Wednesday, July 14, 2010

More than just a hole in the ground (Sunday Reflections for July 11, 2010)

For the past five year geologists in Ethiopia have been excitedly watching something almost no one has previously observed. The earth is cracking open. At the moment this crack isn’t huge but it’s certainly more than a scratch. It’s about 40 miles long and 25 feet wide and is located in the Afar region, a part of the famous Great Rift Valley.

The crack opened up when the Mt. Dabbahu volcano erupted in September, 2005. Scientists studying these events have concluded that this crack is the beginning of a process that will eventually force Somalia and southern Ethiopia out into the Indian Ocean. In other words, the Horn of Africa will eventually break off and drift away. This breakaway will begin when, as the result of other volcanic eruptions and/or earthquakes, this crack eventually reaches the ocean, which is not all that far away.

The breach will provide quite a show. There is molten lava at various points along the bottom of the crack and huge clouds of steam will billow up violently when ocean water reaches it. Also, much of the surrounding area is already below sea level so much more than just the crack will be filled. Eventually it will create a new sea not unlike the Red Sea separating African Egypt from the Sinai and Asia. While this may not occur for a few million years, some significant flooding could occur quite a bit earlier. As scientists often say, the exact timing of these things is hard to predict.

What’s amazing to me is that our understanding of such events has really developed in my lifetime. The ideas of continental drift and plate tectonics were first proposed in the early 20th century but it wasn’t until the 1960s that solid evidence was found to demonstrate conclusively how the process worked. Any child looking at a globe can see how similar are the shapes of the coasts of western Africa and eastern South America, for example. Now we know why: they once were a single land mass that split apart millions of years ago.

The crack growing in Ethiopia is evidence that these ancient geological processes are still happening. Indeed, every earthquake and volcanic eruption is part of the continuous drifting and shifting, rising and sinking of the earth’s surface. And like it or not, we get to go along for the ride.

It’s probably an unavoidable consequence of being self-conscious creatures that we are often also so self-centered. While we may say of someone, “He thinks the universe revolves around him,” that’s pretty much how the whole human species has thought of itself. It’s all about us, isn’t it?

The earth’s cracking in Ethiopia is part of a process that has been going on for billions of years. It began long before human beings appeared on the scene and it will continue to go on whether we are around to observe it or not. In other words, to events and natural processes like these we don’t matter a whit. So as far as our planetary home is concerned: No, it isn’t all about us.

In the early 1600s, Galileo got himself in hot water with the church for a different scientific idea but one which had the same implication. Galileo declared that, based on his observations with his newly invented telescope, the earth was not the center of the universe. The heavenly bodies did not revolve around the earth, as had been assumed, but instead revolved around the sun. Suddenly the earth (and its inhabitants) went from (literally) being the center of the universe to just one of the planetary followers, a mere suburb to the heavenly community’s true city-center, the sun.

The church’s chief theologians did not like this news at all. They claimed the issue was that Galileo’s theory conflicted with what were actually irrelevant Bible passages, like the story of Joshua stopping the sun at the battle of Jericho. In fact what distressed them was something else entirely, even if they didn’t yet fully understand it themselves. What Galileo’s discovery did was to suddenly and dramatically change our understanding of the universe and of our place in it. It was as if humanity suddenly lost top billing in the show and became one of the extras.

And this sense has only grown in subsequent centuries as new discoveries about the world and the universe have piled one upon another. We now know we are one species among millions, which evolved and arrived relatively recently in earth’s history. We live on a moderate sized planet, in an average solar system among millions of others, in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. We know the universe existed for billions of years before us and will continue on for billions of more years after our planet is incinerated when our sun goes into red giant hyper-drive. What a come down!

Yet this is shocking new self-awareness is no reason for depression, disabling low self-esteem, or fear and hysteria like that of Galileo’s persecutors. We are still amazing creatures, as the Psalms say repeatedly—“wonderfully made”—and as science itself continues to affirm. But the reality check science is giving us certainly should fill us with a new sense of humility and responsibility.

The ongoing oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is due entirely to human foolishness, arrogance, and selfishness. The consequences could be catastrophic, for humans as well as for untold plant and animal species. Yet as scientists have pointed out, even if now or in the future humanity did something so spectacularly stupid and awful that it wiped itself out, life on planet earth would go on—without us.

A crack has formed in the earth—just as has happened many times before. A chunk of Africa will eventually break off and become an island—just as has happened before. What’s new this time, however, is that conscious thinking creatures called human beings are present to observe it and think about it. Both of them—the crack and its human observers—are amazing things. Yet they are only amazing together.

The crack is amazing because we say it is—otherwise it’s just a crack. And we are amazing creatures but only because we have the capacity to observe this amazing world, learn from it, value it, and live in harmony with it. But if we fail to do those things, we will be just another species like the countless others that come and gone, leaving the world waiting a little longer for someone to “till the garden and keep it” and genuinely appreciate what an amazing place it is.

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