The world at our feet: Reflections on Earth and its prospects

Humans have known for a long time that there was more than the earth beneath our feet—that there was, in fact, a big-e Earth—but it took a while before we figured out our place in relation to the sun and stars. Then space travel allowed us to see our whole home, surrounded by dark nothingness.

Illustration of a sphere representing earth and it’s internal layers, covered by flora and surrounded by botanical drawings.
Image: Mariya Pilipenko

We have learned that we can change the Earth in major ways—unintentionally and unpredictably. Two centuries ago the deforestation of the east coast of the U.S. resulted in sediments washing down to fill the flood plains of rivers and the creation of coastal marshes. On the other hand, dams and reservoirs are holding back so much dirt that the Mississippi delta is now starved of sediment. At this point, human activity has added billions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere, raised global temperatures and sea levels, and increased the acidity of the ocean.

To protect the Earth, we have to get up close and personal with earth: the rock, soil, sediment, clay, and sand that surround us. We also need to study how it interacts with its fellow ancient elements of air, fire, and water, and with all the terrestrials who make their homes here. We spoke to Penn School of Arts & Sciences researchers who study the Earth’s geological past, its surface activity, and its soils and life forms, to learn how Earth and its Earthlings can get along better.

Human imagination, wired as it is within a biological timespan measurable in decades, can hit a wall when it comes to comprehending the vast expanse of time that comprises the history of the Earth. Jane Dmochowski, senior lecturer in earth and Environmental Science, sometimes relies on a visual aid to help her students grasp what time on this kind of scale means.

Douglas Jerolmack is passionate about landscapes and surfing, so it makes sense that the geophysicist studies the places where earth—dirt, sand, and rock—collides with water or air. That intersection is not as stable as it might seem, he says, and that instability can have serious consequences.

Jerolmack is a professor of earth and environmental science, and his mission is to understand and predict when and how earth will move.

Alain Plante wants people to pay attention to soil diversity and what soil can teach us about the Earth’s past and sustainability. While Plante is primarily interested in the chemistry, biology, and physics of diverse soils, his work also unearths how soil is impacted by human action. The over-exhaustion of soil from modern human agriculture practices is one of those mechanisms.

The assigning of moral values is not commonly associated with soils, but it is just one of many little-known dynamics that influence modern-day relationships with land and territory, says Kristina Lyons, whose research lies at the intersection of environmental justice and science studies. The assistant professor of anthropology’s manuscript, “Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics,” tackles themes of socio-ecological conflicts, the impacts of the war on drugs, alternative agricultural practices, and science studies in Colombia.

Climate change can be difficult to grasp, says Jared Farmer, because it’s everywhere and nowhere. Understanding its totality requires geology and history, to name just two disciplines. A self-described “geohumanist,” Farmer knows he can’t tell the whole story of global change. But he can narrate the lives of some of the world’s oldest things, and, in doing so, trace relationships across millennia.

Read more at OMNIA.