Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Alien’s Brief Introduction to Earth

© 2011 Manuel Erickson

MY PLANET'S NAME IS EARTH. It is a misnomer because seventy per cent of it is covered by water, so it should have been called Water. But it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not as important as other features, attributes and the activities of its dominant species, the bi-pedal human race. But let’s start at the beginning.

Earth is in our Sun’s habitable zone, unlike other planets in our solar system. We live on the third planet from our middle-aged, yellow Sun. The first planet is too hot for life because it is very close to the Sun; the second is covered in impenetrable clouds that admit very little sunlight and has a runaway greenhouse effect resulting in a global mean temperature of about 460 degrees Celcius; the fourth is rather cold with a thin atmosphere that has very little oxygen. All the others and their moons are far too cold for life, though some of the moons might have simple life forms. There are four gas giants that probably have no life and a ninth planet that is too small, too cold and too far away from the sun to support life.

My planet is very beautiful, especially as seen from fairly close up, from no farther away than Earth’s moon (mean distance 384,000 kilometres). The moon is our sole natural satellite and is considered to be rather large for a planet as small as Earth. Scientists suspect that the moon is an offspring of Earth, caused by a glancing blow imparted by a rather large, perhaps planetary, object far back in time—at least four billion years ago. They think that the resulting debris accreted and solidified as it orbited Earth, becoming the moon.

When viewed from space, Earth appears to be a mix of colours, especially white, blue, green and brown. The white is mostly swirling clouds—the swirl is caused by the coriolis effect which has opposite reactions in the northern and southern hemispheres; the blue is the oceans; the green is vegetation; and the brown is land without vegetation—deserts. Some of our astronauts, flying hundreds of kilometres above Earth and looking down on her, have reported that they wept because of her sheer beauty.

Earth is nearly spherical; she is slightly flattened at her poles. She rotates on her axis once in a bit less than twenty-four hours (by our clocks). The axis is tilted approximately twenty-three degrees, creating four seasons in most places on the surface of Earth. It completes a single orbit of our medium-sized Sun approximately every 365 of these 24-hour periods we call “days.” We call a single orbit of the Sun a “year.”

The poles are the coldest places on my planet. The north pole has no land mass around it, but the south pole has a continent we call Antarctica. Both poles have a substantial amount of ice, but it is melting at an increasing rate, thanks to human activities that produce “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide, a trapper of heat. Our planet is slowly warming, and most climate scientists think that all of the ice in the Arctic (the northern-most region) and the Antarctic will have melted in another ninety years or so. A rather large island, called Greenland, also in the north, is covered with a layer of ice that has been thinning somewhat rapidly over the past few decades; its melt-waters run into the ocean. The scientists are concerned that all this melting will cause sea levels to rise, resulting in the loss of coastal areas, the inundation of seaside cities and the culling of millions of our people.

Climate has changed many times in Earth’s geologic history, say the scientists. This time, however, it appears to be mainly the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels: coal and oil. These fuels provide the motive power for electricity plants around the world, but they are considered “dirty” fuels. Nuclear energy is also used for this purpose; while it is cleaner, it is known to be dangerous because of radiation. Many people are against it.

The biggest problem for Earth’s dominant species (humans) is the environment, spurred by our faulty economic and political systems. These systems praise the cutting of forests that acted as heat sinks when they were alive, the mining and burning of dirty fuels (coal, oil), the manufacture of goods that are bad for the environment (plastics, a derivative of oil) and overpopulation (this last supported by some of our religions). They have resulted in a hole in our ozone layer, bad air and water, degradation of lands around the world, five graveyards of discarded plastics that are floating in gigantic gyres in the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, sickness (especially in the poorer areas of the globe), ignorance and poor education. Our faulty systems support the aggrandizement of wealth and power.

Our poor treatment of Earth’s environment appears to be having a deleterious effect on weather patterns. Storms seem to be more severe and more frequent than before, flooding areas that have not usually suffered from floods as often, and causing droughts in other areas that have lasted for up to ten of our years. Hurricanes are more frequent and more dangerous—an example is the one we call Katrina that occurred at the city of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico in the United States, Earth’s wealthiest country. Floods have happened in eastern and western Canada; there has been a very long drought in Australia; and earthquakes have become more numerous, especially in Haiti, Japan and New Zealand. The most recent earthquakes were in Japan where damage was caused to a nuclear power reactor that resulted in its being shut down, and in New Zealand where a large city was virtually destroyed. Volcanoes, too, have been far more active than in the past one hundred years, though that might not be related to our bad treatment of the environment.

Our weather scientists have warned for many years that weather will change and become more severe if we don’t alter our treatment of the life-giving environment.

Some people are actively engaged in reducing environmental problems through education and action, but this is equal to the effect of a mote of dust on a galaxy. These people know that marine life tries to eat the plastics and birds also mistake it for food; they are trying to mitigate the disaster, but without much success. Slowly, Earth is losing its natural life because of the careless and ignorant throwaway habits of her dominant species.

From where has this garbage originated? The answer is complicated, but in general, it comes from corporations that manufacture it. Plastic comes in many forms: bottles, containers of every size and shape, sheets… These things are cheaper to make from plastics than from metals. The problem arises when the materials inside the containers are used up because most people simply throw the containers away. While there are recycling programs, there are not enough of them and they are not under-pinned by stringent laws. Such under-pinning would recognize the emergency caused by our throwaway society by making it illegal not to recycle and re-use these things.

It must stop because we are in danger of asphyxiating ourselves and, ultimately, of causing global epidemics of illnesses due to loss of food sources through the continuing despoliation of our only home in the universe.

The dominant species on my planet is not united; that is, it has not organized itself into a unitary, global government. This situation diminishes the species, making it very difficult to deal with our major problem, the environment, on a global basis. As a result, the planet is politically divided into separate pieces that we call countries, each having its own territory. This statement is not entirely accurate, however, because many countries have several nations contained within them. As an example, the United States, Canada, Russia and many other countries have several nations living inside them, most of whom have decided to be a part of that country.

Sometimes, an ethnic group will decide to form its own country, or nation-state. This happened in Germany more than one hundred years ago. When it occurs, a period of “ethnic cleansing” takes place in which those who are not ethnically related to the dominant ethnicity are forced to leave for other countries. This can, and does, happen even in small countries: in 1948, Israel forced Arabs out of their homes in which they had lived for generations. These people became refugees in nearby countries and in areas close to Israel. They are now called Palestinians because the land Israel occupies was once known as Palestine. It has been a throbbing, festering political and ethnic sore since 1948.

Another small country where this happened is Yugoslavia. It contained several ethnicities that broke into separate nation-states, each with its own ethnic group.

While Earth is a lovely, serene-looking planet, astronauts who have experienced profound emotions while viewing her from space have remarked that, from orbit, one cannot see the artificial national boundaries. From above, all the land, all the oceans seem to form a continuous, unified whole: no boundaries, no revolving gyres. We humans need to replicate that idea in our form of planetary organization.

Can you help?

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