The earth is so vast, how could human activity possibly damage it? That’s a sentiment I hear from time to time, usually in the local paper or on the radio, occasionally from friends. Isn’t it a bit arrogant to think that we little humans can affect a whole planet?
I heard an argument along these lines recently, and I was reminded of something Bill McKibben wrote in The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation. It’s one of McKibben’s more obscure books, a reflection on the Bible’s book of Job, so I don’t suppose many people have read the interesting perspective he brings to this common observation. I will take the liberty of quoting it in full:
“The planet we live on is not so large after all. That is, viewed horizontally it goes on for a very long way. Not as long as it once did – the age of jet aircraft has let us girdle the globe in a day or two. Still, it’s enormous – those of us who have spent time at sea know the feeling of staring off at the horizon in every direction, cutting one lonely furrow across a vast field. Vertically, however, the world is not nearly so large. Just a few miles above us – a couple of hours walk if we could walk straight up – you come to the end of the useful atmosphere. The top of Mount Everest is about as far as you can go and still have a chance at breathing; even there, you are losing brain cells unless you get artificial oxygen. Into this narrow envelope between ground and atmospheric ceiling is squeezed pretty much everything that maintains life. It is a comparatively small reservoir, and we are busily filling it up.”
That’s a useful idea. ‘Saving the planet’ is an unhelpful phrase. What we’re actually talking about is protecting our liveable atmosphere, which is more contained than we might imagine.