Life has been playing out its drama on a vast planetary stage; and there has been enough rehearsal time to produce an extraordinary repertoire. You might say, looking at the diversity and proliferation of life today, that this production has run and run. Human beings have a limited perspective on time; we find it difficult to imagine how minute amounts of organic material in carcasses of bacteria, plants and animals can accumulate into massive deposits. Yet that is how life as we know it spread out across the planet. Over billions of years those bodies of dead organisms drifted down, piled up, drifted down, piled up on the ocean floor; more than 400 million years ago, as the planet’s crust became geologically active, seas were drained and nutrient-rich sediments brought to the surface. Until this point the land had been barren of plants; now pioneers ventured into this new niche. Soon massive trees stretched into the sky, reaching for sunlight above the profusion of low shrubbery.
Between 280 and 360 million years ago, continents moved and sank, seas filled and drained some fifty times. Each time, some species disappeared while others took advantage of the changed environment. When seas drained, thick forests occupied swamps and lowlands; when these areas were again flooded, the organic matter in the forests was submerged in swampy water that had little oxygen to break down the plant carcasses. This organic matter, which was created by photosynthesis and metabolism, was made up of carbon atoms from the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which had been removed from the air during those processes. Microorganisms decomposed the organic material, liberating oxygen and hydrogen
and concentrating the carbon. Then the bacteria were killed by the acids liberated from the decaying plants. The partially decayed material is peat. As peat was buried under sediment, water and gases were squeezed out and the remnants were even richer in hydrocarbons. Initially, peat became a soft brown coal called lignite. As it became more deeply buried, lignite was transformed into a harder, darker material called bituminous coal. Then, as bitumen was subjected to greater heat and pressure, it changed into anthracite.
Oil and gas are also made up of hydrocarbons from once living-organisms. But whereas coal was formed from plants in swamps, oil and gas came from marine plants and animals that were buried in sediment that inhibited oxidation. Over millions of years, the buried organisms were compressed and the organic molecules underwent chemical changes to form petroleum and natural gas. As they were compressed further, the oil and gas moved upwards through porous sedimentary rock until they were trapped by an impermeable cap. Those
accumulated reservoirs were a once-only gift of ancient life-forms to an energy-hungry industrial civilization.
Fossil fuels are the result of a long process in Earth’s history, a legacy of countless generations of life that flourished and died with energy stored in the molecules of their bodies. It took hundreds of millions of years for this energy to accumulate and cook into coal, oil and gas, and during all that time these substances kept carbon out of circulation, helping to balance the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Now, in a flicker of an eyelash, relatively
speaking, the work of ages is being undone.
For most of its history, our species has burned animal fat, dung, straw and wood as fuels. Coal has been used for just a few centuries, and oil and gas are new fuels, in use only since the Industrial Revolution. In this brief period we have suddenly become dependent on fossil fuels on a global scale; at current rates of use, we will reach the limits of oil deposits within a few short decades. The estimated known and potentially discoverable world reserves of oil
would supply global needs for about 35 years at current rates of use.
“If all people in the world enjoyed a standard of living and energy consumption similar to the U.S. average, and the world population continued to grow at the rate of 1.7% per year, the world’s fossil fuel reserves would last a mere 20 years.”
- David Pimentel, “Natural Resources and an Optimum Human Population”
Fossil fuels are finite, a one-time-only gift from the ancient life of our planet. During the lifetime of our species, they will never again be created.
As well as depleting most oil reserves within a few generations, we are returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate that exceeds the capacity of natural recycling mechanisms
to remove it. For a century or more our use of energy has altered the amount of global atmospheric carbon dioxide. Although we can detect the changes in atmospheric composition, our ignorance of all the factors affecting climate and weather is so vast that we cannot predict
all the consequences of these changes. Nevertheless, current models are remarkably consistent with the direction of the effects and in predicting the observed fluctuations in weather and temperature. Knowing that oil and gas will run out, that using them creates health and environmental problems and that there will be unpredictable climatological effects, we must clearly govern our use of energy within a program for ecological sustainability. Coal and peat
deposits are vast, but they release even more greenhouse gasses and are a greater problem.
It is clear where the chief responsibility for this crisis lies when Earth is viewed from space at night. As Malcolm Smith has described it:
Most of sub-Saharan Africa, vast expanses of South America and central China are stark in their black vastness. North America, Western Europe and Japan, where a quarter of the world’s population uses three quarters of the world’s 10,000 million kilowatts of electricity, shine out as if we are hell-bent on advertising our profligacy
“A citizen of an advanced industrial nation consumes in six months the energy that has to last the citizen of a developing country his entire life.”
