental plates.  Ocean trenches are created by the pull of gravity, which draws older, colder, and thus heavier ocean floor down with more force than it pulls newer, lighter seafloor that is created at ocean spreading centers. 

An Aside Concerning Ideas

Ideas have great potential power.  An ideologue like Adolf Hitler, for instance, used his supremacist ideas and ruthless propaganda and manipulative spin, together with the force of his personality, to launch terrible wars of aggression and genocidal assaults that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people.  Ideas can also be powerful forces for the greater good, in contrast.  It is this realization that has driven the creation of the Earth Manifesto.  When we understand the nature of ideas and their impacts, such insights can energize or inoculate or heal us, and give us valuable perspective.

Hate and discrimination and genocide all share common origins.  An art exhibit on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco in the Spring of 2010 explores these roots.  Titled “Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf”, the exhibit contains submissions from more than 400 different people who used pages torn out of Adolph Hitler’s infamous book Mein Kampf to create haunting emotional responses to the narrowly ideological words the book contains.  One such response is a compelling cartoon that shows a hand pushing a section of a page filled with words down into a food-processor-like head with a human face.  Bits and pieces of people in the forms of miniature skulls and limbs spew out of the mouth.  Ideas can be powerful!

Fervent ideological convictions can range the gamut from terrible to wonderful.  The difference is largely determined by how honest and moral the ideas are, as seen from a big picture perspective.  Adolph Hitler had written Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’) while imprisoned for political crimes in Germany in 1925.  Hitler essentially advocated the domination of the weak by the strong in this book.  Mein Kampf became popular in a Germany that was ravaged by hyper-inflation and large debt obligations for reparations owed to the victors in the first World War.  Mein Kampf became the bible of Nazism and helped to facilitate militarism and horrible atrocities like the holocaust genocide against Jews.

It is important for societies to strongly encourage healthy behaviors in individuals, and to discourage ones that are socially harmful.  Collectively, people in nations everywhere have a profound need and obligation to establish economic and political systems that are most likely to have healthful and sustainable outcomes on societies and ecosystems.  In light of our certain individual mortality and the fleeting nature of our lives, and of the moral dimension of our existence, the legacy we leave to our descendents should receive the most serious consideration and greater emphasis for the common good. 

Philosophy North of the Golden Gate

I could, and shall, tell you a lot more things that I don’t know.  My mind digresses, but it is curious to follow.  Just south of where a beautiful bridge was built across California’s Golden Gate in 1937 and painted International Orange, the San Andreas Fault plunges into the Pacific and forms a northerly line through Stinson Lagoon and Tomales Bay.  Geologists say that the entire Point Reyes peninsula to the west of this rough line will become an island in less than a million years due to periodic movements of the Pacific Plate along this fault.  Those who see the old fence which runs down a hillside along the Point Reyes Earthquake Trail and then abruptly continues 16 feet to the north, a discontinuity caused by the 1906 earthquake rupture in this area, cogently understand how the long arc of time will lead to such an outcome.

Nearby, deep canyons and steep ravines are found with towering Coast Redwoods whose ancient range is now restricted to valleys near the Pacific Ocean that extend from the central coast of California near Big Sur to the Oregon border.  Tall Douglas fir trees also inhabit these canyons, and streams enthusiastically cascade there in the early Spring, making riparian areas alive with the sound of cataracts of flowing water.  Above these lovely canyons, brilliantly green hills are festooned with ephemeral emblems of Springtime:  riotously colorful wildflowers.  Amongst the dozens of varieties of wildflowers found there are California Poppies, Lupines, Gold Fields, and rare and inconspicuous but very pretty purple Jewel Flowers on serpentine barrens.  God must have been an aesthete and a poet! 

Milk Maids, Hounds Tongues and Shooting Stars are the suggestively-named triumvirate of early wildflowers in these hills.  They are all but gone by the Vernal equinox, but under the canopy of tall Douglas firs, lots of Calypso orchids bloom in late March and early April.  They are little things some six inches tall, with one solitary garish pinkish purple flower crowning a naked stem, its dappled orchid lip insolently outspread as if it believed it was the whole darned purpose of existence.  Later, under mossy and lichen-encrusted oak trees, beautiful flowers called Chinese Houses bloom in pagoda-like whorls in late April and early May.  These indigenous lavender-and-white wildflowers are pollinated by bees which enter the flowers seeking nectar.  When the insects alight on the lower lavender landing-pad petals, their weight pushes the petals down, exposing a protectively-encased anther.  The anther is the part of the flower that produces male pollen.  Some of the pollen adheres to the bee, and by such a subtle process, the pollen is transferred to the receptive female part of other flowers of the same lovely species.  Botanical sex! 

