[Note: This is the forty-second sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]
Alfred Crosby wrote a fascinating history of energy use. There are two primary sources of energy, nuclear fusion from the core of the sun, and heat that rises up from the molten magma within the Earth. Almost all of the energy used by the family of life traces back to the solar source. Every day, the sun reliably provides clean energy for our planet, and it never sends us a bill. Solar energy will very likely continue to be delivered for millions of years. It is genuinely sustainable.
Energy arriving via incoming sunbeams is captured by the living solar panels built into a wide variety of green plants. The solar panels contain chlorophyll, which uses sunbeam power to assemble simple carbohydrates by combining molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). This magic act is called photosynthesis, and it enables the existence of the entire family of life. The carbs it produces include sugars, lignin, and cellulose. They are used for the plant’s basic survival, growth, and reproduction. Some plants store carbs for later use. The byproduct emitted by photosynthesis is a gas called oxygen.
By a remarkable coincidence, living organisms called animals require both carbohydrates and oxygen in order to survive. Animals burn (oxidize) carbs and release a byproduct called carbon dioxide, the gas that plants need to perform photosynthesis. Animals consume food from plant and/or animal sources and use it for growth, reproduction, daily activities, and so on. The portion of their food intake that’s not utilized is emitted in wastes called pee and poop, which are highly nutritious substances for plants.
Finally, all living plants and animals. sooner or later, become dead plants and animals, and dead stuff is a highly nutritious source of food for the recycling crew of wee beings. They convert dead stuff into humus. This organic matter sequesters essential nutrients and improves the fertility of topsoil, much to the delight of the entire family of life. Under ideal conditions, the fertility and depth of topsoil can improve continuously for thousands of years. Prior to soil miners (farmers), parts of Iowa were covered with a layer of super-rich black soil up to ten feet deep (3 m).
Ladies and gentlemen, please stand up and give an enthusiastic round of applause for the amazing magic of life — a brilliant, intricate, functional process that has been perfectly sustainable for several billion years, successfully rolling with the many powerful punches of change! Hooray! All lives matter! All deaths matter! The dance goes round and round. Woo-hoo! Big Mama Nature rocks!
Here’s something I didn’t know before. Earth is an unusual planet, because its land surfaces include accumulations of carbon-rich organic matter, stuff left behind by the family of life. This matter enables the possibility of fire. Three things are needed for fire: oxygen, heat, and fuel. A living forest can burn, and so can collections of dead dry stuff. Crosby suspected that Earth might be the only planet where fire is possible.
The family of life is sunbeam powered. Soil organisms are children of the sun. Plants and trees are children of the sun. Everything that swims, flies, crawls, or walks is a sunbeam critter, including you and me. Fossil energy is hydrocarbon compounds originally created by ancient sunbeams.
Coal is fossilized sunshine from tropical swamp forests that lived during the Carboniferous Period, which was roughly 360 to 300 million years ago, long before dinosaurs. This fossil biomass accumulated over the course of 60 million years, largely in the vast swampy rainforests of Europe, Asia, and North America. The rainforests absorbed sunshine and carbon, and used it to create carbon-rich biomass, via photosynthesis.
Today, tree trunks are roughly 1 part bark to 4 parts of wood. During the Carboniferous, the trees trunks were more like 8 parts bark to 1 part of wood (up to 20 to 1). Back then, there were no microorganisms capable of decomposing the lignin in the bark of dead trees, so nothing rotted for 60 million years. The biomass in the rainforest swamps eventually became carbon-rich peat. Over time, pressure and heat transformed the peat deposits into coal. In some locations, coal beds are up to 39 feet thick (12 m).
Because so much carbon was buried, there was far less of it in the atmosphere. Consequently, the oxygen content in the air soared to 35 percent (now it’s 21 percent). So, for the animals living in that oxygen-rich air, many things grew to giant proportions. Dragonflies had wingspans of 29 inches (75 cm), and millipede-like bugs grew up to 9 feet long (2.7 m). Some amphibians were almost 20 feet long (6 m).
Finally, the Carboniferous Period was brought to an end by climate change. Wet and warm became cool and dry. Glaciers grew, sea levels dropped, and many rainforest species went extinct, including most of the forests. In the new climate, many reptiles adapted well, because the eggs they laid on land had shells that prevented the embryo from drying out. Eventually, this enabled the emergence of the dinosaur era, which included the ancestors of modern birds.
