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What the Earth knows
June 27, 2010 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Experts are little help in the constant struggle in this conversation to separate myth from reality, because they have the same difficulty, and routinely demonstrate it by talking past each other. Respected scientists warn of imminent energy shortages as geologic fuel supplies run out. Wall Street executives dismiss their predictions as myths and call for more drilling. Environmentalists describe the destruction to the earth from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Economists ignore them and describe the danger to the earth of failing to burn coal, oil, and natural gas. Geology researchers report fresh findings about what the earth was like millions of years ago. Creationist researchers report fresh findings that the earth didn’t exist millions of years ago. The only way not to get lost in this awful swamp is to review the basics and decide for yourself what you believe and what you don’t.


Robert B. Laughlin is a professor of physics at Stanford University and a co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physics. This essay is adapted from his new book on the future of fossil fuels, which will appear next year.


Geologic time is such a vast concept that it’s helpful to convert it to something more pedestrian just to get oriented. I like rainfall.
[usgs geologic-time-spiral infographic]
* The total precipitation that falls on the world in one year is about one meter of rain, the height of a golden retriever.
* The total amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the industrial revolution began is about 200 meters, the height of Hoover Dam.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the time of Moses is enough to fill up all the oceans.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the Ice Age ended is enough to fill up all the oceans four times.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the dinosaurs died is enough to fill up all the oceans 20,000 times—or the entire volume of the earth three times.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since coal formed is enough to fill up the earth 15 times.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since oxygen formed is enough to fill the earth 100 times.


....

The experiments that assign specific numbers of years to geologic layers are almost as simple as this science-fair project, although not quite, and they are just as reliable. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, of course. Geologic time does contravene certain religious beliefs, a notorious difficulty with the subject that is very regrettable, since it doesn’t contravene the religious beliefs that count. But it’s probably more significant that the experiments, simple though they may be, involve obscure facts about rocks, a knowledge of physical law, and the assumption that this law was the same in the ancient past as it is now. None of this is obvious, much less interesting, to the average person. If you go to the supermarket and engage the checkout clerk in a conversation about the Paleozoic Era, radioactivity, or the disappearance of the megafauna, you’ll be met with a smile, whereupon you’ll probably be escorted from the building as a lunatic. However, the time scales do come from something concrete that can be explained simply.
....

The American Scholar and Robert B. Laughlin discusses how understanding the concept of geologic time and some basic science can give a new perspective on climate change and the energy future
posted by infinite intimation (31 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think that equating "experts" and "research scientist" is a big mistake in seeking to understand complex systems.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 PM on June 27, 2010


"The total precipitation that falls on the world in one year is about one meter of rain, the height of a golden retriever."
A breed of dog seems an odd example to explain a unit of length. Also, if you don't already know how far a metre is, 'height of a Golden Retriever' is a very misleading description: after all, the relevant Kennel Club Breed Standard specifies "Height at withers: dogs: 56-61 cms (22-24 ins); bitches: 51-56 cms (20-22 ins)".
posted by James Scott-Brown at 12:25 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I enjoyed this article a lot. It's a little dangerous, because it could very easily be twisted to an endorsement of willy-nilly pollution and environmental destruction.

If I read it correctly, he's saying that trying to reverse man made climate change is like switching a car from forward to reverse when it's sitting on an infinite treadmill than can move in any direction at any speed at any time. This might be the most reasonable argument going against anti-Global Warming policies.

Global Warming, however, is not the only negative consequence of unmitigated consumption of fossil fuels.

All the same, good article.
posted by 256 at 12:31 PM on June 27, 2010


* The total precipitation that falls on the world in one year is about one meter of rain, the height of a golden retriever.
* The total amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the industrial revolution began is about 200 meters, the height of Hoover Dam.


So did the dog drown? or did it dog-paddle for a year. How did they know to build the dam exactly that high? What about future rain? Does it spill over? Oh, yeah, uh... paper or plastic?
posted by hal9k at 12:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Brilliant post, infinite intimation! At last a broad overview from an informed academic about Earth and Mother Earth - past, present and possible future. More than enough information to make me think and rethink about how our ancient and ongoing world might tolerate my infinitesimal presence.
posted by drogien at 12:42 PM on June 27, 2010


My scientific curiosity sort of petered out at "since the time of Moses."
posted by jayCampbell at 12:49 PM on June 27, 2010


My scientific curiosity sort of petered out at "since the time of Moses."