This mutual benefit to flowers and bees either offers confirmation of the dogma of Intelligent Design, or it provides proof of the amazing co-evolution of flowers and bees.  One’s perspective on this question depends on the particular belief projection of the beholder.  Personally, I find this intertwined adaptation of flowers and pollinators to be a marvelous aspect of biology.  The idea of evolution over unfathomable spans of geologic time is a compelling and marvelous story, and far more elegant and sophisticated -- and probable, methinks -- than the simple-minded explanation that God made everything the way it is, according to ‘His’ divine plan, and that it hasn’t changed since.

Pretty native Crimson Columbines grow in the same ecological niches as Chinese Houses.  They seem to trumpet this miracle of botanical design.  Invasive Italian thistles strive to crowd out the native profusion of lavender and white, as if mimicking the competition between the contrasting theories of genesis.  Nearby a cataract of rushing water makes its way down a steep ravine toward the Pacific Ocean.  A colorful butterfly flutters by, seeming not to know where it is going, though it soon alights exactly where it wants to be on some tasty flowers or mineral deposits that it was seeking.  Huckleberry bushes abound on partially shaded slopes; their small fruit, come the hot and dry days of late August, will prove to be sweet, but only occasionally plentiful.  Moss covers oak trunks and rocks, and though it gets remarkably soft and exuberant during rainy episodes, it soon becomes quite scraggy as it survives the long dry season, stoically awaiting wetter days.  As I hiked in these hills, I drank this all in, in a speechless rapture. 

In such environs, a vital spirit of place flourishes.  It should come as no surprise that, not far below this natural scene, the entire spectrum of human indulgences is given full rein in our hyperactive culture.  Revolutionary ardor thrives;  so does contemplative spiritual practice;  pleasure-filled indulgences are widespread, and so is ascetic denial, at least hypothetically;  hot tub free-spiritedness commingles with dedication to work duty;  sophisticated artistic endeavor coexists with down-home simplicity;  and creative social action also thrives, in contrast to distinct pools of a withered civic sense.  Shut up!

In the wild, silence exaggerates a symphony of sounds of birds and insects and breezes in the treezes.  I snap a dead branch hanging across the path and a wild turkey startles me as it gobbles nearby in alarm and consternation at the disturbance.  A bushy-tailed ground squirrel scampers for safety, as if I might be a threat to its being.  Chattering birds of many a dialect communicate using vocalizations whose meaning and motivation I am unable to decipher.  Bobcat scat festoons the trail -- or was it the scat of a wily coyote?  An expert would easily be able to ascertain the distinction.  My incremental knowledge of the excrement of animals, gleaned from following knowledgeable naturalists around on nature hikes, is quite lacking in all but the more metaphorical regards, I assure you!

Serpentine outcroppings on the ridges above these Marin canyons have been colonized by unique species of cypress and manzanita.  Serpentine, the State Rock of California, weathers into metallic soils that inhibit plant growth, due to the fact that such soils contain low amounts of minerals that are essential to plant growth and high levels of heavy metals like nickel and chromium that are toxic to most plants.  The species of plants that are found in serpentine soil environments tend to be endemic and uniquely adapted to such difficult conditions.  Almost every naturalist knows that the evidence for the adaptation of various kinds of plant life to the soil conditions and precipitation patterns of the habitats and niches and ranges in which they are found is revealing.  What does it reveal?  Adaptation.

“I calmly chewed my food in the sun and felt a deep physical happiness as if I was floating on the cool, green waters of the sea.  I did not allow my mind to take possession of this carnal joy, to press it into its own moulds, and make thoughts of it.  I let my whole body rejoice from head to feet, like an animal.  Now and then, nevertheless, in ecstasy, I gazed about me and within me, at the miracle of this life:  What is happening?  I said to myself.  How did it come about that the world is so perfectly adapted to our feet and hands and bellies?”

