Back to School, Google Earth Pro, ‘Big Blue Marble,’ and Earth Day Wishes
By Louis Medina, Communications and Philanthropy Director
Involuntarily, my eyes got blurry, and my cheeks felt the warmth of my freely flowing tears.
I had just downloaded Google Earth Pro and fired it up for the first time to prepare for an assignment in a geology course I’m taking this semester at the Bishop Campus of Cerro Coso College.
On my laptop screen was a beautiful “Big Blue Marble,” like a TV program about our planet by that name, which I had loved as a kid in the 1970s. The show always opened with an image of Earth in space, like Google Earth Pro does, and for 30 minutes on Saturday mornings, it introduced young viewers to stories of other children and teens around the world, some of whom lived in rustic homes with thatched roofs, rode donkeys or camels, helped their fathers fish using nets, and enjoyed lives that to me felt enviable in their exoticism and simplicity.
“Big Blue Marble” inspired me to dream.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I would look at the palm tree silhouettes at the daydream hour of sunset and tell myself that someday, I, too, would experience life in faraway places. Eventually, after college, I ended up living in countries as different from my native El Salvador and my adopted United States as Japan, China, Spain, and England, and traveling to more than a dozen other countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America before returning to the U.S. in my late thirties.
Now here I was decades later, staring as if from space at our big, blue marble of a planet again. Only this time, I was interacting with it on my screen: spinning it around, turning it upside-down, zooming way out and back in again, typing location names or latitude and longitude coordinates in the search bar and letting the program transport me in easy, fantastical leaps across continents and over oceans to such amazing places as fiery Kilauea Volcano, where Pele, the Goddess of Fire, lives; Antarctica, which, when centered on the globe becomes an icy diva that steals the show from all the other continents; the mighty Congo River in the heart of Africa, its enormous arc slicing through the equator twice; the endless, endless, endless Andes.
But whereas “Big Blue Marble” had shown me the carefree, smiling faces of children around the globe, Google Earth Pro was revealing awesome and terrifying things: the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world’s oceans, with its sharp, curved-blade shape that makes it look chillingly like the Grim Reaper’s scythe; rift valleys and ocean ridges that split the Earth’s upper crust like wounds tearing apart flesh; formidable rivers and deserts and mountain ranges that create natural barriers, isolating people from one another, taking the lives of many who have dared to attempt crossing them.
Still, it was beautiful.
And that’s why my tears were flowing.
Earth is so diverse and alluring it inspired me, and who knows how many other young fans of “Big Blue Marble,” not only to dream, but to literally go off into the world and live those dreams.
It is so big and complex it spurred the quest for cutting-edge technology that built upon the centuries of accomplishments of mariners, cartographers, astronomers, explorers, geologists, and others who came before and died without seeing the digital promised land that I now held effortlessly on my lap in wonder.
It is a treasure that needs to be loved and valued and guarded jealously like the proverbial Biblical pearl of great price, which is worth more than all the possessions any of us owns.
Yet sadly, we humans are destroying it.
And with it, we are destroying ourselves—because, as fellow conservationists like to point out, “There is no Planet B.”
I love my geology class, and, thanks to it, I’ve learned a lot about the dynamic forces that have shaped and continue to shape our planet. But I’ve also learned things I wish I hadn’t learned—things I wish weren’t true.
Did you know that Earth is running out of sand? Who would have thought that sand, which is so plentiful we use it metaphorically to refer to boundlessness and infinity, could get so depleted that the livelihood and very existence of many living beings would be compromised? Specifically, the sand that is running out is the type found in and around rivers, lakes, and the seashore—the kind needed for making concrete. We don’t see the devastation as much in the developed world, but in poorer countries, with overpopulation and exploding urban growth that demand the construction of more homes and buildings and roads, entire river deltas, shorelines and ecosystems are being dramatically altered or disappearing altogether as humans mine for sand in a frenzy.
Or were you aware that dangerous occupational respiratory diseases like silicosis and black lung have made a comeback in developed countries like Australia and the U.S. within the last 10 years? Apparently, a relaxation in the implementation of proven safety standards for construction and demolition workers, coal miners, stonecutters, and makers of kitchen and bathroom countertops and tiles, is causing them to breathe in dust that greatly compromises their health and shortens their lives.
Or that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 75 percent of the Earth’s cobalt is mined, children are being kept in poverty and illiteracy, and denied the opportunity to go to school or even foster dreams and aspirations of a better life? Countless Congolese children are made to work in slave-like conditions alongside adults without any sort of safety equipment to extract a mineral that makes our lives in the developed world easier. Cobalt is needed for rechargeable batteries in smartphones, laptops, tablets and electric vehicles. The precious metals and other riches of the Congo, which should be the Congolese children’s inheritance, are being exploited by other nations, while these poor children and their families are left to fend for themselves in a decimated and polluted wasteland.
And I know you are aware of what more than a century of water extraction by the City of Los Angeles has done to the Owens Valley, utterly altering the landscape of what the original Paiute inhabitants called Payahuunadü, “the land of flowing water,” drying up Owens Lake and turning it into a dust bowl and the greatest source of PM10 particulate matter pollution in the U.S.
In my geology e-textbook, a multiple-choice question in a quiz on the chapter on glaciers asks at what rate glaciers are retreating given the current conditions of climate change. The right response is in just years or decades, and when you click to check your answer, the sobering confirmation pops up: “Correct! Many glaciated places may be devoid of glaciers in today’s students’ lifetimes!” Shiver.
So, what are humans to do for the big blue marble we have tarnished so much through our actions?
None of us can control any one environmental crisis in its entirety, much less all the crises we have unleashed on our planet at the same time. I think the best any of us can do is take care of our own little corner of the world—protect it, treasure it, guard it jealously like the pearl of great price that it is. For us at Friends of the Inyo, that’s the Eastern Sierra. For the people of Montana, it might be Glacier National Park. For the people of the DRC it might be the contaminated villages in lands rich with cobalt. If each of us “cleaned up our side of the street,” so to speak, and did so consistently, every person on Earth would be helping to heal a patch of the planet here, and there, and everywhere. A patch that could gradually start to stretch endlessly, like the Andes. And we could, eventually, begin to see the blue come back.
This Earth Day, I encourage you to download Google Earth Pro (it’s FREE!), fire it up, play around with it, learn from it, and DREAM! Let the beauty of our planet inspire you to do something to help it heal. Start where you are, in your little corner of the world. Any one of us can help bring back some blue to our big blue marble.
Happy Earth Day!