Don’t be like Carl Sagan

Don’t be like Dean Martin, or Carl Sagan, or Benazir Bhutto. Don’t die in the last weeks of the year. You will have already missed the deadline for the Year In Review retrospectives, and you won’t be in them next year, either. History forgets you in a hurry without publicity.

Sagan was just 62 when he died in 1996, four years younger than Tom Petty, whose recent passing seems so premature. I am a member of the Planetary Society, which Sagan co-founded in 1980 (with Bruce Morgan and Louis Friedman) to advocate for space exploration and space science. Sagan was among the first scientists to warn us about the dangers of carbon emissions from motor vehicles and industry, pointing to Venus, where surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, as an example of a “runaway greenhouse effect.”

Stephen Jay Gould was only sixty when he checked out, leaving behind a lifetime of paleontological research, provocative theories, and a trove of extraordinary essays for general audiences. To my everlasting regret, I did not discover the bulk of his writing until after his death in 2002. I could have been one of the thousands of his readers who sent him letters on the astonishing varieties of topics he addressed. These letters, Gould wrote in the introduction to Bully For Brontosaurus, his last published essay collection, gave him faith in the intellectual curiosity of the ordinary citizen.

Like Sagan, Gould had the facility to convey complex concepts in ordinary English. Also like Sagan, he delighted in making connections between seemingly disparate topics. Sagan’s interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life took him deep into anthropology and geopolitics. Gould turned Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak into a meditation on “statistics and mythology,” and the human tendency to impart meaning to random patterns, much as we conjure constellations from the stars in the night sky.

Gould was fond of skewering popular perceptions, especially those with which he had some sympathy. For example, he took the environmental movement to task for the exaggeration that Earth is a fragile planet, threatened by human activity. It is our civilization, he wrote, not the Earth itself, that we endanger:

“We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on Earth right from the start, and probably will be until the sun explodes); I doubt we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves – and our well-buffered Earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patterns to the severe detriment of millions.

“Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism – because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly.”*

I’ve always hated the movie Waterworld, because it’s preposterous: if all the ice on Earth melted, sea level would rise by about 250 feet. When Kevin Costner dives on submerged Los Angeles, he would see the San Gabriel Mountains and the foothills from the deck of his ship.

The world’s population of motor vehicles now numbers approximately 1.2 billion. The United States is by far the worst offender, with five vehicles for every six people. If the Chinese owned cars in the same proportion as we do, they would need a billion vehicles just for themselves.

The average weight of a car or light truck is 4,079 pounds. A gas-powered vehicle spews its weight in carbon compounds into the atmosphere each year. That means that our automotive infrastructure is annually pumping 4,894,800,000,000 (4.9 trillion) pounds of greenhouse gases into the clear blue sky. (And that’s not even counting the impact of the trucking industry, the byproducts of road construction, and vehicle manufacturing and disposal.) While these gases won’t turn our planet into Venus, they will continue to contribute to rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, disruption of food supplies, and other life-threatening challenges.

This January marks eleven years since I last owned a car. I am under no delusion that I’m changing the world. But the world is changing, nonetheless.


* from Bully For Brontosaurus, copyright 1991 by Stephen Jay Gould.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *