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Archive for the ‘12. HOME – Part 1’ Category

PLEASE NOTE: This transcript is being provided for educational purposes only to be used in conjunction with a university course designed to raise awareness of the serious environmental issues that the documentary film HOME: A Stunning Visual Portrayal of Earth addresses. The kind understanding of the filmmakers will be appreciated with respect to any copyright issues which may arise, and it is hoped that permission to use this material will be granted so that the message M. Yann Arthus-Bertrand puts forth may be disseminated among the students participating in this course.

Students are encouraged to purchase their own copies of this important documentary on DVD.

Thank you.

Tony Del Vecchio, M.Ed.

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Part I

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Listen to me, please. You’re like me, a Homo Sapiens, a “wise human.” Life, a miracle in the universe, appeared around four billion years ago, and we humans, only two hundred thousand years ago. Yet we have succeeded in disrupting the balance that is so essential to life on Earth. Listen carefully to this extraordinary story which is yours and decide what you want to do with it.

These are traces of our origins. At the beginning, our planet was no more than a chaos of fire formed in the wake of its star, the Sun. A cloud of agglutinated dust particles, similar to so many similar clusters in the universe. Yet this was where the miracle of life occurred.

Today, life – our life – is just a link in a chain of innumerable living beings that have succeeded one another on Earth over nearly four billion years. And even today, new volcanoes continue to sculpt our landscapes. They offer a glimpse of what our Earth was like at its birth – molten rock, surging from the depths, solidifying, cracking, blistering, or spreading in a thin crust before falling dormant for a time.

These wreaths of smoke, curling from the bowels of the Earth, bear witness to the Earth’s original atmosphere, an atmosphere devoid of oxygen – a dense atmosphere, thick with water vapor, full of carbon dioxide. A furnace.

But the Earth had an exceptional future, offered to it by water. At the right distance from the Sun – not too far, not too near – the Earth was able to conserve water in liquid form. Water vapor condensed and fell in torrential downpours on Earth, and rivers appeared. The rivers shaped the surface of the Earth – cutting their channels, furrowing out valleys. They ran toward the lowest places on the globe to form the oceans. They tore minerals from the rocks, and gradually the fresh water of the oceans became heavy with salt.

Water is a vital liquid. It irrigated these sterile expanses. The paths it traced are like the veins of a body, the branches of a tree – the vessels of the sap that it brought to the Earth.

Nearly four billion years later, somewhere on Earth can still be found these works of art left by the volcanoes’ ash, mixed with water from Iceland’s glaciers. There they are – matter and water, water and matter, soft and hard combined – the crucial alliance shared by every life form on our planet. Minerals and metals are even older than the Earth. They are stardust. They provide the Earth’s colors — red from iron, black from carbon, blue from copper, yellow from sulfur.

Where do we come from? Where did life first spark into being? A miracle of time, primitive life forms still exist in the globe’s hot springs. They give them their colors. They are called archeabacteria. They all feed off the Earth’s heat – all except the cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. They alone have the capacity to turn to the Sun to capture its energy. They are a vital ancestor of all yesterday’s and today’s plant species. These tiny bacteria and their billions of descendants changed the destiny of our planet. They transformed its atmosphere.

What happened to the carbon that poisoned the atmosphere? It’s still here, imprisoned in the Earth’s crust. We can read this chapter of the Earth’s history nowhere better than on the walls of [Arizona’s] Grand Canyon. They reveal nearly two billion years of the Earth’s history. Once upon a time, the Grand Canyon was a sea inhabited by microorganisms. They grew their shells by tapping into carbon from the atmosphere dissolved in the ocean. When they died, the shells sank and accumulated on the sea bed. These strata are the product of those billions and billions of shells. Thanks to them, the carbon drained from the atmosphere and other life forms could develop.

It is life that altered the atmosphere. Plant life fed off the Sun’s energy, which enabled it to break apart the water molecule and take the oxygen. And oxygen filled the air.

The Earth’s water cycle is a process of constant renewal. Waterfalls, water vapor, clouds, rain, springs, rivers, seas, oceans, glaciers – the cycle is never broken. There’s always the same quantity of water on Earth. All the successive species on Earth have drunk the same water. The astonishing matter that is water – one of the most unstable of all, it takes a liquid form as running water, gaseous as vapor, or solid as ice.

In Siberia, the frozen surfaces of the lakes in winter contain the traces of the forces that water deploys when it freezes, Lighter than water, the ice floats rather than sinking to the bottom. It forms a protective mantle against the cold under which life can go on.