It took many millions of years to transform the woody biomass into coal. Over the passage of time, Big Mama Nature buried most of the sequestered carbon. The family of life had no need for it. So, the fossil sunshine took a long and pleasant nap. Much later, when human miners rudely began drilling and blasting, the coal spirits were totally infuriated. They cast malevolent spells against the screw-brained primates. Their curses loaded the atmosphere with carbon, jerked the rug out from under a stable climate, and blindsided ecosystems everywhere. Leave the coal where it is!
Petroleum and natural gas are buried sunshine that began in bodies of water during the Jurassic Period, the age of dinosaurs. In those days, the climate was very warm, creating perfect conditions for teeny-tiny plants called phytoplankton that float around in oceans, seas, and lakes. They absorbed Jurassic sunshine, and used it to create carbohydrates (their food), via photosynthesis.
Today, phytoplankton are the most numerous organisms in oceans. It is estimated that they comprise one percent of global biomass, yet most of them are too small to see with the naked eye. They are the foundation of the oceanic food chain, and all sea life depends on them for survival. Of all the photosynthesis performed on Earth, they do half of it. They produce half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, the stuff you’re breathing now. They asked me to tell you that they are really pissed off about the climate crisis and ocean acidification. Leave the oil and gas where it is!
During the Jurassic, countless gazillions of these floating organisms lived happily. When they died, they sank to the bottom. In some locations, large deposits accumulated faster than the material could decompose. These deposits formed between 260 and 10 million years ago. Once they were buried under layers of sediment, heat and pressure stimulated chemical reactions. Oil and gas were created when the deposits were cooked for millions of years at temperatures ranging from 180° to 280°F (82° to 137°C). In many locations, large concentrations of these hydrocarbons (oil and gas) have survived to modern times. (So, oil is not dinosaur juice, it is phytoplankton stew.)
It took 250 million years for the biomass to accumulate at the bottom of the sea, and additional millions to finish pressure cooking it into oil and gas. During this extremely slow process, 90 tons of ancient biomass was transformed into oil from which one U.S. gallon of gasoline (3.8 l) could be refined. Over the passage of time, Big Mama Nature deeply buried most of the sequestered carbon, because the family of life had no need for it. The world continued to live happily, and the air remained fresh and clean.
Our hominin ancestors appeared maybe four million years ago. Like all other animals, they needed food, air, and water to survive. Plants made their own food via photosynthesis, so they needed sunbeams, air, and water.
As mentioned earlier, the invention of the fire drill, and the domestication of fire was a major turning point in the human saga. Our early hominin ancestors may have lived for a million years or more prior to fire making. It wasn’t necessary for biological survival, but it eventually enabled civilizations to develop the deadly technology needed to destroy entire ecosystems, and destabilize the climate. We do know that, sooner or later, our ancestors became seriously addicted to using fire. At that point, they developed a never-ending interest in fuel — dried organic matter like grass, leaves, dung, peat, and wood.
Fire enabled them to better defend themselves against man-eating carnivores, so fewer brothers and sisters became cat food. It also enabled cooking, which sharply increased the number of potential food resources from which they could extract solar energy. So their addiction to sunbeam energy now expanded beyond the food they ate, to the solar power stored in the fuels they burned.
Humans are walking sunbeams. We absorb sunbeam energy when we eat nuts, berries, fruit, tubers, and other digestible plant substances. We can’t acquire it by eating grass, but we can absorb it when we eat grass-loving herbivores. We can encourage the expansion of their herds, and increase our food resources, by deliberately expanding herbivore habitat — grasslands. This can be done via firestick farming or deforestation. For humans, grasslands provide more food than deserts, wetlands, forests, or brushy scrub.
Wild herbivores are far less likely to overgraze than are herds of domesticated livestock, because a herder’s wealth and status is based on the number of critters he owns, not the condition of the grassland. More is better. For this reason, herders also have a long history of aggressively exterminating the wild carnivores that also cherish their herds. As mentioned earlier, some ecosystems have been reduced to wastelands when overgrazing leads to catastrophic erosion over time.
Cropland can produce far more food per unit of land than grazing land, so it was often expanded in regions that were suitable for agriculture. The healthy community of wild vegetation was ripped off the face of the land, the soil was tilled, seeds were planted, and sunbeams nurtured a generous banquet of nutrients we could digest.
Like herding, agriculture also has a long history of degrading ecosystems over time, in a number of ways. Each crop removes nutrients from the soil that are often not returned — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other stuff. When sunbeams heat up exposed soil, they stimulate microbial life that degrades the humus, causing precious carbon in the soil to float away as carbon dioxide. This long term carbon loss is even greater when cropland was originally created via deforestation. Wild forests and unmolested topsoil are two huge treasure chests of precious carbon. In a later chapter, we’ll take a closer look at the serious harms and challenges related to agriculture today.
