The Colgate Scene
November 2000
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Earth time and a moral compass
In excerpts from his Convocation address, geology professor Rich April charges the Class of 2004 with the future of our world
I'd like to give you a sense of deep time and of our place on earth. And the question I'd like to pose is this, has humanity existed long enough for nature to have taken much notice? To address this question, we should first get some feel for just how much time human beings have lived on earth relative to the planet's 4.5 billion years of natural history.

     Because the span of geologic time -- of earth time -- is so great, few of us can really grasp the magnitude of thousands or millions of years, let alone the billions of years that have elapsed since the earth and the solar system first formed. These large measures of time become almost meaningless and unimaginable to us because there is nothing in our life experience that we can relate them to. So, we need another way of apportioning earth time in units that are more comprehensible and more meaningful to the human experience.

     Let's try this: Let's compress all of earth's 4.5 billion years of history into a single year, such that the earth would have first formed on January 1 of this year, and the present -- the here and now -- would be represented by the stroke of midnight on the last day of this year, December 31. On this scale of time the first primitive microbial life forms appeared on earth in late March, followed by more complex photosynthetic microorganisms in mid- to late-May. Land plants and animals emerged from the sea in mid-November, and the first mammal drew its breath on Thanksgiving Day. Dinosaurs appeared on earth on the morning of December 13, but then disappeared forever on December 25, at 7:30 p.m. Coincidentally, or not, just a moment before, a six-mile-wide asteroid hit the earth near the Yucatan peninsula and plunged the earth into what some scientists have described as a thousand years of winter's hell.

     Human-like creatures appeared in Africa sometime during the evening of December 31, around dinner time, maybe 6:30 p.m. or so. Homo sapiens appeared on earth at about five minutes to midnight on New Year's Eve, in the midst of the last great ice age. Rome ruled the Western world for five seconds -- from 15 seconds to 10 seconds before midnight on the 31st. And as the ball begins to drop -- Columbus landed in the New World three seconds to midnight, the United States was founded one and a half seconds before midnight, and 13 men with 13 prayers and 13 dollars met in the frontier settlement of Hamilton, New York to found Colgate University just slightly more than one second before midnight, at the end of this eventful year.

     In the year I just described, all of recorded human history would have occurred after 11:55 p.m. on New Year's Eve. For these five brief minutes before midnight, representing the last 50,000 years or so, human beings lived in harmony with the land. And with so few people around for most of these 50,000 years, any environmental damage or insults to nature that occurred happened only on a very local scale, and most environments were able to recover. But today, and for the past 100 to 200 years, we know that the human influence is being felt on a much grander scale and attention has rightly focused on concerns about global environmental degredation.

     The water we drink, the air we breathe, the land we sow, the oceans we fish and the food we eat are in danger of becoming tainted, perhaps irreversibly, with the waste products of the six billion people who now inhabit the earth. Two familiar examples of global change effected by humans, which require no elaboration here, are the deleterious effects of several manmade gases, including CFCs, on earth's protective ozone layer, and the greenhouse effect produced by gases, especially carbon dioxide, generated primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels. In both cases it has become apparent that human activity has reached levels that are impacting global ecosystems, making this world a much more dangerous and precarious place in which to live.

     So, yes, nature is taking notice!

     So, what to do about it?

     There's plenty you can do about it.

     Over these next four years at Colgate, you, the class of 2004, will learn much and you will mature intellectually. You will become wiser and more perceptive than you are today. When faced with issues of import concerning the world around you, you will develop the skills and the wherewithal to analyze problems intelligently, and to develop solutions that are reasonable, sensible and judicious.

     As a professor, it is my sincere hope that following your four years here, no matter what your interests, no matter which of the 50 possible concentrations you choose to pursue, no matter what you aspire to professionally, no matter who you are in the end, you will care enough to understand and revere the planet on which you live. That you will care enough to appreciate both the fragility and the resilience of nature. That you will recognize how the interconnected cycles that constitute our natural surroundings work to provide all living things on earth with endurable ecological habitats. That you will keep attuned to the environment and not lose sight, nor lose touch with nature. That you will keep abreast of current environmental issues and try to understand them as best you can -- for no other generation in history has had more information available to it, in so many forms, and so rapidly retrievable, as yours.

     While at Colgate, please consider taking courses that expose you to issues concerning the environment and our place in it. Courses in science, government, economics, sociology, philosophy, literature can all provide clues and cues for how we, as human beings, need to conduct ourselves in the future to preserve what we have. Consider Thomas Huxley's advice to "learn something about everything and everything about something."

     Fine-tune and fix your moral compass so that as issues of environmental justice become more visible and more consequential in the future, you'll think not just about solutions to environmental problems, but about equitable solutions, as well.

     As educated citizens of this, the richest and most powerful country in the world, it will be your duty and responsibility to help manage and shepherd the earth and its resources in such a way that a sustainable future is assured. Because, really, there is no other choice.

     The world will look to you and your generation for guidance; be prepared to give it.

     Remember this Native American saying: "We do not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children."

     Appreciate the earth and cherish it. It is all we have; it is all we will ever have.

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