The Great Burning: On Rising to the Greatest Challenge Humanity Has Ever Faced

We live in a time of what might be called The Great Burning. However, we tend to ignore the tremendous inferno blazing around us. Most of the combustion occurs out of sight and out of mind, in hundreds of millions of automobile, truck, aircraft, and ship engines; in tens of thousands of coal or gas-fired power plants that provide the electricity that runs our computers, smart phones, refrigerators, air conditioners, and televisions; in furnaces that warm us in the winter; in factories that spew out products we are constantly urged to buy. Add all this burning together and it amounts to the energy equivalent of torching a quarter of the Amazon rainforest every year. In the United States, the energy from annual fossil fuel combustion roughly equates to the solar energy taken up by all biomass in the nation. It’s a conflagration unlike anything that has ever occurred before in Earth’s history, and it is the very basis of our modern existence.

Obviously, it would be impossible to continue consuming the world’s forests, year in and year out, at a rate that far outstrips their pace of re-growth. We’d soon run out of forest. Yet the Great Burning has persisted and grown, decade after decade, because its fuel consists of millions of years’ worth of stored and concentrated ancient biomass.

The burning of fossil fuels cannot go on forever, either. Coal, oil, and natural gas are depleting, non-renewable resources—they don’t grow back. While we are not about to run out of them in the absolute sense, we have extracted the cheapest and best-quality fuels first, leaving the more expensive, dirtier, and harder-to-produce fuels for the next year’s takings. As I argue in the first chapter of this book, we have already reached the point of diminishing returns for investments in world oil production. And oil is the most crucial of our non-renewable resources from an economic standpoint.

At the same time, burning Earth’s vast storehouses of ancient sunlight releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, resulting in global warming and ocean acidification. Climate change is contributing to a mass extinction of species, extreme weather, and rising sea levels—which, taken together, could undermine the viability of civilization itself. If civilization fails, then we will have no need for cars, trucks, aircraft, ships, power plants, or furnaces—or for the oil, coal, and gas that fuel them. If the world’s policy makers decide to act decisively to mitigate climate change, the result will again be a dramatic curtailment of our consumption of fossil fuels.

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