The so-called “natural world” is characterized, from a civilized person’s point of view, by a distressing lack of metal and energy, and by an abundance of lifeforms that like to gobble up everything we find useful apart from metal and high-octane fuel.

This means, among other things, that modern civilization, which features lots of metal and really potent fuel and no microbes that like to have either of them for breakfast, looks really weird to creatures evolved in the environment we like to call “nature”. Some such creatures, while giving the appearance of being intelligent, conclude from this that modern civilization is a desecration of nature and that nature is a more desirable environment for human beings.

But the “natural world” is lacking in metal and high-octane fuel not because that’s the way God or Gaia or Whoever intended, but because these things were buried deep underground and out of reach while the denizens of the natural world were evolving. The real starting point of civilizational advance wasn’t the invention of the wheel, or of fire, or even agriculture. Civilization couldn’t really take off until our ancestors learned how to dig really deep holes and find all that buried treasure.

If lots of metal and lots of energy had been available at the surface for the last five billion years, not only would people think of them as “natural”, but all life on Earth would be adapted to use them “naturally”. Every animal would have a metal skeleton and a metal shell. Horses would be able to run at a hundred miles per hour or more, and birds would rival our jet planes in performance. Burning wood would yield as much power as burning oil – in fact, plants would synthesize petroleum or coal or something similarly potent rather than starches and sugars, and animals (including ourselves) and microbes would metabolize this high-octane fuel. Leave a lump of coal laying around, and it would rot like a corpse as microbes gobbled it up, and a cup of oil (which would be nice and tasty to us) would spoil like milk.

Nervous systems would tend to use wires, lending all animals (including ourselves) lightning-fast reflexes. Animals would tend to use some of that abundant energy and metal for offense and defense – projectile weapons and explosives might be seen in place of horns and teeth, and a nature hike might look like what we think of as a war zone.

Savages would have many of the resources we do. They’d have fast horses, metal homes and metal tools; they’d probably have explosives and other nasty weapons, and so on. Unfortunately, they’d also have far more powerful predators than we do, they’d have microbes, worms, and insects eating up whatever fuel they tried to stash along with the walls of their homes, and they’d be constantly at war with other savages using similarly potent weapons. A “classical” civilization might be much like ours, with lots of energy and lots of metal and lots of interesting gizmos that are relatively easy to make (particularly with “manual laborers” doing work and building things at speeds rivaling our factories – of course that includes slaves, which would still be profitable to keep and feed at this point) and not nearly as much war. They wouldn’t bother with steam engines or internal combustion engines – they’d keep using animal power (those hundred-mile-per-hour horses, for instance) until they figured out how to dig up uranium and make nuclear reactors, at which point they’d build a “modern” civilization with homes of depleted uranium, supersonic jet planes in everyone’s garage, tools and fuel that didn’t rot, predators and most other animals no longer even a minor nuisance to most people, animals in general only kept around if they can be eaten or be accepted as companions/surrogate children/etc., and plenty of spacecraft, factories and machines far more productive than anything we have now and easily driving slaveowners into bankruptcy and eliminating that peculiar institution, and some apparently intelligent members of the species would complain about what a “desecration” all this was and how the race was sadly no longer in harmony with Nature.

What’s the point of all this speculation? First, to poke some holes in the theory that “nature” as we know it is something sacred, rather than a collection of lifeforms that happened to evolve in a low energy and low metal environment. Second, to point out that any kind of modern civilization must use a much better energy source than is available on the surface in order to live significantly better than animals or savages, who would have been using any good local source of energy they didn’t have to dig for since prehistoric times. If Mr. Kunstler is right about the global oil supply, we’ll have to switch to something else that is equally out of harmony with nature, or else return to a more primitive (i.e., nasty, brutish, and short) mode of existence. Adapting to a low-energy existence, like Mr. Kunstler suggests we do, means given up the noble dreams of rising from the jungle to the stars, and makes a mockery of all the sacrifices our ancestors made to further the realization of those dreams and to protect the laws, institutions, and societies that made it possible. Nuclear power may be scary, but so is coal mining, and doubly so is a world where most people rarely venture more than a few dozen miles from home (and have no means of escape from the place they were born), slavery is profitable, and a farmer working a low-productivity, labor intensive farm can only feed a handful of people instead of fifty or more (which means lots more farmers doing lots more manual labor). That’s the kind of world that needs to be desecrated as thoroughly as possible.

