Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Combustion Trap

by Glen Hendrix

There is a science fiction novel, Transmat World, that mentions "The Combustion Trap". It is the name of a theory wherein all civilizations go through the same process. The discovery of fire and its gradual increase in utilization to the point of planetary ruin before the civilization realizes it is even in trouble. In the book it is a theory put forth by an alien robot thousands of years in the past; but, in reality, it is a serious subject that political leaders and scientists ignore at the peril of the future of humanity.

Image courtesy of Alun Salt under a Creative Commons License.
The atmosphere has been in equilibrium, more or less, for millions of years except for the great extinctions that wiped out most of life on the planet due to volcanic upheavals or comet/asteroid collisions. It has always recovered. For the next extinction, we are going to have to come up with a work-around for two reasons: 1. We are causing it. 2. We don't want to be extinct.

Image courtesy of and Kevin MacLeod under a Creative Commons License

Sometime between 200,000 and 800,000 years ago humans began starting fires on purpose for cooking, or warmth, or security, or all of the above. It was one of man’s overarching achievements, making possible his technological advance while at the same time, possibly, sealing his doom. The giant mechanisms of equilibrium used by Earth for millions of years just shrugged off these tiny flames in the dark and went about their business for hundreds of thousands of years.

Image courtesy of blvesboy under a Creative Commons License
Then in the late 1700’s James Watt invented the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution began. Now just the carbon dioxide from human combustion activities is 130-150 times what is produced from volcanoes every year. With huge populations of China, India, and other countries driving consumer economies, demanding goods on a par with the United States, the products of combustion will continue to rise until, inevitably, the ancient and reliable mechanisms of equilibrium falter and the climate begins to change to a point where the Earth becomes uninhabitable. The next great extinction will occur, taking mankind and a good portion of the current animal and plant life with it.

It shouldn't take an alien robot in a science fiction book to tell us what we already know. After millions of years of relative climate stability, we are introducing more products of combustion than volcanoes into the atmosphere every year with no end in sight. Unless we can alter our behavior on a societal level, it's very likely our children or grandchildren will feel the extreme effects of global warming. It is a bad situation but not a hopeless one.

There are many scientists who think the Earth’s mechanisms of climate stability will be able to withstand any onslaught mankind can offer. I hope they are right, but I don't think they are. If you look at it logically, human civilization is the slow super volcano, the glacially paced asteroid strike. Because it happens so slowly, it gives ephemeral beings such as humans a chance to deny it. This won’t prevent their ancestors from cursing their stupidity. The Earth’s climate has been changed radically five times in the past, causing extinctions, and it is radically changing a sixth; this time in slow motion. Some would argue that it's not even that slow. This article from Scientific American describes a Stanford University study that claims over the next century climate will change 10 times faster than it has in the past 65 million years.

It's my contention this is the very reason aliens aren’t knocking at our Solar System door (besides the enormous gulfs of time and space). Every intelligent, self-aware, land-based, oxygen atmosphere species that arises in the universe goes through the same Combustion Trap. It begins with the discovery that fire can be controlled and, because life is short, there is no serious thought given to what might happen beyond one’s lifetime. Before the newborn civilization can get into space it finds itself in the same dilemma as the human race.

Let's say the skeptics are right. What if the Earth would be going through these changes without the meddling of man. What if there is going to be another Ice Age no matter what we do and global warming will only act to ameliorate that? Is it worth all the work and expense to understand and change, if necessary, the climate of our planet? Let's examine the possibilities and the stakes: 1. We spend a lot of time and treasure and discover the truth and a solution. We live. 2. We spend a lot of time and treasure and discover the truth but no solution. We die. 3. We do nothing. It turns out to be a tempest in a teapot. We live. 4. We do nothing. Climate change is real and the enemy is us. We die. Since when did smart humans depend on the roll of dice or flip of coin? We don't have an option to do nothing. It should be noted that as time goes on without doing anything the solutions must become more heroic and more expensive.

Collectively, we have the foresight acuity of a mole but individually we are pretty eagle-eyed. Our individual creativity will save us. If we have to, we will figure out how to terraform our own planet or to such CO2 from the air and use it or store it. If we are to get out of this mess, technology and astute leadership will be our saving grace. We should call on our leaders to do something instead of nothing. They can provide incentives. We can invent our way out of the Combustion Trap. We will control the climate. We will use the sun's energy. We will harness the atom safely. We will spread into space and it will become our second home. We will explore and mine and study the asteroids and moons and planets. We will do these things because we are human and that is our destiny. We must fight the good fight and be victorious, if not for ourselves then our children and all who come after.

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