What do plastic, wood, limestone, travertine, marble, asphalt, oil, coal, stalactites, peat, stalagmites, cotton, wool, chert, cement, nearly all food and most of our electric service have in common? They are all products of death.
Even the world’s banded iron formations, which date from two to three billion years in age, are generally thought to be products of life’s first bloom in ancient oceans, which precipitated ferric ooze from irons which had saturated the seas from our world’s most formative times. As John McPhee put it in Annals of the Former World, “The earth would not go through that experience twice.” (See a longer quote here.)
Death produces building and burning materials in an abundance that seems limitless, at least from standpoint of humans in the here and now. In this morning’s Wall Street Journal, Nansen G. Saleri says The World Has Plenty of Oil. “As a matter of context, the globe has consumed only one out of a grand total of 12 to 16 trillion barrels underground”, he says, concluding,
The world is not running out of oil anytime soon. A gradual transitioning on the global scale away from a fossil-based energy system may in fact happen during the 21st century. The root causes, however, will most likely have less to do with lack of supplies and far more with superior alternatives. The overused observation that “the Stone Age did not end due to a lack of stones” may in fact find its match.
The solutions to global energy needs require an intelligent integration of environmental, geopolitical and technical perspectives each with its own subsets of complexity. On one of these — the oil supply component — the news is positive. Sufficient liquid crude supplies do exist to sustain production rates at or near 100 million barrels per day almost to the end of this century.
Technology matters. The benefits of scientific advancement observable in the production of better mobile phones, TVs and life-extending pharmaceuticals will not, somehow, bypass the extraction of usable oil resources. To argue otherwise distracts from a focused debate on what the correct energy-policy priorities should be, both for the United States and the world community at large.
Thanks to technology, the .8 trillion tons of coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin now contribute 40% of the coal used in U.S. power plants. About half the nation’s electricity is produced by these plants, at rates that can consume a 1.5 mile long train of coal in just 8 hours. In Uncommon Carriers, McPhee says Powder River coal at current rates will last about 200 years.
Well, then what? Will more technology help out? Surely. But at some point we must take a long view that recognizes the earth’s resources as rare stuff that nature takes millions of years to produce, and in many cases does that only once.
Or we find ourselves in a pickle that even technology can’t solve.
As I fly in my window seat from place to place, especially on routes that take me over arctic, near-arctic and formerly arctic locations, I see more and more of what geologists call The Picture — a four-dimensional portfolio of scenes from current and former worlds. In the arc of seashores that include Long Island, Block Island, Martha’s Vinyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, I see a ridge of debris scraped off half a continent and dropped at its terminus by the vast lobe of an ice cap that began its retreat only 15,000 years ago — only a few moments before the geologic present. At that time the Great Lakes were still in the future, their basins covered by ice that did not depart from their northern edges until about 7,000 years ago, or 5,000 B.C. Most of Canada was still under ice while civilization was born in the middle east and the first calendars got going. Fly over that region often enough and the lakes start to look like puddles of melted ice. Which is exactly what they are. Same with most of the ponds around Boston. Rewind a few thousand years and those ponds are holes under hills of ice.
As Canada thaws, one can see human activity spark and spread across barren lands, as more resources are raided from the exposed earth. While this is obviously and necessarily industrious from a strictly human perspective, one can also easily see from an extra-human perspective that our species is flat-out pestilential. We treat nature’s goods as “products” or “resources” that are free for the taking. And free they are. But each at some point becomes scarce, then rare to the verge of absence. We may have nothing to do with the elimination of many. All species come and go, after all. But on this planet, from its own one-eyed perspective, our species clearly takes far more than it gives, and with little regard for the consequences. We know, as Whitman put it, the amplitude of time. And we assume in its fullness that all will work out.
But it won’t.
Manhattan schist, the rock under all the city’s tallest buildings, is about half a billion years old. In about that time or a little longer, the aging Sun, growing hotter, will turn off photosynthesis. In a much longer run, Earth is cooked. In a much shorter run, many catastrophes will happen. One clearly is what our species is already doing to the planet in its Anthropocene.
I’ve always been both an optimist and a realist. So, I’m an optimist for at least the short run, by which I mean the next few dozen years. But I’m a pessimist for our civilization — and our species. All civilizations fall. None believes, at its height, that theirs will fall. But all do, sure as nightfall. Same goes for species, all of which are nature’s experiments. Why should we be any different?
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