7 thoughts on “Nature”

  1. Ken, as someone in this forum once told me, $100 a barrel for oil, or did they say $500 a barrel, either way, folks will be lining up to support nuclear energy. It is the future, it cannot be stopped.

  2. Just wondering: how does building nuclear reactors to generate electricity replace the oil-based green revolution that we depend on for our food?

    Mechanization, petro-fertilizers, and genetic engineering are the three pillars beneath expanded food production. The first two depend directly on oil, and the third indirectly–the plants are engineered to be more responsive to petro-fertilizers.

  3. Ken:
    What’s the point of all this speculation? First, to poke some holes in the theory that “nature” as we know it is something sacred, rather than a collection of lifeforms that happened to evolve in a low energy and low metal environment.

    How about instead of “sacred” nature, we think about a nature we can survive in?

    The state of the world? It is on the brink of disaster
    An authoritative study of the biological relationships vital to maintaining life has found disturbing evidence of man-made degradation. Steve Connor reports
    30 March 2005

    Planet Earth stands on the cusp of disaster and people should no longer take it for granted that their children and grandchildren will survive in the environmentally degraded world of the 21st century. This is not the doom-laden talk of green activists but the considered opinion of 1,300 leading scientists from 95 countries who will today publish a detailed assessment of the state of the world at the start of the new millennium.
    The report does not make jolly reading. The academics found that two-thirds of the delicately-balanced ecosystems they studied have suffered badly at the hands of man over the past 50 years.
    The dryland regions of the world, which account for 41 per cent of the earth’s land surface, have been particularly badly damaged and yet this is where the human population has grown most rapidly during the 1990s.
    Slow degradation is one thing but sudden and irreversible decline is another. The report identifies half a dozen potential “tipping points” that could abruptly change things for the worse, with little hope of recovery on a human timescale.

  4. The natural environment, even at its best, is barely habitable and only supports a small fraction of our present population. Only by human activity can our whole population be supported and fed.

    The story you link isn’t very useful – it fails to distinguish between changes to the environment and changes that actually prevent human activity from continuing to maintain a habitable environment for our entire population.

  5. There is an example of this already around you.

    Look at warm blooded animals vs cold blooded animals. The warm blooded animals have a more active lifestyle, and consume much more “fuel”.

    You can make a pretty good guess at whether a predator is warm blooded by looking at the ratio of the biomass of the predators vs the biomass of the prey.

  6. My organic chemistry professor taught me that life utilizes a carbon framework because carbon can bond to other atoms in a very large number of ways and allows for tremendous versatility for building molecules with varying properties(think Tinker Toys). The other atom that shares the same four valence electron configuration of carbon, and can therefore form a huge number of different molecules, is silicon. Fans of Star Trek will remember the Horta, a silicon based lifeform. Metals can’t form complex molecules in the same way with subtle differences due to chirality, etc, so I don’t think they could be used as a substrate for life in the way that we know it – but perhaps metal atoms could be added to a carbon framework???

  7. Calcium is a metal, and guess what? Our bones are made of mostly calcium. So are our teeth. So we do utilize structural metals quite well where it counts, in the form of mineral compounds.

    Iron is everpresent in our RBCs, another smart use of metal by biological entities. Plants use magnesium to make carbohydrate from sunlight, and generate oxygen from carbon dioxide.

    Most metals will oxidize in our atmosphere. Surface iron historically came from extraterrestrial sources.

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