Once upon a time, there was no Time, only Nothing, but it sure took a lot of both to produce us, a life form that can understand at least some of this incredible mystery. Today we humans know that our universe was born 13.8 billion years ago (bya), that our Milky Way galaxy, 12,000 light years across with some 300 billion suns, formed 13.2 bya, and that, on its Local Arm between its larger Sagittarius and Perseus arms, our solar system appeared 4.568 bya. It then took a billion circuits of this sun for a tiny globe of gasses, water, and rock, known as Earth, to produce Life which then evolved into 8.7 million (and counting) species. Each of these can survive only within a tiny niche with specific parameters. As one of these species, we are amazed at what we have accomplished since we were a prokaryote cell 3.6 bya. We continue to enlarge our niche by taking our environment with us as we wander. There are now 100 trillion atoms in a human cell and 100 trillion human cells in a human body living in co-operation with 1,000 trillion bacterial cells. Good government is a must to keep these constituents working in unison for the common good so we need two brains, one for internal and one for external actions. What is more amazing is that we can understand all this, yet quarrel over necessary actions to preserve our niche, ourselves, and our progeny.
As we went forth and multiplied we met numerous challenges. We found pockets of arable land, wild game, minerals we could learn to use, and water. Losing the warmth of hairy bodies we had to invent clothing, heat, and shelter. Co-operation was a must as we developed sedentary living in cities (civilization). As personal possessions increased so did Greed and Warfare.
We have since killed over 4 billion of us in major wars. We did develop scores of religions and philosophies to explain all this but then used them to justify conflicts. Surprise - more Christians have been killed by Christians and more Muslims by Muslims than by those of different beliefs. We must have a death wish because, for ten thousand years, we have not learned that wars beget wars leaving only brief interludes between episodes of immense destruction, hardships, and slaughter.
Yet, we learned to increase our comfort and wealth by excavating and converting minerals to other formats and in the process releasing gases that alter our environment so that it can no longer support a growing list of species and threatens us.
In 1979 concern over human-made global warming was enough for some of us to convene in Geneva the first conference seeking counter actions from a concerned world of humans. This led to a long series of conferences, the latest in Warsaw in November 2013, each deferring to the next one the task of agreeing to required changes. There are too many insular interests indifferent to the plight of others or of future generations and who say we puny humans are no threat to our rugged planet.
Are you not aware, they argue, that the universe teems with threats, a few of which are the Milankovitch cycles of 21,000 (orbit shape), 26,000 (precession of the ecliptic), and 41,000 (axial tilt) years, continental drift, volcanoes, cosmic radiations, and asteroids, all of which have changed earth’s climate and over which we have no control, so why bother?
Yes, but do not short memories fail to associate our current problem with carbon dioxide and methane with a previous disastrous problem with oxygen that killed almost all life on earth? With a climate much like ours today, Life had been abundant for a billion years in our green-tinted oceans. There was very little free oxygen, a poisonous gas to all living things, when, 2.5 bya, a new species, the blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, evolved in glacier meltwaters rich in minerals that had been scraped up and deposited into the seas. They thrived and multiplied on iron oxide, releasing the oxygen that began a slow build-up eventually killing most life forms. Free Oxygen interacted with the atmosphere’s methane that had kept the planet warm, resulting in an ice age where the ice over the equator was a mile deep. A few survivors adapted, producing carbon dioxide by consuming oxygen. This gradually warmed the earth allowing the species we know today to flourish. Like cyanobacteria, humans were few and harmless for thousands of years but now number 7.1 billion that, with their technologies and cattle, can match, in produced gases, cyanobacteria who may not have realized they were creating their own near demise, but humans do.
Is our species, and all those others dependent on us, not worthy of the sacrifices we must, and know how to, make now to preserve a good life style until some uncontrollable force kills all of us or do we just let our progeny try to survive rising temperatures and sea levels, storms of greater ferocity, loss of fertile land, widespread migrations, huge die-offs, and chaos?
Warsaw was our latest failure. Countries that should lead, including Canada and the US, did not, so hundreds of caring activists walked out in disgust. In the US media, the only one I could find to give adequate coverage was Amy Goodman of PBS. This in spite of the devastation typhoon Haiyan, a product of Global Warming, was causing the Philippines (although help from both the Canadian and US military was immediate and impressive among others). .
Many humans remain so occupied in harming others that they cannot see the harm they are doing to themselves. Syria has killed 100,000 of its citizens and caused millions to be refugees; Egypt continues its scorched-earth policy in the Sinai; China denies Tibetans autonomy; Israel has persecuted Palestinians for 65 years and rejects any criticism of its nuclear arsenal yet leads the charge against Iran whom we have harmed far more than it has us; the Taliban and Al Qaida find several replacements for every one we kill; Somalia is a failed state; human rights are denied in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, and other countries. And then there is the USA, that has led the world is so many fields, suffering from a dysfunctional form of democracy, an obsession with security that results in a bloated military that costs more than the rest of the world spends, a world-beating prison population, and spying on its friends. It has an expensive for-profit health care system that lags most industrialized countries, immense income disparity, a $17 trillion debt - enough problems for those in power to put off those actions needed to mitigate climate change.
Actually, many of us, individually and collectively, are making slow progress, but quite insufficient without united world governments enforcing agreed-to actions.