The Toll of Industry
Science is the study of Nature. Mathematics is an indispensable tool of science. Engineering is the methodical application of science, from which the artifacts of technology emerge.
These disciplines are intertwined. The magnificent heavens would not have opened to view had it not been for telescopes. Conversely, the marvels of diminutive dimensions would have been inaccessible without microscopes.
Technology is the ecological expression of engineering. Technology is also a social statement of science.
The technological progress Earthers made was only possibly through cooperation. Yet, in the more critical matter of societal management, men perpetually fell short.
The term climate was used by moderns for weather patterns which had some consistency for a few (3) decades. Earthers used atmospheric temperature as the telltale indicator of climate. But much more was involved.
3rd-century-BF English geologist Eduard Suess coined the term biosphere in 225 BF: Earth as a sphere of life. The word came to envelop the totality of ecosystems on Earth. Ecosystem is also oriented toward life: the community of biota (life forms) in an environment.
The philosophical term environment is nebulous. It may apply to any designated realm. In terms of Nature, an environment may be as small as an atom or as large as a planet – such as Earth.
A biome is an area where organisms live with similar conditions, both geographically and climatically. For much of its existence, Earth has had a vast plethora of biomes: hence, the potential for a rich variety of life.
3rd-century-BF Scottish geologist James Hutton posited that Earth is a self-regulating superorganism. “The globe of this Earth is an organised body, as it has regenerative power,” wrote Hutton.
In the early 120s BF, English naturalist James Lovelock and American evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis extended Hutton’s concept. “Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia,” Lovelock poetically opined. Gaia was named after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth. Lovelock referred to Earth’s ecosystems as the “organs of Gaia.”
Earth’s atmosphere is a chemical mixture. When humans were extant, the air was 78% nitrogen (N), 21% oxygen (O), 1% argon (Ar), and a smidgen – only 0.04% – carbon dioxide (CO2).
Nitrogen, oxygen, and argon keep their cool by not interfering with the warming wavelength of sunlight (infrared). Carbon has a different take. In all its molecular forms, carbon traps heat. Carbon in the atmosphere gets toasty as it sunbathes.
Earthers’ considering climate to be in the atmosphere owes to the air being the most obvious bioelement to this land animal. The term animal derives from Latin for “living being which breathes.” To people, the ambiance of weather was in the air. Climate was naturally thought to be weather’s vector (beyond seasons).
This focus on atmosphere helps explain why self-extinction only became alarming to the public so late in its dynamic. Smog might be traced to a source and thereby dealt with. Thermal pollution pervading the planet was an invisible abstraction. Most important in people’s misperception about climate was the underappreciated fact that the air is not the repository of planetary warmth.
Earth’s climate is a confluence of entangled factors involving air, sea, and land. The oceans act as the main planetary thermostat. They do so most immediately by conveying heat absorbed in the tropics toward the poles.
Another aspect of marine thermal regulation is the removal and storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere: the carbon cycle. The oceans are Earth’s thermal reservoir, equilibrating with the atmosphere on a time scale of decades. Warming the seas releases more carbon into the air.
Compared to the oceans, the atmosphere is more of a climatic conduit and expressor than regulator. But the exhausts of life on land greatly affect the atmosphere’s influence on climate.
Plants inhale atmospheric CO2 and respire oxygen (O2). Further, greenery has a relatively low albedo: absorbing rather than reflecting heat. Thus, vegetation keeps the planet cool.
By contrast to plants, animals can only warm the air with activities which emit carbon into the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect – atmospheric warming via CO2 – was discovered by American chemist Eunice Foote in 244 BF.
The chemistry term organic refers to a molecule having a carbon backbone. Organic matter is carbon rich. Burning anything organic, notably fossil fuels, emits greenhouse gases.
The greenhouse effect of atmospheric carbon has an amplifier in water vapor. Beyond the gases in the air, the atmosphere holds a lot of water vapor (H2O).
Hot beverages illustrate that water holds its temperature better than air. This fluid thermal dynamic has planetary implications.
As water holds heat well, atmospheric water vapor has a tremendous greenhouse effect. A warming atmosphere takes up more water vapor, creating a feedback loop.
The water cycle is the flow rate among the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (oceans), and lithosphere (land). Global warming accelerates the water cycle, quickening thermal transfer. Hence, greenhouse gases have a watery multiplier effect.
The ape that climbed down from the trees and called itself “human” never really left the trees. Wood formed the first tools, fueled countless fires, and remained a favored material for all sorts of things until the fall.
Wood was a critical fuel. Besides cooking food, burning wood let chemistry and metallurgy develop.
Transportation would have been unthinkable without wood. Until replaced by metal in the machine age, every vehicle depended upon wood, whether on land or water.
Ancient writers repeatedly observed that forests always receded in the face of civilization. Failing felling forests, civilizations as men thought of them would never have emerged. Scarcities of wood started wars, cajoled conquests, and triggered technologies.