                                               --- The ‘boss’ in Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis

How did it really come to be that pollinators like honey bees are specifically adapted to the plants they pollinate?  How did it come to be that predators are adapted to their prey, and that parasites and commensals coexist in parasitic or symbiotic relationships?  How did it come about that animals inherit instinctual behaviors from their parents?  Charles Darwin and his theories were significant forces in the times and the thinking of Mark Twain, so a better understanding of these questions is valuable.  The more we understand of the ‘genetic blueprints’ of every life form, and of the hormonal influences in mammalian brain development, the more we come to understand the complexity and sophistication of the wide variety of life processes.

Insights Elucidated by an Oreo Cookie

Our world is miraculously knowable.  Albert Einstein noted:  “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”  “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”  “One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.”  I like trying to understand our wondrous world, and this is one reason that I set down these words, to share some insights that have come my way.

Biological evolution is intimately intertwined with the even more basic physical evolution of our home planet.  Serpentine rock, for instance, has an impressive genesis:  it is magma from the Earth’s mantle that spewed forth long ago in the deep ocean at the spreading centers where oceanic crust is created.  The magma cooled rapidly in the deep cold water, as one can well imagine, and became the newest rock of the oceanic crust.  The fact that this rock is now found in barren outcroppings on top of coastal mountain ranges at the western edge of the North American Plate, far from where it formed, is testament to the conveyor-belt-like movement of the Earth’s plates, and to not quite comprehensible processes involved in its emplacement, and to the inscrutably long periods of time involved in geologic changes. 

When oceanic crust subducts under continental crust, some of the oceanic crust ends up being accreted onto the continental shelf during these slow-motion collisions.  Geologists provide a simple analogy to students on field trips.  They liken this process to what happens when a person takes the two halves of an Oreo cookie that has been twisted apart, and pushes one half at an angle against and under the other half;  some of the white frosting from the ‘subducting half’ ends up on top of the other half.  Similarly, some of the subducting serpentine rock has piled up onto the continental crust rather than plunging slowly beneath it, and this hard rock has subsequently been uplifted into the coastal mountain ranges and then exposed by eons of erosion of softer overlying sedimentary rock.  All of the Oreo, incidentally, ends up in the mouths of students after this elucidating experiment!

For a vivid understanding of the creation and accretion of island arcs onto continental land masses, read John McPhee’s book Assembling California.  Or, alternatively, Google ‘Plate Tectonics’ at Wikipedia and you will find a good high-level summary of details.

The Revelations of “Variable Magnetic Field Direction in Rocks of Differing Ages”

Another remarkable feature of geologic activity should be noted.  Planet Earth has a powerful magnetic field that is created by electrical activity generated by the planet’s dense core.  The earth’s magnetic field has effects similar to those that a simple bar magnet has on iron filings.  On a grand scale, this magnetic field is responsible for the Aurora Borealis, the phenomenon also known as the Northern Lights.  Charged particles from the Sun are pulled down toward the North Pole by the Earth’s magnetic field, and when these charged particles collide with gases in the atmosphere, they create a fabulous natural light display that is thrilling to those who behold the eerie shimmering lights.  

Curiously, Earth’s north magnetic pole occasionally reverses, switching places with its south magnetic pole.  This has occurred about once every 800,000 years for hundreds of millions of years.  This fact helps explain a discovery that confirmed that the Earth’s crust does indeed consist of continuously moving tectonic plates.  Prior to the 1960’s, the wild hypothesis known as ‘continental drift’ had largely been discounted as impossible, as mentioned earlier.  This simplistic theory posited that the continents of North American and Europe, and South America and Africa, were once part of a mega-continent, and that they had drifted apart.  The mechanism for this theory, and its surprising corroboration, was finally found when the bottom of the world’s oceans was mapped and studied after the Second World War.  A volcanic ridge was discovered that runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean from north of Iceland to the vicinity of the Antarctic in the south.  This finding was a key confirmation in the development of the sophisticated theory of Plate Tectonics. 

