Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat

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Overview

The story of carbon—the building block of life that, ironically, is humanity’s great threat.

Carbon has always been the ubiquitous architect of life: Indeed, all living things need it to stay alive, and carbon cycles through organisms, ground, water, and atmosphere in a kind of global respiration system that helps keep Earth in balance. Yet, since the start of the industrial era, carbon dioxide emissions have sped up the carbon cycle, and chlorofluorocarbons are destroying the ...

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The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat

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Overview

The story of carbon—the building block of life that, ironically, is humanity’s great threat.

Carbon has always been the ubiquitous architect of life: Indeed, all living things need it to stay alive, and carbon cycles through organisms, ground, water, and atmosphere in a kind of global respiration system that helps keep Earth in balance. Yet, since the start of the industrial era, carbon dioxide emissions have sped up the carbon cycle, and chlorofluorocarbons are destroying the ozone layer and warming the planet. In The Carbon Age, science writer Eric Roston evokes this essential element, illuminating history from the Big Bang to modern civilization, and chronicles the often surprising ways mankind has used carbon over centuries. Blending the latest science with original reporting, Roston charts how we reached the brink of catastrophe, making us aware, as never before, of the seminal impact carbon has on our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Roston, a former Time writer on technology and energy, positively revels in the chance to dig deep into the ubiquitous, life-enabling carbon. He begins his first book with the science of this element: how the element first appeared when stars burned helium into carbon; how, before there was life on earth, plate tectonics drove the planet's carbon flow through the atmosphere, land and oceans; and how the development of the earliest organisms reshaped the carbon cycle. Turning to humans' use of carbon and consequent speeding up the carbon cycle, Roston is a whirlwind, explaining carbon's role in the formation of everything from DNA to Kevlar bulletproof vests and, finally, carbon's role in the earth's climate. This is what Roston cares passionately about, and the sum of the parts of his energetic explanations of carbon's uniqueness brings, for dedicated and attentive readers, a crystal-clear understanding of the global warming process. Roston never scrimps on explaining even complicated chemical processes, and the result is a convincing argument that the earth is at a crossroad, the time for denial has passed and the time for smart, innovative solutions has arrived. 20 b&w illus. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

With this book, Roston, a former technology reporter for Time magazine, gives readers a substantial context to the sound bytes concerning climate change-the carbon cycle, the carbon footprint, carbon emissions, global warming-that are flung at us with little explanation. The first half traces carbon's history from the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang, and the nucleosynthesis (the formation of the elements) through the life cycle of stars, and then covers the development of life and dynamics of the "natural" carbon cycle of Earth. The second section spans the last 150 years and delves into the impact of humans on the climate in creating what Roston calls the "industrial carbon cycle." Without using a great deal of scientific jargon, Roston leads us patiently and clearly through this complex issue. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Margaret F. Dominy

Kirkus Reviews
A high-level entry in the single-element history genre from Time magazine technology writer Roston. Both human life and civilization depend on carbon, the author avers. We may be mostly water, but by dry weight we're mostly carbon. Carbon cycling through the atmosphere, oceans and land influences life, and life influences carbon cycling. Roston begins with the Big Bang and in Part I, "The Natural," ranges over topics from the origins of life to body heat. Part II, "The Unnatural," covers the past 150 years, during which industry and an expanding population have created an industrial carbon cycle. Primitive organisms appeared soon after the earth cooled four billion years ago. Soon after came photosynthesis, which uses the sun's energy, water and carbon dioxide to produce complex carbon compounds and oxygen. This eventually generated enough oxygen to influence the carbon cycle, which means it influenced weather. Most atmospheric carbon (i.e., carbon dioxide) is produced by volcanoes and the weathering of rock; it disappears into oceans and deep into the earth. Carbon dioxide from living things exerted only a modest influence on this cycle until the 19th century, when human ingenuity began reversing photosynthesis on a massive scale: converting oxygen and carbon compounds (wood, coal, oil, gas) back into water and carbon dioxide. It's pouring into the atmosphere faster than oceans, land and shrinking forests can absorb it, and carbon dioxide acts as an insulator, allowing sunlight to heat the earth but preventing heat from radiating back into space. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen and fallen throughout earth's history, but no natural process can match today's spectacular outpouring.Readers searching for a systematic report on global warming should read Al Gore or Bill McKibben. Roston devotes several chapters to the subject, but he maintains a focus on carbon itself: its role in the formation of Earth, earthly life, human life and human industry. Lucid and occasionally disturbing. Agent: David McCormick/McCormick & Williams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802717511
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 5/4/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Roston covered technology, international trade, and energy issues at Time magazine for six years. This is his first book. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents


Prologue: The Strange Case of Carbon     1
The Natural
Out of the Frying Pan: Carbon After the Big Bang     11
Dancers and the Dance: The Origins of Life     26
The Flood: Molecular Fossils and the Great Greenhouse Collapse     49
Inherent Brutality: Predators, Defenses, and the Ocean Carbon Cycle     68
The Witness: CO[subscript 2] and a Tree of Life     82
Body Heat: Running on Carbohydrates and Hydrocarbons     98
The Unnatural
Greased Lightning: Carbon and the Car     117
The Physical Restraint on Fantasy: The Art in Carbon Science     132
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: Antiballistic Carbon     146
The Bell Jar: Humans and the Hundredfold Acceleration of the Carbon Cycle     165
Instructions Not Included: The Potential of Biological Fuels     191
The Adventures Ahead: Life With Carbon, Civilization Without?     209
Acknowledgments     227
Notes     233
Bibliography     253
Index     295
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2013

    Fascinating read about the essentio element of life, that flows

    Fascinating read about the essentio element of life, that flows through our planet, both above and below ground.
    It helps me understand that we have taken coal and oil (carbon) from the ground that was formed over millions of years of natural composting,
    and burnt so much of it it over the last hundred or so years,  that our atmosphere is heating up at an accelerating pace, endangering
    life on earth for us and our fellow living creatures. 

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