Planet Protectors

Photograph: Thomas Roepke | Zefa | Corbis

This may come as less of a shock to others, but it’s my own recent discovery: we live on a planet.

In the last year, in the course of reporting various stories, I’ve found myself wandering across the vast lava plains of Iceland, steam curling up from a hundred fissures. And then standing, short of breath, in the Tibetan Himalaya, staring up at Everest, the only feature on Earth high enough to reach into the jet stream — hence the white cloud, like a pennant, streaming sideways from the summit. And then surrounded by endless ice on the Antarctic Peninsula, after a voyage akin to space travel — come aboard ship in Tierra del Fuego, then two days across the Drake Passage, cut off from contact with the rest of the Earth, weathering the roughest water on the globe. When you arrive, it’s another world: nesting colonies of hundreds of thousands of penguins, their islands smeared red with the remains of their krill-based diet, the air bracingly foul with the smell and alive with the squawking dialect of these exuberant residents. On the beach, elephant seals the size of . . . elephants . . . belch and groan in large pleasure. You could easily be on some other planet. But you aren’t. This is still the one between Venus and Mars.

We’re so used to our home address, so well adapted to the places we live in, that it’s hard to recollect Earth’s actual dimension. And that’s as it should be: we’re built for living on a human scale, close to neighbors, in easy, green, moist, warm country, or, more rarely, in arid, sparse, cold country. Wherever we happen to live, it seems like home, rarely even a horizon to remind us of places beyond, never mind the planet that holds them all. Those of a certain age can remember the sensation when the first real snapshot of the Earth arrived back from the Apollo craft. That picture of a lonely blue marble in the great black void seemed designed to shock us into seeing that the world we knew was finite, that we had been born onto a lovely oasis in a vast space empty of life. An oasis we should protect at all costs.

Well, so much for that idea. It didn’t take, not really — we’ve done more to damage the planet in the decades since that picture appeared than in all the time beforehand. Now we’re more or less paralyzed by the onslaught of global warming, finding it hard to take in its reality. We’ve begun, very slowly, to act, at least at the state and local level, but important voices continue to insist it’s all silliness. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in early April, a member of the editorial board concluded: “The consensus that human activities are causing global warming is purely a social invention — there’s no way of showing it to be so, and no self-evident reason for preferring to believe it’s so. The ‘consensus’ is, in truth, a product of itself.” That’s utter nonsense, of course — the physics and chemistry of global warming are relatively simple and widely accepted. But it’s emotionally counterintuitive to imagine that we’re able to alter something as basic as the climate; we all hope that somehow it simply isn’t true. It’s too hard a truth, some days, to wrap our heads around. (It’s also expensive to wrap your head around if you plan on doing anything about it, which may be the real reason the Journal ends up sputtering.)

But if we can’t deal with what we’ve done to the Earth, let’s pretend for a while that we inhabit some other, unfamiliar, planet. We’ve landed on Mars and set up a colony — maybe begun, in the science fiction lexicon, to “terraform” the red planet, trying to turn its air into something we could breathe unaided. (For more details, turn to the Mars trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson.) In such a case we’d carefully monitor the composition of the atmosphere and constantly adjust what we’re doing in order to keep things in balance. It might not work out (the only real attempt of this kind, Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert, flamed out spectacularly because, despite the investment of $150 million, no one could keep the carbon dioxide in balance under a three-acre dome). But no one would scoff at the idea of trying — we’d bring the same intensity to the task that we do now to, say, growing the economy. Instead of checking the Dow every hour on the hour, we’d be checking the oxygen balance.

The irony is that, here on Earth, we’ve neglected to keep watch at the planetary scale, but we’re not content with our home scale either and have set up a far-flung economic life somewhere in between that is driving dangerous changes. We’re psychologically comfortable with living at a home scale, but we like to supplement it with the benefits of “distance living” — the average bite of food we eat travels a couple of thousand miles; the energy supplies that bring it to our plates depend on our ability to intimidate Mideast nations and Appalachian coal miners. Not yet intergalactic but certainly intercontinental, it’s this intermediate scale that’s killing us. We’re stuck between the truly local and the truly planetary in the same way that suburbs are stuck so inefficiently between the density of the city and the self-sufficiency of the country. Making our economic life in the same place as our physical life will be key to working out the daunting math of climate change, and a dozen other environmental woes. Making the familiar sufficient would not only build stronger communities, it would offer some future for the unfamiliar, the strange, the wondrous corners of our planet.

I remember sitting down in an airplane once and introducing myself to the guy in the next seat. He turned out to work for NASA as a Planetary Protection Officer and handed me probably the single best business card I’ve ever read. His job involved making sure our spacecraft did nothing that could inadvertently alter the planets, moons, or asteroids on which they landed. If we were going to land a probe on Jupiter’s Europa, then the ship would be sterile. There was a pragmatic reason for that care: if you’re going to be searching for, say, microbial life on another world, you want to make sure you’re not actually measuring microbial life that stowed away on your landing module. But there was a deeper reason, too — the idea that we were capable of doing great damage to some innocent planet. Anyone who’s read even a little science fiction knows that.

I don’t know what the fellow is doing now. Last year NASA announced that it was dropping from its mission statement the commitment to “understand and protect our home planet.” This was, at least, an honest move, since it coincided with the agency’s attempt to censor its chief climate scientist, James Hansen, as he was trying to warn about the looming catastrophe of global warming.

If someone is watching from afar — watching not our pronouncements but simply the astronomical rise in carbon in our atmosphere — they will doubtless have concluded by now that we just don’t care all that much about the planet where we live. Hopefully, we’ll prove that’s not so, when our rhetorical commitment to the environment begins to show up in changes you could measure from outer space.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.