A humbling thought

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Jacqueline Kreller, winner of the 2005 David M. Forget Essay

Any physical representation of history fascinates me. I look at a centuries-old painting and I wonder about all the events that painting has co-existed with and witnessed, if paintings can be said to have witnessed things. Even more amazing to me are ancient artifacts like Egyptian mummies or flint tools made by the first humans. The amount of time those objects endured to finally sit serenely in museums and private collections is almost inconceivable. It gives me such respect for human culture, that we managed to make things last so long. Now, in modern times, scholars can take these artifacts and reconstruct our own long, rich, varied past.

All the long span of human existence is insignificant, however, when compared to the lifespan of a single, nondescript rock. That rock has seen millions upon millions, if not billions, of years go by. That rock existed as the very face of the Earth changed; it witnessed cataclysms unimaginable by us and yet endured. The human species is but a tiny blip in the long march of its lifetime. That rock began long before us, and it will continue long after we are gone. For me, looking at an ordinary paving stone or roadside pebble gives a much greater sense of history than observing anything preserved in a museum.

Our greatest failing, as a race, is hubris. We believe that we are invincible and supremely right. We believe that the world exists solely for our enjoyment and use. This attitude is evident in our absolute disregard for the delicate balance of our Earth and the reckless abandon with which we have mined her and stripped her of her resources.

Rocks are oblivious to our existence, but they tell a story, if we can learn to read it. Just as historical scholars and anthropologists can determine the human race's past from the evidence we have left behind, geologists can determine the earth's past from the records left behind in the rocks. I believe geology to be the most important of all the sciences, because it allows us to place ourselves within a larger context: the history of the Earth, rather than simply our own. Understanding the Earth and our role in it is essential to the survival of the human race.

There is a belief, common to many people, that if we do not become more responsible in our use of the Earth, we will destroy it. This belief is false; another symptom of our collective hubris. It is the human race, not the Earth, which will be destroyed. One need only make the briefest cursory survey of geology and palaeontology to realise that the Earth's processes cannot truly be disturbed by the puny efforts of any one species. Even asteroid impacts, considered one of the biggest catastrophes that could ever occur, do not cause permanent damage to the Earth. The human race could launch a thousand nuclear bombs, blow itself to tiny smithereens, and cause a nuclear winter, and eventually, after a few hundred thousand years, the earth would dust itself off and start fresh. That ordinary, boring rock would still be around, living its rocky life. The demise of the human race, such a monumental, shattering concept for us, would not perturb it in the least.

The study of geology is the only way to break down our long-standing tradition of selfishness and cause us to consider, truly, where we stand in the grand scheme. If only more people, and more world leaders, understood the sheer magnitude of the geological time scale and our miniscule potion of it. We must stop looking at environmentalism as an altruistic venture, as some vague way to 'save the Earth,' but as a simple matter of self-preservation. It is not the Earth we should be trying to save, it is ourselves, and this can only be accomplished by obtaining a thorough understanding of earth history and our place in it. The Earth will not care if we are gone, and that is a truly humbling thought.

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