"Earth: A Tenant's Manual" by Frank H. T. Rhodes

NASA Photo
September 18, 2012

From his training as a geologist Frank H.T. Rhodes understands well the strains placed on our natural environment and resources all over the world. From his vantage point as president of Cornell University from 1977 to 1995, Dr. Rhodes could observe thousands of students moving in and out of temporary digs around Ithaca. 

Now as President Emeritus of Cornell, Dr. Rhodes has taken the time to share his concerns about the totality of challenges, shortages, possibilities and solutions for a planet that has been our great provider but may not always be able to yield to our demands.  In “Earth: A Tenant’s Manual” he shows how difficult it is to move into a place and leave it better than you found it or, even tougher, leave it as if no one had ever been there at all.

The manual is enormous in its scope (what else would be possible given its subject?), containing many graphs and charts to keep things clear, but constantly readable.  Its message is terribly simple: there are too many of us, we are using up the resources that have made human life worthwhile on this planet and we don’t yet have a way of protecting or replacing our air, water, soil and minerals. It starts at the beginning, with as full an explanation as possible of processes that began more than thirteen billion years ago with the formation of our universe.  The Earth occupies a special place in more ways than one, situated the proper distance from the Sun to sustain life but the only inner planet in our solar system to remain geologically active.  "Earth is a restless planet," writes Dr. Rhodes.  Volcanoes, tremors and earthquakes are common.  The surface of the Earth is largely covered by water -- it is "the blue planet" -- and one of our principal mountain ranges is the mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is entirely beneath the ocean.  This book describes a planet that is both familiar and strange.

So the great Earth cycles of interchange between the atmosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere interacted to nurture the emergence of the"fourth estate", the biosphere.  This zone of living things interacts with all the rest, and includes within its countless species one, which by its very success and explosive growth in numbers, places stresses on many of the others, modifying the atmospheric matrix that gave it lifeand whose soft embrace still suffuses its every breath.   -- from "Earth: A Tenant's Manual"

Human beings can be both victims and abusers, falling prey to violent weather ("the total energy of one thunderstorm can exceed that of an atomic bomb") and other natural hazards, but also redirecting rivers, levelling forests, spewing toxic chemicals into the air and depleting the resources that power our activities.  "Earth: A Tenant's Manual" defines ongoing population pressures that complicate the solution to other problems. In the final section of his book, Dr. Rhodes reviews the elements necessarily for a sustainable planet, setting forth specific proposals for water, air, soil, the food and energy supply and the materials our industrialized society depends on.  He is cautiously optimistic about our ability to make changes construtively and creatively.

Frank H.T. Rhodes was born in Warwickshire, England and holds four degrees from the University of Birmingham.  His earlier books include "The Language of the Earth", "The Evolution of Life"and "The Creation of the Future" on the role of the American university.  He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the National Science Board and served as its chairman and has served as chair of the boards of the American Council on Education, the American Association of Universities and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  He has been awarded more than thirty honorary degrees.

Guests: 
Dr. Frank H. T. Rhodes