In sunny ocean shallows, coral polyps, tiny marine invertebrates, build their home. Working with even tinier sun-powered plankton that live within them, the duo capture carbon and calcium out of the waters around them. Living in colonies of tens of thousands individuals, each polyp uses the nutrients that it collects to secrete a calcium carbonate exoskeleton around itself. As one polyp dies and another takes its place, each generation builds upon the legacy of the last. Steadily, skeleton by skeleton, millimeter by millimeter, their home-upon-homes fratally unfolds. Patterns begin to emerge. Domes, shelves, horns, fans and a myriad of varying geometries blossom. The vast surface areas of these carbonate palaces provides a three dimensional neighbourhood of niches, shelters and microhabitats. As many species of fish, invertebrates, and microorganisms make their home within the space, their lives intertwine. Complex and interconnected relationships emerge. This web of dependencies vitalizes the co-evolution of diverse strategies and adaptions to exploit or evade. Cycle by cycle, as the tiny polyps and their colonies flourish, so too does the vitality, resiliency and diversity of the ecosystem of which they are a part.
The process by which the coral polyp builds its home, and in so doing supports a common home for a great diversification of others, is an example to inspire and guide our modern green aspirations. Indeed, the polyp's process of spiraling its matter into sequestration and distributing energy out to its ecosystem, perfectly embodies our last two Earthen ethics. However, while in our last two chapters we looked individually at Earth's dynamics of energy and of matter, in practice, neither acts on its own. And when an organism's spirals of matter and energy are both in Earthen resonance, a fourth Earthen tendency emerges. As we shall see, the way in which the coral polyp's vitalizes the systemic diversity of its space is a microcosm the very process by which Earth transformed from barren to biosphere. In this parralel, our fourth Earthen ethic becomes clear. As we shall also see, in the same way that cyclocentric cultures have long embodied this ethic to enrich the ecosystems of which they are part, so too can our modern acts and enterprises.
To begin, let us return again to Earth's primordial beginnings for a closer look. However, this time, let us not just observe the way that life unfolded, but also the way in which our scientists have themselves observed and measured its unfolding.
As we saw in Earth's stellar story, over the course of the last four billion years, the cosmological character of our planet has unfurled from barren to biosphere. Despite cataclysms and extinctions a singular upward tendency prevailed. The variety of organisms and ecosystems on the planet's surface has steadily increased.
Nowhere in the fossil record is the process of diversification more evident than in the oceans.
In 1998, paleontologist Joseph Sepkoski completed a comprehensive database of marine life over the last 541 million years. Focusing exclusively on life that flourished within ocean spaces, he compiled over 30,000 fossil genera, representing the finds and categorization of millions of species by centuries of fossil hunters. By recording each genus’s appearance and disappearance in the fossil timeline, he was able to chart for how long each were active and when they died off.⁷⁷
Sepkoski was particularly interested in showing Earth’s great rises and falls in diversity — such as the explosion of life in the Carboniferous to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. Indeed, his timeline of extinctions correlates directly with the dating of great meteors and volcanoes by geologists. However, just as important as showing periodic declines and increases in diversity, his graph shows something even ore fundamental: an inexorable increase in the diversity of the marine biome over Earth's history.(See figure 1)
It is important to view this tendency within the context of our last two Earthen ethics.
In our last two chapters, we observed Earth's spiral of matter tends towards concentration, and Earth's spiral of energy tends towards the benefit of the whole. These two tendencies formed our second and third Earthen ethics-- dynamics fundamental to the enrichment of Earth's biosphere.
Yet as a cycle's matter and energy swirled, each affected the other and their spirals are inherently intertwined. As Earthen matter accrued into organic systems of ever greater complexity, energy could be better captured. As more energy was captured, organisms dispersed it ever more extensively across the surface of the planet.
Here let us return to the coral polyp. The tendency of this tiny creature's life cycles are in many ways a microcosm of the very process that has shaped Earth's diverse and vital biosphere over billions of years.
Just as Earth's unfolding has resulted in a hospitable space for more and more organisms, so too does the life process of the polyp lead to a common home for more and more creatures. Over billions of years, the contributions of various organisms, from plants to animals, fungi, and microorganisms, have collectively shaped the planet's ecosystems so that other organisms could find a home and flourish themselves. Over thousands of life cycles, the coral building process of the polyp leads to reefs that host a vast array of adapted species, each contributing in their own way to the common home of all.
