It is very difficult for humans to get a sense of the scope and scale of the age of the Earth and the universe. We have a tendency to think in terms of human timescales. To the average person, a few centuries is quite old, and in terms of the age of the Church, the time frame of a couple of millennia is ancient. For a paleontologist however, our timescales are framed by many millions if not billions of years of Earth history.
Taking this wide-angle view of the history of our planet gives me a very different perspective of humanity’s relationship to the Earth and, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, makes me also think very differently about life, the universe, and everything.
When you begin to think like a paleontologist, you start to realize how the fossil record reveals a magnificent history of our planet. From the smallest microbes pumping oxygen into our early Precambrian atmosphere several billion years ago, to the advent of shelled ocean-dwelling creatures more than 500 million years before the present, one thing is clear: the evolution of life on our planet was a time-intensive enterprise. It is in this vast expanse of time that life responded to shifting climates, the movement of tectonic plates and the changes in ocean chemistry that produced the environments where some organisms thrived while others did not. Incredible episodes of ecological crisis and mass extinction unfolded on our planet long before mammals, let alone humans beings, existed.
When you begin to recognize the scope of these time-scales, it is impossible not to feel incredibly humbled by the seeming insignificance of the human species as an inhabitant on the 4.6 billion-year-old Earth. It was an incredible responsibility for humans to inherit the charge to care for creation, and it was also a responsibility that I do not think we initially had the wisdom to properly cultivate. I believe we as humans are just now awakening to the horror of what our species has done to our beautiful planet in a geological blink of an eye. As a person of faith, it is impossible for me not to feel devastated when I see how the modern human being has abused our world.
There is no doubt that our use of the Earth’s resources has improved the human condition. The mining of metals and other earth materials have allowed us to create all kinds of buildings, infrastructure and goods that created the cities and towns where more than 7.5 billion people now live. Fossil fuels created economic prosperity, led to the industrialization of agriculture, and reduced hunger and poverty around the globe, in just a few human lifetimes. However, in that short span of time we filled our oceans with plastic, polluted our air and water supplies, and altered the composition of our atmosphere. We created the conditions in which people and the rest of creation are now suffering from illnesses stemming from pollution and the effects of more severe and frequent natural disasters associated with a changing climate.
To me, there is no more important social justice concern to address because the call to care for our earth is also the call to care for all of humanity. Poverty, famine, illness and conflicts have all been documented to stem from the effects of environmental degradation, and therefore, if we wish to work to reduce human suffering, we need to work to solve environmental problems. It is in this spirit, of course, that Pope Francis wrote “Laudato Si’.” He challenges us all to grapple with the extent to which humanity has altered the natural environment of the earth, and to examine what we can do to course-correct as a moral imperative. This is not an easy charge. Our modern world was built on the back of fossil fuels and mined materials. They literally infuse our lives, whether it is in the form of synthetic materials in our clothing, the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow our food, the incredible amount of disposable plastic packaging used with abandon in our consumer goods, the rare earth metals that are used to manufacture our cell phones or the way we generate electricity and power our transportation. We need to examine the entire system of how we manufacture, purchase, use and dispose of the materials in our life and ask ourselves if they are a reflection of what was meant when we were asked to care for creation.
As a thought experiment, I sometimes ask my students to contemplate what the fossil record of the 21st century would look like. Would we have layers of sediment embedded with plastic debris and electronic waste? Would we have strange isotopic signatures in the rocks as a result of the use of nuclear technology, the manufacturing of synthetic chemicals, and the burning of fossil fuels? What would future humans (or our evolutionary descendants!) have to say about this era of Earth history? And perhaps more importantly, what would God say about how we responded to the charge to care for creation and how we responded once we realized the mistakes we were making? These are all questions that I think are worthy to contemplate when we think about our place in time and in space. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of our daily lives but the world is so much bigger and older than all of that. We are a part of this great chain of being, and I hope beyond hope, God willing, that we can continue to be a part of that chain for many more millions of years to come.
Bulinski is an associate professor of geosciences at Bellarmine University. This column first appeared on the blog of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, https://www.vofoundation.org/.