I’ve had some notes to myself for blog post ideas lying around that suddenly came together last week.
A few months ago, I came across this article on the NYT’s Dot Earth blog about a proposal by scientists to redefine sustainable development in terms of a single, comprehensive “bottom line.” This in contrast with the previous formulation of a “triple bottom line” based on three “pillars:” economy, society and ecology. While the author’s claim that the single bottom line constitutes a “fundamentally different” way to frame this issue seems a bit exaggerated, the idea of unifying our thinking about sustainable development certainly has merit. The scientists’ argument is based on a premise “encapsulated in the concept of the Anthropocene [1,2] – that we have pushed Earth into a new geological epoch of our own creation.” In other words, because the impact we have on the planet is so profound, so is our responsibility to manage and mitigate that impact, lest we destroy the Earth’s very ability to support life as we know it. So instead of thinking of economy, society and ecology as three interrelated, but often competing, priorities, we must recognize that these “pillars” are in fact nested within each other: “an economy, within society, within Earth’s life support system.” No doubt some would object to the hierarchy inherent in that statement, but it’s foolish to deny that everything else depends on a healthy planet.
Sometime later, I wrote about the beauty of the earth as manifest in satellite images. Shortly afterward a colleague showed me this gorgeous image at left showing the current and historical stream channels of the Willamette River. (It’s a “lidar-derived digital elevation model” if you want to get technical about it.) The glowing result is a graceful reminder that the landscape is alive.
And then just last week I came across this collaborative effort by Google, the US Geological Survey, NASA and TIME to compile decades of satellite imagery into timelapse representations of our changing planet. It’s a stunning project. In fewer than three decades (1984-2012), radical differences are apparent across the globe. You can see buildings and irrigation circles colonize the deserts of Las Vegas and Saudi Arabia. You can see deforestation in Brazil and deglaciation in Alaska. You can see the fourth largest lake in the world evaporate into thin air.
We know that our planet is always changing, but it’s sobering to see such dramatic metamorphosis over such a short period of time—literally a geological nanosecond. This is the Anthropocene: catch it while you can.