Planet Earth: Why we must protect it

Earth from moon 730x410By ANDY BARNS

At first glance there isn’t a connection between politics and cosmology. After all, the challenges and opportunities presented to the ruled classes, and by extension humanity, have no direct relation to, for example, the Crab nebula. Yet politics is ultimately about human relationships, and whatever illusions or daydreams might be inside human brains, effectively talking about human relationships requires a strong grasp of the concrete reality of our situation. The perspective that a cosmological view can give is essential and indispensable to us in understanding the real meaning of the human race, and also what is at stake if we do not have the wisdom to overcome our challenges or the courage to slay our demons.

The Earth, and with it humans, are immensely precious, finite, and rare. Humanity truly has hit the jackpot. The word “blessed” does not do our fortune justice, and we squander it at our peril. I am not a professional scientist, so a great deal of this article will be simplified, with a limitation on speculation. For further reading, more thorough scientific explanations for all topics will be provided in the sources below.

Where are we now, to the best of humanity’s scientific knowledge?

A basic picture of the cosmos

The universe as we know it began approximately 13.8 billion (~13,800,000,000) years ago in an event known as “The Big Bang,” where it is thought that all matter, energy, and space-time as we know them began. The Big Bang can be characterized as a rapid expansion of all the matter and energy of our universe from a single point, expanding out to many light-years of size within mere moments. Contrary to what the name would imply, this event was not an explosion in space, but rather an expansion of space itself, and an expansion that continues to the present day. In the beginning (the first few millionths of a second, to seconds), the density and temperature of the universe was incredible, but as expansion occurred, the density of temperature fell, allowing normal physics and particles as we know them to operate, with each of the four fundamental forces becoming distinct with each new era. This likely happened in mere seconds or minutes, and is a process analogous to a phase change, such as when ice turns to water, or water to steam.

As the age of the universe progressed (over millions of years), matter clumped into larger and larger collective forms, first stars out of diffuse gas, then whole galaxies out of billions of stars. In our observable universe (that part of the universe from which light could have reached Earth given 13.8 billion years of travel, light is fast, but not infinitely fast) hundreds of billions of galaxies can be observed of a great variety of shapes and sizes. Each with thousands, to millions, to billions of stars. The universe is almost incomprehensibly vast, and there could, potentially, be more unseen galaxies beyond the 13.8 billion light-year sphere that we can see from Earth, and galaxies too dim to see with telescopes.

Before the formation of planets around stars could happen, stars themselves had to go through a whole lifetime (millions to billions of years depending on the type of star) of fuel consumption. Stars “burn” matter in a process of nuclear fusion, in which lighter elements, like hydrogen, are converted into heavier elements, such as helium, nitrogen, carbon, lithium, etc, through shear heat and pressure alone. This releases a huge amount of energy that escapes the star in the form of light and heat. The gravity of stars is immense, and it is under this gravity that the fusion process occurs.

Over time, the fusion process leads to heavier and heavier elements. Once a star begins creating iron, it is about time for its “main sequence” life to end, as iron cannot be used in the fusion process of most stars, thus robbing older stars of any source of fuel. Lighter stars (like our own sun) will simply expand outward in radius, and eventually shed off material before forming an object called a white dwarf. Heavier stars will experience a violent cataclysmic event known as a supernova, where nearly all its matter will explode outward. From these events we see the creation of various nebulae, like the Crab or Horseshoe nebulae. These nebulae are filled with heavier elements, and it is from these elements that rocky objects such as planets, comets, asteroids, and of course, organic life as we know it have formed.

The very lightest stars are thought to live for trillions (1 followed by 12 zeros) more years, and yet will never release their inner elements like their more massive cousins, these are the red and brown dwarfs. Some are so light that they cannot fuse heavy elements and remain comprised of mostly helium. Many stars become so massive that the force of gravity overcomes matter itself and all the matter at the core of massive stars vanishes into a phenomenon called a black hole. We only touch upon this phenomenon in passing, as black hole formation is not directly integral to the formation of planets in the way stars are, since all the useful heavy elements simply vanish into the singularity at the heart of the black hole.

