Can this marriage be saved?

You can and should be forgiven if you can’t hearken back to the August 17th post, “We’re Earthlings, till death do us part.” That was an eternity ago, in blog years!

The post ended with the following line of thought: if virtually all of us are really stuck here on the Earth’s surface for the foreseeable future (and even the most star-struck would-be space wanderers have to concede this) – then we ought to do what successfully married people do. We should work at our marriage! We should learn as much about our planetary “spouse,” and its needs, as we can. We should be attentive to changes, maybe even anticipate, head off problems, rather than be inconsiderate.

The posts since then? Think of them as an extended detour. [They dealt first with the value of information on what the Earth would do next. Then came the AMS Summer Community meeting. Afterward, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the subject turned to hazards policy.] And the last of those posts ended with the claim that the most astonishing of all recent extreme events on Earth has not been an earthquake or volcanic eruption, or a flood or typhoon, but the extraordinary success of the human race over the past century or so. The repercussions from that one are only just beginning.

This week, the detour rejoins the main road, as we continue to explore what it means to live on (literally, on) the real world. Like many roadwork sites, the transition isn’t necessarily pretty – Jersey barriers, Earth movers, people working hard, traffic moving slowly, orange signage saying “bear with us!” That’s today’s changeover piece.

Earth is saying to us – “You’re not the men and women I married!” Earlier humankind was small in numbers. It only sipped at natural resources. That mankind altered the natural environment, but reshaped things only a little bit – no more than any other plant or animal species. And any technological advance or social change was, in retrospect, gradual. We pretty much stayed the same.

But in recent years – the span of one or two human lifetimes – we’ve enjoyed an amazing degree of success. And success has spoiled us – radically, and suddenly – and apparently, to look at the Earth’s reaction to our new fortunes, for the worse. The Earth we’ve always seen as our life partner has become increasingly withdrawn. Those resources – the fresh water, the oil, the minerals – Earth used to yield so freely? Earth’s hanging onto them tightly now. We have to pry them loose. We must drill deeper for groundwater and oil. Our mines are more remote. Arable land used to be plentiful. Now it seems we work hard to make soil and land productive. Everything’s more energy-intensive. Earth’s once-natural handsome beauty? We have to look harder to see the last vestiges of it. And much of the early excitement is gone. Earth used to be fascinating and mysterious; now, it’s the same-old, same-old. And, somehow, it seems Earth’s grown more hostile of late. Those extremes are more damaging, more disruptive – really spiteful and nasty.

Well, truth be told, we’ve withdrawn a bit ourselves. Maybe, if we’re honest, we might also admit we withdrew first. Frankly, we found someone else, someone seductive and to our minds much more interesting – a non-natural world largely of our own making. An artificial, built environment – warm and comfortable, well-lit homes, centered on desk jobs that have been aggregated into extended mega-cities. We’ve built intricate economies, built on sophisticated methods for borrowing and lending, which at first glance seem quite remote from the hunting, fishing, and gathering that got us here in the first place. At its best, this artificial world has much to like. Back-breaking labor used to be everyone’s fate. But in the developed world of today, it’s the lot of a relative few. Is the real world too cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer? We’ve bought relief from that. Had only a few children been surviving to reach adulthood? This once meant pain and anguish for families throughout history…but today, the odds favor a long, full life for all our children.[1] Frankly, what’s not to like? The list of our new love’s virtues goes on and on.

And – note this – within that artificial world, we’ve built another, virtual world: one that exists primarily on the internet. We have started spending more and more of our time and energy with this new interest. We lavish our attention on it. We’re sensitive to the slightest disturbance, but a bit oblivious to deterioration of both the first-level infrastructure and the real-world environment that support it.

Our differences with the old, original – and very real – Earth are not yet irreconcilable. We can still salvage the relationship; maybe yet rekindle the flame. But even if we succeed, our relationship is unlikely to return to the easy-going, natural companionship it had been before. All parties will be sadder and wiser.

And we don’t have “all the time in the world.” [A peculiar phrase, that – especially in this context!] Time’s running out? In what specific ways? That’s the subject of the next post.

[1]A sobering caveat subtends all this (a Greek chorus) “we’re speaking of the developed world.”

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