Hammurabi was an auspicious autocrat who ruled in the 40th century BF. To thwart the profligate use of wood, Hammurabi regulated timber felling and lumber distribution.
During the Late Bronze Age (~3500 BF), metallurgists on the island of Crete developed many ingenious methods of conserving energy as wood became dear. Eventually, acute wood shortages impelled these metalworkers to separate iron from copper, thereby transitioning technology into the Iron Age.
Before 6100 BF, Crete was just another island in the Aegean Sea. Then its rich woodlands attracted traders from Mesopotamia, where all the forests had been felled. Thus arose the Minoan civilization.
Likewise, Macedonia was a woody backwater on the fringes of ancient Greek civilization until the great city-states ran short of timber. The Peloponnesian War (2531–2504 BF), between Athens and the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League, was fought for possession of the forests in northern Greece and Sicily.
The exhausted combatants were then bested as Macedonia rose to power under Philip 2. Philip’s son, Alexander (the Great), would go on to conquer his way to the greatest empire in the ancient world. Its glory was brief.
The Macedonian Empire declined as Rome’s rose. Roman conquests were largely driven by demand for wood.
The Roman Empire was weakened as it became dependent upon others for food. For marginal acreage, the Romans unwisely cleared their farmlands of the trees which had nourished the soil for ages. This foolish felling foreshadowed the mercurial Vikings in Iceland.
Having acquired sailing technology and a taste for easy wealth, the Vikings took to trading and marauding other lands. The Vikings discovered the rich forests of Iceland in the late 13th century BF. Settlers slashed and burned to grow hay and barley, and to create grazing land. They used the timber for building, and to fuel their Iron Age forges.
Within 3 centuries, the forests of Iceland were gone. Hardship fell upon the land. The forests never recovered, even after the most modern agricultural technology had been applied.
Where it could be had, until overtaken by concrete and steel, wood was the material of choice for infrastructure. Waterwheels, windmills, and mineshaft supports were all built with wood, as were the buildings that gave rise to urban life.
In the 6th century BF, Englishmen lusted after the forests of North America, having killed most of their own trees. “No wood, no kingdom,” saliently noted English writer Arthur Standish in 489 BF.
Conflicts over timber rights provided part of the drive for American colonists to revolt against their British masters. England wanted the best stands of trees for its navy. Americans wanted the freedom to fell whatever woods they would.
Without its timber resources, America’s revolt would have surely failed. An abundance of iron and charcoal for steel spelt weaponry aplenty. All of the colonist’s ships were built locally.
Scarcity of timber forced the English to move to fossil fuels, substituting coal for wood as its principal energy source. This filthy fuel inspired innovations which begat the Industrial Revolution, including greater use of petroleum, which burnt cleaner than coal. Not that coal was abandoned.
In the last era, with unsustainable population explosions, woods were dispatched to make way for crops and cities.
10,000 years before the fall, nearly half of Earth’s land was covered by forest. By the fall, 2/3rds of that tree cover had been destroyed.
The Amazon rainforest arose over 66 million years BF, when the Atlantic Ocean had widened enough to provide a warm, moist climate to the region. Amazonia was the world’s largest river basin. The Amazon was once home to over half of the planet’s rainforest, having grown to cover 5.5 million km2 in the 3rd century BF. Amazonia was the richest biome on Earth, hosting an estimated 25% of planetary biodiversity.
The lush rainforest was a major contributor to the natural cycles needed for planetary homeostasis. Gaia was a goner without a healthy Amazonia.
Deforesting Amazonia was especially relentless in the early 1st century BF. “In Brazil, clearing of forests has become institutionalized,” reported local environmentalist Ane Alencar in 78 BF.
By 55 BF, the Amazon rainforest was gone: reduced to wooded patches and scrub lands. The felling of that lush biome accelerated the fall by the region going from a cooling carbon sink to a torrid source of global warming.
Madagascar is a large island off the east coast of central Africa. It is nearly 600,000 km2: almost as large as Alaska. Madagascar was once richly forested, with a vast array of unique life.
Men subjected the island to intense deforestation. The assault began 1,000 years before the fall, when early settlers burned the dense forests to promote the growth of grass for cattle fodder. This tradition greatly accelerated in the last century. By the fall, Madagascar had lost all its original forests.
The 17,000 islands of Indonesia, totaling 1.9 million km2, were once lush forests. Like Amazonia, Indonesia was once home to rich biodiversity. Late-century slash-and-burn deforestation to clear land for farming created both massive air pollution and an environmental debacle in the heart of Oceania.
Everywhere wood was readily accessed, clear-cutting accelerated the demise of forests. The bare land of deforested areas is scorched by the Sun, creating hot spots that alter heat flow through a landscape and thwart woodland regeneration. Low air pressure in cleared areas pulls the cool, moist air out of the forest and feeds hot, dry air back in. This vegetation breeze is a scorching breath of death. “The cleared areas get all the rain, and the forests gets sucked dry,” reported ecologist Kika Tuff in the early 1st century BF.
