Earth Day 2010: Save the Earth? Really?

Happy Earth Day 2010!

I think Earth Day is a nice idea. I’m very much in favor of energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, conserving endangered species and habitats, and all of the other good things Earth Day is about, but sometimes I hear or read something, and my thoughts go off on a weird tangent. That happened this morning when I heard a radio report about today being Earth Day, a day when people “turn their attention to saving the Earth.”

Saving the Earth? Reeeeeeally? I don’t think the Earth is in any sort of trouble that it needs to be saved from. (Yes, I realize that’s not what the speaker meant, but this is where my thoughts shot off on one of those funny tangents.) As a planet, the Earth is doing just fine, and it will continue to do just fine – with or without our intervention – probably for several billion more years. (For more on this, check out Freeze, Fry or Dry: How Long Has the Earth Got?)

What Earth Day is really about is trying to maintain the Earth’s current conditions – the conditions we humans and the other types of animals alive now evolved to live in.

We look around us and see the Earth as it is today – with the land masses where they are, the current climactic conditions, the make-up of our atmosphere, the animal and plant species that exist – and it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been like this. Not by a long shot.

The PALEOMAP Project by Dr. Christopher R. Scotese – while not the prettiest or easiest to navigate website on the internet – has a ton of information, maps, and animations about how Earth’s land masses and climate have changed over the past 1,100 million years.  The Earth History section has full-color paleogeographic maps that allow you to see what the Earth looked liked in the far distant past and what it might look like in the future, the Climate History section has a discussion of how and why the Earth’s climate has changed through time, and the Credits section has a link to Robert Scotese’s (Dr. Scotese’s son) “Amazing web page,” which I found amusing.

While I couldn’t find any similarly cool website detailing the changes in Earth’s atmosphere over its lifetime, I did find a couple of interesting pages about it:

As for the different animals and plants that have existed on the Earth, 99.9% of them have gone extinct – many in one of the five mass extinctions that have occurred. For a very cool overview of some of these extinct species, watch the British documentary series Walking with Monsters, Walking with Dinosaurs, and Walking with Beasts.

With luck, events like Earth Day will help encourage people to work toward keeping our planet’s current conditions in place as long as possible, perhaps giving humans enough time to figure out what to do next. If not, the Earth will be just fine, and life will most likely continue, with whatever species are left evolving to deal with the new conditions. We just won’t be around to see it.

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