David Brower: The Earth’s History in One Year
December 31, 2010
New Year’s Eve is a wonderful occasion to feel the long story of the Earth, and to appreciate our part in that narrative. On the last day of a calendar year, it is easy to connect with the “one year” image. And so, as we come to the end of December, I invite you to feel a condensed time frame for the Earth’s story …
January 1st marks the origin of Earth. By the end of February, the first simple cells appear. All the way through the spring and early summer, simple plants enrich the atmosphere with oxygen.
Around mid-August, complex cells emerge, and coral appears in the ocean. Beginning in mid-November, the oceans fill with multicellular life-forms. In the last few days of November, freshwater fish appear, and the first vascular plants begin to grow on land.
About December 1st, amphibians venture onto dry land. The great swamps that formed today’s rich coal beds existed between December 5th and 7th. On December 12th the largest of the Earth’s mass extinctions wipes out 95% of all species.
Life bounces back, and dinosaurs evolve on December 13th. Flowering plants come on the scene on December 20th. In another great extinction, the dinosaurs disappear shortly before midnight on December 26th, opening a space for modern mammals to emerge on the 27th.
On the evening of December 31 — about when you might gather with friends for the evening’s celebration — the first hominids evolve in East Africa.
At one minute to midnight, agriculture is invented. The Roman Empire fills 5 seconds, and collapses at 11:59:50 — the moment when the New Year’s ball starts to slide down the pole at Times Square, and the great 10-second countdown begins.
In the last 2 seconds before midnight, we enter the modern industrial era. In those last two seconds we find the explosive growth of the human population, the rise of complex technologies, and what we might call a globalized human culture.
The entire history of the United States fits into the last second of this narrative. The “petroleum era” of cheap and plentiful energy is crammed into the last half of a second, as we’re holding a deep breath, ready to shout our start-of-a-new-year greetings. The fireworks start as our dash through Earth’s history brings us to the current moment.
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David Brower often told such a condensed history of the Earth. He ended the account by saying, “We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for [the two seconds since the Industrial Revolution began] can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark, raving mad.”
If we keep flowing in our compressed race through global history, by the time we have finished shouting “Happy New Year!” we are already 200 years into the future. The available supplies of oil will have been exhausted, and the effects of global climate change will have taken dramatic hold. If our current way of life continues, a huge percentage of the Earth’s species — both plant and animal — will have been driven into extinction. By the time you take your first deep breath in the next year, the Earth’s climate and biology will have been forever altered by the human influences of the previous year’s last moment.
In this compressed history, the Age of the Dinosaurs lasted almost two weeks. Unless we change our ways dramatically, the Age of the Humans may only last 15 or 20 minutes, and the span of human civilization will fill less than two minutes.