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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Punctuation Marks !!!

Reg Morrison*
August 2006


 

Figure 1: Entropic Nature of the Cosmos
White's Law
    Figure 2: Per Capita Energy & Pollution
    Figure 3: Oil-Energy
    Figure 4: Global Oil Production
   
Figure 5: Horizontal Oil Extraction
Renewable Energy
The Easter Island Syndrome
    Figure 6: Easter Island Population
   
Figure 7: Reindeer on St. Paul’s Island
Evolution’s Act-of-God Clause
    Figure 8: Stations of the Cross, Sydney, Australia
   
Figure 9: An ANZAC Day Dawn Service, Australia
Hydrogen’s Loaded Gun
   
Figure 10: Long-Term Methane Source: an Irrigation Reservoir, VIC.
   
Figure 11: Methane Bubbles in a Desert Waterhole, NT.
   
Figure 12: Methane Hydrates Circulation
    Figure 13 : Abyssal Hydrates Cycle
    Figure 14: Abyssal Hydrates Collapse
Life’s Narrow Escape
   
Figure 15: CH4/CO2/°C
A GAS attack
Patterns of Methylation
Sign of the Times
   
Figure 16: Population Growth-Rate
No mercy for First Offenders
   
Figure 17: The Human Plague
Notes

 

The vast clouds of dust and glowing gases that surround the Horsehead Nebula (in Orion’s belt) reveal their primary component, hydrogen, by its reddish color. All other wavelengths were filtered out during a seven-hour exposure made by astronomers at the Star Shadow Remote Observatory in New Mexico, USA. This hydrogen image was then superimposed on a second, unfiltered image that showed the underlying structure. See at < http://www.starshadows.com/gallery/ >.
 

Life’s Vital Spark

The primary molecular ingredients of earthly life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur (CHNOPS). All six play vital and particular roles in the structure and behaviour of organisms, but I believe that the traditional emphasis on carbon obscures a more accurate, cosmic view of the biota, the biosphere and our place within it.  This skewed perspective effectively conceals the magnitude and immediacy of the threats we face on this hydrogen-regulated planet.

As a crucial component of all living organisms carbon is essential, but it is primarily a structural element and a heavy haulage vehicle that plays no executive role in life’s imperatives: growth, reproduction and self-maintenance. Carbon is the brick and mortar that sustains life’s mansions, but adds no ‘vital spark’ to switch on and off the light inside those mansions. Hydrogen, not carbon, executes that genetic order.

The Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky proposed life as a geological force —a dynamic extension of the Earth’s crust and an inevitable by-product of the energy gradient that forms the interface between the body of the planet and the matrix of space.  Since hydrogen is the basic energy unit of the cosmos this proposition supports the contention that life too, is hydrogen-based.

Our species’ recent population explosion and its massive impact on the planet’s biosphere were both fuelled by fossil hydrocarbons, and the environmental and energy crises that we now face will be orchestrated by the vast quantity of hydrocarbons that we have transferred from the crust to the atmosphere. 
Oil-dependent and vulnerable to methane-triggered climate change, we are staring down the barrel of hydrogen’s loaded gun.

As the first shells from Saddam Hussein's armoured columns ripped into the world's largest oil refinery at Abadan on September 24, 1980, thousands of tonnes of Iranian crude began to erupt into the quiet morning air. Veined in scarlet and orange, the roiling plumes rose above the arid plains like a row of monstrous exclamation marks. As they gained altitude the cloud tops merged and began to draw a black shroud over this cradle of civilization. Human folly, it seemed, was adding yet another grim comment in the margin of history.

Sadly, it is now clear that Abadan's huge oil fires were indeed punctuation marks in the tide of human events, for they heralded an unprecedented global downturn in per capita energy production —a downturn that has continued unbroken to this day. While the evolutionary significance of that energy watershed is still unclear, there is good reason to suspect that those terrible exclamation marks may have announced the terminal decline of our globalised technoculture.

The colour patterns within a soap film perfectly express the entropic nature of the cosmos. The rainbow colours are a product of wave interference between light reflected from the front and back surfaces of the film. They therefore accurately reflect chaotic fluctuations in thickness, and therefore, energy, within the film, as it water molecules evaporate and the film thins to bursting point. (Background: Hubble images, NASA.)

Figure 1: Entropic Nature of the Cosmos


Aided by a large brain, technology-based culture, and an obsessive tendency to attach mystical significance to our actions, our populous species has become a massive energy consumer. Each day we capture energy from the Sun and from the planet and use it to live, feed, grow, and reproduce. Directly or indirectly, humans now appropriate between 20 and 30 percent of the solar energy photosynthetically trapped by the world's vegetation. We consume most of that energy, and release the unused fraction as heat.

During the past 150 years however, we have overrun the planet in the same disruptive fashion that a plague of mice or locusts may overrun and ravage a region. We have significantly limited other life forms and disturbed the patterns of energy flow that comprise Earth's energy gradient. The overwhelming evidence for this is bannered in the mass extinction of other species and the altered composition of the atmosphere. We
should therefore expect the same culling process, 'natural selection', that typically curtails exponential growth in other species.


White’s Law

Human culture flourishes or declines —in a physical sense— in direct proportion to the average per capita energy (including nutrient) extracted from the environment.

