Understanding the emergence and robustness of life requires accounting for both chemical specificity and statistical generality. We argue that the reverse of a common observation—that life requires a source of free energy to persist—provides an appropriate principle to understand the emergence, organization, and persistence of life on earth. Life, and in particular core biochemistry, has many properties of a relaxation channel that was driven into existence by free energy stresses from the earth's geochemistry. Like lightning or convective storms, the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus fluxes through core anabolic pathways make sense as the order parameters in a phase transition from an abiotic to a living state of the geosphere. Interpreting core pathways as order parameters would both explain their stability over billions of years, and perhaps predict the uniqueness of specific optimal chemical pathways.