Secondly, just as the success of coral reefs is dependent on mutualistic relationships between corals and the symbiotic algae that provide them with energy, Earth's biosphere has thrived due to the intricate web of life forms that support and depend on each other. In a broader sense, Earth's transformation has relied on intricate ecological relationships. The co-evolution of species and their interactions, such as pollination, seed dispersal, predation, and competition, has led to the development of complex and mutually beneficial despersions of nutrients. These ecological relationships have allowed various species to occupy specific niches and adapt to changing environmental conditions, ensuring the planet's long-term biodiversity and ecological stability. This interdependence ensures the sustainability and resilience of ecosystems, as well as the continued evolution of life on the planet.
The gradual accumulation of species, the development of mutualistic relationships, and the complexity of ecological interactions have all played a crucial role in Earth's transformation from a barren to biosphere.
Today, as we strive to make our human enterprises green, both Earth and the coral polyp provide an example for us to follow.
Just as Earth’s processes tended towards diversification within its space, so too must we intend and achieve with our own processes. Only when the intention and the result of our enterprise is the support and vitalization of diversity in our spaces is the principle of diversification met. Only then can our acts and enterprises be considered ecological contributions — and green.
With the Earthen of diversification ethic in hand, we have a fourth criteria to evaluate and guide our attempts at green: Are the spaces of our enterprises supporting and vitalizing the diversification of species?
To acheive the fourth Earthen ethic, our green enterprises must therefore account for their space and the species they host.
Here we can learn much from the labour and insights of our scientists.
In his undertaking to understand ancient marine diversity, Sepkoski reviewed thousands of scientific journals by paleontologists and biologists to survey the number of species at the outset of an age and at its end. Only by surveying, naming and listing the species within over a certain period of time and in a certain space, could he demonstrate the process of diversification.
Consequently, our own processes, to be green must likewise demonstrate through naming, listing and accounting, that they are supportive of diversity. In particular, the physical space and time that holds a process or enterprise. By accounting for the net space used by our enterprises (S in cubic meters) and their gradual increase in the net amount of species supported (Nnumber of species) over a period of time (Y years) can we know whether our process, projects and enterprises are in fact supporting biodiversity.
Such a process of accounting, fundamentally involves the naming and knowing the species within our spaces. The naming and knowing of contributors — or not — expresses the depth of a process’s intention to supporting life — or lack of it. And the gradual accumulation of names, demonstrates tangibly the steady welcoming, support and vitalization of biodiversity within our spaces.
Cyclocentric cultures once again show us the way forward and the green heights that are possible.
As we saw in our first two Earthen ethics, the Igorots and the Wetsuweten, had cultural values that systematically encouraged integration with the cycles of life of which they were part. In the case of the Igorots, this meant that farmers who integrated a great number of plants and animals into their gardens were esteemed more than others. This was done by systematically terracing hillsides in a way that created more space for all. Likewise, the Wetsuweten took great care to hunt, fish and harvest in ways that regenerated the animal, river and forest ecosystems with which they interacted. Over the 12,000 years that they presided over the coastal interior of the Pacific Northwest, their ancestors assisted as a barren, post-gacial landscape transformed into a thriving, vital and diverse ecosystem.
In this way, we can intentionally follow the path of Earth, the Igorots, the Wet'suweten and the Coral Polyp in tending an ever increasing diversity and vitality of life within our shared spaces.
As our life-lists grow, something especially Earthen unfolds: We become aware that there were far more organisms sharing our space than we ever imagined — species small and mighty enriching the soil and cleaning the air. As we discover animals and insects, plants and fungi that have long been our unnamed fellows, their addition become a legitimate boon for our life-lists ratios— and an indication of a phenomenon even more profound unfolding.
For as our garden green spaces transform to forests, and as our forests transform to wild and wondrous sanctums, so too is the consciousness of our connection to it all blossoming like a spring flower. As we will see in our next Earthen Ethic, just as important as diversification is our awareness of our place in the process itself.
Our fifth and final Earthen ethic.