Sunday, April 14, 2019

Lessons from the Worst of Times

A sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough on April 14th, 2019.

First off, I am not going to repeat your 10th grade English class on “A Tale of Two Cities”. 

Rev Bev told me that one of the benefits of having the pulpit is, well, having a captive audience.

So, Instead, you are going to get a bit of a geology lesson. You’ve been warned. 

The inspiration for my talk today is a book I recently read called “The Worst of Times.” 

Before I get started, it should not be a surprise that I like to read books about science. Some of them are out of my educational background, such as a book I read by a molecular biologist about the origin of life. It’s hard to get away from the verbiage of one’s chosen field of study, so I found it tough sledding. I do remember the take away from that book – evolution is guided by a select small group of organic molecules, like Lego blocks, which can be re-arranged and re-purposed to build just about anything.

“The Worst of Times”, despite its short length of 180 pages, is written by an academic geologist, whose target audience is not the same as Carl Sagan’s or Neil De Grasse Tyson’s. It’s a book only a geologist or determined layman can get through, but it held a powerful message for me, that I will share with you today.

One of my goals here is that I want to expand your perspective on the history of the Earth.

The best estimate of the Earth’s age is 4.54 billion years, give or take 4 million years, which, believe it or not, is only 8 one-hundredths of a percent uncertainty.

To give you some perspective on how we fit into that four and a half billion-year time span, I am going to compare the Earth’s age to a 24-hour clock.

This is something I do when I lead geology walks for the students at Mill Pond School.

So, some select events of Earth’s history clock in like this:

The first evidence of life is found at about 4:30 AM
The first fish appeared around 9:30 PM
The first land plants appeared around 9:42 PM.
The first Dinosaurs appeared around 10:49 PM.
The first mammals appeared around 11:06 PM.
The Dinosaurs went extinct at 11:39 PM.
The first of our hominid ancestors arrived around 11:58 PM.
The first anatomically modern humans appeared around 11:59 and 56 seconds PM.

Wrap your head around this - human civilization from earliest Mesopotamia to today, started at 11:59 and 59.9 seconds PM. 

An eye blink is a 10th of a second, so all of recorded human history is little more than the geologic eye blink in comparison to the age of the Earth.

What’s my point here?  The Earth is vastly old compared to humanity’s brief existence on it. It’s a perspective that’s hard for almost anyone to envision unless you are a geology nerd like me. It’s a perspective that us geo-nerds call Deep Time.

Thinking this way is a hard thing for us humans to do. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, world-wide average life expectancy was 31, not a whole lot different than it was for our Paleolithic ancestors.  Even though it is now about 75, our ability to look ahead or behind for that matter, is very limited. We just aren’t wired that way.

For cryin’ out loud - deep time for the average person is the end of the last season of Game of Thrones (which starts again tonight!!!).

Life has existed on Earth in one form or another for the last 3.7 billion years. Over that vast span, life has colonized every nook and cranny of the Earth’s surface and every environment imaginable, from boiling hydrothermal vents at crushing depths in the ocean to the desolate and bitterly cold coasts of Antarctica. 

The range of life on Earth goes from 400 nano-meter-sized bacteria to 25-meter-long Blue Whales. Blue green algae to towering redwoods.

Something that most of the lifeforms that ever existed on Earth have in common is that most of them are extinct.

This brings me to “The Worst of Times”. It is about a period in Earth’s history from 260 to 180 million years ago where life suffered a series of mass extinctions, two of which were among the most devastating ones found in the geologic record. I will not bore you with the nitty gritty details of how scientists think all these extinctions occurred, but each of them coincided with the rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. My main point, though, is that they did happen.

What is a “mass extinction”? 

A mass extinction is where many forms of life, as recorded in the fossil record, suddenly disappear. Some species slowly disappear from successively younger rock layers, but in some cases, their disappearance is abrupt and coincides with the disappearance of untold numbers of other species. Their fossils appear in one layer of rocks all over the world and are gone in the next, never to be found again, anywhere.

At such layers, it becomes clear that the earth’s environment changed radically. The lower layers may show evidence of forests, to be replaced by ferns further up. It can be millions of years before the remains of trees are again found in the rocks and they are of completely different division in the Kingdom of plants than before the extinction event.

One such major event was at the end of the Permian Period, 252 million years ago. 96% of marine species and 70% of land species died out in what has been described as a “global annihilation” or the “Great Dying.” The extinction event took place over about 20,000 years, 4 eyeblinks of the 24-hour geologic clock. It took 10 million years for life on Earth to recover. The point is – it did recover. 

Life recovered after every mass extinction.

So, what’s the lesson? The lesson is that life goes on, the planet goes on. 
To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park (a fictional character by the way): “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but there it is. Life finds a way.”