- Maurice Strong, quoted in the Guardian
Playing with Fire
All the gods of all our stories know that fire is a double-edged sword; what warms may burn, what gives power may also consume, what gives life may take it away just as easily. Our relationship with fossil fuels is just the latest evidence of this difficult, dangerous truth. Our use of energy in the industrialized world has given us comfort, economic security, mobility,
food and the power to change Earth to suit ourselves. It has also given us a Pandora’s box of associated miseries: air pollution, soil erosion and environmental destruction. Fossil fuels have provided cheap, portable energy to fuel vehicles and to manufacture machinery that has brought us that deadly affliction of overconsumption, which is clearing the world’s forests,emptying its oceans, devastating its waterways, obliterating its nonhuman life. So how
can we contain the power we have snatched so recklessly?
The mix of life, balanced yet constantly changing over time, teaches us the ground rules: what species do is local and small-scale and introduces little that is novel. In nature, the dung beetle lays its eggs in animal droppings to exploit the remnant food value of the dung. Plants bleached of chlorophyll survive by parasitizing photosynthetic green plant carcasses, only to become food for insects and other animals. There are cycles within cycles. In biological systems, the passage of energy and materials forms loops that are completely circular, and so there is no end product to be dumped into soil, air or water, the other elements we are pledged to protect.
Human beings have broken those loops, creating linear use of energy and matter that go from raw resources to heat and materials that are discarded or lost. Often there are unanticipated consequences to the buildup of these wastes. Intrinsic to our myths of power are warnings: technologies have unexpected side effects, and the bigger the technology, the more intractable the consequences. When Pandora opened her box, all the plagues that torment humanity scattered to the far ends of the Earth. But one thing was left behind: tucked into a corner was the welcome figure of Hope. And hope remains that we can achieve sustainable levels of energy consumption by making existing systems more efficient and by
using alternative sources of energy: the sun, the wind, the tides and the deep, abiding heat of the Earth.
David Pimentel outlines an economy based on the sustainable use of energy, land, water and biodiversity while achieving a relatively high standard of living, but steps on a heroic scale must be taken immediately with a view to reducing both use of fossil fuels and population. He estimates that 90 million hectares of land (equal to the combined areas of the states of Texas and Idaho) could be used to collect solar energy without disrupting agricultural and
forest productivity. By conserving energy, per capita consumption of oil could be cut in half to 5,000 liters of oil equivalents. By conserving soil and water, reducing air pollution and massively recycling, a conserver society could be achieved in the United States in which
the optimum population would be targeted at about 200 million …. Then it would be possible for Americans to continue to enjoy their relatively high standard of living…. Worldwide, resolving the population-resource equation
will be more difficult than in the United States.
The global population level could reach 10 billion before the middle of the next century. Pimentel’s projections all suggest the need for a massive effort to conserve soil and to recover enough food for each person on 0.5 hectare of land. These measures will have to be accompanied by rapid stabilization and then reduction in population. If these goals are achieved,
it would be possible to sustain a global population of approximately 3 billion humans. With a self-sustaining renewable energy system … providing each person with 5,000 liters of oil equivalents per year (one half of America’s current consumption/year but an increase for most people in the world), a population of 1 to 2 billion could be supported living in relative prosperity.
Although Earth’s population is currently almost 6 billion, and every eleven years brings us another billion more people, Pimentel’s vision is still one of hope. It talks about focused effort, about conserving energy and sharing it out fairly; above all it proposes a new beginning. Fossil fuels now suffuse every aspect of our lives, used in our cars, furnaces, energydependent
manufacturing, farming and so on. But we became dependent on this source
of energy very recently. Now that we understand the repercussions of the finite nature of oil and gas and the buildup of greenhouse gases when we use too much, we can turn our creative energies to finding alternatives, especially by harvesting the energy flooding onto Earth from the sun. There is a great deal of opportunity. It will take time to wean ourselves from our current patterns of energy use, and we can extend that time by becoming much
more efficient, stretching our reserves and reducing our use of effluent gases and our wastes. Hypercars are capable of traveling 150 kilometers on a liter of gas and could allow us to continue to use vehicles with greatly reduced ecological impact. This could buy time for the design and construction of living spaces for most of humanity that eliminate the need for cars altogether. Greater efficiency in manufacturing processes can reduce energy and materials use by a factor of four, while conservation through reduced consumption can solve the
ecological problems and increase equity. The potential is there. What is needed is the will.
A Legacy from the Past and Playing with Fire are excerpts from the book The Sacred Balance, Rediscovering Our Place In Nature, By: David Suzuki with Amanda McConnell published by: Greystone Books, a division of Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, geneticist and environmentalist. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts with an Honors BA in Biology, followed by a PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago. He held a research associateship at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Lab, was an Assistant Professor in Genetics at the University of Alberta, and faculty member of the University of British Columbia. He is now Professor Emeritus at UBC. David is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.