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Not all deforestation was directly at man’s hand. Wildfires increasingly raged during the last century, as global warming and aridity ascended. From the start of the 1st century BF, wildfires became more extensive and intense.
Wildfires dramatically altered the vitality of a land. “The pollutants released by wildfires impact plants in areas way beyond the boundaries of the disaster,” wrote 1st-century-BF chemist Nadine Unger.
A soil exposed by fire becomes easily erodible: so much so that the erosion rate may double. Otherwise, fire can harden a soil. Instead of gently percolating underground, rainwater and melting snow rush over the stiffened surface, gaining enough force to erode loose sediments. Toughened topsoil does not readily recover.
The burning of the great boreal forest that comprised much of Russia and Canada intensified during the 70s BF. 4 decades later, these forests were largely charred wastelands.
Wildfire smoke accelerated glacial decay. Ash and soot landing on glacier ice darkened it. The lower albedo sped melt as the ice absorbed warming sunlight rather than reflecting it.
Manipulation of metals began in earnest only after agriculture established a need for a material stronger than wood and more malleable than stone. Refined mastery of fire, from which pottery emerged, was another factor. Smelting is essential to render many metals useful.
Of the 7 metals known to the ancients, only gold could be regularly found on Earth in useful form without processing. Gold always was the most treasured metal. The other metals of antiquity were lead, silver, copper, iron, tin, and mercury.
Mercury was commonly known as quicksilver. In pure form, mercury is a silvery liquid. But mercury is seldom found pure. Instead, mercury is extracted from ores. Mercury precipitates with sulfur to create the crimson compound cinnabar.
Cinnabar naturally occurs in quantity near volcanoes. An attractive deep red, cinnabar was valued in several ancient civilizations, including Egypt and China.
Powdered cinnabar was used as a rouge cosmetic in much of the world for thousands of years. Cinnabar was mixed in liquids to dye clothes and produce paint. Cinnabar was traditionally used to make red lacquer in China.
For millennia, highly toxic mercury was thought to be a health additive. The ancient Greeks used cinnabar in ointments.
The first autocrat of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang, founded the Qin dynasty in the 25th century BF. Qin reputedly died from drinking a cinnabar and jade mixture his alchemists had concocted as an elixir of immortality.
Ancient South Americans knew the hazard of mercury. Yet still they used cinnabar and other mercury products.
Similarly, the ancient Romans caught on to cinnabar as toxic. That did not stop its use. Mercurialism – overexposure to mercury – was seen as an occupational disease.
Alchemy was traditional chemistry, albeit with a philosophical bent. Alchemists wistfully aimed at transmutation of “base” metals, such as lead, into “noble” metals, notably gold.
Many alchemists considered mercury the “first matter” from which all metals were formed. They believed that different metals could be produced from cinnabar by varying the quality and quantity of sulfur combined with mercury. With good reason, gold was supposed the purest of metals.
Isaac Newton, the 5th-century BF font of classical physics, was an ardent alchemist. Contemporary alchemist Robert Boyle, in collaboration with his elder sister Katherine Jones, founded modern chemistry by dint of experiment.
To produce quicksilver, crushed cinnabar ore was roasted in rotary furnaces. Mercury would separate as an evaporative. The liquid metal would then be collected in a condensing column.
Mercury got much modern use.
From the mid-4th century BF, mercury was used in making felt hats. Rinsing animal skins in a mercury-laden orange solution, called carroting, separated fur from pelt. The practice gave rise to the saying “mad as a hatter” from those poisoned by the process. The solution and vapors were so toxic that carroting was outlawed in the mid-3rd century BF.
Mercury was used to extract gold and silver from ores and slurries. Left uncontained, a mercury slurry polluted all in its path. Silver mining boomed in the early 6th century BF with the discovery of a process which concentrated silver ore using mercury. The use of mercury for amalgamation only declined from the 130s BF.
Mercury was widely used in instruments to measure temperature and pressure. Mercury was a ready electrical conductor, and so was employed in light bulbs, switches, and batteries.
Counting on its toxicity, mercury was mixed in fungicides for agricultural use. It was also packed in firearms bullets as part of the explosive primer.
Despite its known toxicity, moderns continued to use mercury in soaps, cosmetics, and medications. Most strangely, mercury was mixed in an amalgam that was stuffed into teeth for dental repair.
Mercury exemplified how toxicity only influenced usage when there was a cheaper substitute available. Lead further illustrated man’s tendency toward convenient denial.
Lead is toxic to all organisms in minute quantities. Lead debilitates fundamental biochemical processes.
In humans, lead affected every organ system. The effects on cognitive ability were especially profound. Trace amounts of lead made people stupid.
That lead is gravely poisonous was known to the ancients. Yet, until the mid-2nd century BF, men foolishly imagined lead to be harmful only if ingested in copious quantities. Lead’s utility was so alluring that it overcame safety concerns. Whereas volcanoes spill some lead in their earth-shattering eruptions, humans made lead an environmental element as it never was before.
Lead is easy to extract from the ground. It is malleable and resistant to corrosion. These qualities made lead the material of choice for everything from municipal water pipes to food tins to jewelry. Lead made paints more durable and colorful. So, lead was added to the arsenal of industrialized compounds to be consumed and strewn hither and yon.
The 2nd-century-BF widespread addition of lead into petrol as an anti-knock compound spewed the toxin into the air, diffusing it worldwide. Even the polar ice caps were imbued with lead.
Studies showed that the cognitive facilities of children and their life expectancy were significantly lessened in the era when leaded gas was used. This bore out in the USA during the early 1st century BF: reflected in an upward shift in both stupidity and mortality. The country had been awash in leaded gasoline a half-century earlier.
Unlike some compounds, lead does not quickly leach out of soil. Plants uptake and retain lead in their roots. In the last century, the root vegetables which were otherwise an extremely healthy food source were instead a hazard in many places. The lead that did vacate the soil typically made its way into groundwater, thus providing drinkable lead. More than any other metal, man’s abiding use of lead indicated indifference to life in favor of economic profit.
Copper was prized in prehistoric times and remained so throughout history. Copper is ductile, malleable, resistant to corrosion, and has high thermal & electrical conductivity.
From the 7th millennium BF, copper was combined with other metals or metalloids to make bronze. Bronze is harder and more durable than stone, copper, or wrought iron.
Iron was first used in the 6th millennium BF. Iron was considered inferior to bronze.
Bronze is denser and less brittle than cast iron. Iron also has the drawback of corroding (rust). Bronze is easier to cast (mold), but harder to forge (hammer into shape).
The Bronze Age lasted until iron supplanted it in quantity produced, but not in metalworkers’ preference. Tin had been the favored alloy to combine with copper to create bronze. A shortage of tin foreshadowed bronze’s decline.
Teasing out iron’s chemical secrets abetted its ascent. Iron gained favor as its working relation with carbon was better understood. By 3000 BF, Egyptians had learned the craft of tempering: using high-carbon iron to make steel, then decreasing its brittleness by careful reheating. The Chinese mastered steel tempering 7 centuries later.
From the early 4th century BF, coal fired iron furnaces as the machine age geared up. Wrought iron was the metal of choice during early industrialization.
The technology for steel production on a large scale did not develop until the mid-4th century BF. Only toward the end of that century did steel production ramp up.
Being denser, steel is stronger than iron. In practical application, steel is also more lightweight, malleable, durable, and versatile. Steel is also less subject to corrosion than iron. As such, steel replaced iron in most applications, especially building.
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Concrete-like materials were used by Levant Arabs in 8600 BF. Around 2800 BF they discovered the advantages of mortar made from hydraulic lime, whereupon kilns were built to construct rubble-wall houses with concrete floors.
Levant Arabs constructed underground concrete cisterns, the locations of which they kept to themselves. This secret water supply let them survive in the deserts where they lived. These deserts had come about by deliberately denuding the forests there millennia prior.
Ancient Egyptian builders, and later the Romans, discovered that adding volcanic ash to the mix allowed concrete to set underwater. This pyroclastic addition also fortified the concrete.
The ancient Romans were first to employ concrete on a large scale. The Roman Colosseum was made of concrete, as were the other grand buildings that pronounced the prowess of the empire.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, the making of concrete was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in England in the mid-4th century BF. In the industrial age, concrete was used to build the modern urban jungle.
The primary ingredient in concrete was cement, which was made by heating limestone and clay until it fused into a clump called clinker. Clinker was then combined with gypsum: the sulfate stuff from which plaster and blackboard chalk were made. The kilns used to create clinker were commonly fired to scorching temperatures by burning coal, the most readily abundant fossil fuel.
The concrete that the Romans made was superior to the modern variety. Chemical reactions on modern concrete after it hardened could only damage it. By contrast, Roman concrete strengthened through time.
The Roman cement recipe was a mix of volcanic rubble and ash, lime (calcium oxide), and seawater. That combination naturally generates heat, turning the conglomeration into concrete. Whereas seawater degraded modern concrete, it strengthened Roman concrete by creating new minerals which fill any cracks and reinforce the material’s structure.
Open-pit mining for limestone was environmentally destructive. Both the intense heating and the chemical reactions involved in cement manufacture prodigiously produced greenhouse gases. In the last century, concrete production contributed nearly 5% of warming emissions worldwide.
Art expressed people’s sentiments toward the man-made environment which enveloped them. The arc of popular art suggested change in Collective mentality.
Until the industrial era, visual arts reflected natural forms. Similarly, music strove to pleasing melodies.
In the century following industrialization, alienation progressively crept into popular art. From the 2nd century BF, mental illness increasingly laced artistic expressions. Discordance suffused music.
There was a similar arc to Earther architecture, which was particularly pronounced in large buildings.
From antiquity into the 8th century BF, architectural monuments typically had religious connotation. Imposing secular buildings only started to become common after that.
Regardless of purpose, edifices until modernity reflected natural structures. The pillars that typified Greek and Roman architecture were abstracted tree trunks.
Architectural embellishments also appeared naturalistic. From ancient Egypt into the modern age, the rainspouts of buildings took the form of gargoyles.
Architecture took an angular turn in the 2nd century BF. Whereas past styles had Nature in mind, modernist architecture looked decidedly nonnatural. This reflected a shift in mentality from industrialization. Admiration of machines was reflected in the buildings that housed businesses and state offices.
The term skyscraper was first applied in the late 3rd century BF to steel-framed buildings at least 10 storeys (42 meters) high. The appellation came from public amazement at the tall structures built in major USA cities.
Skyscrapers were in fact ancient. The great pyramid of Gaza in Egypt, built in the 28th century BF, was 146 meters high. Imperial cities in Roman times housed high-rise apartments. The skylines of many medieval cities were populated with urban towers, with churches most impressive. Embellished or not, preindustrial tall buildings had an organic appeal.
Modern skyscrapers had concrete backbones and curtain walls of glass and polished stone. They were imposing, metallic architectural expressions.
By the 2nd decade of the 1st century BF, there were 40 skyscrapers over 400 meters tall. Most of them were in China and the oil-rich kingdoms of Arabia.
Toronto, Canada sat on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario. It was right in the flight path of many migratory birds.
Toronto’s skyline began its ascent in the 140s BF. Gleaming glass towers rose.
At the turn of the 1st century BF, Toronto skyscrapers were killing 9 million birds a year: more than any other city on Earth. All told, nearly 2 billion birds annually were smashing onto the glass faces of skyscrapers across the world.
The skyscraper avian death count declined as the 1st century BF wore on. There were fewer birds, and they were dying off in droves for a multitude of reasons, albeit all from the degradation of Nature by men.
A chronic issue for Earthers was harnessing energy to perform work for them. Fire was the first such handmaiden.
Cooking over a fire delivered a new level of nutrition. In the end, fire also delivered self-extinction.
Domesticated animals offered workmates as well as food. Beasts of burden were put before plows to start crops and put before wagons to transport harvests.
Water and wind offered opportunities to harvest energy from natural forces. Their harnessing resulted in rotary motion, which became the modus of engines.
Turbines were, at first, for mechanical work. In the industrial era, they progressed to generating electricity.
Waterwheels were known in Roman times. They changed little during the Middle Ages. Like windmills, their earliest use was in grinding grains.
By the 12th century BF, there were tens of thousands of waterwheels in England. They were engaged as a prime mover in various tasks, from pumping water to sawing wood, forging metal, fulling cloth, and operating bellows. This was typical throughout Europe, as cities were near rivers which facilitated cargo transport.
The origin of windmills is obscure, but they seem to have evolved independently in Persia and northern Europe in the 15th century BF. Their likely inspiration was sailing ships.
In the 1st century BF, spindly propellers generated electricity from gusts of wind. They made fierce noise and killed countless flying creatures. To harvest enough energy, wind farms took considerable acreage: a requirement that exacerbated their environmental desecration. Modern wind power never amounted to much except further damage to habitats.
Heat engines were known from antiquity. But their prominence only came in the machine age. This coincided with the expansive extraction of fossil fuels to power these engines.
Fossil fuels were the remains of organisms long extinguished. In a slow reunion with the planet on which they had lived, bodies were transformed by pressure and heat into combustible hydrocarbons with rich energy content. By the age of men, massive quantities of these chemical residuals lay near Earth’s surface, undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years.
The hydrogen in fossil fuels provided the energy. Burning these fossils released the once-trapped carbon into the atmosphere, where it acted as a warming agent. Meanwhile, the toxic chemicals within a fossil fuel were spread through the air to poison all life that breathes.
For hundreds of millions of years, long before apes arose, Earth had dense forests. The most prolific period was 359 to 299 MBF, when mighty trees dominated landscapes.
Dead vegetation in wetlands was protected from utter decay by mud. This plant matter turned into peat. Over the course of millions of years, peat bogs became entombed under sediment. Pressure and heat applied to buried peat created coal.
6 millennia before the fall, the Chinese were carving ornaments from black lignite, a soft coal. 400 years later, the Chinese were surface mining coal for heating and cooking in households.
Coal was mined to smelt copper in China by 2200 BF. By this time, Europeans had also started burning coal.
From the 21st century BF, Romans in Britain were burning coal. A lively coal trade ensued in succeeding centuries. By the 8th century BF, coal fields were being worked throughout the British Isles.
The pollution from coal was so pungent that a royal proclamation was issued in 794 BF to stop its use in London. People were commanded to go back to the traditional fuels: wood and charcoal.