Over much of the last 500 million years, the Earth has been much warmer than it is today, with the exception of three ice age intervals, one of which we are in right now. 20,000 years ago, this church would have been under an ice sheet a mile thick.

Which brings me to today.

Why do we care that the planet is warming now? It’s the rapidity of this warming that should scare the heck out of everyone.

The planet is changing and changing rapidly. We have what scientists consider radical changes in the Earth’s atmosphere which are happening at a rate unfathomable to anyone who studies the history of the Earth. The temperature of the ocean is rapidly increasing and the climate is shifting, becoming more unstable. 

We don’t know where it will end up, but most likely, the climate will end up in a place less hospitable to us, let alone ever other plant or animal. Change the environment too rapidly – and you get a mass extinction.

That is exactly what is happening right now. 

The extinction rates of life on land and in the water are accelerating. It is entirely possible that the biggest mammals on land within the next couple of centuries will be domestic cattle. Insects and amphibians are disappearing all over the world. The list goes on and on.

The reason for these changes is us. Period. End of story. 

But geological history says that despite anything we can do; the planet will not die. Life will not disappear. The kind of life – well that’s a different story. It doesn’t have to include us. 

We cannot kill the planet.

That being said, the planet doesn’t need us. Rather, and it should be obvious – we need the planet. 

The question on your mind right now may be – Are we about to join the Permian therapsids, the Cretaceous ammonites, the Carboniferous cycads, Mesozoic dinosaurs ad infinitum, buried in the rock record of geologic history?

I don’t think so.

We humans are incredibly adaptable animals.  In less than 100,000 years, humans spread to the far reaches of the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. We did so without airplanes, ships, cars, GPS or even something as simple as a compass. We survived the last Ice Age using nothing more than stone and bone tools and spears. 

But think of our impact on the planet over the last few centuries. Heck, think of what we have done in the last 100 years, the last 50.

The same adaptability that allowed us to colonize the whole planet has also gotten us where we are today, unfortunately.

I think we will survive the oncoming self-inflicted changes to our world. I personally think that the way things are going, there will probably be a lot less of us when the dust settles, but we, as a species, will still be here. Sadly, many others will not.

We were warned about this oncoming problem, but we were incapable of understanding what these warnings really meant because, in my opinion, we cannot think beyond the myopically short perspective of our own lifetimes or even the next few months.

The first US report to the President regarding climate change was put on Lyndon Johnson’s desk in 1965 and projected probabilities about what would happen at the beginning of the 21st century, but, as we all know, he did not act on it. 35 years was a long time down the road after all and Johnson was in the midst of personally directing the dropping of bombs all over Southeast Asia.

But something happened just 5 years later – the first Earth Day. 

What inspired Earth Day? 

In 1968, a professor of Public Health named Morton Hilbert sponsored a student/scientist conference to discuss the impacts of environmental damage both to people and the planet. They started planning for an Earth Day.
Then there was an environmental disaster – the Santa Barbara Oil Blow Out of 1969. Three million gallons of oil were released, killing thousands of birds, dolphins, seals and sea lions, and soiling hundreds of miles of coast line. This disaster was the first to really shock people into focusing on what we were doing to the planet.

In 1969, peace Activist John McConnell proposed Earth Day to the UN. Senator Gaylord Nelson founded the US version of Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

There is no doubt that, at least in developed countries, the environment is much, much cleaner than it was in 1970, although we still have a long way to go. 50 years later, we still celebrate Earth Day. As a people, we are far more environmentally conscious than any generation before 1970. 

Clearly though, it is not enough. The dynamics have changed – especially since what we now consider pollution includes Carbon Dioxide, which is always been a part of the air we breathe.

In fact, most of the CO2 we put into the air was added in just the last 30 years, just 2 years after NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about what was going to happen if we did not decrease those emissions.

We are in a hole. What do we do about this hole into which we have dug ourselves?

First rule of holes. When you are in one - stop digging.

We cannot stop what changes that are happening now. That ship has sailed. 

The impacts of climate change are already devastatingly clear and even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow, the impacts will last centuries. Rare flooding events will continue to become common place. Hurricanes will continue to get stronger; Heatwaves will continue to become frequent and intense. Many tropic regions of the planet will become literally uninhabitable for humans in the summer. The seas will rise, coastal cities will drown, millions of people will be displaced, even here in the US. That is a given.

Many of those impacts will come at us in the next few decades, in the lifetimes of most people sitting in the pews.

This really, really sucks.

So, what can we do? 

We must stop it from getting worse. We owe that to our children. 

Stop. Making. It. Worse.

How do we do that?

We need to look at policies at every level – first and foremost, in our homes, our town, our state and our country.

We need to think in terms of sustainability. Sustainability is not a concept that fits well in the capitalist economic model, which is always about growth and externalizing of costs in order to maximize profits.

