The living Earth is tough on scales it is hard to credit. Life has watched continents crash together and tear themselves apart; skies glowing like bright coals; tropical seas frozen into stillness: it has endured. Slaked in radiation from nearby supernovae, pummeled by asteroids, it has barely faltered and never stopped. Our civilization may be — is — out of balance with its environment; current human ways of life are frighteningly precarious. But to read the fragility of our way of life onto life itself is foolish.The point of this article is staringly obvious to me, as a scientist, but I suspect it would be news to many people on the street. I wonder if there's enough cultural space to present this kind of argument. Because, like the author, I think it needs to be made.
In some sense, all misunderstanding is bad. Some misunderstandings are more consequential than others, but as a scientist I am committed to caring about understanding apart from consequence (although, not independent of it). Yet this very day, in an informed discussion of nuclear disarmament, I read a throwaway reference to the arsenals of America and Russia — incomparably larger than those of other nations — as being large enough to destroy the planet. This kind of talk may be time-honoured, and it may have some poetic or mythical grounding, but as a literal statement it is the purest nonsense. Do these people really want me to bore them with a description of what it would take to destroy life on earth, let alone the planet itself, in any meaningful sense?
Public discussion is becoming much better-informed on environmental issues and mechanisms: talk that used to be restricted to scientists and their groupies, in the Seventies and Eighties, has long gone mainstream. So aren't we in a position to call “Time” on the most lurid kind of disaster-talk?