Royal concern did not stop the use of coal. Coal became a primary fuel throughout the industrializing world. It was plentiful, accessible, and thereby cheap.
As demand for coal and metals burgeoned in the 5th century BF, the desire to dig deeper grew stronger. Flooding from going below the water table was the chief obstacle to relentless extraction.
Steam engine pumps were developed to keep mines dry. These engines incrementally improved from the 4th century BF. In doing so, their employment expanded to generating electricity.
Electricity was known to the ancients. But it was not until the 2nd century BF that electricity turned into a common power source. Even in the last century, poorer nations were barely electrified.
Electricity was primarily used for stationary objects, such as buildings and the appliances within. In the 1st century BF, via batteries, electricity powered specially built cars.
~85% of Earther electricity came from steam engines. The earliest were fired by coal. The last ones developed worked by the heat of atomic decay. The different energy inputs went to the same end: boiling water to spin turbines.
The conversion efficiency of modern electricity turbines was typically 33–45%. The rest of the energy left the power plant as waste heat.
Coal readily went ablaze, and not just intentionally. Around the world, thousands of coal fires burned unchecked in mines. Some surfaced to cause wildfires.
Mining and processing coal caused grievous air and water pollution. Among power plants, those burning coal were by far the worst in spewing toxins into the air, on top of prodigious greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of curtailing coal-burning pollutants was too high to be considered “economic.” Emitted sulfur compounds caused corrosive acid rain. Yet, because it was cheap, coal continued to be Earther’s primary fuel for electricity.
The consumption of coal only peaked near the end of the 2nd decade of the last century. By that time, coal was killing more than 1 million people a year from mining, processing, and power plant emissions. Despite the decimation, coal use declined only gradually until industrial civilization ended.
Mining uranium, enriching its radioactivity, and then using it to boil water for electricity generation might seem like overkill. But, contrasted to coal, nuclear power was neat, with scant greenhouse gas emissions.
Because of a few highly publicized mishaps and fear of the invisible harm from radioactivity, public opinion turned strongly against nuclear power in the late 2nd century BF. In the 1st century BF, this relatively safe power source generated only 10% of global electricity supply.
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Men were long fascinated with harnessing the Sun’s power. From the late 2nd century BF, 2 methods predominated.
The 1st method used mirrors to concentrate sunlight. These receiving systems then produced steam to turn turbines and thereby generate electricity. Though practical and relatively environmentally benign, only a few such systems were built. Instead, solar power’s dirty sister was fawned upon: photovoltaics.
A photovoltaic cell was a disk of minerals which directly converted captured sunlight into electricity. Individual solar cells were put together into panels for deployment.
The primary working ingredient of solar cells was silicon. Producing silicon wafers for solar cells was energy-intensive and produced mostly waste. 90% of the initial silicon input was lost in the fabrication process.
Most of the minerals and chemicals used to create solar cells were highly toxic. A portion of these plentiful poisons invariably ended up in the ground, forever polluting the soil and nearby groundwater.
Further, producing solar cells released copious quantities of potent greenhouse gases. The photovoltaics industry became the leading emitter of these gases.
Solar panels could be put on rooftops or other out-of-the-way places. That did not stop large arrays of solar panels from being deployed on the ground, thus rendering their location lifeless.
Once installed, solar panels generated less than half of the electricity that its promoters advertised. Without regular maintenance in most environs, the panels soon produced piddling power.
Though much of India was sufficiently sunny, its air was so polluted in the 1st century BF that solar panels there were a waste. The photovoltaic cells could not catch enough sunlight, and the dirty air quickly fouled them. Cities in China and other smoggy places had the same problem. Still, solar panels were sited where they could do little good.
A solar panel might last at most 25 years before it became toxic waste. Recycling was infeasible.
In the end, photovoltaics produced scarcely more power than they took, at the externality of egregious pollution.
During the early 1st century BF, photovoltaics was deceptively touted as “green” energy: supposedly, environmentally benign because their power came via sunlight. Governments subsidized solar panels to deluded applause.
Game trails and footpaths became roads when pack animals joined human travels. Travois transported goods.
Roads first appeared 12,000 years before the fall. 6,000 years later, Indus roads had stone pavements.
Sleds were built 7100 BF. They were trickier to construct than travois, but easier to propel over smooth surfaces. Sleds slid on paved streets in the Sumerian city of Ur by 6100 BF.
Then came wheeled vehicles. Wheels were put on travois and sleds in Sumer by 5000 BF.
Even with wheels, moving heavy loads was impractical without beast of burden to pull them. In Mesopotamia, the onager was used for carts.
Heavy 4-wheeled wagons were built in Mesopotamia by 4700 BF. As these wagons required oxen to pull them, they were only used to convey crops.
The late development of wheeled vehicles owed to their limitations. Rolling platforms are useless in jungles, deserts, and on uneven terrain. That covers much ground. Wheeled transport beckoned better roads.