Hot magma was found to be spewing forth at ‘spreading centers’ like this Mid-Atlantic Ridge, creating new oceanic crust which thrusts outward from this ridge and causes the rock of the North American Plate to move further and further from the rock of the same age on the Eurasian Plate.  When the rock initially wells up into the ocean, it quickly cools and the iron in the rock leaves its magnetic orientation figuratively frozen into place, marking the specific orientation of “north” in the earth’s magnetic field at the moment in time that the rock cooled.  This magnetic orientation operates on a similar principle to that of a compass, an instrument that functions by freely balancing an iron needle so that it points to the magnetic north pole of a magnetic field.  As mentioned earlier, when the earth’s magnetic North Pole switches places with the magnetic South Pole, this flipping is duly recorded, frozen in parallel bands of rock extending out from the mid-Atlantic ridge.  Since the North American and the Eurasian Plates move away from their spreading center at a rate of about one inch per year, widening the Atlantic Ocean, the bands with magnetism pointing north are about 800,000 inches wide (12 miles!) and then the next band of similar width has its iron magnetized pointing the opposite direction.  These bands are mirrored on both sides of the rift zone at similar distances.  This may be abstruse, but it is quite a remarkable confirmation of crustal plate movements!

How the Gold Got in “Them Thar Hills”

An awe-inspiring aspect of our world is that there are good explanations for almost everything, and it is just a matter of finding them.  The trajectory of science has been to reveal better explanations slowly but surely, and it is a strength of science is that it is flexible, and cumulative, and when better understandings come along, they are eventually embraced.  There happens to be a compellingly comprehensive explanation for how gold came to be found in localized deposits in places like California and Alaska. 

Geologists have discovered that long ago much of the land that is now California and Nevada was accreted onto the North American Plate back when the Pacific Plate was colliding with it.  ‘Island arcs’ and parts of the Pacific oceanic crust were accreted to the North American continent in a manner similar to the way that the subcontinent of India has been accreted onto Tibet.  John McPhee’s book Assembling California provides some of the extensive evidence for this geologic history. 

Simultaneous with this process of emplacement of land, oceanic crust continued to subduct under the North American plate.  The subducting rock heated up as it slowly plunged deep into the Earth under the continental crust.  Enormous pools of molten rock were thus created inland from the boundary of the converging plates.  This magma found its way to the surface in the form of boundary volcanoes like the Dardanelles in the Sierra Nevada, but most of it cooled slowly beneath the surface over a period of tens of millions of years, creating a granitic ‘batholith’.

The prime example of such a batholith is the granite of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Anyone who has visited areas like Yosemite or the ten “fourteeners” of the southern Sierra has seen the top of this batholith in exposed peaks like Pyramid Peak, Half Dome, Mt. Starr King and Mt. Whitney, or in areas scraped bare by glaciers like the beautiful granitic lake area known as Desolation Wilderness, just west of Lake Tahoe.  

It turns out that gold and silver are water-soluble at high temperatures.  They seem to have a distinct affinity for themselves, so they gather together and percolate around in hot batholiths of molten rock during the cooling process.  When magma cools, it forms into crystalline structures of different kinds of rock.  Minerals like gold and silver tend to concentrate together with quartz, which is one of the last minerals to harden.  This is why gold and silver in hard rock deposits are generally found associated with veins of other minerals like quartz.  It is also why minor elements like copper, lead, zinc, and sulfur end up concentrated together as the rock forms from magma.

When the Sierra Nevada batholith was uplifted in relatively recent geologic time, long after its formative period and its slow cooling, the rock of the mountains was subjected to erosion and weathering, and thus the gold and silver were exposed at the surface in places, and it became concentrated in river gravels that were part of sediments being carried down from the mountains.

Gold was mined beginning in 1848 in California in three ways.  First of all, it was found in rivers, and it was mined with pans and sluices in river gravels.  This was how the Gold Rush of the Forty-Niners began.  The source of gold found in the rivers was exposed veins which had been eroded by water and glacial ice.  A few years later, gold began to be mined using hydraulic mining methods in “placer deposits”.  What are these?  They are sand and gravel deposits of ancient rivers which are found in current day hillsides.  The technique of hydraulic mining involved the channeling of river water into flumes and then into hoses, from which the water was blasted under high pressure from iron “monitors” against the hillsides.  This washed the gravel down into sluice boxes where the gold could be captured and then gleefully sold, resulting in enormous profits. 

This mining method had extremely negative environmental impacts.  Enormous volumes of sediments washed into rivers and were carried down into the Central Valley.  Significant harm resulted in downstream towns and farms.  Rivers were silted up that had been used by ships to navigate upriver from the San Francisco Bay to inland Sacramento.  Hydraulic mining had its heyday in California from 1853 to 1884.  Then, after intense legal battles were finally resolved, a sweeping injunction against the destructive activity in the state was enacted in 1884.  Scars of these activities are still very visible in such places as Malakoff Diggins, California’s largest hydraulic mine.

