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Five billion years ago, a cloud of hydrogen and dust from long-gone, exploded stars began collapsing under the pull of its own gravity. When enough had gathered together, the pressure of all that material on its core ignited nuclear fusion, and our tiny Sun was born.

Four and a half billion years ago, Earth and hundreds of other tiny planets were coalescing from the remaining debris of that cloud. Some of those planets would be absorbed by Earth, some by other planets, and much would also be ejected away from the Sun into deep space. Late in the process, another planet crashed into Earth, and out of the wreckage came our Moon. It was originally much closer to us, but over time it traded its inertia with Earth’s rotation, slowing down our days as it moved further and further away.

Four billion years ago, our planet had cooled enough to have a solid crust, and an ocean of water condensed on its surface. Earth had grown to just the right size, large enough to hold an atmosphere, with just enough radioactivity to keep its interior hot and rotating. This spinning core created a magnetic field around the planet, protecting the atmosphere from the worst of the Sun’s radiation. Poor Mars was too small and cooled too fast to keeps its liquid core, so its atmosphere was slowly stripped away by the solar wind.

(more below the Orange Spaghetti Monster)

Three and a half billion years ago, life had gained a toehold on Earth. Complex polymers were self-replicating, competing for useful molecules in the chemical soup of our oceans. Evolution of those polymers began, as those which could replicate the fastest began to dominate. Of the thousands of possible precursor molecules, only twenty amino acids and a handful of nucleic acids came to dominate the composition of life. Some of these became encapsulated in membranes of lipids, concentrating their activity. Some combinations of these proteins and nucleic acids and lipid membranes were much more effective at replicating; these grew faster and broke their cells in half as they grew too large and unstable, over and over again. The living first cells had been created.

Three billion years ago, the chemistry within the cells had become complex enough to begin producing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. This was a huge evolutionary advantage – life’s chemistry could now be powered by the Sun. It also changed the planet. At first the by-product oxygen was absorbed by the oceans and the metals of the sea bed. Then it bubbled out into the atmosphere, rusting the land and converting the methane atmosphere to carbon dioxide.

Two and a half billion years ago, the Earth’s methane was being eradicated. Most of those life forms that had evolved to live in a methane-rich atmosphere died in the new oxygen-rich atmosphere. However, our younger, cooler Sun could not keep the atmosphere warm enough without a thick layer of methane. The Earth froze over, perhaps entirely, for three hundred million years while life continued evolving in the oceans.

Two billion years ago, the earth had again warmed, and the abundance of cellular life exploded. As these cells interacted with each other, eating and absorbing each other, they became more complex. A new type of cell evolved, with a true nucleus to store much of its genetic information. Bacteria and eukaryotes would continue to co-evolve, but the advantages of complexity and specialization now resided with the eukaryotes. All animals and plants with specialized cell types would evolve from cells with a nucleus.

One and a quarter billion years ago, the first multi-cellular creatures evolved. Life had figured out how to control gene expression in ways that allowed cells with identical genetic information to function differently and yet still cooperate to better survive. This also led to the first organisms capable of sexual reproduction. Sex was a huge advantage for both life’s diversity and the preservation of genes, as genetic information could be exchanged and recombined at a much faster rate while still preserving what worked.

One billion years ago, a period of massive climate changes wracked the Earth. It froze up and reheated on multiple occasions, tens of millions of years at a time. These events were largely based on the drift of the continents from the south pole to the equator and back again, and the volcanos formed by these movements. Each period killed off much of the life, but also encouraged more specialization and optimization.

Five hundred million years ago, Earth defrosted for the last time. Lesser ice ages would come and go, but never again would the planet be completely covered by ice. In addition, there was now enough oxygen in the atmosphere to form an ozone layer. With the sky now able to protect the land from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, just as the seas had always done, life began to move onshore. Larger, ever-more-complicated animals swam through the seas, eating each other, mating with each other, and co-evolving with each other. The first animals with backbones evolved, a feature with massive advantages for evolution and adaption.

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, another series of massive climate changes killed off most of the marine life and much of the terrestrial life. As the world recovered, dinosaurs and the first mammals evolved from the survivors.

Sixty-five million years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact and its resulting climate change. The mighty T-Rex had evolved less than five million years previous to the impact, the culmination of 185,000,000 years of evolution since the dinosaurs first appeared. Their loss was the mammals gain, as the new world established a cooler temperature than that which had favored the dinosaurs.

Seven million years ago, the first Hominids evolved.

Three hundred thousand years ago, the first homo sapiens evolved. The earliest human burial we have found is ninety thousand years old, indicating that we may have begun thinking in religious terms by then. Thirty thousand years ago, we were carving images of an earth mother throughout much of the world, perhaps indicating the first widespread religion.

Twelve thousand years ago, we began to build towns based around agriculture.
Ten thousand years ago, the last Ice Age ended. Man had crossed the Pacific to settle in North America, resulting in the extinction of much of the large wildlife that had evolved without humans. Dogs were becoming fully domesticated, having co-evolved with migrant humans for a hundred thousand years.

Five thousand years ago, humans were building our first cities. The Sumerians began writing, creating a new way to communicate that allowed information to be stored beyond the lives of men. There were roughly 14,000,000 humans on Earth, or almost the population of Pennsylvania.

Four thousand years ago, Egyptians were building pyramids, China had formed its first dynasty, and the Indus civilization was growing along the river for which it is named. Hammurabi created his code of laws. The horse was domesticated, humanity’s first great success in using energy beyond its own for transportation and work.

Three thousand years ago, the Zhou Dynasty began in China, the Kingdom of Israel formed in the Middle East, and Greek city-states began experimenting with new kinds of government.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddhism, Jainism, and Confucianism were founded. Rome became a republic, Athens a democracy.

Two thousand years ago, Rome became an empire. Christianity was founded. There were about 200,000,000 people on the planet, roughly the population of Brazil today.

