The long view of science turns out to be both reassuring and daunting. Life on Earth turns out to be remarkably resilient. Within the story of our 13.5 billion year old universe, our own lives-so crucial to us and to our families and friends-look fleeting. Almost gossamer, in fact (I have been waiting forever to use that word!). Again and again, mass extinctions sweep away tens or hundreds of millions of years of diversity, and we start once again, fresh and new. At times, these paradoxes overwhelm this simple man.
One time period produces six foot long arthropods that look like centipedes from a child's nightmare. Another evolutionary interval yeilds a fligtless six-foot high bird whose head consists mainly of large teeth and formidable jaws-a predator who may have hunted in packs. The Mesozoic landscape teems with animals which are the size of commuter jets-and then, all of a sudden, the strange animals are gone.
Evolution proves to be relentlessly inventive as life forms come and go. We must recognize that humans appear as just one more entry on the evolutionary spiral. But things are a bit different now. Now, we don't just live within this geologic story; we shape it. And, as always, with that power comes responsibility.
Geologists think of the last 65 million years or so as "recent", and so all of the epochs in our era end with "-cene", which is rooted in the Greek word for "recent". Pleistocene. Eocene. Holocene. The prefix changes, but the "cenes" mark "recent" developments in evolutionary and tectonic cycles, even when the lifeline of these cycles or epochs reaches back tens of millions of years.
Many scientists now believe that we have entered the Anthropocene Epoch. in just two centuries of this "human-dominated recent time period" and beginning with the Industrial revolution, we have transformed over half of the Earth's land surface, changed global climate, and triggered loses in biodiversity. Animal species slip away as we destroy their habitat faster than they can adapt, at extinction rates 45 times greater than the long-term average for mammals and 270 ties greater than average for rainforest species.
In the Anthropocene, 7 billion people everywhere insert themselves into delicately interwoven systems. Bio-crusts carpet the soil in dry country. Disturb the living crust in, say the redrock canyons of the Four Corners country with a careless boot-print, too many livestock, or a freewheeling all-terrain vehicle, and you liberate dust to blow onto the snowpack in the Rockies. Dark snow melts faster than clean snow. Doesn't sound like too much though, does it? Well, the spring run-off now comes 50 days earlier in the Colorado River Basin that it did in the past, which has stark consequences for those downstream.
We have constructed a desert civilization in the American Southwest that depends on water which comes from somewhere else. When climate change drains that delivery system, will Phoenix and Los Angeles (not to mention smaller towns like Hanksville and Needles) dry up and blow away? What should we do? Well first of all, watch your step. Take nothing for granted, from the air that you breath to the value of your homes to the well-being of your family and loved ones. One this day-to-day level, live every moment fully. Nurture resilience.
When we can define geologic time by our actions, we must think hard about the consequences of those actions. When we have become connected to one-third of the people of the planet through our computers, our efforts are multiplied, and things such as politics, social justice, and human rights are no longer local issues. In the internet-driven Anthropocene, we not only affect our generation mightily, but we also do the same for the generation that will follow.
We can deal with the Anthropocene with hubris-why conserve when in a few million years we will have all moved on to a new evolutionary world? This might explain such things as the state legislature of Utah's selfish attempt to turn over fragile public lands to the state for development. For management by the few and for the few, even though ALL Americans own the federal lands in question. Or the fossil fuel industry, intent on maximizing their profits until we have drilled the last drop, and without any regard for the people who live nearby.
Or, perhaps we can approach the extraordinary opportunity of our scant few decade here on this Earth with restraint, blessed by the fragile miracles of our health and acutely aware that we act with care if our natural world is to flourish.