A civilization is therefore defined by the gross per capita energy that its members consume in their pursuit of sustenance, reproduction, shelter, possessions, entertainment, and personal and cultural security.


 

Figure 2: Per Capita Energy & Pollution

Left: A coal-fired steel mill pours carbon and sulfur based pollutants into the atmosphere near Sydney, Australia. Centre: Formerly cloaked in dense temperate rainforest of great antiquity these mountains in south-western Tasmania were stripped bare, primarily by toxic fumes from the nearby gold, silver and copper mine. This environmental assault was exacerbated by persistent local woodcutting, and finally by commercial logging. Right: The fireball from the hydrogen-bomb test “Dakota”, detonated near Bikini Atoll in June 1956, released the energy equivalent of 1.1 million tonnes of TNT. The mushroom head rose more than 25km and attained a diameter of some 320km. (From 100 Suns: 1945-1962. Ed: Michael Light. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.)


Energy sources must produce more energy than they consume, or they are called “sinks” This is the “net energy” principle. To lift 15 kilograms of oil 5 meters out of the ground takes about 735 joules of energy, just to overcome gravity. The higher the lift, the greater the energy requirement. The most concentrated and most accessible oil is extracted first; thereafter, more and more energy is required to find and produce oil. As soon as the energy outlay is greater than the energy yield, the resource becomes an energy sink.

Almost 90% of the energy gobbled each day by our technoculture derives from hydrogenloaded carbon that extinct species bequeathed to us in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. The more hydrogen a fuel contains, the more energy it yields. Oil is the most hydrogenrich of our fossil fuels. If a team of engineers were to design the perfect fuel from scratch, petroleum would be their solution. Luckily for us, the world had large natural reserves, and it has been cheap to extract. But the pump price gives no hint of the real cost of the petroleum products that our civilisation guzzles each day.

Each litre of petrol that we burn in our cars is the distilled residue of some 23 tonnes of ancient organisms, and the oil products consumed by modern civilisation in a single day cost the entire planet some 13 months of continuous photosynthesis to produce and store.10 Thanks to the Earth’s generous reserve of fossil hydrogen, we have had a free ride into the twenty-first century.

But our good fortune is about to run out. Global oil production peaked on a per capita basis in 1979, and due to population growth and growing social unrest in productive regions, it has since declined significantly. If the current rate of decline (2.4% p.a.) continues, the per capita energy available to people living in 2030 will be one third of its 1979 peak. This will approximate the per capita energy consumed in 1930 during the depths of the Great Depression.11 As the energy demand grows and global terrorism spreads and intensifies, the decline in per capita oil production threatens to become precipitous.

Figure 3: Oil-Energy

 


Figure 4: Global Oil Production


Peak Oil, or Hubbert’s Peak (named after oil geologist Marion King Hubbert), is now upon us. In 1956 Hubbert predicted that American oil production would peak in the early 1970s. He was criticised by the oil industry but his forecast proved accurate. US production has declined ever since 1971. Hubbert also predicted that global oil production would peak around the year 2000. He appears to have erred slightly in this case, yet if it were not for the huge production losses caused by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Hubbert’s global prediction would also have been accurate.

Hubbert based his predictions primarily on the declining rate of oil discovery. Despite massive exploration and improved technology the last major oil discoveries were made in the 1970’s. All the world’s major oilfields are between 50 and 70 years old and oil is now being consumed about four times faster than it can be found.

Despite the development of sophisticated oil-search technology during the past three decades, the rate and volume of new oil finds has significantly declined. In the 1950s each barrel of oil used in exploration, drilling and pumping added about 50 barrels to the world’s known reserves. That ratio is now barely 1:1. Accordingly, most independent energy analysts agree that ‘Peak Oil’ is now upon us, and some believe that the peak has already passed.

Despite promises by the key OPEC nations that they would increase production to keep up with demand and also compensate for war and terrorist damage in Iraq and Kuwait, their yields have consistently failed to meet their allotted targets. The explanation is ominous. In the mid 1980s the export quotas for OPEC producers became linked to their stated reserves. Result: between 1985 and 1989 all member States abruptly increased their ‘known reserves’ —by up to 190% in some cases (e.g. Iraq and Venezuela)— although no new finds were registered in those regions. In other words, the increases were expedient fabrications and exist only on paper. Meanwhile, all major Saudi oil fields now use horizontal ‘bottle-brush’ extraction techniques and most meet their daily production quotas by forcing oil to the surface with massive injections of water. These ‘horizontal wells’ hide within the thinning oil layer and thereby elude, for as long as possible, both the rising water table beneath and the gas cap above. They involve complex, expensive technology and signify a thinning oil layer that is no longer economically accessible via vertical wells.

As the aquifer swells and the oil layer shrinks however, these fields begin to yield an increasing percentage of water mixed with the oil. When this ‘water cut’ passes 50% the cost of extraction rises exponentially and oil production declines on a reciprocal curve.

The giant Ghawar field once held around one seventh of the world’s known reserves and it still accounts for 70% of Saudi Arabia’s annual production. But some seven million gallons of seawater is now forced into the aquifer each day, just to prop up pump-head pressure, and Saudi Aramco’s engineers currently admit to a 33% water cut. The figure rose to 36.5% in 1999 but has since been kept artificially low by the installation of water sensitive cut-off valves.12 However, the graph of the pre-1999 trend suggests that the real water cut would now be much greater than 40% if the ‘censorship’ imposed by the water sensitive cut-off valves were to be removed.

