The Heavens (cont.)
The Earth’s atmosphere separates us from the wonders of the cosmos by a skin of gas, a veil that seems terribly thin and fragile when we consider the vastness and apparent hostility of space. Yet it is this very veil that is one of the prime sources of life, the source of breath, of air. How easily we take for granted the fact that we are surrounded by an invisible mixture of gases that are crucial to the existence of all life-forms. Air is both intangible when still, and yet also, when it moves, a powerful force that can sculpt landscapes and devastate cities. Specific seasonal patterns of wind and weather have become integral to human culture – who can think of India without the monsoon, for example? Winds and weather are expressions of the great cycles of energy and matter that drive planetary ecosystems. The atmosphere is thus a major facilitator of circulation. Within the atmosphere, the major cycles are those of water vapour, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. All of these cycles are monitored continuously by a vast array of satellites and weather stations, with the UN playing a leading role through the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).
Circulation is the basis of life. As the winds blow freely across the surface of the Earth, so air circulates in the lungs, and blood in the veins. Thus is symbolised a universal truth that free circulation is the way to health, not accumulation/congestion in one part of a system, accompanied by an inevitable depletion in another. Our economic and political systems would do well to take heed of this simple yet profound truth. Aquarius is an air sign, and is said to be connected to the principles of universality and sharing that the physical air embodies so clearly. As we move gradually into the Age of Aquarius, we should expect these principles to manifest with increasing clarity and power in all our institutions.
THE CLOUDS OF THE AIR
The most visible natural cycle is the water cycle. The heat of the sun drives evaporation and, combined with the rotation of the Earth, this produces the winds which carry clouds to their places of precipitation, feeding the lakes and rivers of the world. We all immediately feel the consequences of precipitation, and recognise its importance in the life cycles of all creatures. Because the oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles work invisibly, it’s easier to remain in ignorance of their importance, although science is now focusing more intently on these, given their apparent importance in the debate over climate change. These two cycles are closely intertwined through the agency of fire, for oxygen is the key ingredient in combustion, and many substances containing carbon burn, to produce carbon dioxide. Indeed, in simple terms, breathing is a form of slow combustion, fuelled by the carbohydrates (such as sugar and starch) in food; and photosynthesis is effectively a reverse combustion, taking carbon dioxide and converting it back to carbohydrates again, while releasing oxygen.2 So the animal and plant kingdoms are deeply involved in both these cycles. However, it is humanity’s intensive and extensive interventions in these cycles – most notably through the burning of fossil fuels – that have given rise to much of the current debate about climate change.
There is little need to rehearse the details about climate change here – all concerned citizens are broadly aware of the issues. One thing that is worth considering, though, is that the physical and biological systems that scientists are attempting to model, and on which they base their forecasts, are complex, subtle, and of vast extent. And the models are based upon assumptions that, like those in modern astronomy, may not be as close to the truth as they seem. While science is supposed to be a dispassionate quest for truth concerning the physical world, it is nevertheless conducted by flawed human beings who may have their own prejudices. And it is doubtful that science knows everything relevant to changes in the Earth’s major life-support systems: esoteric thinking proposes influences on the planet’s climate, including human thought, that are not yet accepted by mainstream science. This is not to recommend a blanket scepticism towards all scientific pronouncements, or those concerning climate change: rather, it is to propose a generous open-mindedness to all explanations, coupled with a discriminating mind, and a deep humility in the face of Nature’s mysteries.
Whether the current consensus about climate change and the causative role of carbon dioxide is fully correct or not, the main lesson that this crisis has for humanity is surely the need to learn a much wiser and more equitable approach to utilising the resources of the planet, on behalf of all the kingdoms of nature. And there is indeed hope that this is what is emerging, albeit slowly, from the deliberations of the International Panel on Climate Change (co-sponsored by the WMO and the United Nations Environment Programme) and the subsequent negotiations that governments are conducting. The upcoming conference in Copenhagen in December will be another milestone in this process. Lest the results are not what everyone would hope for, we should temper our concern with the conviction that things are trending in the right direction. It is easy to be disappointed that one meeting has not solved everything, but we shouldn’t forget the vast network of subsidiary meetings and unrecorded negotiations that support each major conference, and which will continue after the event. Through these almost ceaseless contacts, humanity is slowly struggling into the light of a more enlightened attitude to the other kingdoms, regarding them not as passive resources to be used, but fellow beings deserving of respect and understanding.3
It may seem strange to some to include the nitrogen cycle as important, for it plays no known role in respiration or photosynthesis. Yet nitrogen, in the form of nitrates, proteins, and amino acids, is crucially important in the nutrition of animals and plants. How does the nitrogen in the air find its way into these ecological cycles? The answer lies mainly in the soil, where bacteria, either free, or in association with plants, ‘fix’ nitrogen into usable forms. Thus, animals derive all their nitrogen from the plant kingdom. Another contributor to the fixing of nitrogen is lightning. And given the importance of nitrogen for nourishment, it is no surprise that humanity has learned to industrialise the process of fixing it. However, as with the other atmospheric cycles, this has led to problems of excessive use – in this case, of nitrate fertilisers. Once again, it seems that humanity is discovering the urgent necessity to learn a measure of restraint in its intervention in natural cycles, given our limited understanding of their subtlety and complexity.
The atmosphere is not only a major driver of planetary circulation. It is also a protector. Most people have heard of the ozone layer, and are aware that it protects us from some of the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) light. The detection of the ozone hole over Antarctica, its connection with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and the international cooperation to tackle this problem, have formed part of the recent history of our times. The Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out production of a number of ozone-depleting chemicals, has been called, “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date” by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. It is once again an example of the key Aquarian value of sharing – in this case, scientific knowledge and political responsibility. The interesting thing is that ozone is actually created by the very radiation – UV – against which it subsequently shields. And the ozone layer is not the only shield present in the atmosphere. Above the ozone layer is found the ionosphere, a layer that also provides protection against various forms of harmful radiation, while at the same time providing a vital electrical link to the wider solar system.
There is now emerging evidence that the ionosphere is linked both with the lightning in thunderstorms, (which occur far below it) and with electrical phenomena in the magnetosphere – a region that extends far above the ionosphere, dominated by the magnetic field of the Earth and its interaction with the particles from the Sun known as the solar wind, and the interplanetary magnetic field. The magnetic field of the Earth channels the solar wind down into the ionosphere at the north and south poles, giving rise to the majestic beauty of the aurora. The colours of the aurora are created by electrical ionisation of various gases in the atmosphere, just as in a fluorescent lamp. And now it seems that periodic interaction occurs between magnetosphere and ionosphere over the whole surface of the Earth, not just at the poles. The deeper implications of this electrical connection are explored further in the next article.
1. The International Astronomical Union, together with UNESCO, is celebrating 2009 as The International Year of Astronomy. Many events have been organised in “a global effort to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery”. A further aim is to educate the public as to “how scientific knowledge can contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society.” For further information, see www.astronomy2009.org/general/about/
2. This fact about photosynthesis – that it can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ‘fix’ carbon as carbohydrate for the life-span of the plant – explains why the planting of trees is seen as a way to balance out or offset carbon dioxide emissions from other sources, such as burning fossil fuels.
3. The World Goodwill meditation initiative The Cycle of Conferences takes as one of its main themes the idea of ‘Earth Stewardship’. For further information, see the final article.
GOODWILL IS... the oxygen of universality.