We’re not “destroying” the planet


So, I’ve been enjoying a rather heated “discussion” regarding a link on vegetarianism that a friend posted on Facebook; seriously, who wouldn’t enjoy being called evil, ignorant, sadistic, immoral, and all manner of other derogatory terms for consuming the flesh of animals? I find it fun. Aside from the free-flowing insults, however, is an increasingly common claim that our activities are “destroying” the planet. This, of course, begs the question: can we really destroy the planet? The following are some issues to consider.

First and foremost, we need a few baseline facts about our planet, so that we can assess our capability to destroy the planet. Earth/Terra/Our Homeworld is a 12,756-km diameter rocky planet composed primarily of iron; [1] it is 4.55 billion years old, and has a mass of 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg; it has a gravitational binding energy of 2.24E32 J, which is basically just a fancy way of saying that this is how much energy you’ll need to input to make our planet not be a whole planet anymore. [2] Our lovely homeworld has had its share of massive impacts from asteroids, worn-out satellites and space stations, [3] and possibly even a rogue planet. [4] So, what does this say about our planet? Well, at the very least, it says that it is durable. And why not? Its a gigantic ball of iron – you try breaking that.

Of course, no determined chaotic evil overlord will accept this assertion just because I say it. So, lets assume, for the moment, that you are, in fact, a chaotic evil overlord who also happens to have more than 10,000 minions safely stashed somewhere off-planet (preferably Mars, but anywhere outside of Earth orbit will do), [5] and you really, really want to destroy the planet. Okay. I don’t think it is such a good idea, but lets explore it anyways. Probably the simplest way to conceive of this would be blowing up the planet, i.e., making the planet no longer a cohesive ball of iron, but a series of smaller fragments flying off into the void. The issue you’ll need to overcome is the gravitational binding energy of the planet’s mass, the aforementioned 2.24E+32 J. Again, this is just a fancy way of saying that this is how much energy you’ll need to input to overcome the gravitational energy that binds all that mass together.

Thus far, the most powerful and destructive weapons we possess are nuclear ones, so here are a few (abstract) [6] statistics regarding those. First and foremost, nuclear weapons are generally measured in terms of their explosive yield; the most commonly used units of measure are kilotons and megatons, which are equivalent to 4.184E12 J and 4.184E15 J, respectively. [7] There are two generic types of nuclear weapons, tactical and strategic weapons; the former have yields from 1 to 100 kT, and the latter have yields of 100 kT and above. [8] For simplicity, I will be using yields of 50 kT for tactical nuclear weapons, and 500 kT for strategic weapons; these are equivalent to 2.092E14 J, and 2.092E15 J, respectively. Based on statistics starting at the dawn of the nuclear age (1945, in case you were wondering), the United States has had a maximum of 15,750 strategic weapons (1975) and 22,720 tactical weapons (1965); the Soviet Union had a maximum of 12,120 strategic weapons (1989) and 30,000 tactical weapons (1986). [9] Among the remaining nuclear powers (the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea (maybe)), a generous estimate would be that they have between themselves around 2,000 weapons (to continue with the generous assessment, I’ll be calculating all of these as strategic weapons, though many of these are definitely smaller). [10] If you do all the lengthy calculations, you arrive at a total potential energy of 7.356E19 J for all of these nuclear weapons. [11]

So, what does all this destructive potential buy you, mister chaotic evil overlord? Well, for starters, you’ll probably note that 7.356E19 J is substantially smaller than the gravitational binding energy of the planet, 2.24E32 J. In fact, it is many orders of magnitude smaller (13, in fact). [12] In fact, if one were to somehow detonate all of these weapons at the core of the planet, in the hopes of destroying it, I suspect that the result would be a grand, world-shaking earthquake. Sure, it would cause massive amounts of death and destruction, but the planet itself would probably continue along on its merry way. In fact, one of the possible candidates for causing the massive K-T extinction 65 million years ago is the Chicxulub Impact event, wherein a roughly 10 km asteroid hit the Earth, releasing an estimated 4E23 J. [13] Note that this latter figure is still four orders of magnitude higher than the combined detonation of all nuclear weapons on the planet – that’s right, the Chicxulub impact was 10,000 times more destructive than the simultaneous detonation of all nuclear weapons on the planet. And the planet didn’t split in half, fall out of its orbit, crack open, etc. It continued along its leisurely path, seemingly oblivious to the mass extinction taking place on its surface.

Taking all of this into consideration, one can legitimately say that since even our most powerful and destructive technologies can do little more than scratch the surface of our planet, we are nowhere near capable of destroying it. If the combined might of all our nuclear weapons cannot destroy the planet, we certainly won’t accomplish the task with carbon dioxide or habitat destruction, or any host of other accusations the Church of Environmentalism™ levels at the decadent, unenlightened masses of society. This begs the question, what are we destroying? The more accurate answer is that we do have the capability to destroy the entire biosphere [14] of our planet; as this would be irreplaceable, this is no minor issue. So, why claim that we are destroying the planet? Well, for starters, who the hell knows what a “biosphere” really is, anyways? Probably more likely, though, is that it is intentionally used for the hyperbolic effect the language would have. This is why I have posted this in the Political category: because the language of such claims has been intentionally manipulated not to convey an accurate description, but to elicit a “gut” reaction, to convince the uninformed that their “irresponsible” actions are leading to a situation more dire than what is actually happening. Honestly, why else would the Church of Environmentalism™ use such inflammatory language? So get over it, folks. We are not destroying the planet. We may be rendering it uninhabitable for human habitation, but the one is not the same as the other. [15]


[1]: Yeah, yeah, I know. Our planet contains all sorts of elements besides iron (actually, it contains nearly all the elements on the Periodic Table, apart from some of the synthetic elements that do no exist in nature on our planet), but the vast majority of the planet is iron, particularly the stuff below the surface.