Figure 5: Horizontal Oil Extraction


The world’s second largest oil field, Burgan, in Kuwait, is in similar decline. The peak output of the Burgan field is now around 1.7 million barrels per day, not the two million barrels per day forecast by the operating company.

These and other extraction problems now plague many Middle-East oilfields, most of which are 45–60 years old and nearing the end of their productive lives. And when an oilfield passes its production peak the decline is usually swift, since most oil is unrecoverable (extraction would costs more energy than the oil could possibly yield).

The global availability of oil will meanwhile depend increasingly on human mysticism. I use the word mysticism here in its broadest sense, meaning the semi-universal tendency to believe that un-natural forces exist, and that these forces can manipulate human and animal behaviour and determine the course of events, both animate and inanimate.13

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) manages about 78% of the world’s known oil reserves. Of the twelve OPEC nations, nine are Islamic, two are Christian, and one (Nigeria) is evenly divided. The only non-OPEC oilfields of major significance are in Venezuela, a Roman Catholic nation currently paralyzed by social turmoil. The world’s largest oil reserves are in Saudi Arabia, and the second largest are in Iraq. The loose brotherhood of Muslim extremists known as al Qa’eda realised during the 1990s that they might break the power of the Western ‘infidels’ by blocking access to Middle-Eastern oil. For this major undertaking they would need recruits, and to gain recruits they would need a religious cause célèbre, such as a major US assault on a Muslim nation. To achieve this, America would have to be goaded to irrational fury.

Al Qa’eda’s long ‘picador’ campaign, consisting mainly of anti-US bombings and assassinations, plus rumours of Iraqi WMD and a fake Iraqi contract for yellowcake, finally paid off on March 20, 2003 when American and British armoured units began to roll across the Kuwait-Iraq border.14 The assault generated a widespread Muslim backlash and a global threat of suicidal terrorism against America and its allies. With oil-rich Iran already under aggressive fundamentalist rule, Iraq in turmoil, and Saudi oil under imminent threat of terrorist attack, and perhaps civil war, al Qa’eda’s strategists had finally gained a crucial advantage in the oil-energy chess match.

About 85% of the energy presently consumed by industrial nations provides heat, light, and mechanical motion, while the other 15% powers the C3 functions —communication, computation and control. Electricity is the key. Some 42% of the world’s primary energy goes into generating it, and electricity has become the indispensable end-use energy carrier of our time.15 Much of the electrical energy that maintains the C3 functions depends, either directly or indirectly, on oil. Recent grid collapses in N. America, Italy and Demark show that when the C3 functions are starved of electricity, industrialized society grinds to a halt.

With our oil-dependent civilization balanced on the slippery edge of energy collapse the mystics of both East and West now have the power to pull the hydrogen trigger on one of evolution’s most spectacular byproducts, Homo sapiens.

Renewable energy

Industrial civilization is wholly dependent on fossil hydrocarbons. No renewable power source —solar, wind, tidal, geothermal or biomass can supply more than a small fraction of the world’s fast-growing energy requirements, and this is likely to remain true for the foreseeable future. The combined market share of these technologies is currently about 15%, and each year that percentage declines.

Technologies that extract energy directly from Earth’s two primary sources, the sun and the body of the planet, cannot match the economic viability, calorific output and versatility of hydrocarbons. Even solar energy, the least dilute of the renewable sources, involves significant extraction costs. A full energy assessment must include not just the energy required to build and run a solar plant, but also the energy required to build and run all the power grids, factories, trucks, tools, offices, etc. that would not have been produced had the solar plant not been built. In this fashion, solar plants cause more energy to be consumed than they can deliver —their harvest factor is less than 1:1. Neither do renewable sources yield energy in a portable-fuel form that can maintain current transport systems. Manufacture of synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, even pure hydrogen, requires such a high-energy input, via heat, pressure and electricity, that they are likely to remain uneconomic in the foreseeable future. Hydrogen’s small atoms and low density as a gas make it expensive to liquefy and very difficult to contain. Global proliferation of the technology would ensure considerable leakage of hydrogen into the atmosphere. The environmental consequences of this are unknown.

Consequently, as global oil and gas production begins its terminal decline, only coal and nuclear fission will be able to supply the increasing quantities of cheap energy that modern civilisation demands. Coal exacts a massive environmental fee via its carbon and sulfur emissions, and nuclear power stations are expensive, temporary installations with an initial harvest factor of only 1:1. Nuclear power will also require massive investment in improved technology and waste storage, and will entail a high risk of radiation leakage and fallout due to earthquakes, human error, and terrorist activity. Similarly, the extraction and geosequestration of carbon and sulphur emissions from coal-fired power stations significantly reduces their harvest factor. To extract, compress and store the waste underground currently adds roughly 20% to the total energy cost, and the probability of leakage from subterranean storage facilities remains high. Meanwhile, roughly 50% of the energy required to extract the coal currently comes from oil.

In other words, the massive environmental bill from our past profligacy is now due, and while prospective technologies may postpone the looming energy crisis for a few years, all they will really do is add significantly to a global energy budget that is now grossly unsustainable.

