Our Imminent Demise – 2. Extinction Engines

In the 4th century before the common era, Greek physician Hippocrates noted that “everything in excess is an enemy to Nature.” Excess is exactly what many men had in mind. Technology advanced to meet that greed.

Hippocrates was noting what had already come to pass. As early as the 6th millennium before the common era, within 1,000 years of the Fertile Crescent having settled communities, villages were being abandoned, as erosion from deforestation and intensive agriculture damaged the soil, making it impossible to grow enough food.

Much of the Middle East was once lush woodlands. Men denuded the forests as quickly as they could. The craft of metallurgy largely progressed as a way to deal with vegetation. Axes were invented to fell trees.

The birth of towns brought exclusion zones from Nature. Human wastes accumulated in and around settlements; a practice continued to the present day. India has astonishing mountains of garbage around its major cities.

During the 16th century, European settlers in the New World killed 56 million indigenous people. Large swaths of farmland and settlements were abandoned and reforested. The additional vegetation decreased atmospheric carbon dioxide, invoking a global ice age in the mid-17th century.


The earliest technologies, from the Stone Age to the establishment of settlements, aimed at the most intimate energy: food. Controlling fire played a crucial role in human descent, allowing digestion of plant nutrients which were otherwise unobtainable, as nutrition was locked in cellulose cages.

Among the physically weakest animals in Nature, men looked for ways to amplify their might. Turbines were invented to harness water, and later, wind. Waterwheels were known in Roman times and changed little during the Middle Ages. Windmills likely evolved independently in Persia and northern Europe during the 7th century. Like waterwheels, windmills earliest use was in grinding grains, especially corn.

Fire returned as a forte with heat engines which convert thermal energy into mechanical power. Heat engines were known from antiquity, but their utility as machines only came to the fore during the 19th century.

Industrialization kicked pollution generation into overdrive. The key component was the heat engine.

Heat engines under steam power were first gainfully employed for mining. As demand for coal and metals grew the desire to dig deeper grew stronger.

Flooding from going below the water table was the chief obstacle. Engines were used to pump water out, and so further the extraction of minerals.

Today, ~85% of electricity generated worldwide comes from steam turbines, including those powered by flowing water, fossil fuels, and atomic decay. The different energy inputs go to the same end: to boil water.

Internal combustion engines were developed before the 19th century, but their commercial employment was hindered until petroleum became widely available in the mid-1850s. By the late 19th century, internal combustion engines were used in a variety of applications.

A premier use of these engines was in vehicles. Fossil fuel powered transportation, both on land and at sea, joined chopping down trees as the most significant source of environmental destruction. Not only were engine exhausts poisonous, the roads constructed to afford easy passage cut natural habitats into shreds, as well as introducing chemical toxins into the land and water where highways were laid. Roadways are truly ribbons of death.


Los Angeles had its first episodes of thick smog in 1943. Some suspected a Japanese chemical attack.

By the late 1940s, industrial pollution increasingly alarmed the public. The smog that plagued Los Angeles repeatedly drew press attention. The daytime sky turned a pale yellow. Residents routinely became nauseous as their eyes burned. Children were forced to play indoors. Acres of crops withered.

In the early 1950s, research identified the oil industry as a major culprit, showing that uncombusted hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide emissions from refineries and vehicle tailpipes formed smog when exposed to sunlight.

The prospect of global warming from fossil fuel consumption was identified by the mid-1950s, and its dynamics fairly well understood.

Environmental legislation was left to the states until after the 2nd World War. The 1st federal law covering water pollution was enacted in 1948. Air pollution was not addressed until 1955. These laws were updated in the mid-1960s under the Lyndon Johnson administration.

President Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor, went further. Besides tightening pollution legislation, Nixon created in 1970 by executive order the Environmental Protection Agency, which became responsible for protecting human health and the environment from the externalities of corporate excess.


In the year 2010 there were 1 billion vehicles on the world’s roads. Now, in 2019, there are 1.25 billion. If the current trend continues, 2 billion vehicles will be coursing the world’s highways by 2035. This may not happen only because of economic disruptions which will deter the free-wheeling lifestyle that came to be the norm in the late 20th century.


Next, toxic chemistry.