The engine of life is linkage. Everything is linked. Nothing is self-sufficient. Water and air are inseparable, united in life and for our life on Earth. Thus, clouds form over the oceans and bring rain to the landmasses, whose rivers carry water back to the oceans. Sharing is everything.

The green expanse peeking through the clouds is the source of oxygen in the air. Seventy percent of this gas – without which our lungs cannot function – comes from the algae that tint the surface of the oceans. Our Earth relies on a balance in which every being has a role to play and exists only through the existence of another being – a subtle, fragile harmony that is easily shattered.

Thus, corals are born from the marriage of algae and shells. The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia stretches over 350,000 square kilometers and is home to 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 species of mollusks, and 400 species of coral. The equilibrium of every ocean depends on these corals.

The Earth counts time in billions of years. It took more than four billion years for it to make trees. In the chain of species trees are a pinnacle – a perfect living sculpture. Trees defy gravity. They’re the only natural element in perpetual movement toward the sky. They grow unhurriedly toward the Sun that nourishes their foliage. They have inherited from those miniscule cyanobacteria the power to capture light’s energy. They store it and feed off it, turning it into wood and leaves which then decompose into a mixture of water, mineral, vegetable, and living matter.

And so, gradually, the soils that are indispensable to life are formed. Soils are the factory of biodiversity. They are a world of incessant activity where microorganisms feed, dig, aerate, and transform. They make humus, the fertile layer to which all life on land is linked.

What do we know about life on Earth? How many species are we aware of? A tenth of them? A hundredth, perhaps? What do we know about the bonds that link them? The Earth is a miracle. Life remains a mystery.

Families of animals form, united by customs and rituals that survive today. Some adapt to the nature of their pasture, and their pasture adapts to them. And both gain – the animal sates its hunger and the trees can blossom again.

In the great adventure of life on Earth, every species has a role to play, every species has its place. None is futile or harmful. They all balance out.

And that’s where you – Homo Sapiens, “wise human” – enter the story. You benefit from a fabulous four-billion-year-old legacy bequeathed by the Earth.

You’re only two hundred thousand years old, but you have changed the face of the world. Despite your vulnerability, you have taken possession of every habitat and conquered swaths of territory like no other species before you.

After 180,000 nomadic years, and thanks to a more clement climate, humans settled down. They no longer depended on hunting for survival. They chose to live in wet environments that abounded in fish, game, and wild plants – there where land, water, and life combine. Human genius inspired them to build canoes, an invention that opened up new horizons and turned humans into navigators. Even today, the majority of humankind lives on the continents’ coastlines or the banks of rivers and lakes.

The first towns grew up less than [6,000] years ago. It was a considerable leap in human history. Why towns? Because they allowed humans to defend themselves more easily. They became social beings, meeting and sharing knowledge and crafts, blending their similarities and differences. In a word, they became civilized.

But the only energy at their disposal was provided by nature, and the strength of their bodies. It was the story of humankind for thousands of years. It still is for one person in four, over one and a half billion human beings – more than the combined populations of all the wealthy nations.

Taking from the Earth only the strictly necessary, for a long time the relationship between humans and the planet was evenly balanced. For a long time, the economy seemed like a natural and equitable alliance.

But life expectancy is short, and hard labor takes its toll. The uncertainties of nature weigh on daily life. Education is a rare privilege. Children are a family’s only assets as long as every extra pair of hands is a necessary contribution to its subsistence.

The Earth feeds people, clothes them, and provides for their daily needs. Everything comes from the Earth.

Towns change humanity’s nature, as well as its destiny. The farmer becomes a craftsman, trader, or peddler. What the Earth gives the farmer, the city dweller buys, sells, or barters. Goods change hands, along with ideas.

Humanity’s genius is to have always had a sense of its weakness. Humans tried to extend the frontiers of their territory, but they knew their limits. The physical energy and strength with which nature had not endowed them was found in the animals they domesticated to serve them.

But how can you conquer the world on an empty stomach? The invention of agriculture transformed the future of the wild animals scavenging for food that were humankind. Agriculture turned their history on end. Agriculture was their first great revolution. Developed barely eight to ten thousand years ago, it changed their relationship to nature. It brought an end to the uncertainty of hunting and gathering. It resulted in the first surpluses and gave birth to cities and civilizations.

For their agriculture, humans harnessed the energy of animal species and plant life from which they at last extracted the profits. The memory of thousands of years scrabbling for food faded. They learned to adapt the grains that are the yeast of life to different soils and climates. They learned to increase the yield and multiply the number of varieties.

Like every species on Earth, the principle daily concern of all humans is to feed themselves and their family. When the soil is less generous and water becomes scarce, humans employ prodigious efforts to mark a few arid acres with the imprint of their labor.

