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 beyond two billion years ago, owe their provenance to early forms of life. In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee explains:
Although life had begun in the form of anaerobic bacteria early in the Archean Eon, photosynthetic bacteria did not appear until the middle Archean and were not abundant until the start of the Proterozoic. The bacteria emitted oxygen. The atmosphere changed. The oceans changed. The oceans had been rich in dissolved ferrous iron, in large part put into the seas by extruding lavas of two billion years. Now with the added oxygen the iron became ferric, insoluble, and dense. Precipitating out, it sank to the bottom as ferric sludge, where it joined the lime muds and silica muds and other seafloor sediments to form, worldwide, the banded-iron formations that were destined to become rivets, motorcars and cannons. The is was the iron of the Mesabi Range, the Australian iron of the Hammerslee Basin, the iron of Michigan, Wisconsin, Brazil. More than ninety percent of the iron ever mined in the world has come from Precambrian banded-iron formations. Their ages date broadly from twenty-five hundred to two thousand million years before the present. The transition that produced them—from a reducing to an oxidizing atmosphere and the associated radical change in the chemistry of the oceans—would be unique. It would never repeat itself. The earth would not go through that experience twice.
Death produces building and burning materials in an abundance that seems limitless, at least from standpoint of humans in the here and now. But all heres and nows end.
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.
In the long view of geology and a planet that can’t replace any of that shit, this is the rationalization of a parasite. The fact that this parasite can move on to despoil other irreplaceable substances it calls “resources” does not make it any less parasitic.
Moving on to coal, the .8 trillion tons of it in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin now contribute 40% of the fuel used in coal-fired power plants in the U.S.. 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.
Then what? Nansen Saleri thinks we’re resourceful enough to get along with other energy sources after we’re done with the irreplaceable kind. Possibly. Wind, tide and solar are unlikely to fuel aviation, though I suppose fresh biofuel might. Still, at some point we must take a long view or find ourselves joining our evolutionary ancestors in the fossil record.
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. Rather than the arc of seashores that comprise Long Island, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, I see a ridge of half-drowned 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, a few moments before the geologic present. At that time the Great Lakes were still in the future, their basins were 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 appear to be exactly what they are: puddles of a recently melted cap of ice. Same with most of the ponds around Boston. Rewind a few thousand years and those ponds are holes under hills of ice. Wind forward a few thousand years and they are filled with accumulated humus and haired over by woods or farmland. In the present we are halfway between those two states.
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 resourceful from a strictly human perspective, one can also easily see from the non-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 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 New York 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 will be cooked, then absorbed into our boated and aged-out parent star. 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?