There is a phenomenon called the Overview Effect that describes the change in perspective astronauts feel when they are out in space and looking back at our Earth. They speak about the magic of seeing Earth from this new perspective, as a little blue planet floating in the expanse of space, and how precious and vulnerable our home really is. It’s been described by numerous astronauts as a cognitive shift that can enable them to move from identifying with their specific nationality or culture to thinking as Earth’s citizens, living on a “tiny, fragile ball of life hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere”. Maybe the Overview Effect is a silver lining to all those billionaires heading into space. Maybe, just maybe, they come back with a vital realization of how we must care for this amazing planet we are lucky enough to call home.
It’s unlikely I will be heading off into space anytime soon, but it did make me wonder if there is another way to get more of that overview effect in my life. We could all benefit from adding more awe into our lives. Let’s face it, this planet we are lucky enough to call home is, frankly, super awesome. These thoughts were circulating when I came across this quote that hit me hard:
In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will only understand what we are taught” Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forest ranger.
It made me think, could learning more about Earth bring more Overview Effect into my life? To test that theory, I began taking the Earth on dates, asking it questions and learning what its answers would be if we could chat about its past, present and hopes for the future.
Despite having worked in the climate change sector for over 25 years, it became clear to me that there is a lot I don’t know about the history of Earth. I thought I would share with you some of the questions and the “answers” Earth has provided. Recognizing, of course, that Earth answers those who do their research.
Gaby: Hi there, Earth. Thanks so much for spending time with me and helping me learn more about you.
Earth: Thanks for your interest. Many people don’t pay all that much attention to me. Humans remind me of that joke about two fish passing each other, one asks the other, “how are you enjoying the water today?” and the other responds, “what’s water?” That joke reminds me of humans more than fish.
Gaby: I can see why you think that. I know a few climate skeptics/deniers and one of the common justifications they share for their perspective is that Earth’s climate has changed many times in the past, and this is just another example of that. Can you tell me a bit about a time in the past when the Earth’s climate changed and how that relates to the present and future expected climate changes?
Earth: They have a valid point in that, for sure, the climate has changed many times. After all, I have been around for 4.5 billion years and have seen some strange times. While there have been several times when the carbon cycle was put into a period of disequilibrium, it has always been a nasty time for the life forms on the planet at that time. I’ll give you an example that sets the stage for our current messing with the carbon cycle. This story requires us to go back in time to the Carboniferous period, about 360 – 299 million years ago, to the period that produced almost all the coal humans are digging up and burning, adding the CO₂ stored in that coal into the atmosphere. During the Carboniferous time, new plants developed in the warm, humid climate and swampy conditions that were common during this period. Large trees covered with bark and giant ferns grew in the middle of these Carboniferous swamps. The plants gave off so much oxygen that oxygen levels were far higher than they are now (about 30% and they are presently 21%). This was not the time to be around if you had phobias of insects as this was their heyday. There were 2-metre-long centipedes and dragonflies that were almost 60 – 70 cm wide. During that period, all that plant life not only increased oxygen levels but also reduced CO₂ levels in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. This pushed the carbon cycle out of whack and brought on a cold spell. All those plants caused an ice age. You see, it’s the same principle but the opposite results from what you humans are doing now. Coal deposits resulted from all that vegetation dying and then being buried by sediments before it could decompose and release its carbon back into the carbon cycle. The coal remained buried until humans started digging it out, burning it and releasing that stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.
Gaby: Wow, so all the coal we burn comes from over 300 million years ago? What about all the oil and natural gas? Where does that come from?
Earth: Most oil and gas deposits come from the period when there was a global sea you humans call the Tethys Sea. The Mediterranean Sea is the last vestige of the Tethys Sea. It surrounded the supercontinent of Pangaea and was a time of high sea levels and lots of shallow seas on what is now dry land. Microorganisms were the base of the food chain – as they still are – and when they died, their skeletons fell to the floor of the shallow seas and formed thick layers. You can see the extent of the layers by looking at the White Cliffs of Dover. Its white rocks consist almost entirely of the remains of organisms known as diatoms. In fact, 70% of oil deposits existing today were formed in the Mesozoic age (252 to 66 million years ago), 20% were formed in the Cenozoic age (65 million years ago), and 10% were formed in the Paleozoic age (541 to 252 million years ago).
Gaby: You mention the carbon cycle a lot. It is interesting that while I learnt a lot about the water cycle in school, I didn’t learn much about the carbon cycle.
Earth: You and the rest of humanity too. It would be great if humans were taught about all the cycles, with the carbon cycle being the most important. It would also be great if humans learned more about feedback loops triggered by messing with the carbon cycle.
Gaby: I am going to dig into learning about the carbon cycle and feedback loops, and then can we chat more about that on our next date?
Earth: Of course, it’s a topic I am extremely fond of. If it wasn’t for the carbon cycle, I can assure you I would not be as hospitable a place for life forms. Then you would have an excellent excuse to look to other planets as a new place to live. Honestly, why you are doing so now is beyond me because if you think addressing climate change is hard, try building an atmosphere on Mars or Venus and get back to me on how climate change is too hard to address.
By Gaby Kalapos, Executive Director