Death is a feature

When Parisians got tired of cemeteries during the French Revolution, they conscripted priests to relocate bones of more than six million deceased forebears to empty limestone quarries below the city: a hundred miles of rooms and corridors now called The Catacombes. It was from those quarries that much of the city’s famous structures above—Notre Dame, et. al.—were built in centuries prior, using a volume of extracted rock rivaling that of Egypt’s Great Pyramids. That rock, like the bones of those who extracted it, was once alive. In the shot above, shadows of future fossils (including moi) shoot the dead with their cell phones.

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars.

This is a very human thing to want. But before we start following his lead, we might want to ask whether death awaits us there.

Not our deaths. Anything’s. What died there to make life possible for what succeeds it?

To explain why life needs death, answer this: what do plastic, wood, limestone, paint, 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 iron we mine has a biological source. Here’s how the incompara John McPhee explains it in his Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World:

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 every here and now ends. Realizing that is a vestigial feature of human sensibility.

Take for example, The World Has Plenty of Oil, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal ten years ago. In it, Nansen G. Saleri writes, “As a matter of context, the globe has consumed only one out of a grand total of 12 to 16 trillion barrels underground.” He concludes,

The world is not running out of oil any time 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 a planet that can’t replace any of that shit, this is the rationalization of a parasite. That this parasite can move on to eat up other irreplaceable substances it calls “resources” does not make its actions any less parasitic—or terminal for its species, and countless others it eliminates as well.

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. Here’s the biggest coal mine in the basin, called Black Thunder, as it looked to my camera in 2009:

About half the nation’s electricity is produced by coal fired plants, the largest of which can eat the length of a 1.5 mile long coal train 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.

I doubt it.

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 join our evolutionary ancestors in the fossil record faster than we might otherwise like.

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. So, when I look at the seashores that arc eastward from New York City— Long Island, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod—I see a ridge of half-drowned debris scraped off a continent and deposited at the terminus of an ice cap that began melting back toward the North Pole only 18,000 years ago—a few moments before the geologic present. Back then, the Great Lakes were still in the future, their basins covered by ice that did not depart from the lake’s northern edges until about 7,000 years ago, or 5,000 B.C.

Most of Canada was still under ice while civilization began in the Middle East and the first calendars got carved. Fly over Canada 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. Every inland swamp around Boston was a pond only a few dozen or hundreds of years ago, and ice a dozen centuries before that . Go forward a few thousand years and all those ponds are packed with accumulated humus and haired over by woods or farmland. In the present we are halfway between those two conditions.

As Canada continues to thaw, one can see human activity spark and spread across barren lands, extracting “resources” from recently warmed free of permafrost only in the last few years. Mining and extracting those resources is both the economic and the pestilential thing to do.

On the economic side, one species sees as free interest what the planet itself sees as a principal that cannot be replaced.

I suppose the planet looks at species the same way, and cares little that all eventually go. Still, in the meantime, from the planet’s own one-eyed perspective, our species takes far more than it gives, and with little regard for 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 supporting all of New York City’s tallest buildings, is a bit over half a billion years old. About that far in the future, the aging Sun, growing hotter, will turn off photosynthesis. In a much longer run, the Sun will swell into a red giant with a diameter wider than Earth’s orbit, cremating the remains of our sweet blue and green planet.

In a much shorter run, many catastrophes will happen. One clearly is what our species is already doing to the planet during what geologists correctly call the Anthropocene. I suppose that’s a good reason for Elon and crew to “save” a few members of our vain little species. But why fuck up Mars before we’re done fucking up Earth, when there’s still some leverage with the death we have at home and Mars won’t begin to have until stuff dies on it?

I’ve always been both an optimist and a realist. Specifically, 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.

But hey, maybe nature knows better what to do with us than we do.

An ancestor of this piece appeared in blogs.harvard.edu on 4 March 2008

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