Grinspoon: Earth in human hands

David Grinspoon himself wonders how an astrobiologist wound up writing a book about the human impact on Earth. Grinspoon, author of Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), answered the question during a Science in the City lecture recently at Pacific Science Center.

David Grinspoon

Astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon talked about his new book, Earth in Human Hands, January 10 at the Pacific Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I am struck by the unique strangeness of the present moment,” Grinspoon said, noting that we are at the controls, if not actually in control, as we enter a new epoch in human history. Some find the proposed name of Anthropocene—the age of humanity—a touch self-centered or self-aggrandizing, but Grinspoon feels it is a fitting moniker.

“It represents a recognizable turning point in geological history brought about by one species: anthropos,” he said. “Our growing acknowledgement of this inflection point can be a turning point in our ability to respond to the changes we’ve set in motion.”

In fact, Grinspoon finds it promising that there’s some recognition that we the people are a major factor in what is happening.

“We need to learn all that we can about how planets work so we can make the transition from inadvertently messing with Earth to thoughtfully, artfully, and constructively engaging with its great systems,” he said.

A long history of planetary change

Grinspoon noted that it’s always fruitful to take a close look at the long-term history of Earth.

“We are not the first species to come along and radically change the planet and cause problems for the rest of the biosphere,” he said. In fact, the first one was not nearly so clever as we are. About 2.5 billion years ago the humble cyanobacteria caused a terrible calamity.

“They transformed the planet, the most radical chemical transformation that our planet has ever experienced,” Grinspoon explained. “They flooded the atmosphere with a poison gas that spelled certain doom for most of the other species that were living on the planet at that time.”

What they learned to do was photosynthesis, and the poison gas they spewed was oxygen. The oxygen also destroyed much of the warming methane in the atmosphere of the time, which led to a global glaciation that turned Earth into a giant snowball, a condition that lasted until volcanoes pumped out enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet up again.

“Cyanobacteria presumably never discussed that fact that they were starting to ruin the world,” Grinspoon quipped.

Four types of change

Grinspoon identifies four broad types of planetary change:

  • Random
  • Biological
  • Inadvertent
  • Intentional

The classic example of the random is an asteroid strike, something that just happens that there’s little control over. The cyanobacteria fall under the biological change. We’re in the midst of great inadvertent change right now, with automobiles, population growth and other factors driving a spike in carbon dioxide levels that began in the 1950s.

We’ve barely dipped our toes into the intentional. Grinspoon explained that our first stab at intentional change came with regard to fixing the hole in Earth’s ozone layer. The solution came from scientists studying Venus and trying to explain the planet’s lack of oxygen. They realized that chlorine destroys oxygen and ozone. Other scientists connected the dots and concluded that chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants, propellants, and other products on Earth were eating away at our planet’s ozone layer.

Fixing the ozone

Interestingly, Grinspoon noted that this created an argument that may sound familiar. Some called the notion a hoax, there were attempts to discredit it, opposing “science” was created, and there was lengthy debate.

“The truth won out,” Grinspoon said. A global agreement was reached: the Montreal Protocol. Alternate chemicals were developed that didn’t deplete the ozone. Grinspoon said it’s working.

“It’s still going to be another fifty years or so because it takes time for the ozone layer to come back,” he said. “The natural chemical reactions that re-create ozone take fifty to one hundred years.”

“Assuming we stay on track, this is actually a success story, and it’s an existence proof that this kind of global change is possible,” Grinspoon added. “Not that it’s easy, and there are some ways in which fixing global warming will be inherently harder than this, but it shows that we are capable of a different approach.”

Thinking long term

While global warming is an important challenge, Grinspoon said it is a relatively short-term one, and that we need to think even further down the road. He said such random events as asteroid strikes don’t have to happen.

“We have a space program; the dinosaurs didn’t, and look what happened to them!” he quipped. We know how to identify possible threats and have a pretty good idea about what to do when they occur.

Further, Grinspoon said that we have an illusion that climate is always more-or-less fine, only because we’ve been lucky enough to live in a time of relative stability. We need to think about the next ice age, which he said will eventually occur.

“If we get over the near-term climate harm that we’re doing, we will have the knowledge that will allow us, when the need arises—we’re talking 10,000 or maybe even as much as 50,000 years in the future—we’ll have the ability to interrupt that cycle of ice ages and preserve the relatively benign climate, not just for ourselves but for other species as well,” Grinspoon said.

Who is out there?

All of this allowed Grinspoon to put on his astrobiologist hat and talk a little about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).

“When you do the math of SETI what you realize is that the question of is there anybody out there to talk to comes down to the question of longevity,” he said. “You can show this mathematically, that if civilizations last for a long time—that is, if this problem is soluble of how to create a stable technological civilization and use technology in the service of survival rather than self destruction—if that’s possible to do and if it happens on other planets, then there ought to be other civilizations out there that we could discover and maybe even communicate with.”

Thus the Anthropocene epoch represents something of a turning point. There are those who regard it as doom and gloom, as something we can’t beat, but Grinspoon doesn’t see it that way.

“The true Anthropocene is something that should be welcomed,” he said. “Though it is yet only in its infancy, it can be glimpsed. Don’t fear it; learn to shape it.”

“It is the awareness of ourselves as geological change agents that, once propagated and integrated, will provide us with the capacity to avoid doom and take our future into our own hands,” Grinspoon concluded.


Books by David Grinspoon:

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