I found this and the his freakishly large Golden Retriever a little hard to take. I know he's trying to make it more approachable but c'mon.
posted by birdherder at 1:01 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hate his approach. He seems to be pointing fingers in every which direction and ignoring one of the most salient points about human generated climate change, a little change is a major thing. Overall average ambient temperature is approximately 290 degrees Kelvin. A 1% change, 2.9 degrees Kelvin, is devastating for the civilization we have created. To date, we have increased temperatures by less than 0.5%.

I'm not an advocate of the Gaia theory in any literal sense, but the sum of the world's ecosystem is a delicate balance on par with a living creature. To extend this analogy, the human body (at 310 degrees Kelvin) would be soon dead with a 1% increase in temperature.

Similarly, he makes an error when describing such things as how the ocean's can sop up CO2. The ocean's are already in dynamic equilibrium as a CO2 dump. If not, they would have soaked up all of the CO2 as it was made. The overproduction of CO2 pushes this to a new equilibrium, one with higher CO2. Which is why CO2 has gone up from 300 to 390 parts per million this past century.

I hate to imagine a book that is like what I read. A concatenation of images and a leap to bombastic conclusions, rather than the careful building of arguments. He muddies the picture with prose that sounds like Buckley writing for USA Today.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:17 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


having read the american scholar article, i was struck by his concluding statement:
The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.
i wondered what kind of formative experiences might have led to his conclusion.

so i read the auto-bio of Robert B. Laughlin

and found it quite interesting that during the Vietnam conflict he was drafted and sent to "missle school." as he describes it he was practically predestined to preside over warheads, having declined the opportunity to protest or take refuge abroad.

i can't pretend to know how Laughlin found a way to deal with his nuclear moral dilemmas. yet i imagine it is very comforting to reassure oneself that one's complicity in a complex system that has the potential to destroy and poison mankind forever really doesn't matter that much... in the grand scheme of geological time, that is.

but like the proliferation of nukes and our efforts to delay our total obliteration, carbon emissions require our best intentions to minimize the possibilty of mass extinction beyond our own geologically-insignificant-lifetimes.

i reject this notion that we are nothing but victims of circumstance and furthermore i reserve the right to call out this eminant nobel physicist as a lifelong fucking tool.
posted by Hammond Rye at 1:19 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


I liked the article, myself.
posted by quillbreaker at 1:19 PM on June 27, 2010


Sounds like post-modern nonsense. While it's true that climate changes over the long run, it would be extreemly inconvenient for the icecaps to melt in the next few decades, FFS.

Also there is a huge difference between a "expert" climate scientist and an "expert" economist. A lot of economists are total hacks, if you look at the 'freakonomics' guys what you find is a bunch of flippant thought experiments. Making decisions affecting the entire planet in contravention of actual reliable science on the basis of a social science is insane.
posted by delmoi at 1:28 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


So I guess neither Robert Laughlin nor Freeman Dyson get to have opinions. While i agree with his take on taking the geologic perspective as far as climate change is concerned, I disagree with his assertion that we can't do anything about it. I hope that within my lifetime we are at least beginning to develop the technologies that will make terraforming a reality. Mabye my great, great, great, great, great grandchildren can have a vacation home overlooking Valles Marineris. A boy can dream can't he.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:31 PM on June 27, 2010


"Also there is a huge difference between a "expert" climate scientist and an "expert" economist."

I guess you didn't read the part about him being a physicist and winning a nobel prize for his work on quantum fluids which I believe are related to superfluids.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:38 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.

Utterly ridiculous. There's a huge difference between natural climate variations, which may take place on scales of 10s of thousands of years, and anthropogenic climate change, which is taking place on a timescale of about a century.

Natural variation in temperature and CO2
Last 50 years of CO2 Note the scale.

We have overwhelming evidence that in fact we can and are controlling the Earth's climate. We are creating a far stronger driving force than the natural driving forces.
posted by Humanzee at 1:46 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Creationist researchers report fresh findings that the earth didn’t exist millions of years ago.

⌘w
posted by fleacircus at 1:50 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


The description of the evidence we have and the parts of geologic history we know about are very interesting, I enjoy seeing that kind of plainspoken laying out of science. BUT-

From the article: "Climate change... is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself.[...]The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control. "

This is sort of missing the point.

He gives evidence that:
-The climate changes on its own without human help.
-The scales involved are vast.
-The earth has undergone many significant changes in the past and yet still exists.

But those points do not address the core of the climate change debate. All of those claims can be true, yet it could still be true that:
-On top of natural climate changes, we're having an effect with our actions.
-We're making the climate change faster, in a way that will be bad for humans (among other life forms), and
-We could make it happen less fast, and so mitigate the effect on humans, if we had the political will and a huge technological effort.

It's a complete strawman to talk about how the earth has survived climate changes in geologic time, since the worry about climate change is not whether the earth will survive (obviously it will), or whether we could stop the climate from changing altogether (obviously we can't). The worry is whether the changes will affect the very very narrow range of environmental conditions that humans rely on, and if so, what we can do to decrease the changes (eg by cutting back on our contribution to the changes).
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:58 PM on June 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I do like this:
By a stroke of fortune, the entire country is a complete stack of the world’s sedimentary layers tipped gently downward to the northwest and then planed level at the top. The plentiful fossils in the ground, which are different in different layers, thus form narrow tracks that run roughly parallel to the coast of France. When people first discovered these tracks, they had no way to date the rocks in question, so they just assigned names. The easternmost track became Cretaceous, after the Greek word creta for chalk. The next one became Jurassic, after the Jura mountains in Switzerland. The next one became Triassic after a characteristic three-level sedimentation pattern (the Tria) found commonly in Germany. The next one became Permian, after the region of Perm in Russia. And so on and so forth. But the subsequent invention of radiodating later enabled actual ages to be assigned to these names, albeit with the precision difficulties encountered on my beach. The white cliffs of Dover are 70 million years old. The clay under Oxford is 150 million years old. The rocks under Stratford-upon-Avon are 200 million years old. The coal under Stoke-on-Trent is 300 million years old. The Lake District is 400 million years old. The Isle of Man is 500 million years old. The Highlands of Scotland are 600 million years old—and more.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:03 PM on June 27, 2010


(er, "the entire country" = Great Britain)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:03 PM on June 27, 2010


an infinite treadmill

The treadmill isn't infinite, it has a very abrupt and unpleasant edge not too far away. It doesn't make much sense to keep the car rushing toward it, no matter what the other possible motions of that metaphorical surface might be.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:13 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The earth can and will survive anything humanity can throw at it. Prof. Laughlin's great-grandchildren might not. I will not have any great-grandchildren myself, and I seem to care more than Prof. Laughlin.

And the earth will certainly not survive when our sun goes supernova in a few million years. It would be cool if the descendants of us human beings are still around to see it (from a safe distance), and a shame if the reason they aren't is what we're doing to our environment now.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:18 PM on June 27, 2010


I guess you didn't read the part about him being a physicist and winning a nobel prize for his work on quantum fluids which I believe are related to superfluids.

What does that have to do with this: Environmentalists describe the destruction to the earth from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Economists ignore them and describe the danger to the earth of failing to burn coal, oil, and natural gas

In other words he's comparing the warnings of 'environmentalists' (which are the same as the warnings of climate scientists)
posted by delmoi at 2:36 PM on June 27, 2010


Look, the question is: Do we want the earth to heat up in the next hundred years, or in the next hundred million years? In fact, it may very well be the case that we will have the earth's temperature under complete control and will be able to avoid wild swings.
posted by delmoi at 2:38 PM on June 27, 2010


Listen, I know it may seem like a good idea to stop executing everyone who reaches the age of thirty. Intuitively, it makes sense: we all want to live. But fate is much grander and more profound than any of our petty laws. We might let someone live, and they could die at age 31! Or, they might kill another person who was only 28! Better by far to stick with the current system, because changing it might somehow kill billions in the third world about whom I mysteriously care in this context and this context alone.

Listen, I know it may seem like a good idea for me not to beat and rob you. But in the long run, we're all dead anyway, am I right? So what's it matter? Better by far for me to beat and rob you than run the risk of not having $100 handy when I run across a fat man who demands $100 in exchange for pulling a lever that will divert an out-of-control sidecar to the track that only kills two brains in vats instead of five (and I know brains in vats).
posted by No-sword at 3:57 PM on June 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


From the article:
These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn. The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time.
Exactly. Climate change is a concern because it affects human beings, not because it affects the planet. "The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today--and were sustained at those levels--global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland."

