Blogmeister's Note: Today, we bring you Part Deux of Jen-Luc Piquant's hard-hitting interview with author Eric Roston, about his new book, The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threats. Pre-order your copy today! And check out Eric's blog, Carbon Nation. You can read Part 1 of the conversation here.
Jen-Luc: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered about carbon while researching and writing the book?
Eric: Carbon is so ubiquitous in life and civilization, it's easy to forget it's actually sort of rare on Earth. It doesn't even make the top 10 elements. It's commonly known that diamonds are carbon crystals. Less well known is that they are potentially the oldest surviving minerals on Earth -- more than 3 billion years old, possibly made from carbon in once-living organisms, and they also occur naturally in space, around the cooling envelope of large carbon stars.
Jen-Luc: Were there any especially colorful personalities or amusing encounters along the way?
Eric: My goodness, yes. Forced to choose one, out of the 10 or so that come immediately to mind, I volunteer Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor (of the environment, energy, food, population, economics, natural cycles, technological history...) at the University of Manitoba. He was a "Prague Spring"-era dissident from then-Czechoslovakia, and came here to earn his PhD. He is an iconoclast, hilarious, rhetorically fearless, and a breath of fresh air in a world of people less willing than he to share their actual interior monologues (though I might have passed on the details of prostate surgery). I've never met him in person, but enjoyed our several phone calls, and was always inspired by his breadth of knowledge and willingness to deploy it, crushing many in his path.
Edwin Saltpeter first postulated how carbon forms in stars. We spoke several times at length. He is a delightful gentleman-scientist and his life story is equally inspiring. As a young teenager his family fled Nazi Austria. To name just one more, the interview that really first put me on the right track, in May 2004, was with the late Richard Smalley, in Houston, Texas, a co-discovered of the soccer-ball-shaped all-carbon molecule C60 ("buckyballs"). At the end of the bibliography of The Carbon Age, I have a long list of all the other people who helped shape the book, one way or another.
Jen-Luc: You've written that "Today's Carbon Age is the Carboniferous Period in reverse." Care to expound on that statement for the benefit of our readers? How did you arrive at that particular insight?
Eric: This is a pivotal question. What do we call the coal, oil and gas industries? They collectively belong to what the business press calls the "extractive industries." Companies extract these unique (carbon-heavy) fuels from the ground. Then there is the take that geologists, over several generations, from around the world, have assembled based on accumulated physical evidence, logic, and computer modeling.
The geological time span that dates from 359 to 299 million years ago is called the Carboniferous Period. They call it that because the Earth saw a catastrophic drop in the partial pressure atmospheric carbon (dioxide) -- a 90% drop. Here's part of the story, and as global carbon cycle scientists tell it, not even the most important part. In this period, woody plants populated bogs around the Earth's then-supercontinent. They lived their leafy lives, collapsed, perhaps one into another, face-planted in the muck, and over a couple of hundred million years became coal.
So, by extracting coal and burning it into atmospheric gas, we are reversing the photosynthesis that first captured solar energy (and atmospheric carbon) in living tissue 350 million years ago, in the Carboniferous. Except, we are doing it several orders of magnitude faster than it took to bury all that carbon to begin with. Big problem, by the way, if you are used to the stable climates in places humans have built settlements and cities for the past 10,000 years. (Oil and gas are more "recent" geological phenomena. Most of the oil came "only" in the last 70 million years or so.) On the face of it, it's not illogical that atmospheric composition should change dramatically and acutely if you decided to pack it with 100 million years' worth of gasified sediment.
Jen-Luc: Carbon is found in all kinds of everyday materials: Kevlar vests, soft drinks (carbonation), our computers -- the list is endless. What's the secret to its breathtaking versatility? Isn't it bizarre that the same element can be found in the furthest reaches of the galaxy as well as in a common soda can?
Eric: Yes, it's absolutely bizarre. All things being equal, you would be reasonable to expect that all 92 naturally occurring elements mix and match in equal proportions to make us and everything around us. But that's not the case, at all.
Here's the secret: Carbon is atomic Velcro. It's very good at holding things together but is also perfectly happy to let go under the right circumstances, and re-attach. That's the key. It holds atoms together into molecules, but it also "knows" when to let go. Cholesterol is built on a network of four rings of carbon, and it turns up in rock samples 3 million years old. That's a great example of how well carbon holds together. TNT blows up because highly energetic carbon bonds to nitrogen-oxygen groups are unstable. That's because making and breaking carbon bonds allows the 700 gazillion chemical transformation that occur in every body every second.
Jen-Luc: Speaking of the body, carbon is also related to carbohydrates, which have a serious image problem these days in the public eye. Is there really such a thing as "good" vs. "bad" carbs? Aren't we just really talking about burning fuel for energy?
