Humanity and fossil fuels

Humanity and fossil fuels

Man has behaved irrationally, rather like a population of single-celled organisms, in the way he has exploited fossil fuels.

Written 18th February, 2004, modified 2013/07/15
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On our planet organisms have occupied any niches available to them. Anywhere that an organism can obtain a source of energy that it can harness to survive and breed it has done so. Many organisms (plants) obtain their energy from sunlight by harnessing several chemical reactions, one of which can only work in the presence of light. Other organisms (animals) obtain energy by eating the plants.

Still others survive by changing sulphates, left in sediments by other organisms, into sulphides. Others live at mid-ocean-ridge 'black smokers' and convert sulphides to sulphates. (As I understand it, energy is either consumed or released in these reactions depending on how much oxygen is available in the local environment.)

Many are aware that simple, single celled, organisms such as bacteria and mould can survive on many foods. When Man wants to preserve food he has learned to change the conditions to make life difficult for these: by dehydrating or freezing foods, or adding so much salt or sugar that the organisms can't live, or just by killing any organisms present and stopping others from invading.

A species that is incapable of behaving rationally will multiply to the point where it has reached some sort of limit. Because it is not rational, it has no control over this limiting point. Often the limit will be where the population of organisms runs out of food (fuel).

Man behaves like a bacterium in the way he exploits fossil fuels

On the earth, energy is available by causing fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, etc.) to react with the oxygen in the atmosphere. Where fossil fuels are plentiful micro-organisms are not able to do this because no oxygen is available, for example in a peat swamp or deep in the earth's crust. Where oxygen is available for combination with organic matter, some organism will make a living out of consuming the fuel by combining it with the oxygen.

Man, however, has leaned to move the fossil fuels from where there is no oxygen to where oxygen is readily available. He takes the peat from the bog, or the oil from the underground oil field, or the coal from the sedimentary rocks; brings it to the surface where oxygen is plentiful, and causes it to react with oxygen there.

Just like a micro-organism, once Man discovered how to do this and learned that there could be a profit in it (he could exploit fossil fuels to his advantage) he did it more and more. The rate of consumption of the fuel bore no relation to the rate at which the fuel was replenished; the rate of consumption depended only on the 'progress' Man made in finding more and more ways of usefully exploiting the fuel. Note the similarity to a mould colonizing jam in an incompletely sealed jam jar; the mould grows exponentially faster and faster until it is forced to slow down because it has exploited all the surface of the jam.

We, as a society, have discovered that the uncontrolled consumption of fossil fuel can lead to problems: coal smoke, petrochemical smog, accumulation of greenhouse gases, etc. In cases where the problems have been local our society has made laws to limit the harmful effects; just as an organism evolves methods of protecting itself from the toxins it produces. Where the harmful effects are global our governments have been much slower to act. We continue to burn fossil fuels whenever there is a short-term advantage in doing so.

It looks like we will run out of petroleum before we can learn to rationally control the rate at which we consume it. Coal, however, is much more plentiful; the man-made greenhouse effect will probably seriously damage the biosphere by climate change and ocean acidification before we run out of coal. Will man learn to rationally control the rate at which he burns coal before he destroys 'his' world?