What Is Earth For?

In 1960, when I was born, the world was still precedented. The planet’s natural systems, though damaged by a century of industrial activity, were still intact and operating as they had for eons. Wildlife populations were generally whole and healthy. The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was 317 parts-per-million (ppm) – within the normal range going back millions of years. Air, water, and soil pollution were minimal. The biggest detectable impact of human behavior on the natural world was radioactivity – the legacy of atomic bomb detonations.

In 1960, the publication of Rachel Carson’s clarion call Silent Spring was two years away. Earth Day wouldn’t happen for a decade. The term ‘global warming’ wouldn’t debut until 1975 and the first international conference of parties (COP) on climate change wouldn’t convene until 1995.

Today, more than one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. The abundance of birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles has declined by more than two-thirds, precipitating what scientists are calling the largest loss of life on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs. Nearly 40 percent of all land on earth is degraded, impacting the well-being of billions of people. We’ve added 100 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (and rising), pushing the climate system to a threshold beyond which earth will be fundamentally different.

In my lifetime, humans went from a having a small impact on the planet to being the predominant force for change on a geological scale. Here’s a graphic that explains some of what happened. The researchers studied global indicators to understand how fast human impacts were taking place at earth system levels – to oceans, land, and the atmosphere. They discovered our impact had grown from small to colossal (the year 1950 is in red):

Steffen, et al, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” Anthropocene Review, January 2015

In 2018, scientists postulated that current trends risk triggering self-reinforcing feedbacks that could push the planet across a threshold into “Hothouse Earth” conditions. Crossing this threshold would lead to a much higher average temperature than any in the past one million years, causing serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. “Avoiding this threshold requires stewardship of the entire Earth System – biosphere, climate, and societies. Efforts must include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.” (Will Steffen, et al, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” PNAS, 115 (33), 2018).

In 2019, The Guardian newspaper formally changed the words it uses to describe the climate challenge. Instead of ‘climate change’ it would use ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ in its articles. “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change’ sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity…People need reminding that the climate crisis is no longer a future problem – we need to tackle it now, and every day matters.”

In 2020, historic wildfires raged in Australia, California, and Oregon. The COVID 19 pandemic swept the world. In 2021, record heat waves struck North America, Russia, eastern Europe, Kazakhstan, and the UK. In 2022, lexicographers at Collins Dictionary selected “permacrisis” as the word of the year. They defined the term as “an extended period of instability and insecurity.” The term was first used in the 1970s but saw a big spike in 2022, inspired by the calamitous effects of climate change, a brutal land war in Europe, a cost-of-living crisis, and political chaos. As the word implies, it could be a permanent condition.

The journey from the precedented world of 1960 to the permacrisis of 2022 will ultimately define my generation.

I can use my life as a prism. I’ve been entranced by the dynamic interdependence between land and people all my life. It raised a question early: what is land for? I lived on a farm for the first six years of my life, though my parents were not farmers. We had goats, horses, and a corn-farming neighbor. The answer to my question was easy: land was cool. After a move to Phoenix, I discovered the desert. I hiked into it to escape family disharmonies. I surveyed and excavated its prehistoric secrets. The answer to my question expanded as a result: land was freedom and mystery. Then the desert began to disappear, acre by acre, to development. I worked for its protection and despaired for our greed. The answer to my question now included wilderness and public lands.

Soon, I realized the answer went deeper: land was history, culture, food, and care. My activism changed. I worked with ranchers. I became aware of a world of wounds, to quote Aldo Leopold. My work expanded to include fixing creeks, collaboration, and the radical center. I wrote and spoke about working lands. I became a cattle owner and a local producer of grassfed beef. Meanwhile, my educational curve continued to steepen. I worried about climate change. Drought and heat. Resilience became my watchword. I began writing books about land and people and carbon. I gave talks about solutions. As I traveled, my concern grew. I saw crisis and opportunity on global scales.

I reframed my question: what is earth for?

The answer isn’t clear yet and may not present itself during the remainder of my lifetime. But it’s worth thinking about how we arrived that this moment with the hope that it will shed light on our predicament going forward. “What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare told us more than four hundred years ago. Prophetic words in any age, but especially now.