The third method of gold mining was hard-rock mining, which reached a technological epitome in the Empire Gold Mine and North Star Mine under Grass Valley and Nevada City in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  Hundreds of miles of mines were bored into the rock, with shafts reaching up to 11,000 feet deep as they followed veins of quartz and gold.  Great fortunes in gold were extracted from the Empire Mine before it finally closed in 1956.  A visit to the Empire Mine State Historic Park is fascinating for its insights into the technological innovations that were sparked by this fever for gold.

It makes the head spin to try to grok all of the devastating impacts that mining has had, and will continue to have around the world.  Mountaintop coal mining is only one of the most well-known and destructive of these widespread activities.  When will we ever learn that addiction to economic growth and consumerism and population-growth Ponzi schemes and ecologically damaging activities are foolishly dangerous and unsustainable?

Speculation and Metaphysics 

Anyone who ventures very far into the extensive and convoluted labyrinth of ideas explored and expressed in the Earth Manifesto will discover its natural philosophic bent.  Philosophy is the love of wisdom.  It is a dispassionate passion that gives existence a very close inspection, and then strives to achieve a clear and objective interpretation of perceptions and things and events.  Philosophy makes committed efforts to open-mindedly investigate the causes and laws and propensities that underlie reality.  It is a kind of synthesis of all learning. 

The marine biologist Ed Ricketts was made famous by his friendship with writer John Steinbeck.  Ed Ricketts was both a scientist and a philosopher.  He was calmly amazed that most people do not appear to really want to know the truth.  This insight was cogently brought home to him in connection with legal proceedings that followed a devastating fire in November 1936 along Cannery Row in Monterey, California.  This fire was caused by an enormous surge in electrical current that destroyed Ed Ricketts biological laboratory.  The jury in the case eventually decided that the electric company was entirely blameless in the fire, so John Steinbeck noted that the disaster must have simply been an Act of God. 

Ed Ricketts took a great interest in the court proceedings, and afterwards said calmly and with a certain wonder, “You see how easy it is to be completely wrong about a simple matter.”  He noted that, because each side wants to win in any dispute, it generally turns out that competing interests can have widely differing points of view, especially when money is involved.  Vested interests with differing goals thus have little interest in the truth, and even seem to abhor it.

Facts and truth are like wily trout, a bit slippery and hard to catch.  But I think it is growing ever more vitally important for all of humanity to gain honest and holistic and farsighted understandings.  And in light of them, we must demand that our societies and institutions be restructured in ways that are consistent with the greater good in the long term.  We must in particular strive to find ways to ensure that our collective purposes and activities are organized in a new way so that they are more in accord with holistic social and ecological understandings.  An overarching wise philosophy is needed to provide these understandings.  We should no longer trust the assertions of vested interests and those with partisan perspectives like shrewdly manipulative politicians and dogmatic religious authorities and biased pundits in the media and self-interested apologists for the status quo.

“Perhaps truth is only the common denominator of our delusions, and perhaps certainty

  is merely an error in which all men agree.”    --- The Pleasure of Philosophy, Will Durant

The adjective “philosophical” connotes calmness and equanimity and detachment.  I suppose it means this because in the largest context, any striving to understand transcends any individual life and every preference for outcomes.  A larger perspective tends to approach Gaia’s cool and impersonal point of view, in which there is nothing good or bad, or evil, or right or wrong. 

One of the salient influences of the writings in the Earth Manifesto has been the compelling philosophical exploration of ideas by John Fowles in The Aristos, and of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in their “speculative metaphysics” together on Cannery Row and on their 1940 voyage to the Sea of Cortez.  My own evaluative thinking can be found in nearly every essay in the Earth Manifesto.  I particularly enthusiastically recommend that readers check out the entertaining exploration of ideas in the story in Part Three, Tall Tales, Provocative Parables, Luminous Clarity, and Evocative Truths: A Modern Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Amongst a variety of motivations that has led to the creation of all the stories and essays and epistles in the Earth Manifesto, there is one that I want to make sure that readers do not overlook, and that is my conviction of the vital importance of the ideas summarized in Part Four.  I encourage readers to see the comprehensive compendiums of ideas outlined in Part Four under the title “Overarching Considerations –Transformational Ideas and Enlightenment”. 