Five hundred years ago, Europeans began colonizing the Americas, and the first slaves were taken from Africa to the New World. Firearms began their dominance the battlefield. Michelangelo created David. The Protestant Reformation began, leading to greater questioning of religious authority in Europe. Modern scientific methods were developing, greatly advancing the rate of discovery and learning about the world around us.

Two hundred years ago, the Age of Steam had begun, and man began using fossil fuels to multiply his industry. Jenner learned to defeat viruses through vaccination. There were now one billion people on the Earth.

One hundred years ago, electricity was being wired throughout the world. The internal combustion engine was replacing the steam engine, and oil was pumped out of the ground to feed it. There were now nearly two billion people on the earth.

Fifty years ago, we were preparing to send humans to the moon. Television and radio dominated our communication. Antibiotics were discovered. We had finally learned about the role of DNA in life, the first time that anything life had evolved was capable of understanding what it was. There were three billion people on the Earth.

Twenty five years ago, personal computers were just catching on. We were sending probes to all of the planets in our solar system, and even sent two out of the solar system. For the first time, we had a reusable spacecraft. There were now five billion people on the planet.

Today, there are seven billion people on the Earth. We dominate the biosphere, molding it to suit our desires. We have removed tens of millions of years of ancient carbon from under the earth, and converted it back into CO2 in roughly 100 years. Like the ancient microbes three billion years ago, we are changing the atmosphere with our waste products, and have nearly doubled the CO2 level back to where it was at the time of the dinosaurs. We had even begun destroying the ozone layer which allowed life on land in the first place; luckily, scientists realized what was going on and people had the political will to at least keep it from growing larger. Our effluent is changing the ocean as well, with industrial and agricultural run-off creating larger and larger dead zones each year.

So this is the perspective I want to impart. We didn’t have to happen. Life may be common everywhere there is liquid water and carbon in the universe, but sentient life is really hard to get to. It took a lot of near perfect conditions to get to us. Our planet is just the right size, with just the right composition, around just the right star. We aren’t constantly bombarded with space debris. There are not dozens of unstable stars nearby to soak us with radiation, or strip away our planets, or bombard us with their own debris. Our catastrophic disasters have never been completely catastrophic, and our planet was able to recover from its greenhouse states and its iceball states, often with the help of the life that evolved on it.

If there had been another giant meteor in the past 50 million years, or another massive volcanic eruption, or if more of our continents had drifted back over the poles, we would probably not be here. We are very lucky or very blessed to be what we are. If anything different had happened, we still might be in the trees, flinging crap at the lions below. If there were even trees.

Furthermore, now that we are here, we don’t know how long we have until the next natural mass extinction event comes, or how bad it will be. We may have ten million years to figure out how to get off this rock and spread out a little more, or just a thousand. We don’t know if it will make the Earth go iceball for a few hundred million more years, or go greenhouse, or just simply sterilize the surface.

For those who think that “the Earth is just too big for people to change” – consider that primitive single-cell lifeforms were able to change our atmosphere entirely, turning us from a methane greenhouse to an oxygen snowball. Yeah, it took them hundreds of millions of years, but they also had nowhere near our industry. We don’t just work with the carbon around us, we dig up buried carbon that is the remains of millions of years of photosynthesis and life’s chemistry, and burn it straight back into carbon dioxide. Not just for us, but also to feed our extremely inefficient machines. We transport our food from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. As westerners, we burn fossil carbon for practically everything we do. There is a steady trickle of carbon dioxide from somewhere in the world caused by you reading this essay on your computer.

Do this simple exercise for me. Grab a CD you aren’t fond of, and a very sharp pencil. Trace around that CD onto a piece of paper, and pull the CD away. That circle represents Earth. That line represents the part of Earth that is capable of supporting life. Except, it is ten times too thick! Five miles above sea level to five miles below is as far as life goes, and 99% of life happens within 2 miles of sea level. Look at a picture of Earth from space, or looking back from the Moon. You don’t see a thick atmosphere radiating out. It is a thin, fragile thing. Life is a thin film on the surface of a giant rock, nurtured and shielded by a faint wisp of air which is in turn protected by the electromagnetic field from our core.

For the nihilists and cynics who think humanity or life can get a fresh or better start once we are gone – yeah, maybe. Or maybe we are the best it is ever going to do. We don’t know if Earth is ever going to get another 65 million years of relative calm to evolve something like us again. We do know that even if it does, whatever comes after us will not find a rich carbon energy source so readily available – we have already used it up, and 65 million years is not going to replenish it, especially if life remains very sparse after we wreck the biosphere. Whatever comes after us will never get the massive technological jump that fossil fuels gave humans, which means they may not be able to get off this rock before something else bad happens to it. All of the life on Earth is depending on us to carry it further into the universe.

For the religious zealot who thinks Jesus will come back before it’s a problem – pretty doubtful at this point. Christians have been thinking that for almost 2000 years now. If you are of European descent, you quite likely had an ancestor one thousand years ago who thought Jesus was going to be back in their lifetime. You, their grandchild fifty generations removed, are still waiting. Do you want to have great grandchildren to carry on the tradition, to maybe be alive when it finally does happen? Or are you going to arrogantly burn up this world, assuming yours must be the generation lucky or deserving enough to be Raptured away from the tortured heathens, like so many of your ancestors before you did?

It took four and a half billion years to make us. We are on a course to eliminate ourselves in a few hundred. It really is that bad. A warmer Earth grows less food. A warmer Earth shrinks the coastlines where much of our population exists. A warmer Earth has more areas where humans simply cannot live in large numbers without absurd levels of energy usage; in a hundred years at our current warming trend, there will be many places on Earth where a human or animal simply cannot go outdoors for any length of time in the day, where temperatures will be approaching 130F to 140F. It is likely that most of you reading this will see starvation and food wars in your lifetimes, and certainly within the lifetime's of today's children.

