The Universe is not perfect, and that’s why you exist. There were tiny wrinkles at the beginning of space and time, and these led to tiny imperfections in the smooth face of the early Universe. In some regions, there was a bit more matter, in others a bit less. This slight difference multiplied as the gravity of the rich regions pulled in the matter from the poorer regions. As in real life, the rich got richer. But this is why the cosmos is dotted with stars and galaxies. Every single speck of light you’ve ever seen in the nighttime sky is evidence of the Universe’s flaws.
In one small gravity well, dust and gas collapsed and piled on top itself to create a ball, and then a larger ball, and eventually a star. This is our star, and there is nothing special about it. But its ordinariness is the fuel for all the life we’ve ever known. In the sun’s hot center, protons are flung around so violently by the heat that they overcome their natural electrical repulsion. When they come together, they make something less than the sum of their parts. The difference is translated into energy, some of which comes to you. You are fortunate to benefit from an enormous nuclear reactor in the sky. If the sun were made of coal, it would have burned out sixty-five thousand years after it formed. Everything you’ve ever eaten or drunk, every move you’ve ever made, every beautiful thing you’ve ever seen is because of a mediocre star in an unexceptional galaxy.
You live on a small rock not too close and not too far from the Sun. You go around it once per year in an almost perfect circle, the year marked in seasons caused by axial tilt. Your planet can and does wobble in its orbit over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, with the circle becoming an ellipse, the tilt becoming larger or smaller, and the North Star alternating between Polaris and Vega. Any small shift in the orbital parameters can lead to massive climatic shifts, blanketing the planet in glaciers. You are lucky to live in an interglacial, a respite from the Ice Age that has lasted longer than human civilization, and may outlast us, too.
On this planet, everything is unequal but intertwined. In the tropics, hot air moves skyward, shedding water on the rainforests below as it rises and cools. The air flows toward the colder poles like a flock of birds returning home for the summer. Eventually, it cools and begins to sink, pushing away the air underneath. The sinking air is dry and cloudless, and underneath are the Sahara, the Empty Quarter, and the Kalahari. The deserts are a gift from the tropics. But the deserts give, too. Dust kicked up from the Sahara is carried by air currents across the globe, where it fertilizes the lush forests of the Amazon.
The air you breathe contains oxygen put there by land plants and phytoplankton, which use the carbon dioxide you exhale to turn light into sugar. There is enough land to live and farm on, and enough ocean to provide food and transportation and mystery. Millions of years of evolution has produced a staggering array of animals and plants, and all of your friends and family, too.
Dig deep into the land, and the layers of rocks reveal a history punctuated by mass death. There have been five mass extinctions. You are living through the sixth. You helped cause it, which means you have the power to stop it. You are not an asteroid or a volcano.
The civilization you live in that creates the books you read, the movies you enjoy, the technology that allows you to stay in touch with distant family and friends- this has developed during the Holocene, a period of remarkably stable climate. Arguably, we don’t know how to think about climate change because we’ve never really had to think about climate. It’s always been a hum in the background, small variations around a mean that we take for granted. Now, that background note is growing louder and higher.
Our climate is changing because of our actions. We can already see the impacts: changes in the range and behavior of animal species, coastal cities smashed by hurricanes and inundated by floodwaters, a haze of unseasonal wildfire smoke. Science says nothing about how to feel about these changes. I feel grief, guilt, anger, determination, hope, and sadness all at the same time. But what I feel more than anything is gratitude for what we have. We live on a medium-sized rock that goes around a garden-variety star in a galaxy that exists only because of a flaw in the smooth perfection of the early cosmos.
Science says there is nothing special about our place in the Universe. I have to disagree.