Books: from the Big Bang to bicycles

In The Carbon Age, Eric Roston teases out of the wonder of the chemical element’s cycle before broaching the subject of climate change. Jan McGirk found it intriguing.

The Carbon Age
Eric Roston
Walker & Company, 2009

How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilisation’s Greatest Threat, the dramatic subtitle of Eric Roston’s wide-ranging book, The Carbon Age, signals readers to brace for a polemic about the current carbon-emissions crisis. His message is anything but simplistic, and Roston takes his time to explore many historical tangents about energy and firepower before he broaches the subject of climate change with pertinent details.

Most arguments for innovation aired at the recent Copenhagen climate summit can be supported by technical evidence sourced in this book’s exhaustive index. The paperback edition already is widely read and seems more relevant than ever.

Roston, a popular-science writer who toils at a think tank in Washington, takes us on a circuitous trail through research labs, academic archives, industrial assembly lines and outer space in order to understand carbon’s basic role in everything from the Big Bang theory to bicycles. Although Roston tends to emphasise investment in new energy and materials for carbon capture and storage over conservation and green responsibility, he points out a sobering reality: “What scientists describe as well beyond their danger zone, economists and politicians treat as the bottom of the potentially achievable.”

These academic divisions imperil solutions, particularly when the deadline for a fix shifts forward because changes to the earth formerly wrought in geological time have been “crunched to human speed, roughly half a century”. Industry now reshapes the earth as drastically as volcanoes or weathering have always done. A rethink is overdue.

Concerned that the debate about how to staunch climate change is too often marred by ignorance of basic science, Roston urges policy makers, economists, activists, and radio “shock jocks” – provocative or irreverent media personalities — to cut the jargon and look at the bigger picture. It’s more complicated than grasping the difference between climate trends and weather patterns or calculating that an average American emits at least four times more carbon dioxide per person than a typical Chinese. Roston aims to outline how the earth’s carbon cycle is supposed to work, on molecular as well as cosmic levels, and he investigates evolutionary theory all the way up to mankind’s post-industrial malaise.

His efforts to “tease out the wonder” of the carbon cycle enliven his 226 densely footnoted pages about systems complexity, synthesis and inter-relatedness. He’s a gleeful punster who struggles to entertain as well as inform. Sometimes Roston reaches clumsily for a chuckle about the burning issues of the day. For instance, he writes: “Gingko retains its algal sexual origins — its sperm swim for eggs. Only they do it 70 feet above the ground. Size matters … Gingko has some of the largest sperm on planet Earth.”

Such digressions aside, how the “primitive” gingko biloba, considered a living fossil and a sacred plant, can adapt and survive extreme conditions merits close examination. Roston marvels at how a gingko tree that was irradiated in 1945, at a Hiroshima temple, resprouted from its roots in 1946 — the spring following the first nuclear winter. This temple tree sent out its new green shoots only a few metres outside the ring of total atomic destruction; clumps of bamboo eight kilometers further away had spontaneously ignited as 80,000 city-dwellers were instantly obliterated.

“Technology imposes unnatural selection like nothing else,” Roston concludes after interviewing scores of scientists and surveying stacks of academic treatises. The resulting grab bag of the strange but true culled from the annals of science is intriguing and useful, and the author takes care to sift facts from factoid. It’s a sourcebook to dip into and reread rather than a book to pore over, cover to cover, in a few sittings.

The most memorable quotation cited in The Carbon Age, a holistic survey of scientific literature, comes from mid-1990s science fiction. The German writer WG Sebald poignantly summed up the dilemma faced by animals that live by burning hydrocarbons and carbohydrates:

“Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smoldering taper…it has all been combustion… Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilisation has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread.”

Roston worries that damage from the carbon emissions belched into the earth’s atmosphere might become irreparable for the next generation. After the late Nobel laureate Richard Smalley told him that action on global warming was more likely to be driven by catastrophic events than by heroic leadership, the author’s narrative fizzles out without offering an original solution.

Jan McGirk, a former correspondent for The Independent (UK), has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.