Planet formation is not a straightforward and uniform process, and the science of precisely how stars form planets, and in the configurations that we can observe from Earth, including our own solar system, are not yet well understood. But suffice it to say that virtually all planets develop under wildly different conditions. Even a cursory glance at the zoo of worlds (planets and moons) orbiting our own star demonstrates this fact. The age and mass of their star, the composition of heavier vs. lighter elements in the initial formation disk, the amount of mass clumped into one object, the number of currently and previously formed planets, and their masses, the number of chaotic debris in the form of asteroids that impact planets, the stability of their orbits (planets are thought to frequently be thrown away from their parent stars into deep space, or even be captured by foster stars) etc, etc.

In short, the number of conditions that determine that nature of a world, are innumerable. The Earth is thought to have completed its basic formation approx. 4 billion years ago.

A planet’s history doesn’t end with its formation, either. As clearly seen on the Earth, and also thought to have occurred and our neighbors Venus and Mars, worlds change radically over hundreds of thousands of years. A blip in cosmic time where things are properly measured in billions of years!

From this starting point, we will begin to see just how utterly rare (and transitory) not only the Earth, but also the conditions of the evolution of the human race and all other life we cherish. This rare and transitory nature of the conditions of our existence is further compounded by the sheer isolation of our world in human scales of space and time.

How far away are other worlds?

When considering the vastness of the cosmos both space and time are necessary constraints. Simply getting a human being, or any piece of human technology, to another planet, to say nothing of another star system entirely, is a expensive and time-consuming process. Simply sating literal measurements is not sufficient, so scale models will have to do.

If the Earth were shrunk to the size of a golf ball, the moon would be a marble 1.3 m distant. (The real-life moon is actually 400,000 km away.) The sun would be 4.6 m in diameter and 500 m away. It would take us three minutes to walk to the Sun. At this scale, the closest star, Alpha Centauri, would be 130,000 km away. A continuous drive of over a month would be needed to reach this star. For reference, at this scale, the Voyager 1 probe, currently humanity’s furthest object out in space (and one of humanity’s fastest ever objects), would be 70 km away.

Needless to say, space is vast. Barring fictional technologies that let humans go faster than light (even theoretical models require materials impossible to form on this planet), humans are stuck on Earth. Any expedition to any world outside our solar system is beyond human capability at this time.

Considering the sheer vastness of the universe, it would at first make sense to speculate that other Earth-like worlds exist. But for how long to these conditions last? How far away? And are conditions specific enough for human life?

What made humanity possible?

We return to the central point of Earth’s special nature. It would take an encyclopedia to simply list out the number of conditions that made human life possible, including the existence of a civilization that uses technology. This says nothing of the class struggles that led humanity down the path it has hitherto taken, which could have wildly changed human history. So I will simply list out some of the more relevant prerequisites:

  • The existence of a solvent for organic life, in our case water, and in quantities and at temperatures which would allow life as we know it to thrive.
  • The long-term stability of climate and planetary orbit, allowing complex life to evolve. Note that while Mars is thought to have once had liquid water on its surface and even life, it no longer has either of these. Mars’ climate changed.
  • The in-fact evolution of multi-celled life, including the evolution of cells with organelles like chloroplasts (for plant cells).
  • The evolution of complex brains. Further, the evolution of complex brains able to speak language and use tools.
  • The extinction of the dinosaurs. Indeed, the existence of fossil-fuel capitalism is only possible do to many, many generations of extinct species. On that note,
  • The absence of any mass extinction event, like asteroid impact, which destroyed the human race. This is often thought to be because the planet Jupiter, our very large planetary cousin, absorbs (or gravitationally deflects) many large asteroids. Along with this, the relative absence of large asteroids in our solar system, sans the one which killed the dinosaurs.
  • Earth’s magnetic field, resulting from our planet’s molten core, protecting life from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
  • Earth’s moon being both close and massive enough, creating tides that are integral to Earth weather, and possibly the formation of early life.
  • The absence of any large-mass star about to go supernova in our immediate vicinity (think tens of light-years). Such an event would destroy all organic life on Earth.

