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LIFE WITHOUT OILWHY WE MUST SHIFT TO A NEW ENERGY FUTURE
By STEVE HALLETT JOHN WRIGHT
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Steve Hallett and John Wright
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSEEDS OF CIVILIZATION
IN THE BEGINNING ...
Nature has no mercy at all. Nature says "I am going to snow. If you have on a bikini and no snow shoes, that's tough. I am going to snow anyway." Maya Angelou
It's quite ironic that we are concerned about changes in the concentration of gases in the atmosphere. The composition of the earth's atmosphere has undergone much bigger upheaval than the meager increases in greenhouse gases that are currently getting us all excited. The planet has been much hotter than it is now. It has also been much colder. The very early earth had no oceans, had an atmosphere devoid of oxygen, was scorching hot, and was frequently bombarded by debris left over from the formation of the solar system. The "first atmosphere," primarily hydrogen and helium, was lost to space; and the "second atmosphere," formed by the release of gases from volcanoes and asteroid impacts, was a toxic brew of ammonia, methane, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Nonetheless, it was in this seemingly inhospitable environment that life arose.
Molecules that could copy themselves were eventually formed, and these replicators became increasingly common in the primordial soup. The replicators were organic, digestible, and devoid of structural strength, yet they have turned out to be longer-lived than diamonds or granite. One of these replicators has copied itself through the ages and now finds itself in every living thing as DNA. It has survived for four billion years.
The natural selection of variant forms—evolution—resulted in replicators that could consume their counterparts and protect themselves from being consumed. Replicators interacted as predator and prey, as parasite and host, and formed the bodies and behaviors of the diaspora of life on earth. Humans are just one form in which those ancient replicators live out their primordial game of thermodynamics; but what a game of thermodynamics it has become: humans now seek control over the energy of the biosphere. So it is also ironic that we are nervous about descending into a global energy crisis. We are bathed in, and surrounded by, more energy than we could ever need.
Earth's "third atmosphere" was formed by the first global polluters, a group of microbes that had evolved an ingenious method of harnessing the energy of the sun. These organisms—photosynthesizers—consumed carbon dioxide to build their bodies, and the concentration of this gas gradually declined. Oxygen, which had been virtually absent from the atmosphere until then, was slowly released as their waste.
The atmosphere is now 20 percent oxygen: all of it made by photosynthesizing bacteria, protists, and plants. The first photosynthesizers were horrendous polluters that changed the climate of the planet and caused the extinction of untold numbers of species. We tend to think of them in a kind light because, by releasing copious volumes of oxygen into the atmosphere, the first global polluters paved the way for the evolution that led to us. The atmospheric concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide have remained more or less constant for the last few million years; the amount of oxygen released in photosynthesis balanced by the amount consumed in respiration.
Until recently, that is.
At the end of the Jurassic period, sixty-five million years ago, a massive asteroid smashed into the shallow sea between the continents of North and South America, where now sits the town of Chicxulub, Mexico. Two geological findings converge on this date. First, the fossil record of the dinosaurs ceases suddenly and completely. Indeed, fully two-thirds of the species of life on earth became extinct at that time, not just the dinosaurs. Second, rock strata of the same age show a flush of the heavy metal iridium. Iridium is very rare on earth but is found in asteroids and other space debris. The Chicxulub asteroid created a huge pall of dust in the atmosphere that blocked out the sun and threw the planet into a short but deep winter. The poor, old, cold-blooded dinosaurs froze and starved. The dust pall, as it settled, left a layer of iridium to mark the event.
The rest is history. Cute, little, recently evolved, warm-blooded mammals made it through the postimpact winter, evolved into less-cute mammals, and finally evolved into us. It's interesting to imagine what the world would have been like had the Chicxulub asteroid missed. Would cold-blooded reptiles be living in cities, playing sports, writing books, fretting about the future of a planet they were destroying? Tyrannosaurus Beck? A scary thought.
The asteroid that ended the dinosaurs was only one of a number that have struck our planet. An even more dramatic event took place two hundred million years earlier when nearly 95 percent of the earth's species were suddenly extinguished in an event known as the Great Permian extinction. NASA scientists estimate that significant asteroid impacts may occur every hundred thousand years or so. In fact, bad news might be coming soon. Astronomers declare it a 250,000:1 chance that the asteroid Apophis will strike the earth on April 13, 2036.
