Citizen of nurturing planet takes the pledge

Oceans, clouds and continents adorn the orb of planet Earth as its citizens sail through the hostile ocean of outer space. Photo by NASA; rendering by Ger Erickson.

The month needn’t be specified. Two words suffice: the Fourth. And the flag needn’t be specified. Three words suffice: Stars and Stripes. From banners and bunting to face paint and lapel pins, the Fourth is when the primary colors of our spectrum hew to the hues of the holy trinity of red, white and blue.

We Americans are flagoholics, and The Fourth is our day to binge. If you doubt it, consider the focus of our national anthem. Is it the people, the land, the ideals of democracy? Nope. It’s the flag.

I pledge allegiance to the flag that stands for the republic of the United States of America. I take pride in our nation. Many decades ago the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, “There are those, I know, who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream.”

But I also pledge allegiance to the planet – and that allegiance conjures an image. Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. Color the image blue, white, green, brown and black.

Blue symbolizes water. Of all the planets circling our Sun, only Earth’s surface is graced by oceans. We occupy Lane No. 3 in the planetary speedway: the Habitable Zone, between 74 and 148 million miles from the Sun. Mercury and Venus occupy the inside lanes, where oceans boil off. In the outside lanes of Mars through Neptune, oceans freeze solid. End of life as we know it.

Next time you take a sunset walk on the beach, don’t leave till the sky is strewn with planets and stars. Look up, and know that in all that immensity you’ll not find many gems like our sapphire Earth. The color of water.

White stands for clouds. In our planet’s infancy, not a single cloud graced our skies. Earth was molten rock; its oceans were red, not blue. When the planet cooled, its magma formed a crust from which water vapor escaped and condensed in the primitive atmosphere. Water-rich meteoroids bombarded the surface. The first clouds were born.

Those primordial clouds lashed Earth with rains that further cooled the surface and flooded its hollows to form the first seas. About 3 billion years ago the seas gave birth to single-celled organisms. Life was up and running.

On Earth’s surface, our Sun gives life; beyond our thin atmosphere, the Sun takes life away.

Green and brown denote our planet’s continents: the grasslands, marshlands and forests, and the dirt – the earth of Earth. Three other planets in our solar system are covered in solid ground. But you wouldn’t want to vacation there.

Mercury’s surface temperatures range from -364 F at night to 788 F during the day. The maximum surface temperature of the runaway greenhouse machine known as Venus is worse: 864 F. Surface temperatures on Mars range from -225 F at the winter polar caps to a comfy 95 F in summer at the equator. But Mars’ average surface pressure is only 0.6 percent of Earth’s. On the Red Planet, you might be able to grow lichens unprotected, but not humans.

For Jupiter and Saturn, the term “solid ground” has no meaning. These gas giants are composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. The ice giants Uranus and Neptune are even less hospitable. Just below their cloud tops, water, methane and ammonia are suspended in an environment shivering around -350 F.

The blue, white, green and brown disc at the heart of our planetary flag needs a black background to put matters into perspective. In the oxygen-free environment of outer space, we lose consciousness within seconds. Minus the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere, our fluids boil, causing our skin and internal organs to expand. But don’t worry: before our fluids evaporate, they freeze.

Exposed to sunlight directly above Earth’s atmosphere, we sizzle at a temperature of 248 F. In the shade, we freeze at -148 F. The highly accelerated protons of solar winds batter us. Cosmic rays break our DNA molecule strands, mangle our genes and destroy our cells. All that shields us from this devastation is our planet’s atmosphere, so thin that if Earth were the size of a basketball, its atmosphere would be a layer of plastic wrap.

Astronauts are well aware of these realities. They’re also aware of another reality: from space they view a world etched by no dotted lines of national boundaries. They look through a fragile atmosphere onto the natural borders of oceans, clouds and continents, and view the effects of a climate that respects no ideology. If humanity is to survive its technological infancy – avoid thermonuclear winter or a perpetual scorching summer – this is the image we must embrace: one world, the only home we'll know.

“There is nothing in the normal human mind that forbids the expansion of one’s loyalty above the level of one’s country," wrote philosopher and scientist Ervin Lázsló. "We are not constrained to swear exclusive allegiance to one flag only. We can be loyal to our community without giving up loyalty to our province, state or region. We can be loyal to our region and feel at one with an entire culture, and even with the human family as a whole.”

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, viewed from Snow Creek.

Our Earth flag is well and good, but the best flag is a mere human invention. When I think about the planet, a flag is not the first thing that comes to mind. What first comes to mind is Earth’s stunning beauty. The briefest account of it echoes the cadences of the Book of Job: “Have you seen the snowy crown of Mt. Fujiyama flushed with the rose of dawn, or descended the banded ancientry of the Grand Canyon? Has the Amazon revealed its sultry wonders to you, or have you glided on Lake Titicaca’s cerulean waters? Cliffs of ice crash into the sea on Alaska’s coastline, and mists enshroud the rainforests of Maui’s Haleakala. Declare, if you have seen all this.”

Here in humble Contra Costa County, California we’re fortunate to see quite a lot: spacious skies over the San Joaquin, amber waves of wild grasses undulating along the Vaqueros hills, the purple majesty at sunrise of a mountain called Diablo. And in summer, as we celebrate the fruited plain of fields, orchards and vineyards, it’s inarguable that God has shed his grace on us. If we could only crown our good with brotherhood, we’d have a nation for the ages. 

A three-hour drive east of Contra Costa puts you in a place called Yosemite Valley, its soaring walls of granite unchanged for 14,000 years – 8,000 years before the first Native American set eyes on them; 14,000, rounded off, before the United States of America came into existence. Yosemite belongs to the people of Earth. If that seems overly generous of us, take heart: the Great Barrier Reef, the fjords of Scandinavia and the lava caves of Jeju belong to the people of Earth, too.

In my wanderings at Yosemite I’ve crossed paths with, chatted with and snapped photos of as many foreigners as Americans. Like me, they all crane their necks, rotate a slow 360 and say “Wow” in their native tongues.

At those moments we affirm our unity as citizens of the planet, and our flag – as yet unsewn, its azure orb swirled by clouds and dappled by continents, sailing on the black ocean of the cosmos – as an object worthy of reverence. Maybe even an anthem.