From forecasting the state of the planet 100,000 years from now to tracing the path of carbon through the Earth, plants and humans, Curt Stager has a knack for tackling topics that seem overwhelmingly complex.
An ecologist and paleoclimatologist, Stager is a professor of natural science in upstate New York and the author of "Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe" and "Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth."
Despite the books’ ambitious titles, it all boils down to helping people better understand their place on the planet and their relationship to it, Stager said. As people see how they fit into life on Earth, it's Stager's hope they will act now to preserve it.
Stager will dip into the themes of his books and how they fit into the issue of climate change at a public talk on Monday that kicks off Northern Arizona University’s Biennial Conference of Science and Management. The free event is from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. NAU’s Prochnow Auditorium.
Many studies of climate change project effects out to 2100. Why do you choose to look so far beyond that in your Deep Future book?
There's way more coming beyond just 2100 AD. 2100 is just the opening chapter. It’s going to take tens of thousands of years for the oceans and the rocks and the soils to clean up what we're releasing now. As long as that stuff is stranded in the air, it's going to make the world a warmer place, not just for the next decade or the next century but on a geological scale of such a magnitude that we've become a geological force of nature.
So one example that was just shocking to me as a person who studies the history of climate is that because of what we've done already, 50,000 years from now when a slight natural cooling of the Earth is expected to happen, there will still be enough of our greenhouse gases in the air to warm the earth just enough to stop that next ice age from forming. We're on par with ice age cycles and we do it without even trying.
So a part of me is horrified by the power of the mistakes that we are making, but the other part of me is thrilled in a way. I feel empowered to think of the magnitude of what we can do in the age of humans. Imagine what we can do on purpose when we are aware of our situation.
One of the reviews of "Deep Future" says it’s heartening to know that you see a future for humans on this planet. Could you talk more about that?
Human beings have lived in the most extreme climactic conditions you could ever think of and they don't only live there, they love it and they defend it against intruders. So the human race is not going to be wiped out by this.
But to say our species will live through these changes is not to belittle them. It actually raises the ethical issue because people will live through what we're setting in motion. People will say 'no one is going to be around in 50,000 years, who cares about what happens to the Earth, no one is going to be there.’ Well no, there will be people here. What we're setting in motion is going to affect our descendents on a scale far more massive than just our grandchildren.
Could you talk about your newest book, "Your Atomic Self," and how that fits into the discussion about humans’ impact on the environment?
I'm realizing now that one of the things we're disconnected from is seeing how we're connected to the whole planet and to each other physically. You can trace the atoms of the air pollution into our bodies from the food we eat. Literally one in eight of our carbon atoms came from smokestacks and tailpipes. It goes through the food chain. The carbon dioxide that plants are taking up is from the burning of fossil fuels. So we are absolutely connected to the Earth and to be able to think on atomic terms shows you that not only are we connected to nature, we are nature.
How does this atomic connectedness tie into climate change?
It is not just frilly poetic language when we say we're all connected. We are literally connected to the Earth on a physical atomic level. So you are kin to everybody on Earth and every living thing because of this atomic connection. We as social primates have a gut reaction to kin. When we realize we're related to other individuals we treat them differently. It’s an instinct we inherited from our ape-like ancestors. For me, I feel like another way to be better stewards of the planet and each other is to see our connectedness because if we feel like kin as well as know we're kin then we'll act like it.