Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Nature’s Conquest of Man

Simon Norfolk
For a little over four centuries now, starting in the 1600s, the dominant narrative in the West has been “Man’s Conquest of Nature.” From there it spread around the globe as “Man” (in a rather specific sense of various gentlemen and their servants) vanquished all who stood before him. And even now, as the West enters its senescence, torn apart by internal conflicts, failing demographically, overrun by migrants from a wide assortment of failed states and courting environmental disaster at a planetary scale, it remains the steadfast belief of victims of public education around the world that “the purpose of nature is to serve man.”

This belief is at odds with nature because, as it turns out, in the natural scheme of things the function of man is to be eaten, and of a lucky few to accidentally become fossilized. These days many of us are turned into ash, to save space—a wasteful process, biologically speaking—but normally, if disposed of underground our destiny is to feed the worms, the bugs, and other decomposers, while if left to rot on the surface the crows, the vultures, the rats and various other scavengers are only too happy to oblige.

Put into proper perspective, eating us up isn’t even that big a task. Fed through a compactor and stacked in 1-ton cubic blocks, all of humanity would fit into a cube a bit less than 1 kilometer on the side. Spread evenly over the entire surface of the Earth, we would form a film barely 1 micron thick—undetectable without special equipment and short work for the planet’s microscopic biota. Compare that to the thick microbial mats which gave rise to the crude oil deposits which we are currently burning through at breakneck speed: the average human burns through eight times his body weight in crude oil every year.

It is the crude oil, along with coal, natural gas and uranium, that multiply our puny power to a point where the results of our activity become visible from outer space over large stretches of the planet’s surface. Crunching the numbers, it turns out that burning crude oil allows us to multiply our physical, endosomatic energy by roughly a factor of 44,000,000. Add in coal, natural gas and uranium, and you get roughly a hundred-thousand-times amplification of our puny physical powers. It is this that has enabled man’s recent, and short-lived “conquest of nature.” Without fossil fuels the best exosomatic energy we can harness is a team of two horses, oxen, water buffalo or what have you. Any more than that becomes hard for a single human to handle. The horses and other large ruminants multiply our power by a factor of 15 or so. But that, if you think really hard, is plenty.

It is known that the hundred-thousand-times fossil-fuel-based amplification of our meager physical powers is going to dwindle over time, leaving us with a couple of horses to fall back on—if we are lucky. Going from hundred-thousand-fold to fifteen-fold is surely going to come as a shock for some people, causing them to claim that this will spell the end of human civilization. Others claim that human civilization is doomed because burning roughly half of all the recoverable fossil fuels in just a couple of centuries has destabilized the climate. As if that’s not enough, Prof. Guy McPherson boldly predicts that humans will be extinct by January 1, 2026 (which falls on a Wednesday). And at the extreme far end of the spectrum of luminaries spouting dire predictions we find Prof. Stephen Hawking. Listening to the radio, I recently heard him proclaim, in his vintage robotic voice, that Trump opting out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change may end up making Earth resemble Venus, with lava fields and rains of sulphuric acid. He said that we better get cracking on building space colonies if we want to survive.

I vehemently disagree with pretty much all of the above. To find out where I stand, and, more importantly, to figure out where you stand, please continue reading... [2266 words]