It seems that our hydrogen ‘happy hour’ has come to its natural end.

The Easter Island Syndrome

Declining energy resources, environmental degradation, and mystically based aggression have limited exponential population growth throughout human history. Nowhere was this more apparent than on Easter Island during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when a vigorous, artistic population of some 10,000 islanders plundered their isolated habitat to the point of micro-climate change, soil exhaustion and agricultural collapse.

Brought to the brink of starvation they turned on each other in an orgy of mystically driven aggression. By 1877 only 111 emaciated and furtive survivors remained.

Figure 6: Easter Island Population

 

The similarity between this graph and that of any large mammal in plague mode is ominously plain.

Figure 7: Reindeer on St. Paul’s Island


Reindeer were introduced to St. Paul Island in 1911. The island’s 106 square kilometres (41 square miles) was an undisturbed environment and supported no major predators. The initial herd of 4 males and 21 females grew continuously to about 2,000 animals in 1938. After severely overgrazing their habitat the population auto-collapsed to just 8 animals in 1950.

The same tragic pattern echoes throughout human history, surfacing most clearly where the population had no means of escape. The pattern first appeared some 4,000 years ago on Malta where a small thriving culture came to a similar end.16 Farmers removed the trees, erosion accelerated, rainfall declined, and abundance shrivelled to subsistence. As on Easter Island, all that now remains of that culture is the massive evidence of the mysticism that burgeoned as the harvests shrank. Huge stone temples equipped with extensive underground burial chambers and bone repositories were built at this time.

They appear to have been devoted entirely to the sanctification of fertility and death, and their construction would have demanded the investment of massive time and energy by the whole populace —investments they could least afford at that crucial time. There are also hints of aggressive competition between the cults, and this too is a central characteristic of the Easter Island Syndrome.

This syndrome already permeates modern civilisation. It is most apparent in former world powers —aggressive societies that were formerly unified and driven by a mystical belief in their own moral and political agendas. Russian communism, for example, has fragmented into a multiplicity of corrupt corporate tribes, criminal gangs, religious cults, and a widespread faith in witchcraft. Meanwhile, Russia’s traditional adversary, America, has been swept by a tide of Christian fundamentalism and a rejection of science, especially evolutionary science. A recent CBS poll found that more than 51% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, and five States have installed legislation that accepts the hypothesis of Creationism (in the guise of Intelligent Design) as an educational alternative to the theory of genetic evolution.

The recent outbreak of riots, arson attacks, and other civil disturbances that have occurred in many cities around the world in response to the publication of a few badly drawn anti-Islamic cartoons in Denmark suggests that the social gulf between Islam and the world’s other major faiths is rapidly widening. Aggressive fundamentalism, both eastern and western, has assumed a scale that was unimaginable just a decade ago.

The mystical component of the Easter Island Syndrome now appears to be a well established global phenomenon.

Evolution’s Act-of-God Clause

“Our time bomb is mysticism. Its delivery system is language. And its hiding place? The unfathomable coils of our DNA.”17 I first wrote those words in 1997 simply because the process of evolution dictated them. At that time I had no inkling of the immediacy of that prediction nor did I foresee how this lethal evolutionary mechanism would be launched on a global scale.

Adaptive specialisation in any species is a two edged sword. Disproportionately productive in their birth environment, specialisations usually become lethal handicaps when conditions change. A peacock’s tail is the standard illustration for this crucial evolutionary principle. The peacock-tail of our species is our predisposition to mysticise —to assign peculiar, even supra-natural, significance to people, events, places and things that matter most to us. As the late Carl Sagan wrote: ‘We’re significance junkies’.18

Figure 8: Stations of the Cross,
Sydney, Australia

Figure 9: An ANZAC Day Dawn Service, Australia


The explanation for our addiction is simple enough. Unfettered as it is by inconvenient facts, faith thrives on mystery and ‘miracles’, thereby generating intense fervour and building powerful bonds between believers. Indeed, the familial and tribal bonds forged by our ancestors were so strong and so altruistic that they more than made up for our species’ lack of physical assets —such as strength and speed, fur, claws and fighting teeth.

It was this talent for tribal mysticism and altruistic cooperation that catapulted our kind from the brink of extinction to global domination. And since mysticism was our evolutionary Excalibur, our genes now determine that ‘spirituality’ and ‘faith’ characterise every aspect of our behaviour: we have become obligate mysticisers.

But with 6.45 billion people now struggling to survive in habitats that once supported no more than 4–5 million hunter-gatherers, our trusty Excalibur has finally revealed its second evolutionary role: it will provide the lethal blade that will disable cultural cooperation when the oil runs out and Gaian evolution rolls out its big guns —global warming, global pandemics, and widespread starvation.19

Hydrogen’s Loaded Gun

Hydrocarbon fuels have a dual role in human evolution. Having underwritten the explosive proliferation of our species during the past 200 years, they have become the lifeblood of modern civilization. And with Peak Oil behind us, species’ collapse now appears unavoidable.

