The Third Planet: Operating Instructions, by David R. Brower was first published in The New York Times Magazine on March 16, 1975. It has subsequently been reprinted numerous times by various organizations including the Earth Island Institute and the Sierra Club. I first read it in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben.
The Third Planet: Operating Instructions
by David R. Brower
This planet has been delivered wholly assembled and in perfect working condition, and is intended for fully automatic and trouble-free operation in orbit around its star, the sun. However, to insure proper functioning, all passengers are requested to familiarize themselves fully with the following instructions.
Loss or even temporary misplacement of these instructions may result in calamity. Passengers who must proceed without the benefit of these rules are likely to cause considerable damage before they can learn the proper operating procedures for themselves.
It is recommended that passengers become completely familiar with the following planetary components:
The air accompanying this planet is not replaceable. Enough has been supplied to cover the land and the water, but not very deeply. In fact, if the atmosphere were reduced to the density of water, then it would be a mere 33 feet deep. In normal use, the air is self-cleaning. It may be cleaned in part if excessively soiled. The passengers’ lungs will be of help—up to a point. However, they will discover that anything they throw, spew, or dump into the air will return to them in due course. Since passengers will need to use the air, on the average, every five seconds, they should treat it accordingly.
The water supplied with this planet isn’t replaceable either. The operating water supply is very limited: If the earth were the size of an egg, all the water on it would fit in a single drop. The water contains many creatures, almost all of which eat and may be eaten; these creatures may be eaten by human passengers. If disagreeable things are dispersed in the planet’s water, however, caution should be observed, since the water creatures concentrate the disagreeable things in their tissues. If human passengers then eat the water creatures, they will add disagreeable things to their diet. In general, passengers are advised not to disdain water, because that is what they mostly are.
Although the surface of this planet is varied and seems abundant, only a small amount of land is suited to growing things, and that essential part should not be misused. It is also recommended that no attempt be made to disassemble the surface too deeply inasmuch as the land is supported by a molten and very hot underlayer that will grow little but volcanoes.
The above components help make life possible. There is only one life per passenger and it should be treated with dignity. Instructions covering the birth, operation and maintenance, and disposal for each living entity have been thoughtfully provided. These instructions are contained in a complex language, called the DNA code, that is not easily understood. However, this does not matter, as the instructions are fully automatic. Passengers are cautioned, however, that radiation and many dangerous chemicals can damage the instructions severely. If in this way living species are destroyed, or rendered unable to reproduce, the filling of reorders is subject to long delays.
This planet has been designed and fully tested at the factory for totally safe operation with fuel constantly transmitted from a remote source, the sun, provided at absolutely no charge. The following must be observed with greatest care: The planet comes with a limited reserve fuel supply, contained in fossil deposits, which should be used only in emergencies. Use of this reserve fuel supply entails hazards, including the release of certain toxic metals, which must be kept out of the air and the food supply of living things. The risk will not be appreciable if the use of the emergency fuel is extended over the operating life of the planet. Rapid use, if sustained only for a brief period, may produce unfortunate results.
The kinds of maintenance will depend upon the number and constituency of the passengers. If only a few million human passengers wish to travel at a given time, no maintenance will be required and no reservations will be necessary. The planet is self-maintaining and the external fuel source will provide exactly as much energy as is needed or can be safely used. However, if a very large number of people insist on boarding at one time, serious problems will result, requiring costly solutions.
Barring extraordinary circumstances, it is necessary only to observe the mechanism periodically and to report any irregularities to the Smithsonian Institution. However, if, owing to misuse of the planet’s mechanism, observations show a substantial change in the predictable patterns of sunrise and sunset, passengers should prepare to leave the vehicle.
D. EMERGENCY REPAIRS:
If through no responsibility of the current passengers, damage to the planet’s operating mechanisms has been caused by ignorant or careless action of the previous travelers, it is best to request the Manufacturer’s assistance (best obtained through prayer).
Upon close examination, this planet will be found to consist of complex and fascinating detail in design and structure. Some passengers, upon discovering these details in the past, have attempted to replicate or improve the design and structure, or have even claimed to have invented them. The Manufacturer, having among other things invented the opposable thumb, may be amused by this. It is reliably reported that at this point, however, it appears to the Manufacturer that the full panoply of consequences of this thumb idea of His will not be without an element of unwelcome surprise.