Thursday, May 19, 2011

Endangered Species Day

The winter semester here at Boston University has just ended and this weekend the seniors will be convocating. Here, and in many other universities in the U.S. and Canada at this time, I suspect graduates will be hearing about how they can take what they’ve learned and go out and conquer the world. Graduation is a happy occasion, but I wonder how many graduates will be hearing about how an economy based on perpetual growth is unsustainable, how our present population growth is unsustainable and how the high rates of species loss, unless rapidly reduced, will doom us all. Ugh. Who wants to hear that?

But what message do we want to hear, at convocation or anytime? Personally, I would value hearing or seeing no message at all for a while so that I can think about what I do value. Think about all the times during the day when you are bombarded with ads about stuff to buy. There is stuff advertised on buses, on Youtube, in your inbox and your favorite website. (Some websites I can barely read the articles anymore because it keeps moving on me as different ads load.) Stuff to buy everywhere. Buying stuff, it would seem, is supposed to make us happy.

What is the cost of all this stuff? What is the cost of valuing stuff more than personal engagement or a walk in the woods?

I'm teaching Astronomy 101 starting next week and one thing I've always valued about an astronomical education is the perspective it gives. I know where we are in space and time.
We're in a large spiral galaxy, 3/4 of the way out to the edge and we're about 4.5 billion years old, in a universe that's just under 14 billion years old. It took 2500 years of science to be able to write that sentence. Another that has been just as hard won is: we're one of 10 million or more species who have evolved from a common ancestor over about 3.8 billion years of life on the only planet known to have life in the universe. (I'm watching some episodes of Carl Sagan's Cosmos again after many years, and Sagan, of course, was a master at helping us understand perspective.)

We share this planet with literally millions of other species and despite the hundreds of other planets discovered around other stars, we're still unique in the universe. We have abundant and varied life.

There's a new documentary called The Call of Life: Facing the Mass Extinction and I've got a short trailer and a long trailer for you below. Both versions feature provocative questions about the societies we live in and what we value. Today (May 20) is Endangered Species Day and World Environment Day is coming up on June 5. Check out the trailers below. Tune out of the perpetual bombardment to buy and instead think about what you value. There is still abundant life on Earth -- we need to start educating ourselves on how to value it.

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