Last week, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the new 5-part BBC Studios series “Prehistoric Planet” on Apple TV. It’s truly amazing to see how far computer graphics technology has come to be able to render a world so life-like. That, and the familiar voice of David Attenborough makes you believe you’re watching a real, present-day documentary. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so.
Our friends at Audubon are rightfully proud of how the producers spent so much time looking to modern birds for clues on how to authentically animate these majestic creatures of Earth’s deep past. And in doing so, from the mannerisms of mating rituals, to the feathers on many species, we are crisply reminded that birds are not just descended from dinosaurs, they are dinosaurs – just the last ones remaining.
With the final Jurassic Park coming out this summer, I am now hoping for another wave of “dinomania” this year. Dinosaurs are a gateway drug for many scientific minds, and I hope this time the presence of feathers in realistic animations casts some scientific light on birds… and their relationship to the bigger picture.
Although the bigger dinosaurs (and most other life around them) perished in a meteor-strike that sent shock waves around the planet in hours and days, our modern society is wreaking havoc on the world around us a bit more slowly, but still very swiftly on planetary time scales.
One of the things I’ve learned is that we humans suck at grasping time on any scale longer than our last or next meal. When I was a child, I thought the pyramids seemed tremendously old, but I later realized they were still a part of a relatively young human “historical” period.
Then I joined the oil industry, which surprisingly (to me) was built around time scales much, much older. That business was mostly measured on a timeclock that went back over 500 million years – the period after which life on Earth exploded. Within that 500 million year window, I was stunned to see how well geologists had described what was happening everywhere on earth ever since. Using this clock, we had a remarkably good understanding of where land masses were over the course of that time, how sea levels moved up and down, and importantly, how sediments were deposited in “basins” around the planet.
In one of several major demarcation points on that deep-time calendar, 66 million years ago, a meteor crashed into Earth in what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Air temperatures reached over 300 degrees 1000 miles away. 75% of species on Earth went extinct – in some cases literally overnight.
Mammals made it through the cataclysm because a few lived in the sea and many small ones had learned how to burrow underground. Birds, the one group of dinosaurs to survive, may have made it through not only because they were small and mobile, but smart.
In a world emptied of large predators, mammals and birds have since thrived and evolved. As I’ve noted before, grasslands and the animals that grazed them evolved together mostly starting around 8 million years ago. Birds continued to diversify during this period. Then, the genus we call “homo” emerged about 2.8 million years ago in the savannas of East Africa. Still later, we homo sapiens (so denoted as the “wise” branch of the genus) emerged only about 300,000 years ago in those same savannas. Clever and inventive that we were, a little over 100,000 years ago we then began migrating outward from those grasslands until we covered most of the planet.
Then about 170 years ago, we clever humans figured out how to find, produce and use the energy-packed residue of ancient sunlight from millions of years ago buried in the Earth – i.e. oil and gas. Scientists and engineers like me got really good at finding it and sucking it out of the ground. All of us have enjoyed its benefits to move around, stay warm, and light up our daily lives ever since.
But we accidentally broke the planet as an unintended consequence of tapping this rich energy resource. It turns out that putting all that carbon back into the air in the form of CO2 so fast is heating things up rather quickly. Sometimes this heating is too slow to notice in our daily lives, but as this graphic so wonderfully shows, it’s is happening in the blink of an eye on longer timelines.
The luxury of energy from ancient sunlight also had other toxic effects on the world around us, not the least of which is imperiling birds. As I’ve noted before, we’ve killed off about 1/3rd of them just here in North American in just the last 50 years.
And one thing I’ve learned on my own Blue Nest journey is that birds are not only a treasure, they are actually a measure for the health of all life on our planet Earth. Where birds thrive, all life thrives. And where birds are threatened, so, too, is all life.
Thus we are presently killing off one of the things that even a meteor could not. Although our ancestors were survivors of the last impact, we humans are now like a slow-motion meteor ourselves.
The good news is that, in my opinion, we don’t have to be. Like old Scrooge himself, each day we wake up we have a choice and can change course.
Many believe this course-correction requires sacrifice, but I believe it mostly requires thoughtfulness – this time, actual wisdom. Such thoughtfulness should be directed at redesigning our human economy to run on concurrent, not ancient, solar energy – a concept I call the “synthetic savanna.” Only that can bring carbon back into balance where our future evolves in synchrony with, instead of opposition to, the rest of nature. In my opinion, there is no better place to start than with how we grow food, as farming is the part of our economy that already, by its very nature, is designed to run on sunshine.
It’s cool to watch ancient birds come to life on modern TV, but I think the more interesting question is what comes next. Birds make an excellent barometer for the health of the planet. Whither go the birds, I suggest we will likely follow.
For now, just watch the show. In it, you will get a glimpse of birds in their prior glory when they and their cousins dominated life on this planet.
But when you’re done, I invite you to ponder what’s next for what’s left of the dinosaurs? I hope the coming Dinomania of Summer 2022 triggers more people to consider how life might find a way for all of us, including what’s left of the dinosaurs, on this posthistoric planet!
Blue Nest Beef Co-Founder & CEO