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.