We have to change how we live. We have to be smarter and more responsible, less willfully ignorant and selfish. Otherwise, we are going to cause a dieback to rival the worst mass extinctions in the planet’s history, and possibly doom this world’s only chance to develop life capable of making its own destiny.

**Edit** Thank you so much for the Community Spotlight and all the comments! I am honored!

Originally posted to mattakar on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:14 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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Comment Preferences

  •  This is great (17+ / 0-)

    Maybe the best short summation of the physical and biological history of this planet starting with the formation of the sun that I've ever read. Contrasting it with the damage we've done to the climate in such a short period of time works perfectly.

    Worthy of publish.

  •  Everything we touch... (9+ / 0-)

    Everything we breathe
    Or we extract
    Or eat
    Or build upon
    Or contaminate...

    This is our connection to the Earth. Yet, we have inhabitants here on Earth who believe that carrots come from a plastic bag, and don't comprehend the living soil, the seed, the sunlight, and the water that make the carrots.

    The chemical stability of our Earth's atmosphere, lithosphere, and oceans has been inversely proportional to our increasing effect to the Earth. Our understanding and connection to nature has also been inversely proportional the more we affect the planet. The Sierra Club even recently highlighted how children are becoming increasingly unaware of nature, even as it continues to affect us ever more violently. The opposite should be happening. What is going on?

    There are days when I actually really do hate my job. Not because of the people or the actual work involved, but because there are moments when I'm detaching myself from the thought of money and day-to-day build up and release of tension over the desire for material items, and placing myself into my chronic detachment from nature: being indoors for 8 to 10 hours a day, interacting with the manufactured walls, artificial lighting, and furniture. It's a dilemma. It's a curse of modern convenience, but in ways worse than I can begin to contrive solutions. I think our problem, now, rests with the political intransigence of today and the monied interests that are conveyed in advertisements, talking heads on TV, and other media. To continue with "progress", the next wound needs to open up in the Earth's ground, Orinoco Rivers, Ogallala Aquifers, and Athabasca Rivers be damned. Certainly our own human nature carries with it a strive for "progress" or materialism. Hunter-gatherers sought improvements from spears to harpoons to arrows. Industrial evolution may have accelerated, perhaps faster than our life expectancy or even our happiness, and the most serious crises of our own design will test our survival.

    I think it's not much longer when I try to leave this hamster wheel be Thoreau for a time. There's not much telling how much longer I will get to see the Earth that is changing around me.

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~Edward Abbey ////\\\\ "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." ~W.E.B. DuBois

    by rovertheoctopus on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:50:33 AM PST

  •  Great diary (11+ / 0-)

    Well written. Just have two points I would put differently:

    Five hundred years ago, Europeans began colonizing the Americas, and the first slaves were taken from Africa to the New World.
    This makes it sound like this was the first time enslaving other humans had occurred to the human mind, when slavery had long been instituted in many parts of the world, non-European parts. I assume you meant just the American experience with slavery, but since it wasn't mentioned in any of the other moments in history to catalog . . . well you see what I mean.
    ife may be common everywhere there is liquid water and carbon in the universe, but sentient life is really hard to get to. It took a lot of near perfect conditions to get to us.
    We only know one kind of sentient life, us. But because we lack knowledge of or experience with any other forms of sentient life in the cosmos, doesn't lead me to think we are the only life form of sentient life possible. We think of "the near perfect conditions to get to us" as incredibly interesting and accidental, because we associate those conditions with sentient life. But it could well be that evolution on other planets, and perhaps in other universes, generally evolves sentient beings as it evolves from simpler life to more complex life in the particular conditions of that landscape. For all our learning about science, we are still very anthropomorphic. I think we are still in for a ton of great surprises brought to us by science.
    •  I doubt we are the only sentient life (11+ / 0-)

      But it is still very likely to be rare. A lot has to go right, and climate plays a big part of it. Time plays the other big part of it. Many stars don't even make it 4.5 billion years without swallowing their inner planets. It is possible that other species can become fully sentient but still lack the ability to manipulate their environment - could a dog or a dolphin develop much technology without the ability to grasp things, or especially if anything under the see can never use fire? Or is tool use a requirement to get brains to develop that last little bit?

      I thought about how the slavery part read, and decided to leave it in anyway. It is something that people need to think about a little more, and that bit of ambiguity catches peoples attention. It really was a remarkable thing, to transplant so many against their will so far into a completely different culture.

      •  Extremely well written diary (5+ / 0-)

        I also agree that we are probably not the only sentient life-  life seems pretty simple to evolve (and inevitable given the tautology which is the theory of evolution.)  The fact that sentient (and by that I think you mean self-reflective) life is relatively rare is irrelevant given the near infinite number of suns and planets.  Multiply a small number by an incredibly large number and you still get a large number!

        Of course, some would rather believe that of all the planets and suns and solar systems and galaxies "he" created, only earth has people.  the rest of the cosmos (even that which we cannot see) was put there for our enjoyment.  And "he" has a specific interest in the outcome of high school football games but is rather uninterested in the devastation caused by earthquakes, fires, volcanoes and epidemics....

