Every day as we go about our normal lives we are constantly exhorted to “save the planet” by companies trying to sell us the latest “green” cleaning product or electrical appliance or any one of 1000 other consumer products. Leaving aside the dubious claims of most of these manufacturers and the obvious thought that if you did not buy the product in the first place you would have considerably less environmental impact, do these claims have any validity? Even reputable environmental organisations tell us that if we recycle, use our cars less, insulate our homes, etc. that we are helping to save the planet. So it seems reasonable to ask whether the Earth actually needs saving.
Give or take a few million years, it is now known that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The enormity of this number is impossible for short-lived creatures like us to even begin to comprehend. It is believed that the first extremely primitive life forms appeared only a few hundred million years after the Earth cooled and solidified. The conditions these life forms inhabited would have been close to the biblical view of hell, with extreme temperatures, poisonous gasses, and highly acidic rainfall. For most of the Earth's life span these primitive life forms changed little.
It has only been in the last two billion years that oxygen has been present in the Earth's atmosphere in significant concentrations. The oxygen content of the atmosphere was boosted about a billion years ago by the development of simple plant life in the ocean, and again 500 million years later when plants moved onto land. Prior to the development of plant life, the simple organisms which inhabited the Earth would have found oxygen as poisonous as we would find cyanide. Over the 500 million years or so since plants finally established a hold on the land to the present day, the story of life has been one of steadily increasing complexity, interspersed by at least five mass extinction events when more than 75 percent of all species in the fossil record were obliterated almost overnight.
The point is that life is not tenuously hanging on by a thread as it is often portrayed, but rather extremely resilient. We need not worry about saving the planet. The Earth is far better at looking after itself in the long run than we will ever be. To think we are capable of destroying all life on Earth is simply arrogance on our part. So what is all the fuss about? Why are we becoming increasingly concerned about our environmental impact? What is it that is at stake if it is not the Earth itself?
To answer this question we must redefine our time frame to the 70 to 80 years that the average person alive today in the developed world can expect to live. When we do this a very different picture emerges. All around us we see the evidence of an emerging ecological crisis. The pressures generated by human population and rampant over consumption of resources are showing up everywhere; from deforestation and ecosystem collapses to the well publicised issue of climate change. Over the next few years we face the prospect of our familiar and comfortable world turning into a hostile and unforgiving environment, with a greatly diminished capacity to support us. We therefore need to redefine the problem. It is not about saving the planet. It is about saving the planet as we know it today and ensuring a future for our species.
Many place their hope for the future in science. Don't worry, the argument goes, the scientists will save us. Yet all too often such statements are based more on hope and faith than on rational argument. Our entire modern way of life is based on science; yet science and scientific innovation is a double edged sword. True, science has brought us out of the dark ages and brought enormous benefits to us. Yet on the other side science has also brought us the atom bomb, almost destroyed the Earth's protective ozone layer, and developed many highly poisonous chemicals, which now pollute our lakes and rivers.
The problem is often that scientific innovation often has unforeseen consequences. The use of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs provides a good example. When these chemicals were first created, they were believed to be enormously beneficial. They were thought to be chemically inert, and as such were used extensively in air conditioning and refrigeration systems. The full picture only emerged much later. It was found that when CFCs entered the atmosphere they facilitated the destruction of the ozone layer. Similarly the current build up of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is an unforeseen consequence of the technologies of the industrial age.
The point is that science will have a significant role in helping us overcome the ecological crisis, but it must be used wisely. Grandiose schemes for geo engineering are examples of applications where science has the potential to do more harm than good. Experimental projects such as seeding the ocean with iron filings could easily have unintended consequences. Such projects must be carefully researched before being allowed to proceed. On the other hand, the application of science in developing new and safe energy sources is paramount and offers great potential for the future.
Science will not be our saviour, but it must inevitably form part of a larger solution to our current environmental crisis. The biggest part of the solution must however come from a change in our world view. We must stop looking at the Earth as a resource to be exploited an instead view it as our home and our life support. It is only when we see ourselves as a part of something larger and stop seeing everything in purely financial terms that we will be able to make true progress towards a sustainable future.