We live in an amazing, expansive, varied, wonderful world. It is almost Earth Day and it is worth considering, from a different perspective than is normally put forth, what the earth is and what it means to us. It is also worth considering what the Earth is not. Let's do the nots first.
Earth is not infinite, nor the resources within it. There are finite numbers of atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron, and all other elements, with an infinitesimally small addition over time from meteors, asteroids, and particles from outer space. There is a certain amount of energy stored within the mass of the earth and a limited supply of new energy arriving, primarily from the sun. All of these amounts can be measured using engineering methods to determine the various combinations of atoms and the energy gains and losses, at least to some degree of accuracy.
Earth is not a living organism. It happened to be in the right place at the right time to develop the conditions which sustain life, and there is abundant life of incredible variety suited to the vastly different conditions encountered within the 43 million square miles of land mass and the 153 million square miles of oceans. But each living creature is separate from every other living creature, and the sum of all life does not equal a living, sentient creature called Mother Earth or Gaia.
Earth is not the same as it was last year, or one thousand, one million, or one billion years ago. Physical and biological processes continually shape the face of the earth, sometimes very dramatically, affecting the environments encountered by the various life forms which inhabit this great, ever-changing ball of matter.
Now for what the Earth is. It is an incredibly complex system with billions of items of input every moment of every day. It is absolutely impossible to predict or control the future because most of the inputs and their individual and cumulative effects cannot be known or effectively manipulated. It is a robust, dynamic, inter-related feedback system which has served to stabilize conditions suitable for life for many millions of years, in spite of massive continental shift, earthquakes, volcanic gasses and ash, continent-wide glaciers, and tremendous variation in radiation from the sun.
The earth is home to lots of living creatures, and those species which adapt to a particular environment tend to thrive there, while those which don't tend to move or die off. Humans have a tremendous capacity to adapt to environments over time and place because of the ability to think, to develop solutions to problems, and to manufacture tools for adapting. Some type of human society inhabits nearly every corner of the globe because of this adaptive ability and those tools for safety and survival.
The earth is a massive receptacle for life-giving energy from the sun. It collects much more than is needed for life on the planet, and the excess is radiated back into space. The incredible feedback mechanism has kept the temperatures of the earth in the livable range for a very long time, though the fluctuations have been what we, in our comfortable warm period of the last 10,000 years, would consider extreme. When the earth plunges into the next ice age, as it has in hundred thousand year cycles in the past, humans will likely survive as a species while many others perish because the human mind fosters adaptation.
The earth is a storehouse of resources for living creatures, including humans, to use for surviving and thriving. While it has limited resources from an engineering standpoint, the human mind has no such limitation. In essence, the human mind is infinite in its capacity. With imagination, people can convert a raw resource presented by the earth into different articles more usable for their needs and purposes. When a resource is thus converted, the atoms of matter don't stop being what they are. They are still a part of the storehouse. When the converted resource is worn out or expended, the atoms and molecules are still available for another conversion process using human and natural energy, along with mankind's infinite capacity for adaptation. The earth is a fascinating place that continually yields new secrets to surprise and reward those who look for them. No matter how much we know, there is always something deeper, bigger, smaller, or more complex to explore and comprehend. That is the wonder of the amazing Earth.
Dan McLaughlin is a columnist for The Post-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.