Planet Of The Year: What on EARTH Are We Doing?

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Toxic waste and radioactive contamination could lead to shortages of safe drinking water, the sine qua non of human existence. And in a world that could house between 8 billion and 14 billion people by the mid-21st century, there is a strong likelihood of mass starvation. It is even possible to envision the world so wryly and chillingly prophesied by the typewriting cockroach in Donald Marquis' archy and mehitabel: "man is making deserts of the earth/ it wont be long now/ before man will have it used up/ so that nothing but ants/ and centipedes and scorpions/ can find a living on it."

There are those who believe the worst scenarios are alarmist and ill founded. Some scientists contest the global-warming theory or predict that natural processes will counter its effects. Kenneth E.F. Watt, professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Davis, has gone so far as to call the greenhouse effect "the laugh of the century." S. Fred Singer, a geophysicist working for the U.S. Department of Transportation, predicts that any greenhouse warming will be balanced by an increase in heat- reflecting clouds. The skeptics could be right, but it is far too risky to do nothing while awaiting absolute proof of disaster.

Whatever the validity of this or that theory, the earth will not remain as it is now. From its beginnings as a chunk of molten rock and gas some 4.5 billion years ago, the planet has seen continents form, move together and drift apart like jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Successive ice ages have sent glaciers creeping down from the polar caps. Mountain ranges have jutted up from ocean beds, and landmasses have disappeared beneath the waves.

Previous shifts in the earth's climate or topology have been accompanied by waves of extinctions. The most spectacular example is the dying off of the great dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period (136 million to 65 million years ago). No one knows exactly what killed the dinosaurs, although a radical change in environmental conditions seems a likely answer. One popular theory is that a huge meteor crashed to earth and kicked up such vast clouds of dust that sunlight was obscured and plants destroyed. Result: the dinosaurs starved to death.

Whether or not that theory is correct, an event of no less magnitude is taking place at this very moment, but this time its agent is man. The wholesale burning and cutting of forests in Brazil and other countries, as one major example, are destroying irreplaceable species every day. Says Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson: "The extinctions ongoing worldwide promise to be at least as great as the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the age of dinosaurs."

Humanity's current predatory relationship with nature reflects a man- centered world view that has evolved over the ages. Almost every society has had its myths about the earth and its origins. The ancient Chinese depicted Chaos as an enormous egg whose parts separated into earth and sky, yin and yang. The Greeks believed Gaia, the earth, was created immediately after Chaos and gave birth to the gods. In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature -- the soil, forest, sea -- was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it.

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