Yet there is one naturally abundant source of hydrocarbon energy that remains virtually untapped: methane (CH4). It is a light, colourless, odourless gas commonly produced by one of Earth’s oldest forms of life, archaebacteria. Because these bacteria evolved in a world that was oxygen-free, their enzyme systems have no defences against oxygen and they remain confined to anoxic environments, infesting the crust to a depth of almost four kilometres. The global biomass of these archaic organisms is thought to exceed that of all surface life. Marine sediments nurture vast populations of them and abyssal methanogens such as Methanococcoides have been detected up to 400 metres beneath the ocean floor.

These marine bacteria alone may constitute up to half the microorganisms on the planet.20 Since methane is some 20 times more absorptive of infrared energy than carbon dioxide, bacterial methane production within the lithosphere may well be a primary climate control mechanism for the whole planet.

More than 60% of the daily methane emissions around the globe are generated by human activity that promotes the growth of these methane producers. The main sources are our vast herds of flatulent cattle and other grazing stock (22%), the bacterial decay of manure and other liquid waste (14%), swamp gas generated by flood irrigation, notably rice and cotton (more than 18%). Meanwhile, some hydroelectricity reservoirs release so much methane that their greenhouse impact is greater than that of a coal-fired power station of comparable output.

Figure 10: Long-Term Methane Source:
an Irrigation Reservoir, VIC.
Figure 11: Methane Bubbles in a Desert Waterhole, NT.


By contrast, much of the methane produced by crustal methanogens fails to reach the surface. It becomes trapped for long periods in tundra permafrost, and in the icy hydrate crusts that form on sea floors. This submarine reservoir alone is believed to contain roughly 3,000 times the volume of methane presently in the atmosphere.

This is hydrogen’s loaded gun.

Figure 12: Methane Hydrates Circulation


Deep-sea hydrates consist of a lattice of ice crystals packed with bubbles of methane gas. Locked in by cold abyssal currents generated by the sinking of dense saltwater in icy polar seas, they remain frozen and stable. But whenever rising temperatures thaw the polar icecaps to any significant degree, the fresh melt-water pools on the surface, inhibiting the driving mechanism that runs the global circulation system. There is now strong evidence to suggest that on some occasions in the recent past those huge gyres shut down entirely.

When this occurred, the hydrates disintegrated, releasing their methane into the atmosphere in a series of gigantic ‘burps’. Some of these methane burps appear to have been large enough to raise the global temperature by 5–10°C in just a few decades.
 

Figure 13 : Abyssal Hydrates Cycle

 

Figure 14: Abyssal Hydrates Collapse

 

This appears to have been the case about 55 million years ago at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary when the release of some 1,200–2,500 gigatons of hydrate methane generated a sea-temperature rise of 4°–5°C, triggering a mass extinction of marine species. The global temperature spike of 8°–10°C that occurred at this time appears to have been vastly greater and more abrupt than could possibly have been generated by the gradual rise in atmospheric CO2 that preceded it.21

Life’s Narrow Escape

Something similar also appears to have occurred about 250 million years ago during the massive Permian extinction when some 95% of all known species disappeared from the fossil record. New stratigraphic evidence from Greenland and Russia22 suggests that a massive cosmic impact combined with associated vulcanism in Siberia to trigger a protracted extinction process around the world. The ensuing biological decay then injected so much CO2 and CH4 into the atmosphere that the planet gradually warmed by 4°–5°C. This appears to have crossed the ‘hydrate threshold’, triggering a massive release of abyssal methane and forcing the global temperature to rise by a further 5°. The magnitude and speed of this second temperature rise pushed almost all ‘higher’ life to extinction.

The northern tundra is currently warming faster than most other regions of the planet. Its permafrost is melting and bacterial methane that has been locked away for tens of thousands of years is now beginning to escape. Similarly, many abyssal hydrate beds are riddled with melt-holes and are highly unstable. Hydrogen’s loaded gun is now on a hair trigger.

Ice ages consist of a series of glacial episodes separated by brief interludes of warmth. These interglacials begin abruptly and end with a slow descent into a new glacial. The Vostok drill core in Antarctica reveals the pivotal role that methane has played in shaping this temperature roller coaster during the past 400,000 years. Ancient air bubbles trapped in the ice show that a major spike in atmospheric methane coincided with the beginning of each of the four interglacials of that period. It indicates that a methane surge provided the hair trigger that sent global temperatures rocketing upwards.

This well-documented link between methane and temperature suggests that it hardly matters what causes the initial temperature rise. What matters is that methane emissions explode at some stage during that rise. Ominously, annual methane emissions have more than doubled in the past two centuries, and most of that increase can be blamed on human activities, especially pastoralism, irrigation and energy generation via hydroelectricity. But if the current collapse of methane hydrates continues, our species will be unlikely to survive this century.

Figure 15: CH4/CO2/°C


Atmospheric methane concentration is now about 1,745 ppb (parts per billion). That is more than twice the maximum concentration in the Greenland ice core record for the past 420,000 years. Similarly, the latest report (1 Dec. 2005) by the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) stated that a combined record of CH4, measured along both the Dome C and Vostok ice cores, showed that methane concentrations over Antarctica have not exceeded 773 ± 15 ppb during the past 650,000 years.23

Only one conclusion is available to us. Having dramatically altered a small but crucial element in the composition of the atmosphere we must now expect the mean global temperature to respond chaotically as it has done in the past —at speeds that will dramatically reshape Earth’s energy gradient, and consequently, its biota. Meanwhile, with no precise knowledge of the historic delay factor we cannot predict the temperature response; we will not even recognise the surge until it is well under way; and we cannot prevent it. Climatologist Wallace Broecker, Newberry Professor of Geology at Columbia University, says: “It’s like being blindfolded and walking towards the edge of a cliff.”