An Interim Conclusion

Billions of years have passed since our planet formed, and billions more will come before our Sun finally burns out.  These realizations, together with geophysical understandings and extensive evidence of biological evolution, provide us with factual proof that our home planet is ancient beyond fathoming.  It is NOT merely Biblically young!  Understandings such as this should give our religious leaders cause to reform their founding Creation myths.  Mystery is a powerful and potent motivating force, but it should be cultivated for positive and meaningful purposes, rather than for suppressive and ignorance-embracing purposes, or even worse, for divisive, destructive or conflict-fomenting ones.

To understand the natural world, it helps to understand the nature of change.  Make no mistake about it:  time slips slowly but surely past.  Change and motion are continuous at every level from the macrocosmic to the subatomic.  Change is essentially eternal and infinite.  Change generally takes place in imperceptible and gentle increments, like a breeze ruffling tall grasses on a languid Spring afternoon.  But sometimes change takes place with sudden and dramatic exclamation, like a bolt of lightening sundering a sultry sky full of towering cumulus clouds.  To doubt that change is a cumulative evolutionary lapse of the old into the new is to deny the most basic of observable understandings.  And to suppose that evolutionary change is guided is to make the mistake of misunderstanding the nature of both cause-and-effect and randomness in galactic and geological and biological change. 

The science of geology studies the physical reality of the Earth, and reveals that continuous geophysical change has been occurring throughout eons of geologic time.  The most profound insight of geology is simply that we exist at a moment in time that is only an infinitesimal portion of an incomprehensibly long saga of the planet’s existence. 

Throughout the history of the Earth, marvelous geological processes have been occurring.  Our understandings of plate tectonics and the causes of volcanoes and earthquakes are relatively new -- but the processes that they comprehend have been taking place for millions of millennia.

Constant forces and processes act in accordance with natural laws of cause and effect.  Forces that cause the uplift of mountains are opposed by countervailing forces of erosion that wear them down.  While mountains have the illusion of permanence to us in the span of a single human lifetime, it is clear that landscapes change with the passage of time.  Rivers and glaciers move in response to the pull of gravity, and they combine with wind, chemical actions, and freezing and thawing to erode entire mountain ranges to mere remnants once they are no longer being uplifted.  Places like Yosemite Valley and Zion Canyon and Arches National Park and the ancient ‘Cedar Mesa’ sandstone formations of Natural Bridges National Monument provide mute but beautiful and awe-inspiring testaments to such forces.

Geophysical changes in the Earth’s crust that occur in dramatic spurts are much more obvious to us than continuous gradual ones.  We witness these forces with awe.  Floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides, rock falls, hurricanes, and tornadoes shock us with their enormous impersonal power.  Scientists characterize this natural aspect of the physical evolution of our home planet as a “punctuated equilibrium”.  This simply means that in addition to barely perceptible continuous change, extraordinary and startling geophysical events take place upon occasion.  Superstitious folks say these events are the result of angry gods who are forsaking or punishing people for various sins;  but I think this is just SO unlikely an explanation!  It’s just nature taking its course, folks!

The science of geology tells us that earthquakes are ruptures that take place when tension that has built up between tectonic plates is suddenly released.  Stresses build up as the plates either collide with or move past other plates.  Rather than having a well-lubricated motion, friction causes the plates to get stuck until they finally snap in energy-releasing earthquakes. 

People in California wonder if there will be another “Big One” along the San Andreas Fault, which roughly defines a section of the border between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate.  Californians wonder this, even though it is a near certainty that there will be more than 100,000 ‘Big Ones’ in the next 15 million years.  These earth movements will be the cause of the eventual separation of beautiful Point Reyes peninsula to become an island in less than a million years, and the area where Los Angeles is now, on the Pacific Plate, will eventually move north of San Francisco, which is on the western edge of the North American Plate.  This will occur within 15 million years.  Unimaginable?  Check out the science!

I’ll check the math:  If the Pacific Plate averaged a movement of two inches a year (it is actually slightly more than this), in 15 million years it would move 30 million inches, or 2.5 million feet -- about 475 miles.  Yep, Los Angeles will be north of San Francisco!

