The Black Marble

Most are familiar with the iconic image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972. One of the few to show the fully illuminated disk of the planet, it quickly became know as the Blue Marble for its masses of white clouds swirling over the vast blue of the Pacific. In his recently completed doctoral dissertation at Montana State University, Daniel ZIzzamia suggests a surprising counterweight to this brightly optimistic image: a composite of satellite photos of the earth at night which some have termed the Black Marble.

The Black Marble (NASA composite satellite image)

The Black Marble (NASA composite satellite image)

Zizzamia (disclosure: I co-chaired his dissertation with the historian of science Michael Reidy) offers a new understanding of the Black Marble, pointing out that the webs of bright electric lights in these images are often generated by the burning of black coal. If the Blue Marble stands as a symbol of the dawning era of ecological awareness, the Black Marble may now become an apt symbol of the global climate change wrought by a few hundred years of burning hydrocarbons like coal and oil. We burn coal to light the night, conjuring a new Dark Age in the process.

In his dissertation--"Making the West Malleable"--Zizzamia finds the roots of both modern climate change and the Promethean faith in geoengineering solutions in the 19th Century American confrontation with geological deep time and coal. The fossilized remains of ancient life, many of them discovered in western coal seams, pushed Americans and others to abandon their faith in "sacred time" and contemplate the reality that humans might well be (to paraphrase Gould) mere baubles on an unimaginably old tree of life. For a moment, the vast reaches of geological deep time seemed poised to destroy the old faith in human exceptionalism, an existential crisis that might have led to a more modest estimation of the human place on the planet, and perhaps a very different history. Yet at the very moment that Cretaceous fossils counseled humility, Zizzamia suggests, Cretaceous coal promised a rebirth of Promethean hopes: the energy of coal would give Americans the power to become their own gods and recreate the arid West as a new Eden. Massive engineering projects like transcontinental railroads and giant concrete dams were the result.

Now, a century and a half later, Zizzamia suggests we have come full circle to again confront our essential weakness in the face of global warming. Yet just as coal offered a temporary escape from confronting the reality of deep time in the 19th Century, so do the chimerical promises of massive geoengineering programs promise to obviate any human need to fundamentally reconsider their place in the natural world today. Clinging ever more tightly to a frayed faith in our own exceptionalism, we anxiously scan the horizon for signs of new saviors to replace an affair with coal and oil gone bad. Yet as each day of denial gives way to night, the possibilities narrow, and the bright Blue Marble continues to spin slowly to Black.