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11.1.18

From the Editor

The recent news that our illustrious leader and his brain trust of deep (pocketed) thinkers intend to roll back the regulations on the emission of heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere we all share no doubt has you thinking about the parable of the archaea. What? You don’t remember it? It goes like this:

A long time ago a mighty species, mightier than all the others, came to dominate the planet in a way no species ever has before or since….

No, that’s not right. It wasn’t a long time ago. It was a long, long, long, long time ago. Before skunks, even. Before the Flying Horses. Before the Vineyard Gazette. Before sharks the size of school buses dropped their palm-sized teeth in the clays of the Gay Head Cliffs. All that glacial ho-hum about when the Island became an island five to ten thousand years ago? Forget it. We are talking about a time before the Atlantic Ocean itself was a tiny tidal creek separating what would eventually become Africa from what would become the Great Republic of the United States of America. And, of course, before that same America recently became so great again.

Come with us now back to the dimmest past, two to four billion years ago, when the atmosphere of planet earth was not the thin blue band of oxygen and nitrogen with traces of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that it is today. Then, from outer space, the now blue planet looked redder than Mars; the atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide and methane and almost devoid of oxygen. It was in this environment that the archaea, primitive forms of bacteria, ruled. None more so than the cyanobacteria, which for a billion years went forth and multiplied, covering the earth in a booming economy of photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. It was a fine time to be slime. The place was rolling in green.

But it couldn’t last. The slime of the earth carried on being ever slimier despite the fact that its very success as a species was changing the atmosphere. By about 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen in the atmosphere had increased to about 10 percent and was continuing to rise. Some of the oxygen was forming ozone and blocking ultraviolet light from reaching the surface of the planet. Some of it was converting the super heat-trapping methane into the less heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

This was disastrous news for almost all the other living things on the planet. Most of them required the old atmosphere and perished, though a few, known as extremophiles, survived by retreating to deep methane vents at the bottom of the sea. As things would happen, it was not entirely catastrophic for the cyanobacteria that had caused the change. No, the slime, also known as blue-green algae, is still around, toxically blooming occasionally when supposedly more intelligent species stop paying attention to things such as nutrient levels in great ponds and swamps of all stripes. But other than occasional unappetizing bursts of sliminess, the cyano crowd has long since lost its position of global dominance.

What does any of this have to do with the Fall Home & Garden issue of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, you ask? Precisely everything. Our home atmosphere is in the process of being transformed. The consequences are all around us for anyone to see.  Our own species continues for now to increase, but thousands of others around the planet are already in retreat.

But, you ask, haven’t we evolved?

Of course we have. Unlike cyanobacteria we can take comfort in complaining about our illustrious leaders and their brain trusts of deep (pocketed) thinkers in the swamp we call Washington. Whereas the slime has only itself to blame.

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