Can life keep up with death?

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.

I’ve always been both an optimist and a realist. 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 — or even our species. All civilizations fall. None believes, at its height, that theirs will fall. But every one does. Same goes for species, all of which are nature’s experiments. Why should we be any different?

7 comments

  1. Chuck Shotton’s avatar

    “Why should we be any different?”

    I’d ask why should we be the same?

    At no time in history, recorded or otherwise, have humans had the ability to so completely dominate their surroundings. Regional civilizations rose and fell at the whims of drought, plagues, famines, etc. We have the resilience to withstand most external civilization-ending circumstances now (barring cataclysmic asteroid impacts and the like). So why should we think our civilization will fail for the reasons that others did? It’s a matter of will at this point.

  2. mary hodder’s avatar

    doc, fill out http://www.zerofootprint.net/ to see what your death driven footprint really is.

    mine was through the roof on travel.
    mary

  3. Julian Bond’s avatar

    “the globe has consumed only one out of a grand total of 12 to 16 trillion barrels underground”

    So we’ve consumed 5-8% of reserves in about 100 years. OK. But someone should explain to him about exponential growth. Half of that was consumed in the last doubling period. Twice that will be consumed in the next doubling period. Which takes us to 33%. One more doubling period and we will have consumed 66%. At that point the end is in sight and price pressure is becoming a major spur to innovation. So what do you think the current doubling period is for oil consumption? 25 Years? 10? If that pessimistic, remember that China and India are coming on stream and their appetite for non-renewable resources is going to be prodigious.

    I too like to think I’m an optimist and a realist. I try hard to follow Buckminster Fuller’s aggressive optimism which feels that there’s always a technological fix and that we’ve hardly even started. But the realist in me knows that my kids and their kids are going to have a fun time getting through the next 100 years of changes.

  4. Mike Warot’s avatar

    There’s a YouTube video that is the best explanation of exponentials I’ve ever seen… it’s one that will help connect the abstract concepts to your gut in a way that might just change the way you think.

    Doc… this is inFORMation of the first order…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-QA2rkpBSY

    Perhaps it’s time for me to do a best of list on my blog?

  5. Derek K. Miller’s avatar

    “All civilizations fall. None believes, at its height, that theirs will fall. But every one does. Same goes for species, all of which are nature’s experiments. Why should we be any different?”

    We aren’t. On the other hand, species evolve into others. Dinosaurs are now birds. Australopithecines led to us. We don’t know what we’ll become. Homo sapiens will become extinct, but I don’t think intelligent, future-imagining life on earth will go away entirely.

    And civilizations do come and go. However, they don’t necessarily leave a civilization-less void behind — although we’ve only had a few thousand years of experience, so maybe the whole agriculturally-driven life we have built since the last Ice Age is merely an experiment that will fail too. But we don’t know what the next civilization might be, if there is one.

    Smarter, perhaps?

  6. Patrick Gregston’s avatar

    It doesn’t matter if there is an infinite amount of fossil fuel. Burning ancient sunshine for the last 160 years has released sufficient ‘sequestered’ CO2 to add 15% more than has been in circulation in the air and oceans during the 10,000 years that encompass the ‘civilized’ era, meaning since agriculture really started.

    The move to current sunshine ( including wind and other natural sources) of energy will occur whenever economics make it cheaper than the current version of coal and oil. The ‘will’ question is will we engage this process to our advantage by shifting the game of subsidies ( including military support of importing oil- a $300 billion a year game without the current wars)?

    The opportunity is to make fossil fuel like salt- a cheap commodity we used to go to war over. Will the Henry Ford of clean personal transportation be American? Or more importantly, will he/she headquarter the company in the US? Cheap clean energy solves most of our foreign policy problems in the near term while increasing national security. It will also guarantee economic vitality and leadership for the next century, while being the right thing to do environmentally and set up the world to adapt to the climate changes already committed to.

    This November, we will elect a Congress that will answer these questions. The results will be whether we adapt fast and avoid the kind of die back previous civilizations experienced, and the vast suffering related. Will we let those who are rich under the current model, but clearly don’t feel rich enough continue to keep their interests above the common good?

    Each of the current candidates could be the leader to call for a national program for clean domestically created energy. McCain has been on the Global Warming wagon with Hillary for years. Getting all of them to commit to a thirty year federally funded program to produce the result ( not the technology- let the private sector fight for the federal prize money by producing the result however they might) will promise that the next Congress passes spending bills that will guarantee demand for reinvention of energy building and transportation sectors.

    So go make it an issue this election. Make your local, state and national candidates commit to smart aggressive use of the government’s power as a consumer, as well as setting the rules for investment and energy.

    your carbon footprint is insignificant- your vote matters

  7. The NOAA Climate Story » Blog Archive » Your vote is more significant than your footprint’s avatar

    [...] Searls, in his eponymous blog, pointed last week to Nansen Saleri’s article in the WSJ titled “The World Has Plenty of Oil”. Now [...]

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