There are a few items related only to our particular technological civilization:

  • The evolution of grass (livestock).
  • Our sun produced no solar flare of enough strength to engulf the Earth since humans began widely using electronics. Such an event would be devastating. It could still happen in the next few centuries, possibly sooner.
  • Humans did not use nuclear/bio-weapons to destroy themselves.
  • No climate change/mass extinction event of sufficient speed and ferocity has destroyed the biodiversity of the Earth, and with it humanity’s ideal temperature, humidity, and sources of food. However, humanity is currently in progress to create this event. The existence of a capitalist class set to exploit the Earth’s resources and humanity’s labor-power is the genesis of this coming disaster.

Any single one of these traits of the Earth, the solar system, and the human race itself could have been fundamentally different. In fact, contrary to comforting religious belief, there is nothing that made humanity a guarantee. It is quite possible that some other creatures could have evolved in our place, whether or not they possessed intelligence or the ability to be introspective. All that would be needed would have been, say, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs being a few hundred kilometers off course, and there would have been no human beings in the observable universe.

The conditions of life on this world are specific and delicate, and this is not the result of divine magic, but random chance. In a universe of trillions of stars and still more trillions of planets and moons, something like the Earth is bound to exist somewhere—but not forever.

The fact that the existence of human beings was never a guarantee should be understood if the value and relevance of human life is to be fully grasped. And then it should not be hard to see that humanity’s continued existence is no guarantee either! Hopefully, this understanding will grant us the humility and wisdom to see that our stewardship of the Earth, and our consideration for the well-being of our fellow humans, are not options. They are our essential, unending, nonnegotiable, and necessary duty.

Any human being, or class of human beings, who puts forward the most petty and vile aims of wealth accumulation over and above the survival of the human race are traitors to the human race itself. If we want to survive and allow the human legacy to go on, and if we value our lives and those of our families, then these exploiters must be stopped, even if it requires determined struggle. The choice is fundamentally between capitalist profits and human existence on the Earth.

Blood and oil

It has been known scientifically for over 40 years that human activity was resulting in climate change that could drastically affect human life, and indeed, all life on planet Earth. Oil companies were quick to suppress the knowledge and create massive disinformation campaigns [1]. But why? Surely any rational human could see that temporary profits from fossil fuel consumption should come second to the survival of the species?

Rational from what perspective? That is the correct question to begin with. It is rational from the perspective of humanity generally, yes, and specifically the working class—for whom simply living life in peace is a principal goal. But it is not rational from the perspective of Exxon shareholders.

Exxon shareholders had, and still have, a vested interest in guaranteeing continued and widespread use of fossil fuels by all the world’s economy, despite the apocalyptic significance. This is because they are capitalists, and as capitalists, they fulfill a social role under the capitalist economic system to generate the highest rate of profitability for their corporation, and at all costs. If millions of Americans need to be swindled into thinking it is a Chinese hoax—then so be it. The point is profit. Damn the air and water quality!

Corporate-level cover-ups of scientific knowledge are not new. The cigarette industry infamously waged a decades-long war against the now well-established fact that smoking is bad for our health. This is not because cigarette companies, or their CEOs, or shareholders, are uniquely evil persons. It is because these persons are part of a class of people out to make profit. It is their social role under capitalism. Human life is irrelevant to capitalism. Profit is everything.

The U.S. government, a state power historically set up with the interests of the capitalist class in mind, has eagerly enabled the use of fossil fuels. The federal government always provides oil companies with huge subsidies and land to mine for coal, frack the land and seas, and despoil the natural landscape. This struggle between capitalism and the environment came to a head in 2018 during the intrepid Indigenous struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline, which brought along with it enormous working-class support. The federal government was more than happy to sanction the use of violence against the protesters, for the simple reason that it represents a state power for capital and profit.

