Can We Fix Humanity’s ‘Biggest Mistake’ in Time?
by Kent Shifferd
The great release of carbon-based energy began in the second half of the eighteenth century, prompting the poet William Blake to coin his famous line about “England’s dark, satanic mills.” All history before that was characterized by an organic tool kit. Our technology was mostly biodegradable and not very powerful. Nature was strong — humanity was weak. I am not suggesting we want to revert to that relationship, but did we go in the right direction, and if not, what can we do about it now?
Why was the release of carbon energies humanity’s greatest mistake? The answer is simple; it has led to the severe damage to the biosphere we now see all around us. The biosphere, that thin zone of life that surrounds the earth like the skin on an apple, is the only place in this solar system that we can live and we are utterly dependent upon its natural processes. It provides oxygen to breathe, water to drink, and soil that produces all our food. As everyone knows, it is a vastly complicated, living web whose interconnections we will never fully understand. The release of carbon energy has made it possible for us to recklessly pull apart the strands.
Mining carbon — digging coal, drilling for oil and gas — are immensely destructive to the biosphere and to us humans who must live here. Drilling in the ocean has already given us massive spills from failed drill rigs. Underground mining has resulted in thousands of deaths from cave-ins and many more thousands from silicosis, the so-called “black lung” that chokes a man to death. Open pit mines leave huge gashes in the earth, but more importantly, release heavy metals and other toxics into the watersheds, polluting streams and lakes. Whole mountain tops are blown off in our mad rush to get more coal, burying valleys and polluting the watershed. Drilling for oil results in spills; fracking for natural gas in a release of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, while it injects toxic chemicals into the ground.
The transport of fossil fuels results in massive spills in the ocean as tankers run aground, and in our rivers and on land from burst pipelines and rail crashes. Burning these fuels puts toxic mercury and choking soot into the air, and then into the water as it precipitates out and creates acid rain and deadly smog. Burning them is changing the climate, melting the ocean ice, raising sea levels, and creating powerful storms and deserts. Coastal areas, where a billion humans live, are threatened with inundation. The cost of clean-up and mitigation will be enormous, taxing our economies to the breaking point. The clean- up from Super Storm Sandy cost $60 billion, and we are only on the edge of the climate cliff. The current violence in Syria was set off by a prolonged drought, ignored by the government and almost certainly caused by global warming, that drove hundreds of thousands of farmers into underserved cities, a tinder box for revolution. As the Himalayan glaciers melt and the great rivers of Asia and Southwest Asia first flood and then dry up, millions of people will be set in motion, piling up against borders of states that do not want them. The potential for violence is huge.
But these are only the direct effects of releasing fossil energies. There are many indirect and destructive effects as well. First, modern chemistry, built partly on the cracking of the benzene ring, has created over 80,000 chemical substances never before seen in nature, many of them toxic and destructive to the organic systems of the living community that sustains our human life. And the life of the natural world, including ours, is at its most basic level a delicately balanced biochemical process. Many of these new chemicals are carcinogens.
But there’s more. The explosive proliferation of plastic, a material designed not to biodegrade, and of Styrofoam that ends up in immense gyres in the oceans, in landfills and along our roadsides, is a by-product of the release of carbon, the feedstock for these products. The release of fossil energy made possible the internal combustion engine and the proliferation of cars that have clogged our roadways, polluted the air, and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings and made for hugely inefficient settlement patterns while demanding we mine unprecedented amounts of iron ore, bauxite, lead, chromium, etc. It also made possible the greatest shift in demographic patterns in history, moving people off the land and into mega-cities where some live in abject misery and others in polluting affluence. It was the great divorce from nature that has left our civilization in ignorance of how our life support system works. Along with this was the rise of industrial agriculture which took us away from an intimate, first-hand knowledge of nature and food production to an industrial system that produces low quality food at a huge price of water contamination, soil erosion and poisoning and a major extinction crisis. Highly inefficient, it uses far more fossil energy than it produces in food energy and has come to be dominated by a handful of huge corporations.
It did have one benefit — it made possible more humans. But is that a benefit? We are quickly approaching nine billion people who will need, at a minimum of eighteen billion meals a day, and housing, and clothing — all of which has to come out of the biosphere. The future doesn’t look good. One can easily predict famine and epidemic disease, especially as the great migrations that will be caused by climate shift begin to occur.
And war became far worse. Modern chemistry led to modern high explosives. Abundant fuel for transport made possible the movement of much larger armies, making wars into mass slaughter. And the fossil-powered engine made possible the massive bombing that is characteristic of our wars. Whole cities can be blasted and burned to the ground. A limited nuclear war would cause a post-war famine in which two billion people would be at risk for starvation. Much of the violent mess in the Middle East and the Sudan is about who gets the oil. No one would call this progress.
Perhaps worst of all, the apparent (but temporary) shift in the power relationship between humanity and nature as a result of this release of fossil energy has been the new mind set we are beginning to hear about—the belief that all prior geological ages have now been superseded by the Age of the Antrhopocene, the new era in which humanity will take charge of nature and using modern science take it to pieces and refashion it to suit our immediate needs and wants. The most absurd corollary of this doctrine is the belief in unlimited economic growth — that we can all have everything we can be stimulated into wanting by advertising. To believe in infinite growth in a finite biosphere is a form of mental illness. The gee whiz aspect of many of our inventions has lured us into the mistaken belief that we can always concoct a technical fix for all our depredations. This colossal hubris, based on a colossal ignorance, will lead us to disaster. Thinking we are gods does not make it so.
The release of carbon presented our species with a challenge we had never before encountered. In hindsight we can see questions that should have been raised: “Just because we could do something, ought we to do it?” “Just because it was momentarily (in historical terms) convenient, would it produce the long-term, common good?” “Would this or that use of carbon realize all its benefits up front and most of its costs be assessed long after by those who did not benefit from it?” These questions were almost never asked.
So what do we do? Revert to the Dark Ages? No. But if we want to survive, and want our children’s children to survive and live well, we have to do four things. First and foremost, switch as rapidly as possible to renewable power. Leave the carbon in the ground. Walk away from it like the poison that it is. Second, curb population growth. Third, wrest control of the land from the agribusiness corporations so that many will be able to re-migrate to the countryside and begin to produce food using organic methods, making our rural economies healthy and prosperous once again. And fourth, we will have to give up warfare, not only for the obvious reasons, but because that is the only sector of the economy where we will be able to realize the savings that we will need to spend on mitigation and ecological restoration. But first we will have to give up our illusion that we are the masters of nature. In the end, we do not take care of nature; nature takes care of us. It is our behavior that needs to change.
Will we do it? That depends. Are we Homo sapiens or Homo bardus, the wise ones, or the stupid ones?
Kent Shifferd, Ph.D., is the author of From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years, various articles and chapters, and an environmental newsletter. He taught environmental history and environmental ethics for 25 years at Northland College. He is the former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies and lives in the north woods of Wisconsin. His current book project, “Breakdown or Breakthrough: the Planetary Emergency and the End of Hypercivilization,” is scheduled for completion this year. Contact [email protected].