I'll repeat Lab Lemming's comment which I posted in the other global warming thread, satirizing the geological perspective:
From a geologic point of view, carbon dioxide is irrelevant to climate. This is because the CO2 will simply accelerate silicate weathering, drawing it out of the atmosphere and eventually precipitating it as carbonate.

While there may be transient effects, the timescale of those effects is too fine to resolve geologically, so they aren’t worth worrying about.

As for the effects of climate on the biota, that too is irrelevant. Species go extinct all the time, and when they do, something else radiates into their niche.

So from the planetary perspective, this whole CO2 thing is just another blip like the PETM. In a few million years, it will be nothing but a curiosity. Narrow-minded activists interested in the survival of particular subgroups such as ice-dwelling pinnipeds or bipedal primates might complain, but to what end? We’re all headed for the fossil record eventually, so changing the extinction time of a particular group by a few tens of kiloyears isn’t going to be detectable in the long run.
posted by russilwvong at 5:24 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


He's basically right. Human beings are a product of nature. Everything we do is natural to us. Like beavers, elephants and ants, we modify our environment, but when there are too many of us, we sometimes modify them beyond their capacity to sustain us. There's nothing unnatural about anything that we are able to do, or the envionment's response to us.

We are not able to destroy the earth, or its systems, because in this context there is no such thing as destruction. They will change in whatever way they do, and the ecosystems they support will change too. The dinosaurs adapted to changes in climate by dying out. Maybe we'll do the same thing. Maybe most of us will die out, and those few left will be the seed of an evolutionary radiation that sees new species of hominid adapted to the new climatic reality.

There's no moral judgement to be made. The earth will change whether we like it to or not. If we stop polluting right now and our influence on climatic fluctuation drops to zero, the climate will still change and we'll change (or die) with it. Maybe sooner, maybe later, but it will happen.

All we can do is try to slow down the inevitable departure from what we're comfortable with, which is a perfectly rational thing to do.
posted by klanawa at 5:41 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I'm not an advocate of the Gaia theory in any literal sense, but the sum of the world's ecosystem is a delicate balance on par with a living creature."

Well, since you're providing the literal Gaia hypothesis in a nutshell, go ahead and advocate - you'll feel better. It's a ROCKIN' hypothesis.
posted by sneebler at 6:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


It helps to sort it out if you consider the motivations of the people making the statement.

I became a science major as a teenager because I discovered on my own that scientists-at-large are concerned with making observations and discovering patterns. Most humans -pick and choose- facts to support their beliefs or their financial position. Many of them are perfectly happy to lie to you -because it pays off- and they feel fully justified doing so.

First, get yourself educated in the -observable facts-. Then for help interpreting those facts, turn to people whose hypotheses are based in -observable facts-. Learn to recognize the methods of propaganda and the tools of disinformation.

I don't understand why, these days, every college isn't offering courses in SORTING OUT REALITY FROM BULLSHIT, because the internet is *full of it*.
posted by Twang at 10:48 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Creationist researchers report fresh findings heaping stacks of bullshit that the earth didn’t exist millions of years ago.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:24 AM on June 28, 2010


Respected scientists warn of imminent energy shortages as geologic fuel supplies run out. Wall Street executives dismiss their predictions as myths and call for more drilling. Environmentalists describe the destruction to the earth from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Economists ignore them and describe the danger to the earth of failing to burn coal, oil, and natural gas. Geology researchers report fresh findings about what the earth was like millions of years ago. Creationist researchers report fresh findings that the earth didn’t exist millions of years ago.

Economists, wall street execs, and creationist researchers are not really experts at all, but charlatans. But I guess starting with a pithy false equivalence makes it easier to get published in the American Scholar.

The only way not to get lost in this awful swamp is to review the basics and decide for yourself what you believe and what you don’t.

No, see lay people don't have time to do that, that's why we have real experts (climate scientists, geologists, etc.) and put credence - but not faith - in what they report, and not in what fake experts (economists, wall street types, and physicists writing about climate) tell us.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:07 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Geologic time does contravene certain religious beliefs, a notorious difficulty with the subject that is very regrettable, since it doesn’t contravene the religious beliefs that count.

I think I love this sentence. The people that agree with it nod sadly, and those that disagree are instantly offended.

It's perfect.
posted by quin at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2010


I agree that this is a very smart man painfully and widely missing the point.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:14 PM on June 28, 2010


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