This is a photo – actually a composite of many photos taken from Earth orbit – of the Earth’s surface at night in 1985 http://tinyurl.com/3dq8s6v. Truth be told, there’s a bigger story behind the use of an ad from Amazon here than I want to go into now. I hope this version will do.
Most of the lights you see are created by electric bulbs. The brightest spots, though, are gas flares or forest fires. The continents in this photo reflect no light, but one can often determine their location anyway, for the density of human population on land near coastlines is frequently large, while the ocean is almost always pure black.
Western Europe, Japan, India, and North America are quite easily made out. Even Australia, whose population is notoriously small, is fairly obvious because almost everyone lived near the coastline in 1985. The bright spots in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Siberia are gas flares. One surprising feature of this composite is the Japanese fishing fleet just west of the island harvesting squid. Notice that Korea, both North and South, is virtually invisible.
The world’s population in 1985 was approximately 4,650,000,000. The photo of Earth at night is not unlike an x-ray of Gaia targeted at the human population. Let us regard it as a baseline, although the real baseline, the one that lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, is an entirely black picture. Even had there been electricity, it would have been virtually blank, for human population before agriculture remained below 15,000,000, only 1/310 of the picture shown here.
This is a more recent composite photo of the Earth at night-2008 http://tinyurl.com/3gmjkmd. Notice that, in this photo the continents are shown as if reflecting light from a full moon. Notice, too, that the resolution is much better.
But clearly not nearly so much better as to explain the greater number of lights.
In fact, if the resolution weren’t much better the photo would be less appealing. To see that, notice there is almost no distinction between Japan, as represented in 1985 and as shown in 2008. The glare of lights in Japan in 2008 is almost as bad as it was in 1985, despite the better resolution, for the population only changed by about 5%. During the same period of time the world population increased almost 44%. Without the better resolution, the whole eastern seaboard of the United States, virtually all of Europe, India, and South Korea, to name only the high points, would look like the Japan of 1985. The overall effect, I think, would be an ugly photo.
Notice, too, how unnecessary the moon glow is to distinguish continents. There is virtually no continent, or even island chain, which can’t easily be made out by lighting alone.
Of course, there is another aspect of this lighting phenomenon which deserves to be mentioned. Electrical lighting is highly dependent upon infrastructure. So, when the fixture is installed, it is much easier to light than prior to having had it installed at all. It’s not easy to run an electrical line to the middle of the Gobi Desert. But once the line is run, it’s almost trivial to change the bulb from then on. So, in some sense, this also shows the spread of an infrastructure.
That all said, there is no denying the growth clearly illustrated in the 23 years represented by this sequence of photos. If one falls back to the x-ray analogy, it would be hard to describe the phenomenon as anything other than the growth of a tumor. The spread of the infrastructure is just the tissue growing hard.
Many people find the comparison of humanity to a tumor offensive. Others have no trouble with the analogy at all, for they’ve been watching it for years as our cities grow out to encompass the land–first converting wilderness to farms, then enveloping even that, first as suburb, then as city proper.
But an almost universal constant is everyone’s belief that the most obvious conclusion that would be drawn in the presence of such a rapidly growing tumor in the body of any living being known to man doesn’t apply in this case. Other than in this case, where the patient is Gaia Herself, virtually anyone would suspect the tumor might be life threatening.
Probably more because of our size than anything else, we cannot comprehend our ability to kill Gaia–God–Herself. But let us harken back to the thinking cell analogy. Even harder than imagining a cell that thinks, is to try to imagine a cancer cell that worries about the possibility that it might be a part of a fatal disease–fatal to not just itself, but to the host. I mean, that would be one f-wording smart cancer cell!
My point here is really about how hard it is for us to imagine ourselves as the possible fatal feature effecting the life of something so much larger than ourselves. Hell, even conceiving of that something as a living being, as discussed in Part I, is hard enough.
I’m working on a dynamic version of what I’m talking about in this series of entries. It’s only an app morphing the ’85 picture into the ’08 one. We’d be much better with an actual time-lapse taking us up to the present and I’m having some unexpected difficulties getting the morphing to work. But you’ll get the idea, I hope, with a little effort on your part. In any case, I don’t think I should wait for the graphic.
Go first to the 1985 Earth at Night picture http://tinyurl.com/3dq8s6v then to the 2008 version http://tinyurl.com/3gmjkmd and imagine the one growing into the other. This isn’t apt to be easy because of the compromised image I had to settle for from 1985. Sorry; but please try to visualize the transition as growth. That is, after all, how it happened.
Unfortunately, the fact that so many of us cannot imagine Gaia being “killable” by such a small organism as ourselves, doesn’t make it so. Even more unfortunately, our operating as if it were impossible to accomplish such a result only increases the speed with which we may actually reach that end.
I’ve been reading a book entitled How Many People Can Earth Support? It’s quite interesting, although incredibly dense. It seems scientists have been trying to get good estimates on the answer for well over a hundred years. All efforts until now have attempted to evaluate how much energy each person uses, or how much land he/she requires for food, shelter, water, etc,. The range of estimates varies immensely, for this approach depends highly upon assumptions. But I think it’s the wrong way to look at it in any case.
If “sustainable” is to mean anything, we have to ask not “How many of us can live on the planet?” but “How many of us can live on it without killing it?” They’re very different questions. After all, estimates of, say, 5 billion by 2000, would have done nothing to stop our passing that number, which we did at about that time, whether or not Earth Herself would be able to survive it.
From the cancer cell’s point of view, learning to contend with increasingly more difficulty getting blood to the interior, or, for that matter, the assault from radiation, or chemotherapy, or surgery, is a plus. In “Joe Cancer Cell’s” opinion, the body can clearly handle it.
And it can–until it can’t.
Focusing the way we’ve focused before induces errors that raise our expectations on what the tolerable numbers are. Focusing on Gaia’s survival makes Her health the issue, not ours, and induces caution, as opposed to recklessness.
Considering our survival as the issue is what makes our species cancerous. It’s also what makes us able to ignore, at all but the purely intellectual level, our utter dependence on Gaia’s survival for our own.
If we ever hope to “go into spontaneous remission” it will have to be by our realization that it’s Gaia’s (God’s) health that matters–not our own. And it may well require us not only to recognize Gaia as God, but to truly come to regard Gaia as we’ve long regarded God: we must begin to place Her ahead of ourselves. We must come to be willing to die for Her, as well as to live for Her.
Next time: extremophiles, the pop clock, and some questions.