Our Finite Sky

Is President Trump near indictment? Did half of his cabinet resign? Has Bruce Rauner stopped wearing plaid flannel shirts? I wouldn’t know because this writer is still on vacation. So two weeks ago, realizing that in our present surreal political world anything is possible, I decided to pre-write today’s commentary on a situation that, unfortunately, remains very predictable 

Today, I want to try to communicate to you the frightening risk of President Trump’s policies toward our environment — more specifically, our atmosphere. I could try to do this by quoting a lot of statistics and scientific predictions. But instead, I’m going to follow the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words.

I’m going to present you with one memorable image to hold in your mind as you hear future reports or discussions about the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. It’s an image I received nearly fifty years ago, delivered by the 20th century genius and polymath Buckminster Fuller. (I can’t remember if it was in a speech, an interview or a written article.)

The image he presented goes something like this: Picture the beautiful blue marble that we call earth floating in the blackness and vastness of space. Now realize that this planet has a diameter of about 7800 miles. Next, imagine that in your hand you are holding a highly polished chromium ball slightly less than eight inches in diameter (7.8 inches to be exact). Using a scale of 1-inch equals 1000-miles, this ball represents a model of our globe.

Now raise the globe to your mouth and blow on it. Notice that the shiny surface of the chrome ball has “fogged up.” That miniscule film of moisture that you see on that 7.8-inch globe, just a few thousandths of an inch thick, is equivalent to the height of the livable atmosphere surrounding our 7800-mile-thick planet!

Does that sound preposterous? Think about it. If one inch on our model equals 1000 miles, then one mile (5280 ft.) would be one-thousandth of an inch. On our chrome globe’s surface, three-thousandths of an inch of fogging vapor represents the height of a 16,000-foot mountain. Not a lot of terrestrial life of any sort is capable of surviving above that altitude.

I believe I heard Mr. Fuller’s chrome globe analogy around the time we human beings saw the first photos of the earth taken from space. Seeing that beautiful blue sphere suspended all alone in the dark had a huge impact on the way we viewed our big, wide world. — Seen in space it’s not so big, a finite place. Then hearing Mr. Fuller’s unforgettable description of how thin the livable atmosphere of our planet actually is left me with no doubts about the fragility of our human habitat. Everyone on this planet must start understanding that we do not have an infinite amount of atmosphere available to absorb the garbage we’re pumping into it. (To add to the impact of this wanton pollution, a lot of that carbon does get absorbed somewhere else – in our oceans. This raises water temperatures leading to a whole string of other damaging events.)

There are monstrous dangers in the Trump Administration’s new policies toward greenhouse gasses. This is especially true of the new relaxed policies for methane (CH4 carbon tetrahydride) emissions. Methane is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat trapping gas. Yet President Trump and his advisors, willfully ignorant congressmen, and voices from the energy industry all continue to treat this growing threat with cavalier dismissal.

What’s so maddening is, our atmosphere’s vulnerability isn’t a secret. Certainly folks like the fracking Koch Brothers or coal mining champ Mitch McConnell know the truth. But they also know that suppressing carbon-producing activities will mean lost jobs and, most importantly to big players like the Kochs, lowered profits.

When I hear about billionaires like the Koch Brothers doing everything they can to keep the carbon pumping into our atmosphere so the money will keep flowing into their pockets, I think about a lyric from a Doobie Brothers song: “Why do they come and ask for more. They’ve got stars they don’t have wishes for….How do the fools survive?” If things continue the way the Kochs would prefer, they won’t survive. But neither will any of the rest of us.

So from now on, when you look up at that seemingly endless blue sky, think about your breath on that chrome ball and that thin slice of atmosphere that has made life possible on our planet. It really is a miracle, and it’s a miracle being squandered. We must not allow this to continue.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973