Big... really big problems

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

It has been 40 years since Douglas Adams wrote these words to begin A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Not a lot has changed in the interim except we are no longer fascinated by digital watches. Instead, we have smartphones.

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His view of space as "big... really big" is one of the more salient points he makes in the series. Both time and space boggle the imagination. We often think of the Earth as being a very large place but it is only 40,000 kilometres in circumference. That is beggared by the 150,000,000 kilometres between the Earth and the Sun and that distance is nothing compared to the 40,000,000,000,000 kilometres to the next closest star.

But this little blue-green planet is all we have. There is no "planet B" to which we can escape. We are not going anywhere else any time soon.

Which is perhaps why 2019 was a year of climate protests. On a Friday in mid-March thousands of school aged students left their studies to rally against the inaction of governments around the world. In Milan, 100,000 students crowded downtown streets. Over 150,000 flooded Montreal.

Cynical critics argued "these kids just want a day off school" and "why should we listen to children?" but they missed the point by a wide margin. Students were not simply looking for a way to "play hooky." They were trying to reclaim their future. After all, they are the ones who will be living on this planet for the next 80 years. They are the ones who will be living (and dying) with the consequences of decisions being made today.

Perhaps more importantly, the first ever school strike for climate was a learning event. It taught a lot of adults that radical movements can have an effect. Protest is sometimes necessary. And being lulled into accepting the status quo is not a viable alternative.

This past decade has seen the five hottest years on record since record keeping began. As I write this, Australia is burning with summer temperatures reaching 45 C in major cities and across vast stretches of forest. The Great Barrier Reef - the world's largest structure made by organisms - is being bleached by warming acidic water. Last January, a combination of extreme weather and poor water management resulted in one million dead fish floating in the Darling River. And still the Australian Prime Minister and members of his government will not take action on climate change.

The same can be said for the United States and Canada where droughts and forest fires have impacted huge tracts of land. Even Donald Trump recognizes there are issues with water - although in his case he thinks this is just a matter of regulation. Taking steps to curb our consumption of fossil fuel, though, is deemed too costly and unnecessary.

We are changing climates in all corners of the planet and the impact is resulting in a loss of biodiversity.

In Lapland, changes in the pattern of snowfall and rain in mid-winter are resulting in a mass die-off of reindeer. The same thing is happening in northern Canada for the caribou. The latest bird counts estimate a decline of 2.9 billion birds in North America - a 29 percent drop over the past 50 years. There are many more examples.

But if you look outside your window you will see a world which looks pretty much the same today as yesterday or even last year. Our perspective is shaped by the day-to-day activities of our lives and not a long-term perspective. It is hard to visualize really big time spans. It is hard to remember what the world was like 10, 20, 50 years ago. Like space, time is also "big ... really big."

It is even harder to imagine that the human species could have an impact on such a vast place as the Earth. It is so big. And yet life has shaped this planet from almost its very beginning. For example, the oxygen content of our atmosphere is a direct consequence of photosynthesis by micro-organisms. Without oxygen, we would not have the diversity of life we presently enjoy.

Yes, we live on a blue-green planet orbiting an unremarkable star in the western arm of the galaxy but, for our conceivable future, it is the only home we have. It is blue-green because of the life on it. If we wish it to remain our home, we need to spend the next decade doing some major economic remodeling.

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