A GAS Attack

I have previously inferred that an auto-collapse mechanism is built into the genomes of most plague animals.24 Evolutionary safeguards are triggered in social species when populations grow exponentially and stress levels rise. This results in a predictable spectrum of physiological and behavioural responses that invariably reduce the population’s fertility below replacement level. The Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1936 named these responses the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS),25 and many other studies have corroborated Selye’s findings. A GAS decline typically appears well before famine and disease begin to cull the population, and its hormonal ‘fingerprint’ often persists in wild mouse populations long after the population has shrunk to preplague levels and the habitat has recovered. GAS has led to the local extinction of a species in some instances.26

Why should this concern us? There are four reasons:

1. There is no evidence that we are fundamentally distinct from other species. We too are shaped, driven and manipulated, both directly and indirectly, by our DNA, and no basic distinction has ever been detected in the biological fabric of our bodies —or in our behavioural drives.

2. The graph of our population growth for most of the past century was exponential and precisely mirrored that of any mammal entering what we call a plague phase.

3. All plagues end in similar fashion, with a population collapse that mirrors their exponential growth. Such an abrupt termination is essential to the evolutionary process. If it did not occur, ‘successful’ species could proliferate indefinitely, endangering the existence of all life on Earth. This does not happen.

4. It follows that evolution’s auto-collapse mechanism must therefore reside in the evolutionary process itself and persist via genetic replication. I would argue that this safeguard is essentially expressed via Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. I would further argue that our species now displays most of the GAS symptoms and has already begun its GAS decline. And most significantly, many of our fertility inhibitors are associated with either a surfeit or dearth of hydrogen.

Symptoms of the GAS in mammals include curtailed reproduction, increased abandonment of unweaned offspring, and an increase in dysfunctional and unproductive sexual behaviour (paedophilia, homosexuality, and inappropriate sexual display). Such behaviours are invariably coupled with higher levels of juvenile aggression, infanticide, and occasionally, cannibalism. These often coincide with certain physiological malfunctions, such as inhibited sexual maturation, diminished ovulation and implantation, inadequate  lactation, glandular malfunctions, increased susceptibility to disease and a sharp rise in infant mortality.

Reproductive decline also correlates with blood levels of steroids. Steroids consist of four linked carbon rings that carry more than 50 hydrogen atoms. The sex hormones estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and their derivatives are all steroids, and they are also equipped with hydrogen-loaded carbon tails. This makes them strongly hydrophobic and peculiarly able to slip through the waterproof bi-lipid membrane that forms the walls of eukaryote cells and the plasma membrane that encloses the nucleus. Once inside the cell such steroids bind to DNA transcription factors, changing their shape and switching off their gene-transcription capability.

A related adrenal steroid, cortisol, is now known to play a direct role in fertility regulation. Not only is it a by-product of stress and prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’, it seems peculiarly able to interfere directly with the expression of genes that orchestrate development of the reproductive organs and the reproductive process. This direct hormonal link between stress and reproductive malfunction represents a significant evolutionary asset in that it tends to curb wasteful overpopulation when social and environmental circumstances are not supportive.

Patterns of Methylation

Geneticists have been aware for several years that genes may also be switched off by the addition of hydrogen-loaded carbon tags (CH3) known as methyl groups. These tags distort the way in which the coiled DNA is wrapped around histone ‘bollards’ within the chromatin strands. When attached to a cytosine base near the Start codon of a gene, or attached to the histone protein itself, a methyl tag renders the adjacent portion of the gene unreadable. When attached to a particular histone known as H3, for example, methyl tags have been shown to switch off long stretches of the genetic code. Methylation and its related ‘histone code’ thereby greatly extend the volume of information embedded in DNA and play a vital role in determining the fate of cells.27

The overall pattern of methylation ensures that each cell expresses only those proteins that are appropriate to it at the time of transcription. Methylation is the key factor in ensuring that one of a woman’s two X chromosomes remains dormant during transcription, and altered methylation explains why the normal pattern of cell death (apoptosis) occasionally fails to appear, causing some cells to form cancers by multiplying continuously. A chemical called 4-nonylphenol, commonly found in drinking water, plastics, processed foods and paints, has been shown to do this in mice.28

Human immune systems can also be compromised by altered patterns of methylation, leading to a wide range of related ailments such as diabetes, arthritis, asthma and various allergies that degrade the fitness of the population as a whole.