        As my father used to say,"We have the best government money can buy."

        by BPARTR on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 11:17:38 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm not sure if rareness is irrelevant (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          atana, rovertheoctopus, binkycat, jabney

          It may matter a lot if it happens twice in this galaxy or a hundred times or ten thousand times. I suspect the core of the galaxy is too chaotic, with too much radiation and exploding stars and close encounters between systems. I could be completely off on that, I'm a chemist, not an astrophysicist, but looking at the images of the big clusters towards the center makes me think that it is hard to get a few hundred million years of peace in there without something coming along to change your obit or throw crap at your planet.
          I'm curious now as to how many intersystem encounters are estimated to have occurred in our history. I'm sure someone has to have done a paper or model for it.
          It takes about 250 million years for us to orbit the galaxy once, so we have done it about 18 times since the Sun's ignition.
          In any event, do we meet up with something else, or forever stay isolated? I guess that is why it seems relevant to me. If each galaxy only gets a few shots at this, in a given period of time, we probably ought to try to make the most of it. I mean, we probably ought to anyway, but especially if it is as hard to get to us as it appears to me :)
          I think that we don't have evidence of alien life or visitation does mean we are kind of isolated. If you look at where we are at now, technologically, it is reasonable to assume that within, say, 200 years, we will know which stars have potentially habitable planets without our region of the galaxy. If any other species has even a 1000 year jump on us in terms of scientific development, which is nothing in terms of evolutionary time, they have known for a long time that the Earth exists, and is a prime piece of real estate for visiting and/or colonizing. If we found an Earth-like planet we could reach within a few hundred years, I'm pretty sure we would make the effort.
          Or maybe we are just the first locally of many that may come afterwards. Maybe there are dozens of sentient species still working out agriculture or whacking each other with sticks and flint within a few thousand light years.

          •  Stars don't have to stay at fixed distances (0+ / 0-)

            from the galactic center throughout their lives. The sun's composition is a little higher in metals than other stars in this region, suggesting it may have formed closer to the center and migrated outwards.

          •  Plus, Earth is home (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            I don't know about you, but I tend to get emotionally invested in places I've been in for a long time, and it's fair to say that I've lived on Earth my whole life, and I want to keep it that way. I've become quite fond of the fauna and foliage we've been neighbors with for hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe one generation, if our species comes out of the incoming changing climate alive, when the Sun is a red giant and set to die out another 4.5 billion years from now, we'll have an eye on a livable planet. For now, I like home. I'm just human!

            "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~Edward Abbey ////\\\\ "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." ~W.E.B. DuBois

            by rovertheoctopus on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 12:55:13 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Yes. There may be intelligent life (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            elsewhere but it may not be possible for us to interact or even know of its existence because of space-time. The stars we see are like recordings. The light we see is sometimes older than our planet.

            For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life. - Albert Camus

            by Anne Elk on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 02:37:19 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  And the bad news (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Even if we fix all of the problems we've created there is only about 500 million years left before our aging Sun cooks the planet.  If we screw it up there might not be enough time for intelligent life to evolve again.  

        As others have pointed out long term thinking is not our forte.  Geologic time is beyond our comprehension.  Still, I wonder where we will be in 10^3...10^7 years.  Will there be any trace of us left ?  Will anyone else out there even know we existed ?   Will anyone care.....

      •  I see your point (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        But it is still very likely to be rare. A lot has to go right, and climate plays a big part of it. Time plays the other big part of it. Many stars don't even make it 4.5 billion years without swallowing their inner planets.
        My point is that even with our newer powerful telescopes, we really know so damn little about this universe. Just as Newtonian physicists thought they'd gotten the foundational laws of physics mostly figured out and then BOOM! Quantum Mechanics opens a whole nother door. And the science evolutions, revolutions, innovations just keep on opening doors. When I say our species may not be the only form that sentient life takes, I didn't mean to imply that on some planets dogs may be sentient.

        Was pointing at the possibility of completely different species -- not even mammals -- that did not evolve on our planet, but evolved somewhere else in the cosmos may be the sentient beings in their world. Maybe some planets have several sentient beings. We don't really know what is possible and how many possible elsewheres are hanging around out there in vast outland.

        When we look out into that humongousness, we gaze through the particular filters that is our current map of the territory based on our current sciences and our current scientific assumptions. (And we have seen that even science has operated on assumptions until it develops the tools and experiments to test those assumptions. And they don't always prove to be accurate assumptions.) And we know the map is not the territory.

        No telling what interesting sentients are part of the cosmic fabric. But then, I must admit, I love the cosmic bar scene in Star Wars.

      •  The question of our rarity is a question of (0+ / 0-)

        statistical probability.  And since we have taken only one very non-random sample in the universe (us), we can't assign a probability to sentient life elsewhere until we either discover it (100%) or never do (something above 0%).  

        I am with you, mattakar, in accepting that the possibility that the sentience required to discuss these topics may be rare indeed.  When the Alvarez father-son team proposed the meteor extinction hypothesis in the early '80s, they also proposed an agent for a posited cycle of mass extinctions: a dim, distant companion star of the sun that they named Nemesis, which every some tens of millions of years would make a close enough approach to the outer bands of the solar system to perturb the outermost objects and send them hurtling in toward us.

        While the meteor impact has pretty clearly been identified (its long-submerged crater lies around the Yucatan and the angled impact is thought to have sent a life-scouring firestorm fanned across what today is North America), Nemesis almost certainly does not exist.  But it makes your point that if we were in a more active galactic spot, we'd probably not be here at all.

        We orbit a solitary sun, not one like our nearest neighboring triplet stars in the Centauri system - or like the majority of linked stars in our galaxy.  We are in the rarefied outer galactic reaches, not the densely packed center where the majority of our galaxy's stars lie.  And we are in a spiral galaxy, not one of the enormous elliptical ones that may not be as hospital to the heavy elements or the multi-billion years of stability that may be necessary to develop sentience.

        And when we look for reasons for that stability closer to home, we may also note that we are an inner rocky planet protected by 4.5 billion years of gravitational object-sweeping by four gaseous giant outer planets, and share our orbit with a pretty hefty moon, allowing our dual system to do a darn good job of sweeping out the inner system (billions of times).  Finally, the collision itself that created that moon which you mentioned redistributed the accreted formative elements of our planet quite explosively, and the tidal effects of that moon may also be an agitating propellant in our story.