Once again, attentive readers will see that the hunter-gatherer way of life had far less impact on ecosystems. It wasn’t consistently harmless, but it kept humans alive for 300,000 years, and our hominin ancestors for several million years. In comparison, the lifespan of civilization will be more like a quick flash in the pan, a train wreck. Prior to the dawn of herding and farming, the planet remained in far better condition than it is today.
Human cleverness, motivated by good intentions, and handicapped by ecological ignorance, has spectacularly backfired — and this failure is not understood by billions of folks who know little or nothing about environmental history. Catastrophe is invisible to them. Their virtual reality headsets stream images of a high standard of living, wondrous prosperity, amazing genius. Let’s go shopping!
Craig Dilworth described the ongoing rise and fall of civilizations as a vicious circle. Clever innovation enabled folks to control and exploit more sunbeam energy, and this enabled population growth. More mouths needed access to more sunbeams, which required more cleverness, and on and on. It was a merry-go-round that kept spinning faster and faster, until it ran into solid limits to growth that cleverness could not sweep aside. Then, the merry-go-round shifted into reverse, and the game got slower, simpler, and quieter. Societies strangled by scarcity, or bulldozed by stronger outsiders, tumbled into the tar pits of oblivion, while new merry-go-rounds began spinning elsewhere. What goes up must come down.
Albert Bartlett tirelessly preached that growth in population and resource consumption is undesirable, unwise, and unsustainable. Therefore, the super-trendy buzzword “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of educated people in the world are radicalized believers in an absurd oxymoron. It’s like the neon sign in the tavern window, “Free Beer Tomorrow.” Our obsession with perpetual growth is batshit crazy. Luckily, ignorance is curable, in theory.
By removing the forests, and growing crops, orchards, and livestock, the incoming solar energy could generate far more digestible nutrients. More nutrients enabled the survival of more primates, so more forests were converted into manmade nutrient factories, and the primate mob grew even more. The trees cleared could be processed into many useful products. The charcoal could be used to smelt ores, and produce metal tools. Metal tools made it much easier to remove forests, build things, plow cropland, and kill enemies and other animals. This merry-go-round of cleverness has never spun faster, with greater fury — a vicious circle indeed.
Throughout the four million year era of hominins, muscle power has been a primary source of energy for doing stuff. Muscle power is highly versatile, able to run on a variety of edible fuels — grains, beans, meat, eggs, fruit, nuts, roots, insects, and so on. Clive Ponting noted that until 1800, about 75 percent of the mechanical energy needed to run civilization came from human muscles, and most of the rest was from animals (wind and water were minor sources).
Prior to 1492, the indigenous Americans had enslaved zero extra-large beasts of burden (beside humans). The grand cities of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs were built entirely with human labor. Much human energy was used to create Egypt’s pyramids. The Great Wall of China was constructed by one million workers, half of whom died in the process. The Greek and Roman city states held large populations of slaves. Slavery was common from the dawn of civilization until the nineteenth century, and so was forced labor for “free” peasants.
Pita Kelekna wrote that horses were wild and free until maybe 4000 B.C., when humans began enslaving them. Wild horses had been popular large game for many thousands of years. Several scholars have speculated that domestication probably saved horses from extinction. You can only eat a horse once, but you can force it to perform heavy work month after month, year after year. They could be used to pull stuff, haul loads, and carry riders. Four legged slaves enabled a tremendous expansion of soil mining, forest mining, mineral mining, bloody empire building, and economic growth. They helped unlock the gateway to industrial civilization.
Humans produce less muscle power than horses, but we need less feed, and can digest far more types of foods. We have bodies and brains that allow us to perform a much wider variety of physical tasks. People can travel across deserts, up rugged mountains, and through dense rainforests. Horses are less adaptable to hot climates and arctic regions. Each one requires five acres (2 ha) of good grassland, and the supply of good grassland is not infinite.
By 1900, the global population of humans had soared to about 1.5 billion, and the era of horse power was wearing out its welcome. Eric Morris wrote a fascinating essay to help us remember life in the Peak Horse era. The streets of big cities were jammed with horses, carriages, and wagons, squishing through a deep layer of manure and urine, past rotting horse carcasses, amidst dense clouds of flies and overpowering stench. Cities were rapidly growing, as hordes immigrants moved in to enjoy miserable industrial jobs, while living in crowded, filthy, disease ridden slums. Each horse emitted 15 to 30 pounds (7 to 14 kg) of manure daily — 3 to 4 million pounds (1.3 to 1.8 million kg) in New York City each day.
(To be continued…)