Archive for Thursday, October 22, 1998

EARTH NOT AN ENDLESS EDEN

October 22, 1998

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Today the Earth is 6,002 years old. We learn this from Archbishop James Ussher, who, in the 1650s, used biblical chronology to calculate that the Earth was created on the evening preceding Oct. 23, 4004 BC. People who abide by Ussher's research should no doubt be celebrating this anniversary of the Earth. For the next five days, they should also be venerating the creation of the Earth's water and sky, sun and moon, and, of course, its fantastic richness of plants, animals and microbes.

It is certainly cause for reverence that this life is everywhere on Earth -- in seas, rivers, lakes and wetlands; in forests, grasslands, deserts and tundras; on coral reefs and ocean floors; in the deepest cracks in the earth; and in the cold Antarctic ice. If God "saw that it was good," He must also have seen that it was plentiful: The life of the planet is a genesis that was some 50 million species strong. Humans are one of those species.

Will pulpits this week commemorate the creation of life on Earth and preach that God's work be sustained? In fact, do pulpits regularly exalt all of the creator's handiwork and teach that we ought to be nurturing His life of the planet year-round? Pulpits habitually address the fate of one species, humans. Wherefore the fate of the other 49.9 million species?

Were I a preacher, my Sunday message would go something like this: It is written that Adam named all the plants and animals brought before him. It was his first act on Earth, making taxonomy the first science practiced on the planet and Adam the greatest taxonomist who ever lived. If only Adam had recorded these names, it would have eased the taxonomic toil of future biologists.

It is also written that Noah brought a pair (male and female) of each kind of animal to an ark to save them from an impending flood. That makes Noah the greatest surveyor and conservationist of biological diversity who ever lived. Presumably, the plants, freshwater fish and asexual organisms could fend for themselves off the ark. The message from Noah is this: Whether one believes that the world's 50 million species of plants and animals were made in six days or four billion years, humans are the only species among the 50 million endowed with the power and foresight to steward the life of the planet or destroy it.

Whether one is a creationist or evolutionist, the fate of Earth's luxuriance of plants and animals and the natural ecosystems they form is under human dominion.

Genesis and science teach us that these natural ecosystems are fundamental for life, especially human life. They clean our water, air and soil. They buffer droughts and floods, scrub our wastes and neutralize our pollutants. They pollinate crops, check agricultural pests and keep the earth fertile. They provide most of our food, fuel, fiber and forage. They are essential to pharmaceutical and agricultural production. They control the Earth's climate and the flux of essential gases of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

Analysts value these "free" services at trillions of dollars annually, but these ecosystem services are really priceless because most of them cannot be replaced by technology at any cost. Natural ecosystems are also what paint the planet blue, looking up from earth or down from space. They are the steppe, savanna, forest, meadow and marsh whose boundless beauty frees the heart and makes the believer cite creation.

One of the seven deadly sins is gluttony, and, sadly, the greed of this generation is immense. Our gluttony is being sated by a one-time depletion of the Earth's natural capital, as ecologist Paul Ehrlich and others have written. We are devouring the planet's natural assets at a rate that writes off the future. We've mortgaged long-term wisdom for short-term superconsumption. We haven't learned the lesson of Easter Island, our Earth in a microcosm.

When the islanders destroyed the biological fabric of their own island world, they extinguished themselves and their culture. All that remains now on the island are stone totems to a creator who didn't intercede.

And, at the risk of being hauled up for blasphemy, that is the final point. God won't undo what we have wrought. He won't cleanse our poisoned rivers, fouled air, toxic soils and contaminated food resources in order to provide for the basic needs of 5.8 billion people on Earth -- a population that is growing by a staggering 10 million people every six weeks.

He isn't going to restock the decimated Atlantic fisheries or restore the Everglades or replant the mahogany forests of Borneo. He isn't going to rescue the rain forests in the Amazon, or the last lemurs in Madagascar, or the native tall grass prairies around Lawrence. He didn't save the auk or the passenger pigeon or the thousands of other species of wildlife driven to extinction by humans in this century. With a free will that permits self-extinction, humans have been slapping the Earth for more than 300 years, and especially hard for the past century. Until now the Earth has turned the other cheek -- at least we pretend it has. What will happen when the Earth slaps back?

Life was not created on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus or Pluto. Nor is there evidence that it evolved there. Only Earth orbits in the zone of life around the sun. Humans are its only sapient species among the 50 million that were created 6,002 years ago, as Ussher deduced, or that evolved during 3.8 billion years of earth history, as science now understands. Either way, we have inherited the biosphere and the contract to sustain it.

What does the contract now call for? Three provident steps. First, stem the explosive growth of human population, which, at its current rate, will reach an earth-choking 11 billion people in a century and a half. Second, stem the growth of consumption, which, as Ehrlich says, "does not mean going back to living in caves and cooking over buffalo-chip fires." Third, adopt more sensible energy technologies, ones that will fuel the future while safeguarding our thin atmospheric skin. If we choose long-term sapience, we will live up to the name that Adam intended for us.

-- Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at Kansas University.

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