The Great Oxygen Exception


Our planet is rare and beautiful; blue planets are even more exceptional. Astronomers have discovered 5,502 planets around other stars (known as exoplanets) in the Milky Way. In our solar system, only one other planet is blue, Neptune, reflecting the methane embedded in its ice. Other blue planets have been discovered. HD189733b, for example, orbits its yellow-orange star, HD189733, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope measured the actual visible-light color of the planet. 

An oxygen atmosphere, however, is truly unique, which is why we exist as self-conscious beings, made up of the stuff of the universe, but thinking and reflecting on the universe. We breathe based on plant life, where sentient, self-conscious beings breathe, and this has no precedent across the galaxy. We may never discover any self-conscious forms of life anywhere.

Oxygen-based life is so exceptional that it has not always been the case even for most of Earth’s existence, let alone the rest of the galaxy. For two billion years, the earth had almost no oxygen. But two and half billion years ago there was a significant increase in oxygen until the earth reached a tipping point of oxygen saturation to such an extent that life as we know it, sentient life, had a fighting chance of appearing and surviving. This tipping point between 2.32 and 2.22 billion years ago is known to scientists as the Great Oxidation Event. Oxygen-based life is the greatest and rarest of exceptions across the observable world so far, making our existence as sentient, self-conscious beings an intimidating, awesome, and terrifying reality of privilege and responsibility. 

The ancient stories of religious traditions come alive in terms of both Eden and Armageddon as a creative spiritual anticipation of scientific discoveries today. Oxygen is at the core of the Biblical Eden story of the human creation, the breath of God passing into the corpse of a dust-based human. 

This is a humble depiction of a being also depicted eons ago as having the power to destroy everything. Rightly so. There is the immense power of sentient beings to create, be fertile, and create in ways that still dizzy the imagination. But at the same time, the reality is that this one species can overtake an entire planet through conquest and destruction, steadily wiping out most species and building the basis for the end of life itself through nuclear war and carbon dioxide excess that is burning the planet’s life-sustaining capacities. The more we learn of the science of this, the more we realize that the poetry of creation stories from long ago is compelling as an overlay of an ethical consciousness of our unique gifts, our unique dangers, and our fateful responsibility. 

Whatever this great oxygen exception may be in the scheme of things, it is remarkable how much power we have to destroy all that has been generated and which so far has no parallel in the galaxies. This calls out for responsibility, and responsibility calls out for vision, for a practical vision of a permanent future, and more practically, a blueprint for a future that becomes a permanent fixture of the galaxy, lasting long enough to inhabit other solar systems. Oxygen-producing photosynthesis that made us possible is rare and delicate. Sentient life’s breathing is a gift, a sacred gift. Sacredness, in a non-traditional or poetic sense, is the cognitive and emotional reaction of the human being to what is most rare: an impulse of awe and care. 

Oxygen exceptionalism on a galactic scale, a galaxy we will never even begin to explore, is an awesome responsibility that is so overwhelming that it has its exact parallel in the religious awe-based sense of obligation. A reaction to the universe that says, “I must watch over this, protect this, and preserve this.” And this is something that not only must I do, but my DNA, my perpetual self on this planet, must do for consciousness to continue, for life to continue. We are the only evidence of life so far in this vastly beautiful universe. 

Still, there is absolutely no evidence so far that life will continue unless we perpetuate it by learning to control what oxygen has poured into our unstable human brain. This is a mystery, a responsibility, and an opportunity to be as creators of worlds. 

In a recent book, I created a blueprint of Compassionate Reasoning, imagining a far more sustainable future than present human life. The choice is stark: we either breathe into the Great Oxygen Exception death by conquest and an endless outpouring of carbon dioxide that burns the planet, or we breathe in and out compassion for all life, solidarity with life, and the ability to fashion a permanent outpost of consciousness with moral reasoning. We can imagine a future where our existence becomes a permanent beacon of the universe’s infinite nobility. 


© Marc Gopin