Another one from Ward and Brownlee. A “sequel”, they call it, to Rare Earth. I’m going to have to make these extinction books their own category. “How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Day” should be its name.
Earth is a middle-aged woman, run ragged by her hundreds of children, asshole of a husband, and the fact that she’s taken up smoking. Humans are the cigarettes. I haven’t decided who the asshole husband is in my version of Ward and Brownlee’s analogy. They don’t provide one, but I’m sure there must be. There usually is. Could it be the Sun? It’s the one dying in the first place and apparently will get all grumpy about it and take it out on Earth. The Moon? That doesn’t seem right. The Moon has been quite the little helper/worker bee for the Earth since it first settled into orbit. Can’t hardly use it in the role of abusive jerk.
This book uses phrases like “silicate-carbonate geochemical cycle,” which sounds like a good band name. And again, like Rare Earth, it points out all of the chance occurrences and lucky breaks that made conditions just right for life. If CO2 levels hadn’t dropped as significantly as they had, then no oxygen-breathing large animals. But this drop in CO2 wasn’t due just to the rise of vascular land plants and their insatiable appetite for the stuff. That wasn’t enough. It took a geological event. If the Indian tectonic plate hadn’t just happened to collide with Asia 100 million years ago, then the Himalayas never would have been created. No weathering of all that exposed rock means no “silicate-carbonate geochemical cycle” to make more limestone, which got rid of even more massive amounts of CO2.
But no more of this cool, interesting, “let’s create as much life as we possibly can” process. Now Earth is dying. The Cambrian Explosion was it. That was the heyday. Humans showed up just in time and developed just enough intelligence to use and abuse all of those years of carbon fuels and trees and animals.
And what’s so funny is that Ward and Brownlee get a bit indignant about humans screwing everything up worse than it already is.
We’re hurtling through space. A space that, according to them, will never have this kind of life again. We’re on a dying, crowded planet and are cursed with enough intelligence to both realize that we’re causing it’s demise, but also to know that we’re doomed no matter what. We might be able to escape Earth before it all goes into the handbasket, but who’s to say we’ll find someplace else to live and then not screw it up, too? And let’s not forget the lessons of Clive Finlayson and his jovial insistence that intelligence had nothing to do with human evolution. Nope. That was all scrappy scavenging and lucky climate control that brought Homo sapiens to the forefront. In other words, a future disaster and then potential escape on some sort of fantastic spaceship isn’t very likely if all of our most intelligent members of the species are just wetting themselves in the corner rather than designing said spaceship.
So Ward and Brownlee are really going to get all irritated by the fact that we’re driving SUVs now? Ballsy.
I say let Earth have her cigarettes. Let her drink her whiskey, too, if she wants it. She might as well. I can see it clearly. Earth, all drunk and with a bad hair dye and crappy manicure, stumbling around the solar system. She glares at Titan and its potential for life on its crazy ethane-ocean surface and slowly nods. “Just you wait,” she’s thinking…
The only other thing of note is that this particular library book was mauled by another borrower from the library who writes with a disturbingly angular handwriting (it reminds me a bit of a font I have called Satan’s Emissary or something like that…) in block letters. He underlines phrases so heavily that I can see the indentation pages later. He (I can’t imagine a female would write like that, but maybe I’m biased…) has very emphatically pointed out mistakes and throws in his own little bits of wisdom as if finding Ward and Brownlee lacking somehow. There’s even a helpful little chart explaining the mathematical difference between million, billion, and trillion. (Which I already know because of my horror of the national debt, thank you very much.)
All in all, the entire experience has left me pretty convinced that my education on extinction and natural history and all things astrobiological needs to come to an end. Which, I suppose, is the point. All things must. Even Planet Earth.