At home, sustainability in our lives means rethinking how we live. Start to minimize our meat, especially beef consumption. Choose to get our produce from local sources. Choose foods whose production has less impact on the environment. Buy our electricity from renewable sources. Drive higher mileage cars. 

Find better ways to deal with our waste, such as composting. Some of us do all these things already, but not nearly enough of us do that to make a dent. We need to make sustainability attractive, not a chore or a sacrifice. How we do that is a big question.

At the Town level, we need push for policies that encourage recycling and reuse. We need to make buying renewable energy the first choice. We need to preserve and expand open space. We need to make pedestrian and bicycling options accessible throughout the entire town. Push to get more buildings to become more energy efficient. Partner with local businesses to encourage them to install solar arrays. 

At the state level, it’s a matter of pushing what I have just said upward. Especially energy purchasing. Mass transit is a joke in Massachusetts. Yet mass transit is major way to reduce our carbon footprint. 

We need to push the state to make alternative energy a larger and larger portion of the energy mix.

We need to make energy efficiency a major part of our building codes. In Boston, almost all the new high-rise buildings are not at all energy efficient. This is lunacy.

We need a program of reforestation. An article in last month’s Scientific American described how reforestation can suck huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  I file that one under low hanging fruit. Planting forests to suck CO2 out of the air is a lot simpler and cheaper than engineering machines to take on that task.

We need to elect people who will take big steps at all levels of government – local, state and federal. 

The biggest impediment to addressing climate change is leadership. 

Not the science, not the technology. The science is clear. 

The technology is available - the knowledge to implement the technology, whether it be energy, food, transportation, or conservation. It’s all there. 

What is lacking is leadership.

I truly believe we can innovate our way out of it with the right incentives AND by electing politicians with the guts to make it happen.

Put a price on carbon, and keep increasing it. Turn the proceeds right back to the people. Think about it. If everyone got the same “dividend” back every year, who will it benefit the most? The least among us. Who will benefit the least? The most well off, who are probably the people who generate the most greenhouse gases. Lower income people will put that money right back into the economy.

An increasing price on carbon will incentivize innovation in energy generation and use. The technologies are already there. They just cannot compete with fossil fuels in many sectors of the economy, such as transportation. That is changing, but it is not changing quickly enough.

How do we know this will work? Because it already has. The Clean Air Act and its amendments required power plants to decrease the emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. The law required implementation of a pollution trading scheme that put an ever-increasing price on the sulfur emissions. It did not tell power companies how to do it. Low and behold, sulfur emissions fell, and fell rapidly. Forests and lakes recovered from decades of degradation.

There was an unintended consequence. Sulfur pollution creates particles that reflect sunlight, which has the effect of cooling the earth. If you look at a graph of global temperatures going back to the beginning of the 20th century, you will see that temperatures started increasing, then fell as industrialization increased, with the concomitant increase in coal burning. Temperatures increased during the Great Depression as the economy contracted and decreased after World War II when industrial production increased again. As a child, I remember how cold winters in the 1970s were. But they started to warm up in the 80s as sulfur pollution started to abate.

In other words, sulfur pollution that WE made, masked global warming. 
So, don’t let anyone tell you that humans have not changed the climate. We have and we are.

Before you get any ideas, we cannot pollute our way out of global warming by burning more coal, so don’t even think about it.

We can tell power companies that they need to increase the proportion of clean energy required for electricity generation. Don’t tell them how to do it, just say they need to. 

Texas is already doing this and they are one of the largest producers of alternative energy in the country, surpassing California. Granted, they are blessed with a huge amount of available wind, but in Texas, wind is going to outpace coal for electricity soon, if it hasn’t already. They are already putting to rest the argument that alternative energy’s intermittency will destabilize the electric grid. Texas has already shown that it can be managed. 

Even the U.S. Department of Energy says the grid can handle up to 30% alternative energy input if just change operating procedures. No new technology required, just new thinking.

Other states, including Massachusetts, are already doing this, but not doing it fast enough.

Making these changes will not be easy to do. The special interests are entrenched. The transportation, agriculture, and energy infrastructure are all built around the use of fossil fuels. Most people do not have the interest, or in the case of the poor, the ability, to think in terms of sustainability.

But we must.

The Words of John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 speech laying out goal of going to the moon by the end of that decade, ring true in this time as well. In regard to that goal, Kennedy said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Substitute the words “go to the moon” with “fight climate change” 

“We choose to fight climate change in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Indeed, the journey to the moon in the late 1960s pales in comparison to our existential challenges today, in my opinion.

As I said before, the impediment to addressing human-caused climate change is not a lack of technical know-how. It is a lack of will.  


It is tempting to look at what is before us and quail at the immensity of the problem. Say it cannot be done. Shrug our shoulders and take it as given that we will have to leave a rapidly diminishing planet to our heirs, but we will never know if we don’t even make the attempt.