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The environmental crisis from the perspective of the stars

Earth in Human Hands – Shaping Our Planet's Future
The day we help rather than disrupt the climate, we can talk about the "mature anthropocene".

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, and thus belongs to a new and strange subject that studies hypothetical life on other planets. Most people get news from the search for life on Mars, but few are aware that the field of comparative planetology, where astrobiology is a subdivision, is growing explosively. An annual conference was held recently in San Francisco with over 20 000 attendees. There are two reasons why this interdisciplinary field has become so popular: First, we are discovering more and more planets outside the solar system – so-called exoplanets – and learning more about our own solar system. Second, the climate crisis has made planetology a form of theoretical civilization first aid. The premise of the book Earth in Human Hands is that humanity in order to survive must understand how planets work – both in the short and the long run.

Grinspoon mixes the pathos-filled issues with a disarming irony, in which he describes himself and his colleagues as geeks, full of youthful enthusiasm for space and with a science-fiction mindset. At the same time, he emphatically demonstrates that the global situation has turned cosmic perspectives into something more than just curiosity and imagination. The balance between uncompromising seriousness and childlike wonder casts a fascinating starlight on the state of the earth.

Man, the consciousness of the globe. Grinspoon outlines the history of planetology and astrobiology, and his friendship with the famous NASA astronomer Carl Sagan and the planetology pioneer Jim Pollack makes the story vivid and personal. First-hand dealing with other key figures such as Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock also provides an opportunity to present the Gaia hypothesis: the idea that life on earth and the atmospheric cycles, yes, the atmosphere itself, is a "living", self-regulating system. Grinspoon's premise is that humans are a vital part of this system. For at the same time as the history of planetology, another and far greater narrative unfolds, namely the story of how our planet over the last centuries, and especially the last decades, has developed a form of self-awareness. The monitoring and mapping of the planet via satellites, models and simulations are part of a kind of earth's nervous system, with human brains and instruments as nodes. This is what early thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin and Vernadsky called the "noosphere", or "sphere of consciousness".

The thought of planetary stewardship  or spaceship earth has been circulating since the 1960s and is thus nothing new. What is perhaps new is that such an understanding of the human position is really beginning to gain ground. As Grinspoon informally describes it, we are members of a species that has stumbled into a situation where we are in a way responsible for the operation of a planet.

Since the planet's own CO2 cycle works slowly, it will take 100 years before levels return to normal.

New era. The Anthropocene, the epoch in which man acts as a geophysical force, is a concept the author embraces, although he knows many of the reservations and reservations that have emerged in recent years' debate. For example, many have discussed the time of anthropocence beginning – was this during the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution or the explosion of the first atomic bomb? For Grinspoon, it is more important to take into account how long the anthropocene will last vare, since we are apparently only in the initial phase of humanity's geological age. Since the planet's own CO2 cycle works slowly, he estimates that it will take about 100 years before the levels return to normal.

With such long time courses, it is clear that civilization must also be thought of in a completely different time scale than ever before. Herein lies the strength of Grinspoon's book; he does not shy away from the big perspectives, on the contrary. This is how he paints a picture of our own time as an early and immature phase, marked by unintended atmospheric influence. He imagines that we will enter the "mature anthropocene" when we manage to adapt our own civilization so that we in conscious, deceptive ways help rather than disturb the fragile climatic equilibrium. Man has ended up in an advanced position in nature where we have both enormous knowledge of and a direct influence on the climatic systems. The situation is obligatory: We can not hypocritically crouch down again and pretend that we are another innocent animal species among other animal species.

Already geoengineers. When Grinspoon talks about a "mature anthropocene" where we influence the planet and the climate with knowledge and will, we do not escape the concept either geoengineering. This concept is primarily associated with desperate and highly debatable measures against the greenhouse effect, such as adding dust or sulfur to the atmosphere to reduce radiation. When Grinspoon argues that we have no choice but to be geoengineers, it is because any deliberate change in the atmosphere must be considered a measure of this kind. According to Grinspoon, whether we decide to plant huge amounts of forest or find other ways to sequester CO2, there are variants of the same thing: deliberate actions to change and stabilize the atmosphere. This certainly does not mean that it is free. Many suggested practices are insanely risky horse cures that would require an experience none of us have.

We can not hypocritically crouch down again and pretend to be another innocent animal species among other animal species.

Grinspoon shows us, however, that planetology has already made a decisive contribution to geopolitics and history. The very theory of the greenhouse effect was developed when scientists studied the atmosphere of Venus and tried to understand why it is so hot. Similarly, the theory of nuclear winter was developed in the 1980s in modeling of sandstorms on the planet Mars. The prediction that even a regional nuclear war could lead to an apocalyptic global cooling, had a major impact on the disarmament movement and non-proliferation agreements. Most important and uplifting is the story of how further studies of the Venus atmosphere led to an understanding of the ozone layer in the 1980s. This is the clearest example of geoengineering we have experienced so far: in just a decade, international agreements had been reached, chlorofluorocarbon gases had been banned and the ozone layer has since recovered considerably. Without planetology, we would hardly have known what happened before it was too late.

Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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