Indus roads were paved with brick 5500 BF. Meanwhile, in swampy Glastonbury, England, ancient Brits made do with log roads to convey their crops.
The Minoan civilization of the island of Crete lasted from 5600 to 3200 BF. In good times, Minoans thrived from the trade of fine craftwork in pottery, bronze, and fabrics. Autocrats ruled the Minoans in a hierarchical society typical of Earthers.
In 4200 BF, slave labor built a sturdy 50-kilometer road from the palatial capital at Knossos, on the north of the island, through the mountains, to the southern port of Lebena. The road had an underlying pavement of sandstone blocks bound with clay-gypsum mortar, which was covered by basaltic flagstones. There were shoulders on each side of the road. This roadway was superior to any road the Romans later built.
Darius the Great was the 3rd autocrat of the Achaemenid Empire, which was centered in Persia (Iran). The empire extended to Egypt, Turkey, and Greece to the west, and to India in the east. Darius reigned 36 years, from 2622 BF until his death in 2586 BF.
To rule effectively, Darius expanded the empire’s road system. It included the famous Royal Road, which ran between central Iran and western Turkey. The Royal Road was so well built that it continued to be used into Roman times, centuries later.
What the Romans wrought changed the world. The legacy of ancient Roman civilization reverberated in the Western world until the fall, especially in political economy.
Not only did all roads lead to Rome, but the empire itself was held together through trampled thoroughfares. The Romans ruled their vast empire through an extensive system of roads. Besides conveyance for trade, roads acted as the arteries for troop transport: to repress revolt against tax collection and other decreed confiscations. At the peak of the empire, 29 military veinous roads radiated from Rome, interconnecting with 372 major highways. These highways dispersed into thousands of roads.
A typical act of rebellion against Rome was to hack up the roads. The disintegration of the Roman Empire in the 17th century BF was marked in many places by the disappearance of serviceable roads. The state of roads signified the Dark Ages which descended upon western Europe with the fall of Rome. Roman roads deteriorated in medieval Europe from lack of will and skill to maintain them. Meanwhile, to the east, the Arabs were building roads.
The most sophisticated highways in the 14th century BF were in Baghdad, Iraq. These roads were paved with tar. The tar was gotten from nearby oil fields, and then processed through destructive distillation (heating at high temperature). Though deforested, Iraq was a much cooler place then than it would be in modern times.
From the 7th century BF, Europe’s economic growth could be seen in its expansion of roads, often based on Roman designs. There was little innovation in European road building before the 4th century BF.
Along with industrialization came more highway construction. The new designs were for cheaply built roads which would not last as they had in the preindustrial era. Asphalt and modern concrete were the common materials.
Asphalt emitted significant mixtures of pollutants into the air. The hotter the temperature, the worse asphalt emissions were. Beyond their toxicity, these volatile compounds contributed to global warming.
Roads acted as thermal amplifiers. Roads turned urban areas into heat islands.
The motorized vehicles on roads were an environmental affront. But so too the roads themselves. “Roads initiate environmental effects that radiate outwards,” wrote 1st-century-BF ecologist Nick Haddad. “Roads and railways fragment ecosystems. They are a key element of habitat destruction and a principal cause of loss of biodiversity. Runoff from them carries pollutants. The land area ecologically impacted by roads is tens to hundreds of meters wider than the area physically disturbed,” added 1st-century-BF geologists Roger Hooke & José Martín-Duque.
At the turn of the 1st century BF, there were 65 million kilometers of roads crisscrossing the world’s lands: over 1.5 times the circumference of the planet. Over 20% of USA territory was directly affected by roads. 70% of these roads were rural, with scant traffic. European countries had similar expanses of roadway, as did the industrialized countries in East Asia: China, South Korea, and Japan. Roads were essential to economic development. What they ran through was incidental to politicians bent on “prosperity.” The decimation of the massive Amazon rainforest was accelerated by building roads through it.
The very existence of those ribbons of death sliced habitats into fragments, foreclosing viable lives for many animals. What traveled on these roads was pollution incarnate.
A fire piston was a handheld straw-like cylinder. It was sealed at one end and open at the other. The cylinder was fitted with a piston that made an airtight seal.
Pushing the piston compressed the air within. Quickly ramming the piston down into the cylinder generated enough heat to set a tiny bit of tinder within ablaze. That ember could then be dropped onto kindling to start a fire, assisted by wind to encourage the flame.
Fire pistons were used prehistorically in southeast Asia. They were reinvented many times. The fire piston was patented in both England and France by different men in the year 293 BF: so much for novelty in invention.
The pistons that powered motorized vehicles were the same idea, except the tinder within was refined petroleum.
Producing petroleum was a more delicate process than crunching trees into coal. The dead bodies of tiny sea creatures had to have been trapped, preserved, and cooked at precisely the right pressures and temperatures. If the process went awry, the oil broke down into methane, which Earthers commonly called natural gas. Crude petroleum consisted of several chemical components. Called fractions, these separate compounds made for distinct products.
