The 21stcentury – the age we live in – will be remembered by historians as the period the Earth transitioned from a wholly-wild planet to a managed one.
This awareness is relatively new. For most of human experience, Earth management has been the furthest thing from our minds. Our Real World has been merely resource and threat. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari puts it this way:
2 million years ago… there was nothing special about humans… they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.
Little ambiguity or doubt about this. Where the uncertainty lies is in the next question: what will that future, managed Earth look like? Will it retain much of its current vibe – the landscape, natural ecosystems and by extension their wondrous variety and function most of us have taken for granted all of our lives? Or will it be a sterile, salt-water bathtub of largely denuded dust and rock, offering only minimal ecosystem services?
The answer – the actual outcome – won’t be something that happensto us. It will be a future we create.
We could aim low– allow ourselves to be content with largely technological fixes to the basic problems of water, food, and energy resources; resilience to hazards; and environmental degradation. In that case the planet will likely look and feel austere. Or, we could aim high– and achieve something far richer, more diverse, maybe even glorious.
The two previous LOTRW posts have compared our planetary ride with aviation. Here’s another metaphor that is illuminating: taming and riding a horse.
Note the key difference: the hot-air balloon, or the plane, is inanimate; it has no mind of its own. A horse is an entirely different matter.
A retrospection: When I was growing up, though living in eastern towns and cities in the 1950’s, I was fascinated by the Old West. Much of that culture focused on horses – their innately wild nature, and their domestication. For the most part, that latter process was framed in books (both history and fiction) and on film as “breaking the horse” – teaching the horse, using physical restraint and punishment as needed, that the rider was the master, and had to be obeyed, however reluctantly.
It was easy for the urbanite child reader to accept this uncritically. As I entered adulthood, the demands and allure of work and forming rich relationships with people around me took over; the Old West receded into the background.
Then came 1998 and the film The Horse Whisperer, starring the iconic and singular Robert Redford, and introducing Scarlet Johansson. The movie’s stars and popularity acquainted even urbanite minds with the idea that instead of “breaking” a horse, it is possible to begin with a different premise: a basic respect for the horse and an understanding of equine psychology, and to found horseback riding on a more equitable relationship – a partnership. The film made “whispering” a thing in popular culture. The years following would see the National Geographic series “Dog Whisperer;” a “Ghost Whisperer” TV drama; Vin Diesel in The Pacifiersardonically referred to as ‘the duck(!) whisperer;” and more.
Back to our present discussion: Without too much of a stretch, then, it’s possible to see options for intentional management of the Real World as ranging from “breaking the planet,” to Earth whispering.
Again, the differences find their analog in the “Langley-“ and “Wright-brothers” approaches to flight. Langley and his team sought to make the atmosphere a passive backdrop by upping engine power. The Wright brothers acknowledged that while pilots might have a destination, the atmosphere would always shape the journey. They sought to control the aircraft in the face of head- and tailwinds, updrafts, and down drafts, storms and turbulence.
Reflection on these (and other!) analogies is constructive. There are at least as many takeaways as there are human participants in this great managed-Earth endeavor.
That said, two lessons matter above all the others. First, we can never know enough about the Earth, the Real World – how it works, what it will do next, and in particular how it responds to the actions of seven billion people. And our efforts to learn more will succeed or fail based on our investment in critical infrastructure: The Earth observing platforms. The instruments. The data assimilation and analytics. The research. The conceptual and numerical modeling. STEM education of the public and professional training for the workforce. Information access for policymakers and the public.
Second, instead of attempting to impose our will on the Earth we live on (show Earth who’s in charge), we need embrace reality (the atmosphere is warming; sea level is rising, ecosystems are struggling, and here’s why; the built environment, especially the coastal built environment, is fragile with respect to storms, and here’s why; air, water and soil quality, habitat, and biodiversity are under siege, and here’s why).
Partnering with the horse begins by listening to it, and respecting it. Start with that, and then a whisper from us will do.
This quote or something closely akin has been various attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker – and even to Alan Kay and Jeff Bezos. If interested in deeper analysis, consult quoteinvestigator.