what is a year worth?

Logically, Jan. 1 is just an arbitrary point on the Gregorian calendar for which to celebrate the annual circumnavigation of our warm nuclear furnace. But that’s okay, as there is no point around the sun that is any more privileged than another. Numbering the days is how we mark our place in the space-time continuum. It reminds us of our own limited existence, and pushes us to be more intentional and reflective, more thankful and forgiving.

“Earthrise” from the Apollo 8 mission, Dec. 24, 1968. The crew finished the evening reading from the book of Genesis.

A year, by definition, is solar-centered. A year on Earth is 8760 hours, during which our planet rotates on our tilted axis a bit more than 365 times. The speed of Earth’s rotation is what sets our circadian rhythms at 24 hours.

But a year on Mercury is only 88 days, less than a single season on our planet. During it’s trip around the sun, it rotates slowly, only once every 59 Earth days.

Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt gives us the seasons. Without it, every day on every space on earth would have 12 hrs of sun and 12 of darkness (though right at the two poles, the sun would be endlessly circling the horizon). Temperatures at a given place would be relatively stable throughout the year. Needless to say, life would be very different. The four seasons of winter, spring, summer, and fall are quite pronounced in the Midwestern United States, going from deadly heatwaves to deadly cold spells (it is currently -20 deg F windchill in Plymouth).

If you have ever spun a top on a table, you have noticed there is often a slight wobble. These are quick wobbles, happening several times per second but still perceptible to our senses. The Earth is also wobbling, tough it was imperceptible until humans used modern science to discover a 41,000-year wobble. Slight oscillations in the axis of our tilt has triggered climate changes throughout our planet’s history.

So, another year.

A single year brings little change to this stream in the Smoky Mountains, but a LOT of change for this little human.

We humans are faced with the challenge of using our brain power to discern the truth in our world, when these truths are often very surprising and counter-intuitive. Our brains have trouble wrapping themselves around these points of cognitive dissonance, and the speed and scale at which these new insights are revealed.

One of the major challenges is understanding what the passage of a single year can mean on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old.

For humans, it is about scale and speed.

Scale: there are 7.6 billion humans, and we feed and care for 20 billion chickens, 1.9 billion sheep, 1.4 billion cattle, and 1 billion pigs. Together we now use a full 1/4 of the world’s vegetation, doubling over the last 100 years.

The ever-brilliant science comic, XKCD (https://xkcd.com/1338/).

The speed at which technology has advanced in the last 100 trips around the sun has greatly increased our species’ ability to change the planet.

Within those 100 trips, we have built extensive economic systems around the extraction and burning of carbon-based fuels, in addition to releasing carbon from trees and soils.

Within those 100 trips, our one species has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide from around 280 ppm to over 400 ppm, a level not seen for over 800,000 years, or possibly more than 20,000,000 years.

Of these facts, we are now as certain as we have ever been. It now means that we have put ourselves in a “carbon crunch,” and decisions made over the next few trips around the sun are immensely important.

So, what is a year worth?

In this 1976 article, scientists were sounding the alarm about topsoil loss in Iowa, which was at about 1/12 of an inch per year.

We’ve had 42 more trips around the sun since that article. Had erosion continued at that rate, we’d have lost another 3.5 inches of topsoil.

Consider that some areas only had 6-8 inches of topsoil left at the time.

Consider that without topsoil, we can’t grow food. Eighty years from now, my daughters will still need to eat.

In practice, over those last 42 years we have greatly reduced soil erosion across the Midwest. However, our economic paradigm continues to dictate that enormous swathes of land be dominated by just 1-2 crops, rates of erosion still exceed rates of soil formation, and short-term thinking still dominates many agronomic decisions.

Erosion for any single one of these years is tolerable, but even over short periods of time – the span of a single human life – the cumulative effects are serious.

A broken tile on our farm. The effects of ignoring this for a time would be imperceptible to our streams and crop yields, while the short-term cost in labor and money is palpable. Nevertheless, the cumulative effects of many years, acres, and drainage tiles are enormous.

What is a year worth for the soil?

In one year a decision can be made to diversify the crop rotation, to install grassed waterways, and to use cover crops.

What is a year worth for a species?

For the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, after the accumulation of many individual bad years, a single bad year in 2018 could now mean permanent extinction.

I’m sorrowed that humans would be so careless as to allow these marvels to perish, after occupying and evolving with this home for millions of trips around the sun.

And yet, we appear to be the only species in which many of our members, themselves assembled into coalitions and organizations, are working to save another distantly-related species for no apparent purpose other than love.

Photo by Mac Stone.

We now live in the Anthropocene.

All signs appear to be pointed towards some sort of enormous inflection point for our planet.

We are back again to our rather counter-intuitive, paradoxical conclusion. We, fragile motes of carbon whose choices will now reverberate for millennia.

We commit ourselves again to the long game, and fast.

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honor

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

you put everything under their feet:

all flocks and herds,

and the animals of the wild,

the birds in the sky,

and the fish in the sea,

all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

(Psalm 8:4-9)

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