Earth Time

Environmentalism has become one of our great secular religions, featuring not only original sin and a promise of redemption but also a dogma that is more zealously guarded than anything out of Rome. The difference, of course, is that environmentalism appeals not to faith but to reason. In “What the Earth Knows,” the Nobel laureate physicist Robert B. Laughlin offers a scientist’s explanation of geologic time, a peek at a concept as hard to understand in human terms as are some of the tenets of religion. The earth is unimaginably old, and the time that humans have spent on it is thus unimaginably short, a millisecond on the earth’s calendar. For Laughlin, this disparity in time, along with the evidence of events the earth survived in the billions of years before humans appeared, suggests that as a matter of science, the earth will survive whatever humans subject it to. All the carbon we pull from the earth and send into the atmosphere, for instance, will eventually be absorbed into the oceans and back into the earth. This does not make the prospects any brighter for species living on the earth, including ourselves, and Laughlin points out that humans have already triggered the sixth great period of species extinction in the earth’s history.

Why, then, does his argument matter? Aren’t Earth Day and the concept of humans as guardians of the earth just metaphorical? Don’t we all understand that saving the planet is really about saving ourselves and the other species that have shared our blip of time on it? Prof. Laughlin hasn’t offered a lot of help as I’ve struggled with this question; he points out that he is making a scientific case and I seem to want a political statement. Fine. I don’t argue with Nobel laureates. If I did, I might say that if science isn’t itself political, any description of it beyond the mathematical quickly becomes political. What I like about his article is its appeal to things we can know for ourselves and his willingness to let us know when other scientists disagree with him. I should also admit that, although it goes against the orthodoxy of environmentalism, I’ve long wondered about some of the things he asserts to be true: that the causes of global warming are not perfectly understood and that human responsibility and any human efforts at reversal might be puny when compared to the longer processes of the earth.

I await excommunication. But before I go let me offer this valediction. Environmentalism is surely right in its analysis and its goals. We ought to live more thoughtfully and less greedily in the world, if only for the sake of our own souls. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is an abomination. And its consequences seem almost benign when I think about nuclear power’s new reputation as a safe alternative to carbon-based fuels. Just wait till a company like BP or Halliburton gets its hands on that technology. Only the earth will be able to outlast the sort of disaster that could result.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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