Pale Blue Dot: Amid political turmoil, we cannot overlook the Earth

Kylie Harrington | Daily Trojan

An incomplete list of news items from the past week: the Russia probe got a potential end date, 10 students were killed in a school shooting, an American actress married into the British royal family, the U.S. tried to stay out of a trade war with China, a volcano caused thousands of Hawaiians to evacuate their homes, Deadpool 2 came out, and — wait, a volcano?

Even if you are trying to keep up with the news, you may have missed updates on the ongoing eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. Kilauea’s volcanic activity increased dramatically when one of its crater floors collapsed April 30, which pushed a huge pool of lava underground and, several days later, caused that lava to reemerge through fissures in residential areas of the island. As of Sunday, the lava flows were still moving across Big Island, and some were reaching the ocean, pushing plumes of hydrochloric acid and fine glass into the air as molten rock made contact with cool seawater. In any year before 2018, a large-scale natural disaster like the Kilauea eruption would be a front-page story.

And yet, the average mainland citizen without a personal connection to Kilauea has probably only heard about its volcanic activity a few times over the last three weeks. I’ll admit, I knew little about it before I fell down a rabbit hole of lava livestreams (they exist, and they’re terrifying). But as I looked at footage of the Hawaiian sky filled with ash, I was struck by how ironic it is that natural disasters are often covered in less detail than the average White House press briefing.

The modern news cycle seems to have little time for natural events, concerned as it is — and as it should be — with the many problems in the political, economic and social realms. I am by no means saying that these issues do not deserve to be covered with detail and rigor, but the lack of coverage of the Kilauea eruption and other natural disasters represents people’s isolation from and fear of the natural world.

We, as a society, tend to look away from nature because it is hard to quantify — to predict, time or measure. Natural events can feel random, and as such are hard to find a narrative in, plus Mother Nature was never known to give good sound bites. Nature doesn’t fit into our timelines, our news cycles or our schedules, not to mention the fact that it is scary to think about the myriad earthquakes, eruptions, droughts, animal attacks and wildfires that could easily lead to our demise.

It makes sense that we like to ignore things like Kilauea, or anything else that reminds us of the truly awe-inspiring power of the Earth and the comparatively short, meaningless lives we lead. Footage of burning lava, swirling hurricanes and sturdy glaciers are not-so-subtle reminders that Earth was here long before us and will be here long after, and they force us to confront our own mortality. To avoid engaging in these topics, we choose instead to focus on the more quotidian issues, which is not a bad response, but can easily be taken too far.

It is this de-emphasis of nature — prioritizing human issues before environmental issues — that has allowed us to harm the planet so recklessly for the last two centuries. It is possible to reconcile between the modern world we live in and the natural world that allowed them to flourish. However, it does require some readjustment of priorities — namely, what we give our attention to and how willing we are to take time out of our day to think about the Earth in the midst of our political and social turmoil.

So, in the name of readjusting attention, welcome to “Pale Blue Dot,” a column about the most important issue that we almost never talk about: our planet.

Kylie Harrington is a junior majoring in journalism. Her column,“Pale Blue Dot,” runs Wednesdays.