Return of the old gods: why there is nothing delicate about Earth’s balance

Earth is not a benign mother. We have begun to witness what happens when it unleashes its fury.
climate change
Credit: 愚木混株 cdd20 / Unsplash
  • We no longer have to imagine climate change. We have seen its first manifestations.
  • Our impression of the planet as balanced and stable is a dangerous mistake.
  • We must build a new, sustainable version of our cherished project of civilization.
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Ablood-red sky looms over midday San Francisco. A year’s worth of rain falls in three days on the Chinese city of Zhengzhou. The temperate Pacific Northwest suffocates under a 112° Fahrenheit heat dome. These are images of what climate change actually looks like, and all of them happened in 2021. We no longer have to imagine what the scientific charts imply. Instead, we are witnesses to the initial manifestations of what the Earth will do with all the extra greenhouse heat it has been trapping.

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The reports of so-called unprecedented fires, and of floods the likes of which we have never seen, are heralds. They are the first visceral display of a truth about planets that science understands but modern culture does not: There has never been anything delicate about the Earth or its balance.

For a century we have grown used to the idea of nature as something that we could manage. We do this through the powers of technology. Our jet planes take off and land through all but the most intense storms. Our dams hold back the broadest rivers and control their flooding. We build sprawling cities in the desert using energy pulled from thousands of miles away.

While our ancestors saw the Earth as a kind of deity to be feared and placated, our own civilization’s capacities led us to imagine its natural state as one of relative balance. Occasional temper tantrums like a volcanic eruption or a class 5 hurricane make for good segments on Discovery, but on the whole, we believe the planet to be a benign mother, quiescent and harmonious. That impression is a dangerous mistake. It is built on nothing more than good timing and the vicissitudes of planetary evolution.

The daily nuclear cascade

Every day, energy equivalent to a billion atomic bombs explodes across the Earth’s surface in the form of sunlight. This onslaught of cosmic power is born of the sun’s internal nuclear furnace. As that energy rains down on the Earth’s surface, it sets in motion a cascade of processes, each of which is titanic in its own right.

About 8 million atomic bombs’ worth of solar energy flows each day into turbulent rivers of air that rise off the Earth’s heated surface. This energy flows from the equator to the poles, and back again. Another 4 million-odd atomic bombs’ worth of energy is driven into the seas. Paired with the Earth’s rotation, this energy maintains planetary currents that carry warmth and nutrients across the globe.

Life is also a major player in these energy cascades. The biosphere’s continent-spanning forests, its wide grasslands, and its rich oceanic microbial communities transform almost 2 million atomic bombs’ worth of energy every day. They do this by absorbing sunlight via photosynthesis while also leveraging the power flowing through air and water for their own use.

The Earth’s coupled systems

These planetary flows of power are highly dynamic. They often hover near the edge of stability. A warm spring day gives the illusion of a perfect and benign balance, like the scales we see in statues of Justice. Yet that metaphor fails to grasp what a planet is or how it functions. A better image of planetary function might be the rocket engines five stories tall that power big space launches. Inhaling a few tons of fuel every second, rocket engines are complex webs of ductwork, valves, piping, and control systems. They are built to bind the violent chaos of ignited fuel in the service of doing work. Rocket engines are exquisitely tuned, dynamic networks that channel explosive power.

The Earth’s systems — its atmosphere, oceans, land, and life — are intricately coupled together like the rocket engine’s piping and ductwork. These systems evolved to transform the daily torrents of raw solar energy. Through them, the Earth has used incoming solar energy to create a wild diversity of forms such as monsoons, boreal forests, and the Gulf stream. The Earth and its coupled systems are an object of profound beauty. But they are also a thing to be feared.

Tossing a wrench in the engine

Many people see the extreme weather events of the last summer as a kind of venting on a planetary scale. The heat dome over Portland, or the river of water dropped from the sky onto a city in China, seem like manifestations of systems that built up too much energy through climate change. This looks rather like a pot boiling over on a stove. But understanding how planets work — how they transform solar energy into motions of air or living matter — means understanding that these extreme events are not releasing pent-up energy. They are revealing the scale of energy that always drives the engine that is Earth.

No one needs to tell you it would be foolish to toss a wrench into a rocket engine under full thrust. But that is what we have been doing to the Earth’s complex biogeophysical engine through our fossil fuel emissions. In response, that engine is beginning to reconfigure itself, as it has done so many times in the past. For the last 10,000 years — the time since the end of the last ice age — this engine has idled in a fairly mild, fairly moist, and fairly stable state. This geological epoch, known as the Holocene, has been the perfect setting for starting a civilization.

That civilization would come to depend on those same conditions as it built up the global agriculture required to feed 7 billion people. But past configurations of the Earth engine have looked very different from the Holocene. Each iteration channeled the daily torrents of solar energy through the Earth’s systems in different ways. (Think of mile-high glaciers covering the entire planet.)

A gut-level lesson

Why does any of this matter? For years the debate about climate change was purely intellectual. Approaching it required reference to sophisticated mathematical models and complex datasets. Now, we have seen what climate change actually looks like. The Earth is giving us a gut-level lesson on the mechanics of planets. For example, new extreme weather events are showing us novel forms of planetary violence. (Who knew fire tornados could become a regular occurrence?)  Expect more to come, and with greater intensity and novelty as we really enter the age of a changing climate. Given the introduction, we would do well to understand the true depths of the power these events are beginning to tap.

When our ancestors built altars to Earth deities, they were expressing an embodied anxiety, one experienced before the titanic powers locked in storms, floods, and droughts. These old gods have returned in a new form. Our ancestors recognized that they stood before cosmic powers far greater than their own might. We must harness that same recognition and set ourselves to building once again. This time we will not build temples. We must acknowledge that today we face something far greater than deities: a planet set on a changing course. The Earth demands that we build a new, sustainable version of our cherished project of civilization. As the ancients knew, to ignore such demands is to invite destruction.