As indicated earlier in this text, some environmentally induced changes in the methylation pattern have been shown to persist for many generations. For example, when the standard pattern of methylation within the two sex chromosomes, X and Y, becomes altered, or when one of the female’s two X chromosomes fails to switch off, the sexuality of the offspring may become blurred and they may exhibit a wide range of dysfunctional behaviours and structures. These may include genetically unproductive forms of sexuality (e.g. homosexuality), malformed genitalia, lowered sperm counts, and a rising incidence of testicular, ovarian and other cancers. Hormone disruptors traceable to the break-down products of paints, plastics, industrial solvents, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and many other industrial products have been shown to have these effects on many vertebrates, even at relatively low levels of exposure.29

Sign of The Times

A torrent of medical and social statistics from medical sources around the world indicates that fertility inhibitors are multiplying and intensifying globally. Androgynous clothing, ambiguous hairstyles, and the decrease in ‘blood-flush’ colours in women’s cosmetics are subtly symptomatic of this trend. Similarly, I would argue that the global increase in eating disorders, in obesity, in clinical depression and suicide among the young, and in their consumption of anti-depressant and ‘recreational’ drugs and muscle-building (image building) steroids are also cultural expressions of Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.

In combination, these factors impose a massive hormonal brake on our species’ fertility. Two other crucial regulators of population growth in all primates —sexual dimorphism and social inequality— also play a major role in determining human fecundity. Political power and wealth have always helped dominant males to mate more promiscuously than lowly ranked or impoverished ones. Tyrannical potentates have sired hundreds of children while men of lesser rank and wealth tend to father proportionately fewer children.30 Since culture is a genetic artifact, the recent rise of ‘feminism’ and the drift towards gender equality during the twentieth century reveals that this ancient and powerful reproductive brake has also been applied.31

A graph of the global population growth rate (UN data) confirms our abrupt reproductive decline and indicates that zero population growth is likely by 2030 with accelerating collapse thereafter. It seems that our hard-pressed genes have reset our hormonal controls to produce our first global decrease for at least 10,000 years, and perhaps the first since our species appeared almost 200,000 years ago.

Figure 16: Population Growth-Rate


Via hydrogen’s fragile and promiscuous bonds, evolution appears to have engineered a comprehensive conclusion to the 10,000-year plague of Homo sapiens.

It must be remembered that we are, by genetic definition, hunter-gatherer primates. Our species’ gradual transition to a farm-based culture, which occurred between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago, represents no evolutionary ‘break-through’. Farming was simply a last ditch defence against resource depletion due to overpopulation. It would have been adopted with about as much enthusiasm and success as modern hunter-gatherers have had with that transition. Successes would have been few and slow, for the transition to agriculture was a risky business that invariably entailed an immediate shrinkage in stature and a rising incidence of blood, bone and other diseases due to poor diet, water pollution and increasing population density. These factors were countered, however, by increased security from predators, and an ability to ride out harsh years by storing excess grain and domesticating traditional prey, such as goats, pigs, sheep and cattle.

These two advantages enabled the global population to grow from about five million 10,000 years ago to almost a billion 200 years ago.

Ten thousand years is but a blink of the evolutionary eye and the population increase that has occurred during that time primed us for a species’ collapse. The exponential growth that followed industrialisation, the spread of global trade and the rise of modern medicine, was the trigger that closed evolution’s trap.

No Mercy for First Offenders

The laws of thermodynamics allow no leniency in the court of cosmic justice. An inflated Greenhouse effect due to increased CO2 and CH4 is even now yielding vast pools of buoyant freshwater from the world’s shrinking icecaps, and these are already beginning to shut down the giant gyres that drive the world’s abyssal currents. Readings from one arm of the Gulf stream currently show a 30% decline in just 50 years.32 If that process continues, fingers of warmth will reach down to unpin the methane hydrates that carpet many seabeds and methane eruptions will send global temperatures rocketing upwards.

Agriculture will collapse under the climatic onslaught, and our energy-starved civilisation will implode. Within a century the population will shrink below its 30% point, completing the symmetry of a transitional pulse. Human population growth and decline will then display the elegant waveform that typifies all animal plagues.

As one of 30–100 million extant species, ours does not differ from the others in any fundamental respect. It follows that those who contend we are not in plague and will not collapse are merely displaying one of our species’ most hallowed (genetic) delusions: anthropocentrism. Such belief hinges on a bet that has odds of at least 30-million-to-one stacked against it, and while astronomical odds like those might seduce the odd obsessive gambler, no respectable scientist should fall for it.

Figure 17: The Human Plague


Notes:

1 Vernadsky, Vladimir Ivanovitch. The Biosphere, 1998. New York: Copernicus Springer-Verlag (English translation of Vernadsky, V.I., 1926).
2 Meister, M., Lowe, G., Berg, H.C., 1987. The proton flux through the bacterial flagellarmotor, Cell 49 :5, 643-650. Also Berg H.C., 2003. “The rotary motor of bacterial flagella.” Annual review of Biochemistry 72: 19-54.
3 Namba, Keiichi, 1998. “How Proton Flow Drives Molecular Motors” Foresight Update 32:5. Also Blair, David, 2005. http://www.bioscience.utah.edu/bc/bcFaculty/blair/blair.html. Rotor speeds of almost 1,700rps have been recorded in some specialised bacteria but their motors are driven by sodium ions rather than hydrogen protons. They represent an exception to the hydrogen rule.
4 Bhagavad Gita (Vedic text, 400 BC–400 AD): "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
5 Lovelock, James E., 1988. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth. New York: W.W. Norton. pp.125, 133–35.
6 Hutton, James, 1785. Often called the Father of Geology, Hutton developed a theory (‘uniformitarianism’) that the Earth was an ancient, continuously developing body that would be most appropriately studied as a superorganism.
7 Vernadsky 1926. ibid.
8 Lorenz, Edward, 1963. “Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” (Paper given to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.)
9 White, Leslie Alvin, 1949. The Science of Culture: A study of man and civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus & Co.
10 Jeffrey S. Dukes. 2003. Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption of Ancient Solar Energy, p.38. (University of Utah.)
11 Duncan, Richard C., 2001. “World Energy Production, Population Growth, and the Road to Olduvai Gorge,” Population and Environment 22: 5, 503–21.
12 Simmons, Matthew R., 2005. Twilight In The Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
13 Morrison, Reg., 2003. Plague Species: Is it in our Genes? Sydney: New Holland Publishers. pp.244–46, 327–33. See also: Morrison, 1999. The Spirit in the Gene: Humanity’s Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature. New York: Cornell University Press. pp.196-232; 257-259.*
14 For a fuller account see “Who’s winning in Iraq?” at www.regmorrison.id.au (‘Articles’).
15 Duncan, 2001. ibid.
16 Stoddart, S., Bonanno, A., Gouder, T., Malone, C., and Trump, D., 1993. “Cult in an Island Society: Prehistoric Malta in the Tarxien period.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3: 1, 3-19.
17 Morrison, Reg, 1999, p.192.
18 Sagan, Carl, 1996. The Demon-Haunted World. London: Headline Book Publishing. p.349.
19 Morrison, 1999. pp.252-255.*
20 Schippers, A., Neretin, L.N., Kallmeyer, J., Ferdelman, T.G., Cragg, B.A.., Parkes, R.J., Jorgensen, B.B., 2005. “Prokaryotic cells of the deep sub-seafloor biosphere.” Nature 433:861-864.
21 James C. Zachos, Michael W. Wara, Steven Bohaty, Margaret L. Delaney, Maria Rose Petrizzo, Amanda Brill, Timothy J. Bralower, and Isabella Premoli-Silva. 2003. “A Transient rise in Tropical Sea Surface Temperature During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.” Science, 302: 5650, pp1551-1554. Also: Flavia Nunes and Richard D. Norris, 2006. “Abrupt reversal in ocean overturning during the Palaeocene/Eocene warm period.” Nature 439: 60-63.
22 Michael J. Benton, 2005. “When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time.” London: Thames and Hudson. Also: Benton, M. J., Tverdokhlebov, V. P. and Surkov, M. V. 2004. Ecosystem remodelling among vertebrates at the Permian-Triassic boundary in Russia. Nature 432:97-100
23 The EPICA report added that between 420,000 and 650,000 years BP maximum methane concentrations over Antarctica did not rise above 600 ppb.
24 Morrison, 1999. ibid.
25 Selye, Hans, 1936. “A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents.” Nature 138:32. Also: Selye, 1946. “The General Adaptation Syndrome and Diseases of Adaptation.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 6.
26 Selye’s original findings have since been echoed in varying degree by many other researchers, notably Dennis Chitty, in Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts (1996), and S.A. Barnett in The Rat (1975). Corroboration of various aspects of GAS also comes from Scutch (1949, 1967), Brown (1953), Kalela (1954), Southwick (1955), Wynne-Edwards (1962), Christian (1961), Christian and Davis (1964), (Christian et al., 1965), and Dorner (1980). Christian and Davis were specifically testing Selye's GAS hypothesis and reported corroboration across a wide spectrum of their research. See also: Morrison, 1999, pp.130-134, 244-256
27 Jenuwein, Thomas, and C. David Allis, 2001. “Translating the Histone Code.” Science, 293: 1068.
28 Baldwin, William S. et al, 2005. “The contribution of hepatic steroid metabolism to serum estradiol and estriol concentrations in nonylphenol treated MMTVneu mice and its potential effects on breast cancer incidence and latency (p n/a).” Journal of Applied Toxicology, DOI:10.10002/jat.1087.
29 Schantz, Susan L., and John J. Widholm, 2001. “Cognitive Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Animals.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 109: 1197-1206. Also: Rogelio Recio,1,2 Wendy A. Robbins,3 Guadalupe Ocampo-Gómez,4 Victor Borja-Aburto,4 Javier Morán-Martínez,2 John R. Froines,3 Rosa Ma. García Hernández,1 and Mariano E. Cebrián1, 2001. “Organophosphorous Pesticide Exposure Increases the Frequency of Sperm Sex Null Aneuploidy”. Environmental Health Perspectives, 109: 1237-1240.
30 Betzig, Laura, 1992. “Roman Polygyny,” Ethology and Sociobiology, 13: 309–49
31 Morrison, 1999. pp.187-192, 227-232.*
32 Bryden, Harry L., Hannah R. Longworth, Stuart A. Cunningham, 2005. “Slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation at 25° N.” Nature 438: 655-657


* The Spirit in the Gene (New York: Cornell University Press, 1999) was revised and republished in Australia in 2003 by New Holland Publishers under the title Plague Species: Is it in Our Genes?
_____
* Posted with permission of the author.
Special to Minnesotans For Sustainability, a combination of
"Punctuation Marks!!!" and "Hydrogen: Humanity's Maker and Breaker".
August 3, 2006.
See original at < http://www.regmorrison.id.au/ >. Click on "articles".

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