No matter how patient you are, it's hard to sense the movement of the continents (unless you are unfortunate enough to witness a tsunami or an earthquake). Billions of years our ancestry may be, but our spheres of influence and experiences are short-term. We now know that the continents drift around the planet like dinner plates floating on a sea of syrup. In its lifetime, the earth has spawned and swallowed entire continents. In only the last hundred and fifty million years (the last thirtieth of the planet's lifetime), the supercontinent of Pangaea split and its shards scattered across the oceans. South America and Africa were riven apart and then separated by the Atlantic Ocean, as Australia drifted lazily (do Aussies move any other way?) northeast across the Indian Ocean. India, meanwhile, was sprinting northward for Asia and the great collision that formed the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas. The drifting continents have created oceans, land bridges, and inland seas, have baked the planet in prolonged tropical periods and plunged it into ice ages.
Global climate change is one of the great concerns of our time, but it is nowhere near the scale of the dramatic climate changes that have been brought about by natural processes; so if climate change is a bad thing, watch out: there's plenty more where that came from. Over the next fifty million years or so, as the earth's dinner plates continue to meander, California will drift away from the rest of America (geographically as well as politically), Australia will finally make formal ties with Asia, and Africa will smash through the Mediterranean, crushing Europe into another massive range of mountains; a fitting, albeit belated, revenge for centuries of colonial exploitation.
How will life on earth fare as the continents continue their hustle and bustle? As usual, we should expect winners and losers, but it's really no big deal. The planet will be fine. Life will go on.
Relatively humanlike, upright apes have been in existence for only about three million years, but even in that short time, our ancestors have lived on a capricious planet. Although we have known the continents only in their current positions, and an atmosphere only of its current composition, humans have lived through dramatically changing times and survived. Why, then, are we concerned with change in the modern world? Does it really matter that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might increase by a few hundred parts per million, that temperatures might increase by a few degrees, and that sea levels might rise by a few feet? Read on. It matters a lot.
FIRST ATTEMPTS TO HARNESS ENERGY
Stone tools made by our ancestors Homo habilis more than two million years ago have been found at various sites in Africa's Great Rift Valley, and the best estimates are that the taming of fire began at least half a million years ago. We have, apparently, been trying to figure out how to harness energy from the environment for a very, very long time.
The use of fire was not a sudden invention but a gradual process of cultural evolution. Ugh Smith did not wake up one morning, fancy some toast for breakfast, and decide to rub two sticks together. The great grasslands of the world are prone to natural fires, and hunters living in fire-prone environments must have figured out not only how to avoid becoming trapped in fires but also that fires might provide opportunities for easy hunting. Observant gatherers presumably noticed that some of their favorite leafy greens sprouted abundantly after fires. Fires must have presented obstacles to early humans, but they also provided opportunities. The first step in the use of fire, then, was probably simply to take advantage of natural fires when they occurred.
The first Australians used fire extensively for the management of grasslands. They lit fires in sequence around their settlements to promote the sprouting of the new shoots of young grasses that would attract kangaroos and wallabies. With areas of new growth under their control, hunting could be focused into a circumscribed area and high-protein food then acquired more efficiently. The Aussie smoker's question "Got a light, mate?" might be thousands of years old. Similar activities were probably carried out by the ancient peoples of many grasslands of the world. When humans began to harness fires, maintain them, and then bring them fully under control, the energy-harnessing steamroller began to trundle.
The first technological developments of our ancestors were only small baby steps, and it took millennia to walk them, but they set us on the path that has finally brought us to our twenty-first-century, oil-bathed, energy-rich civilization. Tool technology has gone through a sequence of developments from its primitive beginnings and has incorporated more and more sophisticated materials and techniques. The first tools were made and operated by hand, extending the power of their operator relatively modestly. Tools manufactured using an external power source (e.g., smelted iron knives) or operated with an external power source (e.g., wooden plows, windmills) extended the power of their operator much further. Now, of course, we use a whole host of tools that are both manufactured and operated with an external power source. These tools are truly powerful and can control the world in ways our ancestors never could have imagined. The road of progress has been paved with increasingly sophisticated technologies powered by increasingly efficient means of extracting energy from the environment.
THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
We tend to think of environmental destruction as a recent phenomenon, but the damage wrought by our species is ancient, and it began soon after the adoption of our very first technologies. The archaeological record of North America, for example, reveals a very unusual extinction event that occurred over just a few centuries at the end of the last ice age. North America had been home to a vast array of megafauna—giant ground sloths, mastodons, mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, lions, glyptodonts, horses, camels—an array of supersized mammals that would make the contemporary Serengeti plain look like a second-rate safari park. The archaeological record also shows, at the same time, and often in the very graves of the great mammals themselves, the arrival of the famous Clovis points of the first Americans: efficient stone tips designed to be hafted onto hunting spears. Spilling into the Americas at the brief invitation of Beringia, when sufficient ice retreat had opened the land bridge but melting had not yet flooded it to form the Bering Straits, humans entered a new megafauna paradise and began, quite literally, to eat their way through it.
The destruction of edible animals has been a hallmark of all lands discovered by tool-wielding humans, particularly as seen in islands such as Mauritius, New Zealand, and Hawaii, where it has been sudden and dramatic. Arriving already armed, skilled in hunting, and encountering animals that did not recognize them as predators, humans have repeatedly sent their food into extinction. But the carnage has not been limited to a few special parts of the globe; indeed, it has hardly been limited at all. The consequences of these extinctions have been many and varied. The extirpation of horses from the Americas, for example, would come back to haunt the Inca when they were confronted by Francisco Pizarro's cavalry. Their llamas, alas, were no match. The destruction of game animals has been particularly rapid in newly colonized lands, but it has been a problem wherever human populations have grown.
Growing populations put increasing pressure on supplies of easily hunted animals and easily gathered plants, and people faced their first self-imposed limits to growth thousands of years ago. These limits probably caused significant hardships as formerly abundant sources of food became rare, but these limits also spurred the adoption of a new form of subsistence.
An agrarian lifestyle is generally assumed to be far superior to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but why would people dig in the dirt to raise crops if plentiful wild plants could be collected? I don't think they would. They first destroyed the easy life and then necessity became the mother of invention. Only when hunting and gathering could no longer support their needs did they stumble across the next great development in the history of civilization: when people began to farm.
This theme of "destroy first, rebuild later" has been a trademark of our history. We tend to think of progress as a steady stream of innovations, each one building on the last, but nothing could be further from the truth. Progress has more often begun with failure.
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
And he gave it for his opinion that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together. Jonathan Swift
Agriculture was neither invented nor discovered but came about as an exercise in unconscious cultural evolution, and it occurred in a number of different parts of the world independently. In environments with migrating herds, people remained mostly nomadic. Where food could be found year-round, they began to settle, and this simple action of settling down set in motion the first agrarian revolution. Static communities depleted many sources of easily hunted and gathered foods but elevated a select few. Hunter-gatherers traveled large distances to collect roots, tubers, shoots, fruits, and grains to bring back to their families. Returning from gathering trips, people must have inadvertently scattered some seed along the way, where it grew. They eventually realized that they could do this on purpose and began to grow favored plants close to home.
Our modern cereal crops evolved from wild grasses over thousands of years as they adapted to a human-manipulated environment. One key characteristic was a nonshattering seed head on which the seed would mature without falling off its spike and would therefore be collected for planting the next year. The seed that germinated in sync with the rest of the crop would also have a better chance of being selected for growth the next season. Evolution gradually tailored crops to suit the needs of humans. As people began to realize that the plants that produced larger, more nutritious seed one year tended to do the same the next, crop evolution shifted from a process of natural selection to one of artificial selection, and people began to reserve the largest, sweetest seed for planting. Now when we compare a modern crop plant with its progenitor, the two are hardly recognizable as relatives, yet all those differences evolved at the hands of people in the last ten thousand years.
Excerpted from LIFE WITHOUT OIL by STEVE HALLETT JOHN WRIGHT Copyright © 2011 by Steve Hallett and John Wright. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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