Tuesday July 17, 2018

This will blow your mind

WHEN I was a freshman at Negros Occidental Science High School, we had a subject called Earth Science, where we discussed the geologic time scale. This topic must appear in science textbooks for high school students. It begins with a question, “How old is the Earth?” There was never a shortage of intimidating terms and concepts when we discussed Earth’s history, except maybe when we refer to anything “Jurassic” since we all loved those dinosaur movies in the 90s. And who would forget the epic story of an asteroid hitting Earth and killing the dinosaurs?

We now know that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old. Most of the scientific communities accept this computation based on radiometric age-dating. We would memorize this number “4.5 billion years” to answer in a test maybe (although our computations are “off” by a hundred million years), but can we really imagine how long this is? Can our human minds truly grasp geologic time?

It hits me that in our basic education curriculum, we may be taught the Earth’s age in numbers and terms, and we may have been showed the geologic time scale, along with photos of the T-Rex. But we may have not truly understood what that all means to us. We may have not have fully visualized the scale of deep time.

If the age of the Earth was compressed into 24 hours, what time did human species appear?

I would have loved and remembered it if our teacher asked us that very question, and guided us to do the actual math to come up with an answer. Because the answer would have blown our minds. Try it. The earliest fossils of anatomically modern humans are from 200,000 years ago. Relative to the timeline of the planet, we are recent arrivals.

So if the age of the Earth was compressed into 24 hours, humans arrived at 11:59 p.m. – in fact, during the last three seconds of those 24 hours. And what about if we count only the years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, i.e. the invention of the steam engine in the early 1800s? It’s not even one second in the 24-hour scale of Earth’s time. Not even one second of a day.

Perhaps a lot of you already know this. How can we make this a basic discussion in school? Given that there are other theories that say the Earth is much, much younger, and its fine for healthy debate and research. I don’t think we have honestly made our minds to think deeper than the numbers. Why do I think we need to be mindblown by this time scale?

Because here’s another thing to blow our mind: In such a short time we have been here on this planet, we’ve managed to change it so drastically. We are causing the sixth mass extinction. The last mass extinction was the period of time when an asteroid collision caused skies to be covered with debris, slowly suffocating and killing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The one we are causing now is not because of an asteroid or erupting volcanoes or natural climate shifts – it is caused by our activities since the rise of agriculture, the invention of the engine, and our dependence on fossil fuels. Sharks and sea turtles got here first, even before the dinosaurs actually. But we have pushed their species to extinction because of overfishing, or depriving them of habitats. We have cut over half of the world’s forests and converted over 50 percent of our lands to grow food for an exponentially increasing human population, now at 7 billion, and to build cities, where half of that population lives. We’ve also dumped garbage into this planet – most of the plastic stuff produced since its invention by humans are still around today – and some of it are drifting as microplastics along with plankton being eaten by fish.

Nowadays, as we talk about issues like climate change, fisheries decline, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution in our oceans, we need to remember that our species’ time, compared to the other eons and epochs in the geologic time scale, is down to a 0.01 percent, sometimes barely recognizable if the scale was drawn. Can we wrap our minds around that?
Sometimes during environmental education programs, young kids (and even adults) talk like as if “nature” was around them, a place to go to when we’re not in school or at work. A lot of modern humans are now growing up thinking life is happening in the centers of civilization, and that the “environment” connotes a backdrop, something that is surrounding us from the sidelines. We even sometimes hear ourselves saying, “We should save the environment. How dare we destroy its beauty! We need to save the turtles and sharks and the corals and the forests. Otherwise our children or our children’s children won’t have the chance to see them.”

What we may forget is that the Earth supports our existence – we are a part of it, and its health and ours are deeply intertwined. The environment is not just a backdrop nor is it not a romantic or aesthetic pursuit to “save it for the future generations to enjoy.” If we are causing a mass extinction in this age of the humans – Anthropocene, as more scientists are now calling it – we are not just killing off a hundred species every year. We are threatening our life support systems. We are threatening our own existence.

In a book I would recommend to anyone thinking similar thoughts, “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, there is the famous wall poster that said “With Man Gone, Will There Be Hope For Gorilla?” It either means gorillas will finally thrive when humans are absent and thus not causing them to be extinct, or on the other hand, we need humans to save the gorillas.

If you have read this far, I am sure you are wondering “Why think this way? So are humans the villains? What do you suggest we do?” I am looking forward to your own answers and thoughts. Write to us, talk back. Maybe your have more mind-blowing stuff to share for a different perspective.