[2]: I’m borrowing statistics liberally from a website entitled How to Destroy the Earth (creative, ain’t it?). See here for Useful Data related to the destruction of the planet; mostly, I just don’t feel like tracking down all this information myself. If any of the figures are incorrect, please feel free to let me know.

[3]: No, seriously…the planet has been hit by at least three different space stations: our Skylab, which was de-orbited in 1979, the Soviet Salyut stations (actually nine separate space stations) that were de-orbited between 1971 and 1991, and the Soviet/Russian Mir, which was de-orbited in 2001.

[4]: One of the theories regarding the creation of our moon, Luna, is that Earth was hit by a rather large object a long, long time ago. This rogue planetoid is sometimes named Theia. See here for a description of the Giant Impact Theory (or, as I’d prefer to think of it: The Big Whack theory…seriously, astronomers sometimes have fun when they name their theories); Wikipedia article. Note also that Theia is theorized to have been roughly the size of Mars. That’s right, Mars, as in the Planet Mars. And yet, the Earth survived.

[5]: To avoid the problems associated with genetic drift and such, you’ll probably need at minimum 10,000 healthy, breeding-age humans to reconstitute the species once you’re done destroying the rest of humanity. Unless, of course, you’re doubleplus chaotic evil, and decide that humanity as a whole is not worthy of continued existence, in which case, proceed with the obliteration.

[6]: Abstract in the sense that I’ll be cherry-picking maximum numbers from across history, and using an assumed average yield, instead of trying to incorporate all of the various yields we have used throughout history.

[7]: See here for TNT equivalency calculations (Wikipedia article).

[8]: See here and here for descriptions of tactical and strategic weapons, repectively (Wikipedia articles).

[9]: Statistics available for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. available here and here, respectively, from the Natural Resources Defense Council website.

[10]: Statistics for worldwide nuclear weapons stockpiles available here, from the NRDC website.

[11]: Calculations are as follows:

  • U.S. Strategic nuclear weapons yield: 15,750 x 500 kT x (4.184E12 J/kT) = 3.295E19 J
  • U.S. Tactical nuclear weapons yield: 22,720 x 50 kT x (4.184E12 J/kT) = 4.75E18 J
  • U.S.S.R. Strategic nuclear weapons yield: 12,120 x 500 kT x (4.184E12 J/kT) = 2.54E19 J
  • U.S.S.R. Tactical nuclear weapons yield: 30,000 x 50 kT x (4.84E12 J/kT) = 6.28E18 J
  • Other nuclear weapons yield: 2,000 x 500 kT x (4.184E12 J/kT) = 4.184E18 J
  • Grand total: 3.295E19 J + 4.75E18 J + 2.54E19 J + 6.28E18 J + 4.184E18 J = 7.356E19 J

[12]:Don’t know what an order of magnitude is? For shame. Read. (Wikipedia article)

[13]: Description of the Chicxulub impact event here (Wikipedia article).

[14]: Description of a biosphere here (Wikipedia article).

[15]: Yes, yes, I know; subjectively, our inability to survive on the planet is roughly synonymous with the destruction of the planet in a qualitative sense. My issue here is not with this equivalency, but with the inaccurate and inflammatory mis-use of language, which is a dangerous but all-too-common occurrence in modern political/sociological dialogue.

[*]: Just for the record, if someone wanted to destroy the planet using nuclear weapons, we would need at least 1.07098E17 500 kT warheads to provide the energy necessary to overcome the gravitational binding energy of the planet (2.24E32 J / (4.184E12 J/kT x 500 kT) = 1.07098E17). Yes, that’s right: 107,098,000,000,000,000 or 107 thousand billion 500 kT warheads. Assuming that we could build 5,000 warheads per year (the fastest estimates from the NRDC statistics seem to indicate a maximum production rate around this level), it would take us, at minimum, 2.142E13 years (21,420,000,000,000 or 21.42 trillion years) to amass that number of weapons. Note that the Sun is expected to last for only another 5 billion years or so. If we wanted to cut down on that estimate, we could build 50 mT weapons [**], though we would still need 1.07E15 warheads (a little more reasonable at 1,070,000,000,000,000 or one thousand trillion weapons), and we would need to build them at a rate of 214,000 per year for the next 5 billion years. I guess we’d better get started...

[**]: The largest ever nuclear weapon yield was achieved in the detonation of the so-called Tsar Bomba, a massive thermonuclear weapon that had a yield at detonation of 50 mT. Somewhat amusingly, the Soviet engineers had originally intended for the weapon to have a yield of 100 mT, but they subsequently scaled back the yield when they realized that the delivery aircraft would not be able to fly beyond the range of the fireball that would result from the detonation. This is probably one of the few instances where Soviet planners actually gave a damn about their peons. See here for a description of the weapon and its detonation (Wikipedia article).


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