        So all in all, if it should turn out that there is sentience elsewhere, that wouldn't surprise since the universe is so large; but it's also young (only 3 times older than our own planet!) so if all these ingredients conspired to make us unique, that wouldn't be so shocking, either.  Hey, like I said below somewhere: great diary.

    •  Slavery was endemic before the (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MillieNeon, jabney

      industrial revolution.  Tragically, slavery still exists and there are efforts to end it everywhere, but some humans just love to have complete power over other humans.

      United Citizens beat Citizens United

      by ThirtyFiveUp on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 06:09:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Also... fantastic diary... really (8+ / 0-)

    I feel that much more inspired to harness the latent curiosity I thrived on as a kid, that went to sleep as I pursued a specialized degree in engineering rather than the liberal arts. Although I've always maintained an interest in virtually everything about the world, and its interrelatedness, I think often that the importance of liberal arts get lost in this day, at our own peril of course.

    I think I will go back to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum soon, and get a review of the Earth's history, probably surrounded by thousands of screaming school children.

    Hope this makes it to Recommended list.

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~Edward Abbey ////\\\\ "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." ~W.E.B. DuBois

    by rovertheoctopus on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 09:00:42 AM PST

    •  The Smithsonian is a treasure (4+ / 0-)

      I grew up in that area, and was taken to them so many times as a child by my parents and grandparents.

      I'm sure you find many ways to apply your professional knowledge to your hobby knowledge. The engineering of life's systems is amazing, and it really should be taught at much younger ages. Of course, the willfully ignorant keep much of it away from children when it could do the most good to protect their religious beliefs from challenge.

      Thank you so much!

  •  I can tell by your words (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, Aunt Pat, blueoasis

    that you are not a "young earth creationist".

    Nice summary of the (much) more likely scenario . . .

    Fake Left, Drive Right . . . not my idea of a Democrat . . .

    by Deward Hastings on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 09:15:31 AM PST

  •  We are hardwired (9+ / 0-)

    to exploit whatever short-term advantage comes our way.  Long-term thinking is not our forte.  Thus, our present predicament.

    Great diary BTW.  I appreciate the amount of work you put into it.

  •  I really appreciated this: (8+ / 0-)
    Two and a half billion years ago, the Earth’s methane was being eradicated. Most of those life forms that had evolved to live in a methane-rich atmosphere died in the new oxygen-rich atmosphere.
    The deniers who say we can't change the world apparently don't want to consider this. If single cell organisms can change their environment so drastically, then we can do it much more spectacularly.

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 09:29:06 AM PST

  •  We can do it though (5+ / 0-)

    Supposedly, some cultures are better at it than ours. But still, our founders seemed to have taken the long view in a lot of things. Our space program seemed to take a long view, at least at its start.

    But I guess planning 50 years or 100 years down the road is unnatural for us. I am leaning towards focusing on what can happen in peoples lifetimes now, or to their children, for that reason. Unfortunately, the worst case scenarios seem to be getting bumped forward so that a lot of things I thought were 100 years down the road might be happening in 30 years. Or 20. The potential pile-up of warming feedbacks is terrifying.

  •  Great diary - (0+ / 0-)

    thank you.

  •  I am not hopeful. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Anne Elk
    We have to change how we live. We have to be smarter and more responsible, less willfully ignorant and selfish.

    Not likely. We are a shortsighted culture.

    Otherwise, we are going to cause a dieback to rival the worst mass extinctions in the planet’s history
    I see no sign that this will not be taking place.
  •  I never understood (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    How people could read the Bible and not get an environmentalist message out of it. Adam and Eve were vegetarians and stewards to the garden, which meant responsible cohabitation.

    by DAISHI on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 12:04:59 PM PST

  •  Enjoyed your perspective. I had my (7+ / 0-)

    Evolution class last spring create a timeline of the life of the Earth, which stretched 75 feet along an upper corridor in our building. Even I was taken aback by some of the intervals. The 10K years since the origin of agriculture was so close to the "NOW" that you could barely get the labels in.

    Couple of things: 20 amino acids, not 22, are universal, unless you know about some new research I don't. Also: the warming after that first snowball: could be the result of the rise of aerobes that produce CO2 as a byproduct of their metabolism?

    We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
    Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

    by pixxer on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 12:05:02 PM PST

    •  Fixed! Not sure what I was thinking either... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pixxer, confitesprit

      I love the idea of the long timeline.

      •  I'm not sure about the end of the snowball (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I've seen a bunch of theories, but I don't know if there is any consensus. Hotter sun, shift in orbit, volcanoes blanketing the snow with ash that absorbed more light are also considered possible.

        •  Thanks. All interesting and (0+ / 0-)

          no doubt viable ideas overall. I'm not clear on the progression of the "faint young sun" at all. The whole "snowball Earth" idea is astonishing to me, but evidently we made it :)

          Thanks again for your article!

          For a really fun vantage point on this history - have you encountered Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale?

          We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
          Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

          by pixxer on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 01:08:58 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks so much for this cogent snapshot (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    of where we are right now and how remarkable that we are here at all.  The message is powerful, but it is written gently enough for those predisposed to think that things as they are now is how they have been and will be in the future just might be terribly, terribly wrong.  

    I think you most powerfully accomplish this by picking up the pace as we reach the present to provide some sense of ourselves as arising in a blink of the world's eye against a gorgeous and non-determinant evolutionary backdrop, and by placing our voracious planet-spanning species in the context of natural processes that have preceded us - some fast, some slow.

    Thanks - great job.

  •  We're in a time of accelerating change. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mattakar, winsock, confitesprit, sargoth

    The timeline is becoming increasingly more compressed. It's like being on the steepest part of the exponential curve. Interesting times, indeed.

