Peter Westbroek

Discovering the Earth

Big story of a small planet

The Apollo 8 photograph taken in 1968 that for the first time showed the earth from outer space made us aware of environmental change, climate warming and overpopulation. The common reaction ended up as fear. Geologist Peter Westbroek argues that we need a com­plete change of attitude and that current science brings this within reach.

In Discovering the Earth he describes the international research that has culminated in Earth System Science, which surveys the entire forty-five million centuries of the earth’s past. Westbroek contends that we need to take this long view if we are to see our world from the proper perspective. The societal implications are profound, since the emergent insights of Earth System Science unmask our current self-image as dangerous folly.

Over eons the earth has turned itself inside out, Westbroek explains. Everything disintegrates, time and again. The planet re-assembles itself from the debris, meticu­lously reproducing all its constituent parts. The main overall cycle consists of vast networks with countless constituent mini-cycles, each apparently carrying an elaborate memory of its past configuration.

On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that these re-creations are not precise copies. Rather, they tend to increase in complexity over time. Underly­ing the cyclical nature of global dynamics is a long-term trend of global differentia­tion. In the early days of its existence the planet was little more than a ball of molten rock, whereas now it includes complex ecosystems, brains, science and art, the internet and, on the destructive side, sophisticated weaponry, wars, genocide and environmental destruction.

Westbroek shows that, in response to an ongoing trend towards specialization, a new level of convergence is emerging among a wide spectrum of disciplines, from geophysics to sociology. Of particu­lar relevance is the marriage between the physical and human sciences. Cultural evolution is not simply a feature of human­ity, it is an emergent property of the earth’s dynamics: ultimately the earth itself is the civilizing force, rather than human beings.

The change in worldview needed now, Westbroek concludes, is comparable to the transition from geocentrism to heliocen­trism, which marked the start of modern­ism. Today, modernism still dominates, making us behave as autonomous beings destined to plunder the planet, as if goldfish in a bowl were to dream of mastering the oceans. Westbroek makes clear that we do not own our world but need to adapt to its dynamics, like surfers continually adjusting themselves to the waves.

  • Aims to create a synthesis between soft and hard sciences.
  • The first-ever attempt to sketch out the grand panorama of Earth System Science for a broad readership.

The Discovery of the Earth is Westbroek’s ambitious but extremely readable attempt to bring together geology, biology and the social sciences.

NRC Handelsblad

The processes Westbroek examines as he attempts to show how ingeniously the earth operates are all equally magnificent. What he has to say is hugely important.

Vrij Nederland

Peter Westbroek

Peter Westbroek is professor emeritus in geophysiology at the University of Leiden. He initiated an international, interdisciplinary research programme on the role of limestone in global climate regula­tion and participated in the creation of Earth System Science. He was the first Dutch person…

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De ontdekking van de aarde. Het grote verhaal van een kleine planeet (2012). Non-fiction, 336 pages.
Words: 85,000
Copies sold: 10,000

With illustrations in colour and black-and-white, and references

Themes: earth



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