It turns out humans have been stabilizing the climate since the dawn of civilization. But we’ve gone too far. Now it is time to realize our intended role on the planet.
As we look back at Earth’s story, we learn that its climate has been vastly different throughout its history. When dinosaurs roamed the land, Earth was void of ice. The sea level was hundreds of meters higher and the temperature 10 degrees warmer than it is today.
Modern science has learned that there is a direct relationship between the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the Earth’s temperature. Greenhouse gases are like a blanket around the Earth, absorbing just the right amount of heat from the sun to make life possible. The higher the concentration, the warmer the temperature.
In Earth’s more recent history, it has endured a series of long ice ages. During each ice age, life struggles to survive. Imagine a 1 mile thick sheet of ice on top of Chicago. All the forests die. Most of the life in the forests die as very little can survive in these extreme conditions.
Every hundred millennia, a slight change in the Earth’s tilt allows the planet to absorb just enough additional heat to thaw some of the ice. Life expands for a few thousand years during this interglacial period before retreating again as the Earth tilts back and falls into another ice age.
Enter human beings. From the Earth’s perspective, humans are new to the scene – we’ve been here for a blink of an eye. But we’ve been busy.
As the Earth entered its most recent interglacial period, humans began deforesting the Earth to fuel their nascent civilizations. It is calculated that more greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere through deforestation than all the gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels. Humans, unknowingly to them, warmed the Earth, delaying the onset of the next ice age.
It turns out there is a “safe zone” when it comes to greenhouse gas concentrations that keeps Earth at just the right temperature for life as we know it to thrive. Any less and we freeze, any more and we fry.
In the last few decades, we have blown past this safe zone way too fast for life today to adjust as we continue to destroy the forests for animal agriculture and find destructive new ways of extracting fossil fuels, adding ever more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. While our actions have had devastating impacts to many species on the planet, they have also enabled humans to develop the technology necessary to monitor Earth’s composition.
Like the part of the brain that helps stabilize and regulate our body’s temperature, humans now have the ability help Earth regulate its temperature. We have already been doing it unconsciously for thousands of years. Now it is time we become conscious of our role on the planet as the thermostat species.
When we choose to stop eating animals, the land used for raising those animals can be restored to forests, and those forests can sequester all of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted during the fossil fuel age, bringing us back within the safe zone where life as we know it can thrive.
Unlike the forest elephant, this requires that humanity undergo a metamorphosis from a ego-centric, consumer culture to an eco-centric, life-enriching culture. We have a unique opportunity in this pivotal time in history to realize our full potential by considering ourselves stewards of life, applying the lessons we’ve learned to nurture the conditions for life to thrive for all of Earth’s remaining years.