    Morowitz has presented the case, in thermodynamic terms, for the hypothesis that a steady flow of energy from the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space, by way of the earth, is mathematically destined to cause the organization of matter into an increasingly ordered state. The resulting balancing act involves a ceaseless clustering of bonded atoms into molecules of higher and higher complexity, and the emergence of cycles for the storage and release of energy. In a nonequilibrium steady state, which is postulated, the solar energy would not just flow to the earth and radiate away; it is thermodynamically inevitable that it must rearrange matter into symmetry, away from probability, against entropy, lifting it, so to speak, into a constantly changing condition of rearrangement and molecular ornamentation. In such a system, the outcome is a chancy kind of order, always on the verge of descending into chaos, held taut against probability by the unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.  

    - Lewis Thomas "The Lives of a Cell"

    muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

    by veritas curat on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 12:57:14 PM PST

  •  we do have at least one other very (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mattakar, ozajh

    intelligent species on earth, the dolphins.  They have a much higher Encephelization Quotient (EQ) than chimpanzees, and until about 1 million years ago they had the highest EQ on the planet.

    They evolved about 20 million years ago from ancestors who had once lived on land.

    We have barely begun to understand their language and society.

    Chimps have evolved tool use and some aspects of culture.  If humans had not crowded them out and driven them to near extinction there is no telling how they may have evolved in the future.

    •  Dolphins are interesting for evolution (0+ / 0-)

      They will probably never be able to develop tools or technology, because they have no means to manipulate their world, and really not much need to. They will never have access to fire to shape or melt or chemically change things. If they develop sentience (whatever that truly means, and assuming they don't already have it enough to count), it will be largely just for the hell of it. And that would be very cool.

      •  that is what is so amazing and (0+ / 0-)

        interesting about them.  They are clearly very intelligent, they clearly have language and societies, and they can carry on long after humans wipe themselves out.

        Also interesting are the whales, which apparently have societies and complex language as well.

        We almost killed them off but they are making a comeback with the modest protections some nations have put in place.  they are not nearly as numerous as dolphins but at least they did not go extinct yet at the hands of humans.

        •  Elephants too! (0+ / 0-)

          And a prehensile trunk.

          But we don't know what is any of these other species' minds - although it does seem they have minds, not just brains.  But could there ever be a way for them to have an understanding of our planet in space, its relationship to the sun, quantum mechanics, etc?  That does seem to set a pretty high bar for "sentience."

        •  You might like "Startide Rising" by David Brin (0+ / 0-)

          if you like great sci-fi. Many of the characters are dolphins uplifted to sentience by humans, with harnesses for tool use. He is a sci-fi writer highly informed by the science and gets into what an evolved dolphin society might be like.

      •  I should have also mentioned how much I (0+ / 0-)

        enjoyed your diary.  This type of perspective is fascinating and very helpful.  Well done!

    •  A species which intrigues me (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      from the POTENTIAL intelligence perspective is the Giant Cuttlefish.  While still having the issues associated with being a water-dweller, it has appendages which could already use tools (unlike dolphins).

      I believe there have been studies done which indicate a surprisingly high level of problem-solving ability.

      The basic problem with this species is the extremely short life-span, given their breed-die cycle.  Also, more subtly, they don't have kin recognition so there isn't any incentive for knowledge transmission.

      In fact, I wonder if some form of kin recognition is an absolute requirement for the development of intelligence to the point where societies can form.  I know there are Science Fiction stories about intelligent Alien species with 'scattergun' breeding, but as far as I know they don't specify how their societies developed in the first place.  (O.K., I can think of a James Blish novel which does, but in his case the Lithians (?) have been deliberately created by Satan.)

      •  I have seen cuttlefish videos (0+ / 0-)

        but never thought about whether they could could evolve to full tool use. You are right though, they are probably the best undersea candidates for that sort of thing. How long until the navy starts training them ... :)

  •  I wish I knew how to wake people up (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    itsjim, gloriana, xgy2, mattakar, marleycat

    from their media induced trance.  

    The long lines to buy powerball tickets are an indication of that the average person does not understand probability.
    Our doom is the inevitable outcome of not respecting the planet.

    We have to change how we live. We have to be smarter and more responsible, less willfully ignorant and selfish. Otherwise, we are going to cause a dieback to rival the worst mass extinctions in the planet’s history, and possibly doom this world’s only chance to develop life capable of making its own destiny.

    If cats could blog, they wouldn't

    by crystal eyes on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 01:55:49 PM PST

    •  Not sure about this... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      crystal eyes
      The long lines to buy powerball tickets are an indication of that the average person does not understand probability.
      The only certainty is that if you don't buy a ticket, you will not win. Being willing to gamble a few bucks against astronomical odds doesn't really imply a lack of understanding of probability. Though I would agree that many people don't appreciate just how long the odds are.

      I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

      by itsjim on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 02:09:09 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I always liked this analogy (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think I read it in a John McPhee book first.


    Let the length of your arm from shoulder to fingernail be equivalent to the geologic age of Earth.

    Run a nail file over your fingernail. You have erased the equivalent length of time Homo sapiens has existed.

  •  I doubt it's good luck though (0+ / 0-)

    Life is probably more common than we yet realize. It may be less likely that life is lucky, special or unusual. Apparently it may be the nature of things, under certain conditions.

  •  Small correction to a very nice diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago. A lot were but now we call the survivors birds and they are, probably the most numerous and diverse vertebrates on the Earth. Birds are very different from mammals. Their brains are organized differently and rather more efficiently in some ways. Their red blood cells have nuclei, unlike ours; so they don't need to weigh themselves down with bone marrow. They have feathers. Their lineage is very old, but they seem to have abandoned size by and large in favor of flight. We still have some large birds, the emu, ostrich, and rhea (and until 1000 years ago, the moa). But birds are the descendants of the supposedly extinct dinosaurs, just as we are the descendants of a little rat-like creature that scurried around in ancient forests.