Humans shape the land with the patience and devotion that the Earth demands in an almost sacrificial ritual performed over and over.

Agriculture is still the world’s most widespread occupation. Half of humankind tills the soil – over three-quarters of them by hand. Agriculture is like a tradition handed down from generation to generation in sweat, graft, and toil because for humanity it is a prerequisite for survival.

But after relying on muscle power for so long, humankind found a way to tap into the energy buried deep in the Earth. These flames are also from plants – a pocket of sunlight, pure energy, the energy of the Sun captured over millions of years by millions of plants more than a hundred million years ago. It’s coal, it’s gas, and above all, it’s oil.

And this pocket of sunlight freed humans from their toil on the land. With oil began the era of humans who break free from the shackles of time. With oil some of us acquired unprecedented comforts. And in 50 years – in a single lifetime – the Earth has been more radically changed than by all previous generations of humanity.

Faster and faster — in the last 60 years the Earth’s population has almost tripled, and over two billion people have moved to the cities.

Faster and faster — Shenzhen in China with its hundreds of skyscrapers and millions of inhabitants was just a small fishing village barely 40 years ago.

Faster and faster is Shanghai. Three thousand towers and skyscrapers have been built in 20 years. Hundreds more are under construction.

Today, over half of the world’s seven billion inhabitants live in cities.

New York, the world’s first megalopolis, is the symbol of the exploitation of the energy the Earth supplies through human genius – the manpower of millions of immigrants, the energy of coal, the unbridled power of oil. Electricity resulted in the invention of elevators which in turn permitted the invention of skyscrapers. New York ranks as the 16th largest economy in the world.

America was the first to discover, exploit, and harness the phenomenal, revolutionary power of black gold. With its help, a country of farmers became a country of agricultural industrialists. Machines replaced men. A liter of oil generates as much energy as one hundred pairs of hands in 24 hours. But worldwide, only 3% of farmers have use of a tractor. Nevertheless, their output dominates the planet.

In the United States, only three million farmers are left. They produce enough grain to feed two billion people. But most of that grain is not used to feed people. Here, and in all other industrialized nations, it is transformed into livestock feed or bio-fuels.

The pocket of sunshine’s energy chased away the specter of drought that stalked farmland. No spring escapes the demands of agriculture, which accounts for 70% of humanity’s water consumption.

In nature, everything is linked. The expansion of cultivated land and single-crop farming encouraged the development of parasites. Pesticides, another gift of the petrochemical revolution, exterminated them. Bad harvests and famine became a distant memory. The biggest headache now was what to do with the surplus engendered by modern agriculture.

But toxic pesticides seeped into the air, soil, plants, animals, rivers and oceans. They penetrated the heart of cells, similar to the mother cell that is shared by all forms of life. Are they harmful to the humans that they released from hunger? These farmers in their yellow protective suits probably have a good idea.

The new agriculture abolished the dependence on soils and seasons. Fertilizers produced unprecedented results on plots of land thus far ignored. Crops adapted to soils and climates gave way to the most productive varieties and the easiest to transport. And so in the last century, three-quarters of the varieties developed by farmers over thousands of years have been wiped out. As far as the eye can see — fertilizer below, plastic on top — the greenhouses of Almeria in Spain are Europe’s vegetable garden. A city of uniformly-sized vegetables waits every day for the hundreds of trucks that will take them to the continent’s supermarkets.

The more a country develops, the more meat its inhabitants consume. How can a growing worldwide demand be satisfied without recourse to concentration camp-style cattle farms? Faster and faster.

Like the life cycle of livestock which may never see a meadow manufacturing meat faster than the animal has become a daily routine. In these vast food lots, trampled by millions of cattle, not a blade of grass grows. A fleet of trucks from every corner of the country brings in tons of grain, soy meal, and protein-rich granules that will become tons of meat. The result is that it takes 100 liters of water to produce one kilogram of potatoes, 4,000 for one kilo of rice, and 13,000 for one kilo of beef. Not to mention the oil guzzled in the production process and transport.

Our agriculture has become oil-powered. It feeds twice as many humans on Earth but has replaced diversity with standardization. It has offered many of us comforts we could only dream of, but it makes our way of life totally dependent on oil. This is the new measure of time. Our world’s clock now beats to the rhythm of these indefatigable machines tapping into the pocket of sunlight. Their regularity reassures us. The tiniest hiccup throws us into disarray. The whole planet is attentive to these metronomes of our hopes and illusions — the same hopes and illusions that proliferate along with our needs, increasingly insatiable desires, and profligacy. We know that the end of cheap oil is imminent, but we refuse to believe it.

Download a PDF file for Part I here:

HOME – Part I

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