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Our Cosmic Context

Human activity is driving rapid planetary changes, which constitute a serious threat that can be mitigated only with the help of a thorough understanding of the way the physical world fits together. Interestingly, much of that understanding may come not from Earth, but from the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

NEW YORK – We have always lived on a changing planet, but many of today’s variations in climatic and ecological states are taking place exceptionally fast, and are directly attributable to our behavior. Slowing the rate of alteration is the only rational course of action, given the potential outcomes. But we also need to examine our responses closely, or risk repeating our shortsighted behavior. Unexpectedly, the search for life elsewhere in the universe may provide a critical new perspective.

Our technologically advanced civilization – replete with remarkable tools and notable headaches – owes everything to a tapestry of cosmic and planetary history. Consider, for example, oil, gas, and coal. These substances comprise a complex package of carbon chemistry, produced by biology and geophysics operating within a deep rhythm of variation and evolution originating far from our own epoch. The minerals and rare-earth elements that we exploit to build ingenious devices – extending our bodies and minds – are also a part of this rhythm, and are accessible only because of a great chain of circumstances, from planetary origins to plate tectonics and asteroid impacts.

Our trajectory as a species is hardwired to this four-billion-year-old bio-geo-chemical system that has profoundly worked and reworked the planetary environment, all the way from bacteria to city planners, atmospheric oxygen to paper mills. In addition to our own genes, each of us carries the genes of tens of trillions of microbial passengers. These tiny organisms harbor codes for metabolic processes that have been preserved across eons – the same processes responsible for shaping the world. It is a plausible blueprint for successful life anywhere, even if the biochemical details differ.

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