    For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life. - Albert Camus

    by Anne Elk on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 02:34:34 PM PST

    •  I thought birds were already diverging by then (0+ / 0-)

      could be wrong though :)

      •  Significant evidence (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        of profoundly linked biology. A number of paleontologists think now that most dinosaurs had some kind of feathery appendages, and were warm-blooded (chickens have a body temp of 102). It is true that the shapes and sizes of dinosaurs are tremendously diverse. But just look at our pre-hominid ancestors.

        For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life. - Albert Camus

        by Anne Elk on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 04:55:07 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Also, deforestation (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    We humans have deforested the entire world.  

    For example, I've read that the Native Americans burned the forests to make the great plains in the US.  Once while I was a tourist in Scotland, I asked why there were no forests to be seen, and was told it was because sheep would eat any young trees.  Wikipedia says that Iceland was completely forested before humans arrived there (at least in the places where humans subsequently lived.)  The Loess Plateau in China used to be a verdant place, until over-herding caused complete loss of vegetation in most places.  (China is working on regreening the region now.)

    I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the Sahara Desert was once a forest, and was turned into a desert through wrong agro practices by us.

    I'm not claiming that a world reforestation would solve the problem of us burning millions of years worth of fossil fuels, but it would be a good thing to do in addition to other solutions.  There would be significant carbon sequestration, as a help.

    As permaculture icon Geoff Lawton says, we've done a lot of damage to the earth, but the earth needs us now to put things right again.

    Practice Vipashyana- Occupy Awareness

    by cantelow on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 04:11:33 PM PST

    •  I think Iceland was devoured by sheep, too (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Pretty sure that is part of Collapse. Much of the southern Europe forests were taken out by sheep too, or at least couldn't reforest after building the huge warfleets.

      •  Quite true! (0+ / 0-)

        The critical first step of any reforestation project here in Iceland: build a sheepproof fence.  And regularly inspect to make sure it's still intact and actually keeping the sheep out!

    •  Iceland wasn't completely forested (0+ / 0-)

      I think the highest estimate I've seen is 25%, and I don't think that number was for the time of human settlement.  But yes, it was extensively forested.  Thankfully reforestation efforts are going well - we're even expected to be self-sufficient on timber in a couple decades.

  •  A bit misleading (0+ / 0-)

    "However, our younger, cooler Sun could not keep the atmosphere warm enough without a thick layer of methane. "

    What caused "snowball Earth" was the sudden (in geologic terms) reduction of carbon dioxide due to the photosynthetic revolution. THis change also prompted the evolution of Eukaryotes since the oxygen in the atmosphere was corrosive.

    What changed the atmosphere was life! The Gaia Hypothesis.

    The late Lynn Margulis was considered "crazy" when she talked about these ideas. But they are very real today.

    •  Methane is much more insulating than CO2 (0+ / 0-)

      so just the conversion of methane to CO2 via microbial oxygen production was probably enough. The conversion of CO2 to sugars via photosynthesis would also help. I think there is still a lot debate about what the final push was towards the snowball Earth, and some still support that the planet did not ice over to the equator.

      The sun was much cooler back then, with estimates of only 70% to 80% of the energy it gives off now. So it is probably misleading to say the statement is misleading! There is debate, but what I've stated is a common position in the debate, and going deeper into the debate was not a goal of the post.

      I have not heard that O2 forced the move to a nucleus. I guess there could be some selective pressure from it oxidizing nucleic acids, but remember that plenty of aerobic bacteria and cyanobacteria live quite well in oxygen so it is not necessary to keep your DNA further away from oxygen. Also, some eukaryotes don't use oxygen.

      The presence of oxygen is a big boon for energy though, so it does favor larger and more complex cell development in general.

  •  A bit of a quibble (0+ / 0-)

    You write that 20 years ago, personal computers were just catching on. It's more like 30 years. In 1984, personal computers were big enough that Apple ran an ad for the Mac in the Superbowl.

    By 1992, personal computers were already quite well established, even if we were still running DOS. The Apple computer was in its twilight. It's true, for most people, the Internet was a few years away, but the PC market had been strong for some time.

    The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

    by A Citizen on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 06:49:17 PM PST

    •  Well, I wrote 25 years (quibbling your quibble!) (0+ / 0-)

      which would be 1987. I grew up in that time, and in 1982 (30 years) C64's were still considered pretty cool and that was really just a toy. Their everyday practical use was still just catching on in business and education endeavors.

      •  I misread it (0+ / 0-)

        I saw "twenty five" and read it as "twenty". Visicalc came out in 1983, and that was the "killer app" of the day. Apple was already established as the "education computer" (although many schools still didn't know what to do with it), and the IBM PC was a big hit with business.

        The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

        by A Citizen on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:35:04 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I had APple II's in middle and high school (0+ / 0-)

          They were still mostly toys. Bolo. Oregon Trail. Crush Crumble and Chomp. We had a special class for computers, but they really had no idea what to teach us. We got a mac in High School, that I played Gettysburg on. My first computer wargame!

  •  If you've ever looked at chart patterns, (0+ / 0-)

    it is interesting looking at a simple line chart of mass extinction events in Earth's history. What goes up will come down. Significant moves will correct at some point and in a drastic manner. It is similar to how say a bubble in the stock market will eventually correct.

    The following link has a chart showing mass extinction events in the planet's history along with the current run we are on. Note the 250 MYA period, the largest extinction event and also the largest chart correction.

    Given the present, this appears to me to mean that it is a matter of when, not if, it is going to happen again. The difference is that for the first time in Earth's history that we are aware of, a species (human) have evolved the ability to understand its predicament and can choose to or not, do something about it.

    Well, at least the reality based humans have.

    Postponing the inevitable, by doing everything possible to mitigate further tossing of fuel into the fire so to speak, buys time for humanity to figure out a way to survive.

    Great diary - sums it all up and most importantly, gives proper perspective to our place on this planet.

