There was a gathering April 20th in Regina’s Victoria Park to celebrate Earth Day. A wide range of speakers discussed the importance of maintaining community pastures, keeping the Indian Head tree farm in public hands, protecting endangered prairie bird species and winning back environmental protections eroded by Harper. It was a general call for a re-visioning of how we protect prairie lands, waters and biodiversity and the importance of rural, urban and indigenous peoples uniting for these purposes.
But, with all the wedge politics exaggerating our differences, what will it take to bring us closer together? Instead of being divided over inherited ideologies wouldn’t it be better to be united over caring for the environment and the future? So I decided to speak about how special this planet is and how every day could be Earth Day.
Perhaps you will recall the children’s story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. And perhaps you’ll even remember some of the original story: e.g. one bed was too hard, another too soft and the third just right; one bowl of porridge was too hot, another was too cold and the third was just right. The principle has cosmic proportions. Astronomers argue that life-supporting planets must have the right balance of elements such as carbon, oxygen, iron, or silicon, within margins and not in extremes; this must be just right.
Since launched in 2009 the Kepler satellite has been searching endlessly for signs of other earth-like planets by measuring orbiting objects blocking light coming from far-away stars. It has located 2,700 potential alien planets but only three earth-sized ones that are within the “habitable zone” around a star similar to the sun. But these three are thousands of light-years away. Meanwhile, just within our own solar system there are three solid rock planets from which we can learn what we need about what’s “just right” for life. Perhaps we need a story called “Goldilocks and the Three Planets”.
VENUS: TOO MUCH
What can we learn about the specialness of Earth compared to our solar system neighbours Mercury and Venus? Venus was named after the Roman Goddess of beauty mostly because it shines like a bright star in the night light. We now know though, that this is because its heavy, contaminated atmosphere reflects much of the sun’s light back to our eyes. There is nothing “beautiful” about Venus’s environment; it actually forewarns us about the runaway effect that comes with a buildup of greenhouse gases. Its heavy atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and then sulfur dioxide and its temperature is around 863 degrees F, which is incompatible with evolving life as we know it.
Venus is still geologically very active, which seems to be one fundamental requirement for a planet to support life but it’s too active. Its volcanoes spew such thick gases that the resulting atmosphere builds up immense solar heat. The circulating of liquid water is another precondition for life as we know it, and this can’t happen on Venus. Venus’s canyons, once thought to have been formed by water, now appear to be the result of the constant flow of lava. If there ever were water there, the extreme greenhouse effect sent it into space.
So our sister planet Venus is too hot and too dry, has too much atmosphere and too much geological activity; it’s not at all just right for life.
MERCURY: TOO LITTLE
What about Mercury? This fast orbiting planet was named after the Roman’s Messenger God. As the closest planet to our sun you might think it to be even hotter than Venus. Not so; in contrast to Venus, Mercury hasn’t enough atmosphere to build up and regulate heat. It has too little greenhouse effect to support life. Mercury has the greatest temperature variation of all our planets; it is extremely hot (800 degrees F) on the sun-facing side and extremely cold (minus 280 degrees F) on its dark side.
Being much smaller than Venus or Earth, Mercury’s gravity is too weak to hold an atmosphere. Without any sign of internal geological activity for billions of years it’s considered a “dead planet” and has no seasons at all. (There could be no snowbirds going south for the winter on Mercury.) NASA recently confirmed that while there’s water on Mercury, it is locked up as ice in deep craters at the poles, not exposed to direct sunlight. It is thought the water may have come from comets and out-gassing from long-gone geological activity.
Mercury is too small and too dry with too little atmosphere and no apparent geological activity; it’s not just right for life either.
EARTH: JUST RIGHT
Earth is not too hot or too cold for life and it has seasons. It’s not too dry but instead has oceans of liquid water covering most of its surface. It’s not too small and has just enough atmosphere to regulate temperature to maintain liquid water and life. It’s not a dead or hostile planet, but an active, life-creating, self-regulating one, called Gaia.
That’s why we’re here; it’s clearly a very special place in the cosmos. When we realize the chances of a planet being “just right” for life, Earth should be considered a very sacred place, not to worship as though we are outsiders but to preserve as a sacred, interconnected web of being.
But Earth has been colonized by proliferating humans who are quickly accelerating the greenhouse effect through industrial -consumer globalization. We are collectively altering the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans upon which we and our fellow species depend and habitats and species are steadily disappearing.
We speak of planets being “dead” or “alive”. A living planet like ours has just enough atmosphere to create the “just right” greenhouse effect to protect us from cosmic radiation and envelope us in a water-nourished, life-sustaining biosphere. We are taking this all for granted at our peril.
No matter where we live, what we are doing or thinking, or what our cultural or religious background, no matter how smart we think we are with our smart phones or multiple satellite channels, we all breathe, eat and commiserate because of the Earth’s unique biosphere. Without the biosphere maintaining the right range of temperature, health of the oceans, web of life and food chains we would not survive or flourish. Without the water flowing through our bodies with the nutrients of the planet we would be as dead as a dead planet. We are now learning the hard lesson that without the bees our own food security would be in jeopardy.
We simply couldn’t have come into existence on a dead or hostile planet like Mercury or Venus. Yet with the help of our evolved brain and social control systems we have created the illusion that we are somehow not of this place, that we are above it, that we can extract from and poison this planet at will, without consequence. That we can then escape this degraded planet and find an equally comfortable place somewhere else! We are very wrong about this and our ideas must change quickly. There’s no such thing as a replaceable planet, however the economy is replaceable with a more sustainable form.
So every day is Earth Day whether we think about it this way or not. And every day we might want to spend at least a moment or two pondering how our creation is interwoven with the unique characteristics of this living planet. It can be both humbling and inspiring to realize our unique and blessed circumstance. We Earthlings have to be careful. Every day we need to recommit to doing all we can, in awe and action with others, to protect this sacred place; to make every day Earth Day.