The End Is NOT Near

Human beings have evolved a consciousness capable of understanding and appreciating the Earth with a rich and fervent awareness, but in the long span of geologic time, we will eventually become extinct.  In some ways, human beings are like a cancer in Earth’s biotic arena, harming the whole, much more than we are like vibrant white blood cells that propitiously act as parts of the immune system to defend the whole body from infection or disease.  Dr. Leonard Shlain makes this point compellingly in his last book, Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution:  he writes that, when considered in biological terms used to describe the animal kingdom, Homo sapiens began as a “symbiotic prey” and managed to evolve into a highly successful “symbiotic predator”.  But then our species has since degenerated into a kind of “very large parasite”.  And now, with our deforestation, pollution, strip mining, overgrazing, overfarming, overfishing and other extinction-causing activities, we have transformed ourselves into a “planet-devouring pathogen”.

“Think of the entire planet with its blue oceans and pristine mountains, as a host,” he writes.  “We have arrogated many of the earth’s resources simply to satisfy our craving for material comfort.  While we have been congratulating ourselves on our species’ unrivaled domination, alarm bells are figuratively beginning to sound in all regions of the planet.  From the perspective of most other life-forms, we have transmogrified into the planet’s most virulent pathogen, and our frenzied degradation of our host, Earth, signals that we may be just another stupid parasite too feeble-minded to realize that one should never bite the hand that feeds one.”

The average species in the long arc of time has lasted on Earth for about 5 million years.  As noted by Gaia above, so much time has elapsed since the Earth’s genesis that 99% of all species ever in existence have long since gone extinct.  The main goal of human beings should be to try to ensure that we survive indefinitely, just to have a chance of making it the very long ways to the average species’ duration of 5 million years.  So how will we accomplish this?  Work with me on this!

The human race must focus on the goal of long-term survival by better understanding the self-regulating systems of our Mother Earth.  We must manage our activities more sensibly, and organize more effectively, and plan ahead further, and cooperate together better to avoid the depletion of resources and the destruction of habitats and the epic risks associated with global warming and the dangers of war-without-end that threaten the future prospects of humanity.  

Worst-case scenarios should be considered, and intelligent steps should be taken to mitigate the severity of outcomes that threaten the survival of the human race.  We must think in terms beyond pessimism and beyond optimism.  Desperate need and unmitigated greed are powerful forces that stand in opposition to wise planning, but the human race is finding it imperative to develop a less rancorous and destructive way of making crucial decisions than we do in our current distinctly dysfunctional and short-term-oriented political and economic systems. 

I highly recommend that readers consider the insightful observations about political and environmental instability in nations around the globe that are contained in Professor Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  Chapter 16, titled “The World as a Polder:  What Does It All Mean to Us Today”, is particularly important because it summarizes the 12 most significant environmental problems that face the world today, and the parallels these difficulties have with challenges which resulted in the collapse of some earlier societies.  Diamond provides an objective assessment of the anti-environmental talking points arrayed against boldly addressing these challenges.  His perspective seems immensely valuable to me.

It seems clear that, in addition to courageously addressing these problems, an effective means must be found to mitigate all sources of extreme conflicts between various people and constituencies.  It would be a good idea to find ways to reduce injustices and to prevent levels of inequality from increasing more and more and more.

"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage

   so rare."              

                                    --- Mark Twain

One of the biggest sources of conflict and retrogressive impulses lies in the narrow-mindedness of parochial religious beliefs.  This makes it important for more tolerant and ecumenical worldviews to gain ascendancy.  We need to honor our human spirit, and healthily ground it in an embrace of the noble aspects of our beings, rather than in the competition for supremacy of parochial beliefs.  We must get over our conviction that ‘our God’ is better than someone else’s God.  My own personal belief is that more honest religious leaders must step forward and admit that their doctrines are traditions and control gambits and blind faith rather than some form of absolute truth.  It may well be that a more honest and noble spirituality will prove to be key to the very survival of our species.  I beseech all adherents of the various denominations of Christianity and Islam, in particular, to heed these words!

When it comes to religion, let us adopt a ‘live and let live’ attitude.  Let us adhere to the Golden Rule.  And let us ensure that we begin to live in ways that will result in a fair and healthy legacy to all people in future generations.  Let us strive to make sure that we do not leave them a legacy of conflict and destitution and debt and a feverishly devastated and unstable planet!


                  Dr. Tiffany B. Twain                       

                      Contact at SaveTruffulaTrees@hotmail.com

                          November 10, 2009  (revised March through September 2010)