  •  All this essay needs is Morgan Freeman... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And who the hell is Grover Norquist???

    by ZedMont on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 06:26:58 AM PST

  •  Timing quibbles (0+ / 0-)

    The presolar nebula was not necessarily made of material from exploded stars. The molecular cloud certainly included such elements, but the predominantly hydrogen cloud is unlikely to have been the remains of a star, as hydrogen is the primary fuel of a star. Rather the heavy elements came from the explosion of a nearby supernova, which is what caused the cloud to collapse.

    Life may have had a foothold sooner than 3.5 billion years ago. The Late Heavy Bombardment ended 3.9 billion years ago, and rock formation from immediately following that time period show some indications of biological chemistry.

    There were no chordates 500 million years ago.

    The dinosaurs did not go extinct 65 million years ago - they are not extinct even now. Only non-avian dinosaurs did.

    The Hominidae originated 14 million years ago, and not 7 million - unless by that you mean human ancestors. Those came about not more than about 6 million years ago, as DNA evidence suggests human-chimp divergence only began then, and did not complete for another million and a half years (see Ardipithecus.)

    Rick Perry - the greatest scientist since Galileo!

    by Bobs Telecaster on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 06:56:13 AM PST

    •  Why quibble? (0+ / 0-)

      The presolar nebula had to have material from exploded star, otherwise, there would be no heavy elements. Which you seem to understand, but contradict anyway?

      There are many chordates in that time frame. Just one example. "Myllokunmingia is a chordate from the Lower Cambrian Maotianshan shales of China, thought to be a vertebrate,[1] although this is not conclusively proven.[2] It is 28 mm long and 6 mm high.

      It is among the oldest possible craniates, found in the lower Cambrian Chengjiang (524 million years ago). It appears to have a skull and skeletal structures made of cartilage. There is no sign of mineralization of the skeletal elements (biomineralization)."

      Perhaps saying backBONE was too specific. SPines might have been better.

      Avians are not dinosaurs. Avians evolved from dinosaurs. They had started diverging a hundred million years before the extinction of the dinosaurs.

      Technically, Homidae may have diverged as early as 20 million years ago. Trying to keep it human.

      Nearly all of this stuff has various theories and disagreements and proponents of those. I made this the generally accepted argument. Like all things science, it is subject to change with better data.

      •  Aves are dinosaurs (0+ / 0-)

        No modern cladist disputes this. Most theropod dinosaurs of moderate size or less, if they wandered into a zoo today, would probably be called birds, and would look like them... as they were covered with feathers.

        The Avialae clade (to which class Aves belong) is definitely a subclade of the Dinosauria.

        Rick Perry - the greatest scientist since Galileo!

        by Bobs Telecaster on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 12:05:57 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  We re doing our best (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    to get off the grid.  We have reduced usage from 750 to 211 KW units with our solar and wind.  We just brought home more solar panels to bring us down even further.

    being mindful and keepin' it real

    by Raggedy Ann on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 07:20:19 AM PST

    •  Someday I will have enough money to do this. (0+ / 0-)

      Or maybe a government that sees the wisdom of subsidizing it more.

      •  We've been doing it piecemeal (0+ / 0-)

        But it's working out for us.  We started out with a $5,000 investment and have made purchases twice a year.  My husband researched on the internet and did all the wiring himself.  As we buy panels, we add them.  We started out with a small bank of batteries and finally found a used forklift battery, which is working beautifully.  

        Don't give up - you can do this.  If you ever wish, I can put you in touch with my husband.

        being mindful and keepin' it real

        by Raggedy Ann on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 08:37:21 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  One of our biggest challenges is to simultaneously (0+ / 0-)

    1) fully appreciate & carry with us in each moment how special we are, and indeed all life is, and
    2) maintain the perspective that prevents our specialness & value from going to our heads in that "fill the earth & subdue it", Humanifest Destiny, destructive-overlords manner.

    And Maslow reminds us that such philosophy cannot develop where people are too focused on survival to have the time to devote to the contemplation that can answer that challenge.

    Universal Spirit in whatever form we perceive help us all.

    Before elections have their consequences, Activism has consequences for elections.

    by Leftcandid on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 09:31:56 AM PST

  •  We have to do our best but (0+ / 0-)

    I'm not feeling very optimistic after watching "Gas Land" on HBO last night.   Add to that GM foods, climate change and our addiction to population growth.  I'm only going to be around for another decade or three, so it's overall longevity of this wonderful planet and humanity I'm most worried about.
    I didn't have time to read the entire diary.  I skimmed.
    I think about the ?Permian extinction? and what I was seeing on the Science channel and other sources said that due to a chain reaction releasing methane in vast quantities that 98% of life was wiped out.   It seems certain that we are flirting with that kind of disaster.  Economic interest always turn a blind eye and believe without question as you said, "we are too small to have any effect on the earth".  Why is this so obviously wrong to me and not for so many people?
    So yeah, for much of the maybe 5 billion years our sun and earth have left, maybe some kind of life will persist.   It's hard to imagine how life as a human will be over the next couple of hundred years.  I think that in the end Malthus was right.  He overlooked how far we could stretch the rubber band of nature with science, but overall, in time nature will snap back.  
    I do have some hope with what I've seen in the next generation due to the internet I guess, but I see more aware young people these days than I have in years.
    My hope lies not in whether we will be extinguished, but how much time we have and how much quality of life we have.  

    I wish I could know, but no one lives that long.  Maybe we're lucky for that.

    Prove me wrong and I'll change my mind.

    by willbjett on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 10:47:31 AM PST

  •  Think 25 miles. (0+ / 0-)

    Drive 25 miles.  Not that far.
    Now, go straight up 25 miles.  Without a space suit your blood will boil.  I've heard that half of the molecular volume of our atmosphere is below 3 miles.

    It's thin.  So thin.  People should know this.

    Prove me wrong and I'll change my mind.

    by willbjett on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 10:50:13 AM PST

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