Petroleum was employed by the ancients. Asphalt – a sticky black viscous petrol – was used in constructing the walls and towers of Babylon in the 40th century BF. There were oil pits near Babylon, which lie on the banks of the Euphrates River.
The Chinese burnt petroleum 4 millennia before the fall. By 1753 BF the Chinese were drilling oil wells with bamboo.
Moderns found innumerable uses for distilled petroleum. While the lighter fractions first went to lighting, thicker fractions served as machine lubricants. The heavy, residual fractions, once waste, became heating oils. The lightest, most volatile fractions, including gasoline, were long regarded as dangerous nuisances. That changed in the early 2nd century BF, as automobiles began guzzling gasoline. Airplanes also imbibed light fractions.
Oil went everywhere. And there were spills everywhere oil went. There were tens of thousands of major oil spills in the last 150 years before the fall. These spills devastated habitats for centuries. The ecology of oil was accident.
From the 2nd century BF, the primary demand for petroleum was to fuel transport. Motorized transport was a hallmark of industrialization.
In 150 BF there were fewer than 100 million motor vehicles on the world’s roads. By 100 BF there were over 750 million. 2 decades later that number had doubled: 1.5 billion vehicles.
The world’s vehicle fleet peaked around 55 BF with 2 billion cars and trucks. 80% of them ran on petrol. The rest ran on batteries.
Petroleum was a secondary fuel source for electricity generation, after coal. Petroleum was employed to produce a vast array of compounds, including plastic, biocides, fertilizer, paints and dyes, lubricants, fabrics, and synthetic medicines. Moderns relied heavily on petroleum until the fall.
By the early 70s BF, fossil fuels had become a popular villain in the worriers’ theater of concern over self-extinction. Petrol vehicles were pinned as a prime culprit: not that people stopped driving about, or that governments demanded more efficient vehicles. They did not.
Electric vehicles (EVs) were lauded as a “green” solution to gas-guzzling cars. Considering what it took to make and dispose of them, EVs were instead more damnable.
Making the batteries for EVs required a bevy of expensive metals. Moving to EVs meant more mining, which caused consternation for authorities wanting to preen as green.
Electric cars caused more warming emissions than regular cars. While EVs did not spew pollutants out their tailpipes, their manufacture and energy pull from power plants gave EVs a larger environmental impact.
2/3rds of automobile contamination arose from tire, brake, and road dust. Electric vehicles raised as much dust as petrol ones did.
Rich nations senselessly subsidized transition to electric cars. The rest of the world kept driving gas guzzlers.
By the beginning of the 4th century BF, European businesses were noticeably improving their productivity and aimed on further growth. There were sizable concentrations of rural industry in western Europe, mostly in textile manufacture.
Machines to weave cloth were first powered by waterwheels. From the mid-4th century BF, heat engines started powering textile contraptions. These engines had initially been developed to pump water out of underground mines.
Thanks to its liberal finance regime, widescale industrialization began in England. Continental Europe followed in short order, as did the ambitious USA.
Life for workers became dire with the advent of industrialization. Life expectancy dropped to a level unseen for thousands of years.
Those with artisan craft skills lost their livelihoods. They were replaced by poorly paid, unskilled workers at unsafe machines.
70–80 hours per week labor was typical. Many worked over 100, with just half of Sunday off.
Laws to protect workers were nonexistent or not enforced. Men rebelled so often that factory owners took to hiring women and children, subjecting them to horrendous working conditions.
Children as young as 4 years worked. Beatings and long hours were the norm. Many working children starved to death.
Living standards for the working class did not meaningfully rise until the late 3rd century BF. This came about because working men organized labor unions, which were fiercely resisted by companies and governments alike. Company owners’ resistance to giving their workers a fair share was a hallmark of the market system. The authorities backed business as a plutocratic reflex.
It was not until capitalism was on its knees, during the Great Depression, that labor unions gained strength. That vigor was short-lived. From the mid-2nd century BF, the strength of organized labor waned, relentlessly whittled away by corporate power in the political arena.
The squeeze on workers never stopped. “The standard capitalist formula is trying to do the same business with fewer people,” observed 2nd-century-BF corporate empire builder Warren Buffett. “Employees have become commodities,” noted American economist George Tyler at the end of the 2nd century BF.
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Civilization came from trade. Market economies were naturally unbounded. “We have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations,” wrote Karl Marx in 252 BF. Though the term globalization was not popular until the last century dawned, its knitting began in antiquity.
Industrial globalization spread the good and bads of the market system throughout the world. “What might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind may bring about its total destruction,” presciently foresaw British war commander Winston Churchill in the mid-2nd century BF.
The end times loomed at the dawn of the last century. To survive, men needed to somehow halt their desecration of Nature. Doing this would have taken unprecedented cooperation on a global scale: practically an antithesis of history. In light of history, what happened was predictable.