This week I took a road trip with my mother (79 years young) to the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland. One characteristically rainy Scottish day, we found ourselves in the Heritage Museum in Brodick. Amidst various fun things including a nineteenth century cottage, a smithy, and a bathing shed, there is a small but very good geology exhibit.

I wouldn’t have ranked geology particularly highly in my list of interests (with apologies to all keen geologists – not saying it isn’t fascinating, just that there is a limit to how many subjects a person can be passionate about), but there, in a tiny strip at waist height, below images of a 3-metre (10-foot) lizard whose fossilised footprints were found on Arran, and a 1-metre (3-foot) millipede, with legs 10cm (4 inches) long (yuck!), there was a series of tiny images that really caught my eye, portraying the movement of the world’s continents over the last several billion years.

I’d vaguely heard of Gondwana and Pangaea, but hadn’t really appreciated that these were just two in a long series of supercontinents that broke up, drifted apart, and reassembled over the Earth’s lifespan of around 4.543 billion years. (As the exhibit said, that’s even older than your granny and grandpa.)

Check out this really cool video of the last 3.3 billion years of tectonic shift. (If you don’t have 3.3 billion years to spare, fear not – it‘s not in real time. Takes less than 5 minutes.)

According to Wikipedia, humans have been around for about 315,000 years. Please correct me if I’m wrong (and what are a few zeroes between friends?), but I think that means humans have been around for about 0.00693374422 percent of the lifespan of Planet Earth.

Or, to put it more graphically, I’ll borrow anthropologist Louise Leakey’s image of the history of Earth being like a roll of toilet paper.

If there are 400 sheets of tissue paper in the roll, then the very first life in the oceans is seen at sheet 240. The age of the dinosaurs begins 19 sheets from the end. Dinosaurs in their many forms and great diversity are around for 14 and a half sheets. Dinosaurs are extinct by the end of the Cretaceous, 5 squares from the end, making way for the mammals. 

Our story and place on the timeline as upright walking apes begins only in the last half of the very last sheet. The human story as Homo sapiens is represented by less than 2 millimeters of this, some 200,000 years.

So there we are. Homo Sapiens constitute the last 2mm, or less than 0.01 inch, of the global roll of toilet paper.

Not very much to wipe with.

We are very much the planetary Johnny/Joanna-Come-Latelies, but already we’ve dominated, exploited, and polluted the land, air and sea. Even in my lifetime, the human population has more than doubled, and in a closed-loop system, that means that there is less space, food, and other resources for the other species with whom we share the Earth.

So, depending on your worldview, different people will take this in different ways. Some might say that species come, species go (thank heavens the 1-metre millipedes are gone), so we shouldn’t worry that, according to WWF, extinction is currently running at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate. Hey, it’s a jungle out there, survival of the fittest, etc etc.

But what if humans become one of those species that goes extinct?

Well, that may be fine for some, and of course I accept it will happen sooner or later. Personally, I would prefer it to be later. Even though I have those days (don’t we all?) when we’re less than impressed with the human animal, the fact remains that most of my best friends are humans, and I would like to see us be around for quite some time to come. We have so much potential, and we’re barely out of our collective adolescence. We have so much more we could do – if we have the intelligence and foresight to live up to the “sapiens” part of homo sapiens.

Sapiens, of course, means “wise”.

Are we? And even if we’re not acting wise now, can we?

Time will tell. And the Earth has all the time in the world. We may not.

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