Sustainability and Habitability on a Living Planet

Opinion Editorial
Submitted By: Martin Ogle

Sustainability and Habitability on a Living Planet

Like many other newspapers, the pages of the Boulder Camera have recently been populated with articles about sustainability. These have delved into water, energy, and biodiversity and discussed technology, efficiency, and “externalities.” No matter the topic or lingo, however, these exposes are, ultimately, explorations into the relationships between people and planet. What are energy and material flows on Earth and how do human beings co-opt, affect and influence them? How do these processes determine the habitability of our planet for some or all of us?

From a slightly different angle, habitability was the subject of a recent, syndicated science column in the Camera (“Searching for a Fairy Tale World; ‘Goldilocks zone’ A Guideline in Hunt for Habitable Planets,” by Kate Becker, Friday, February 8. 2013). In this column, Becker stretched the notion that a planet must be “just the right distance” from its star to be habitable. She described a “Goldilocks zone” in which suitable temperatures for life might be found in a wide band of distance from a star rather than at just one point. This band might be widened by factors such as a planet’s internal heat, for instance.

Becker’s analysis, however, missed what might be the most significant factor for creating and widening a habitability zone – life itself! Life not only needs suitable temperatures for its well-being, it helps create and maintain those temperatures! Life has greatly moderated Earth’s surface temperature over geologic time by influencing atmospheric makeup, soil characteristics, differential reflectivity to sunlight, and more. The average temperature of Earth, based simply on a calculation of our distance from the sun would be as high as a whopping 290 degrees Celsius! Ouch – a far cry from our current15 degree average, and not very habitable! Luckily, when life gets a foothold on a planet, it seems to seize climatic control and create its own zone of habitability. These are among the findings of Gaia Theory (a.k.a. “Earth systems science) that has gone from obscurity to textbook science in the past couple decades. The entire surface of our planet is alive, in some sense. David Grinspoon, astrobiologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, notes that “Life has made Earth the way it is to a large extent. That’s the Gaia hypothesis, and the living worlds hypothesis [used in astrobiology]…”

If we stop and think about it, this new take on planetary habitability speaks profoundly to our search for sustainability here on Earth for it reflects a fundamental shift in our overall understanding of life. Until recently, modern society has maintained a view that humans are detached; that we are “cosmic passengers” upon an inert Earth. We have seen Earth as our unlimited hunting grounds for water, energy, food, and everything else. As scarcity settles in, our cosmic passenger response is to try and do all the same things, only better, through efficiency. With little or no sense that “resources” are a living part of us (and vice-versa), we have been blind to the imperative of limits. Efficiency without a sense of limits does not conserve; it is overwhelmed by the “inert Earth tenet” of growth for growth’s sake.

Society is beginning to awake to the view that we are a seamless continuum of a living planet. This awareness is accompanied by new visions, opportunities and ways of doing things. The first glimmers of this shift may have come 3 decades ago when – across the globe – people saw that CFCs (chemicals used in refrigeration) drastically affected Earth’s living system by creating a hole in the ozone layer. The nature of that problem revealed that human society is intimately tied to Earth, and solutions were found and implemented in short order. In Japan, where 90% of people now consider climate change real and human-caused and where the recent nuclear disaster still compels energy conservation, the new social norm is to ditch suit jackets and turn the air conditioning down. Known as “Super Cool Biz,” this super-simple social change is accepted by two thirds of Japanese. It is saving significant amounts of energy in and of itself and people are more comfortable for it.

These changes represent merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, for as society continues to evolve towards a view of a living planet of which we are a part, our quest for sustainability will become more fun, healthy and successful. We will move quickly to redesign our buildings (which use approximately 40% of our energy), to live differently within them, and to rediscover the places we inhabit. We will transcend current controversies such as fracking and pipelines for oils from Canadian sands as we shed the growth imperative and find ways to truly conserve. Sustainability and habitability are powerfully linked on our living planet, and we should widely promote and nurture this understanding.

The author, a new resident of Boulder County, retired from a career as Chief Naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority near Washington, D.C. He is a recognized advocate of Gaia Theory / Earth system science and has created his own business, “Entrepreneurial Earth LLC.”