While the cigarette industry wasn’t exactly of strategic value to capitalism, oil is. If the oil stops flowing, then capitalism stops in its tracks. All transportation and nearly all electric generation are dependent on fossil fuels, and this is a situation that the shareholders of ExxonMobil absolutely love!

American propagandists talked about how it was necessary to invade Iraq to “protect our freedoms.” Modern capitalism’s dependency on oil is a key factor in motivating the U.S. war machine and imperialist occupation of the globe. The U.S. government (and both of the major political parties!) puts a premium on militarism and military spending for this very reason. U.S. imperialism doesn’t protect American freedom, it enhances American dependency on the oil barons of U.S. capitalism.

This incessant need to keep the economy moving at all costs is displayed clearly with the COVID-19 pandemic. People need to stay away from work to live, and yet by doing so, they cannot afford basic necessities or rent. Many working families are at risk of losing everything. The reason is the market anarchy of capitalism. All that humans need to live hasn’t vanished, it is simply inaccessible behind the market barrier, in capitalist hands. Farmers are dumping milk and fruit while the grocery stores cannot keep up with the demand for these foods in the cities! [2] But rather than overcome capitalism and preserve human life, mouthpieces of capital have other plans.

The Trump administration, right-wing propagandists, and other ignorant tools of capital accumulation are pushing for a rapid end to coronavirus restrictions, to facilitate “returning to work,” because their holy god “economy” (which under capitalism amounts to the profitability of capital) matters more than human lives! In the meantime, well over 20,000 U.S. lives have been lost to this pandemic—most of them working class and disproportionally Black and Latino. The callous logic of capitalism is clear: return to work, risk your lives for the bosses’ profits; your life doesn’t matter.

Water and soil

The ecological disaster we are facing is the direct result of capitalism’s wasteful techniques of accumulation (mining, drilling, corporate agriculture, etc.), production, and distribution. In the first place, this includes fossil-fuel extraction and processing, and an entire transportation network that is enabled by the burning of fossil fuels. Capitalism needs to exist in a state of constant motion, constantly buying and selling, with constant production. This creates a vicious spiral of dependency on fossil fuels. The technology and means exist to transition away from fossil fuels, and rapidly, but have been left to the side, as there is no political will within the capitalist Republican or Democratic parties to do so.

The solution, to save the human race, requires re-organizing the work of millions (without reduction in pay!) to make use of these technologies and means. Society must re-purpose most of the industrial machinery and industrial workforce to produce less fossil fuels and more renewable energy, as well as to phase out those technologies that are dependent on fossil fuel.

We also must take pains to restore key, strategic parts of the ecology that is necessary to healthy air and water and the survival of other animal and plant species. This does not imply a complete re-naturalization of the globe, which is an impossible demand as long as humans exist. The ecology and human economy must be transformed to facilitate human life and whatever biodiversity remains.

Since the capitalists and the twin U.S. parties of capitalism have no will to do this, the working class and its allies must overthrow these callous leaders and organize society under a workers’ democracy—which can quickly make a just transition to an economy that promotes biodiversity in nature; sustainable power sources, transportation, agriculture, and consumer products; and healthy, safe lives for all.

In brief, the socialist program—which can only be accomplished by the working masses directly—includes the expropriation of the big corporations from the capitalists, to be placed into the workers’ hands (transfer of large capital from private ownership to public ownership); a replacement of market anarchy with a planned economy for the benefit of working people (production quotas for needs rather than profits); and the establishment of a democratic workers’ government (legal power vested in direct working bodies of the people), which can facilitate the transformation of the capitalist fossil-fuel economy into a socialist green economy.

The Earth is our only habitat and will be so for a long time. We are, like it or not, the stewards of our planet. It is our highest duty to maintain a future for the human race and all life on this amazing and special planet. We won’t have that future if capitalism destroys it.

[1]  How Exxon knew about and covered up climate science.

[2]  On food waste during the pandemic.

Further reading: Overview of climate change on Earth.  Overview of “The Big Bang” theory.  Overview of nuclear fusion in stars.  Overview of planetary formation.  One example of planetary climate change: Our neighbor Mars.


Leave a Reply