Eric: Food is fuel. There's about as much chemical energy stored in a 64-oz bottle of soda as in two spoons of gasoline. On a basic level, what's going on in cells is identical to what's going on in an internal combustion engine. Oxygen attacks bonds of carbon and hydrogen, releasing energy and producing CO2 and H2O. French chemists realized that respiration and combustion are the same thing in 1780.
There are good and bad carbs, or at least carbs you should eat more of, and carbs you should eat less of. Most of the "carbs" we eat should be the complex variety, found in grains, beans, etc. -- fibers and starches. Simple carbs are basically sugar. Don't want too many of those, but we pack them away by the tablespoon anyway. Fats are mostly "carbs" -- carbon, anyway -- hydrocarbon chains tied together in a way the body can break them down.
As far as what we would eat, it will be tough for anyone to top Michael Pollan's lead in a New York Times Magazine article last year: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." But there's also body-builder Jack Lalane's advice for longevity: "If it's manmade, don't eat it, and if it tastes good, spit it out."
Jen-Luc: Since we're on the subject of fuel, gas prices are topping a record $4 per gallon these days. How do we break the stranglehold that oil and gas have on our society?
Eric: Rising gas prices were one impetus for writing The Carbon Age. Mostly, I wanted to add to the conversation context I felt was missing. The papers, magazines, and other books do a great job of talking about the oil crisis, the climate crisis, the this-and-that crisis. My goal is to complement these familiar stories by broadening the conversation, showing how seemingly far-flung parts of our experience are part of a singular tale -- carbon's story.
One question I'm asked sometimes is, "Do you propose solutions [to climate, energy crises] in the book?" The answer is unequivocally yes, but not in the way that the question is usually meant. Understanding what science is, and what it currently tells us, is an often overlooked part of solutions, or at least an enabler of carbon-reducing solutions.
A couple of years ago, I noted a "teaser" at the beginning of the arts section of a magazine. ("Teaser" is news jargon for the front-page snippets that make you want to read inside.) It read something like, "What's the hottest crop of science books? Here's a hint: it's not geology." The story was about the boom in economics books, such as Freakonomics. There's nothing wrong with that teaser. It does a good job. What's messed up is that we live in a culture where that works as a teaser.
The fact is, economics is, or has become, the study of how carbon minerals can drive material wealth, without taking into account the cost of waste. I wouldn't be surprised if 50 years from now -- or 20, or next week -- people look back and say, "What the hell were they thinking, treating economics as if it weren't a wholly owned subsidiary of geology? How is it possible that generation after generation of students graduated into a carbon-mineral economy without ever being required to take an Earth science class?"
Jen-Luc: Carbon is on everyone's mind these days because of climate change/global warming. There are still a few staunch hold-out denialists, bolstered by the latest news predicting a brief cooling trend in the coming years. How would you counter-argue that point? What, ultimately, is the significance (if any) of this predicted cooling trend?
Eric: In my wildest dreams I never imagined the book would come out the same month that the US Senate undertakes debate of a rigorous and comprehensive carbon-mitigation bill. It has been very heartening to watch how quickly the climate conversation has moved in the last two years. But, you're right, the disinformation machine is still working overtime.
In April, the journal Nature ran a research article by German scientists who fine-tuned computer models to tentatively predict a cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere in the next decade. Forget any caveats about this study for the moment -- that they were just beta-testing their model, that it's even possible to initialize sea-surface temperatures, etc -- science-y stuff. Say hypothetically that they are 100% right. This reveals a very important point about the complexity of the atmosphere and climate change.
Manmade global warming is occurring and will continue to occur, possibly for thousands of years to come. While this process is occurring, short- and even long-term natural variation of the climate is also occurring. A powerful natural variation toward regional cooling can mask the long-term warming signal. It did in the third quarter of the last century. Think of it like this: Say you're boiling water to make pasta, but you ritually forget how much water to put in. So you've got that burner on setting #7, and it keeps adding heat to the water. But you've got to add more water to accommodate the pasta. So you add the water. This lowers the temperature in the pot -- but it's a temporary cooling and that heat just keeps on coming. It'll boil. It just may take longer.
Jen-Luc: We are both former New Yorkers. I couldn't help noticing in your bio that you were an eyewitness to the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. In fact, you were part of a reporting team that won a national magazine award for your coverage. What impact did that have on you, both personally and professionally?
Eric: 9/11 caused so much devastation, trauma and dislocation, that something feels not quite right about my calling it a personal tragedy, too. But it was, both because of what I saw and heard, and because of how much I love New York. I was reporting several blocks from Ground Zero when the towers fell.
I've always been a student of war. I majored in the history of the World Wars in college. And I always knew that the bright-line distinction between our generation and my father's, and probably every one before his, is that our generation had no compulsory military service during wartime. On 9/11, with the southern tip of Manhattan about to go into Martial Law, I remember wandering around Tribeca, my sweatshirt wrapped around my nose and mouth, after residents and workers had fled north and across the rivers. I remember staring into a dust cloud, and at a trail of debris left in the exodus, thinking that war has come.