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Essay

Overloading Emoh Ruo: the rise and rise of hydrocarbon civilisation

Shortlisted, 2006 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Science Writing

Shortlisted, 2006 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Literary Work Advancing Public Debate

Shortlisted: 2006 Eureka Prize, Science Journalism

NO ONE DISCOVERED global warming, although it has been going on for most of the past 12,000 years. The suspicion that human activity is altering the world's climate forced itself in slow stages on disbelieving scientists, as it is now reaching a wider but only half-persuaded public. The science is complex, the factual forecasts tentative at best. One simple truth is, however, now established beyond any doubt, one of those rare insights that will change the way we think as long as our species lasts. We have only one single human household, the much-abused planet under our feet. We are hopeless at managing it, a dysfunctional family riven by jealousy, selfishness and self-imposed ignorance. We show no real sign of changing our ways. If we go on like this, the outlook we refuse to face up to is grim.

Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station is a modest collection of prefab huts atop a blackened tooth of sandstone that juts from the north-west corner of Tasmania into the Southern Ocean at latitude forty degrees forty-one minutes south. This is uncomfortably inside the Roaring Forties, the winds that blow clear around the globe with only a short passage over the distant wilds of Patagonia, raising swells that break with few pauses on two saw-toothed islets at Grim's foot, ninety-four metres below. Above the huts, which house a rotating team of nine scientists and their instruments, soars a slender steel tower, with air intakes sampling the winds at 104 metres and 164 metres above the sea.

Grim was given its peculiarly prophetic name by Matthew Flinders, RN, then aged twenty-four, who set out from Sydney in the southern summer of 1798 with surgeon George Bass, twenty-six, in the seventeen-ton sloop Norfolk to test whether Van Diemen's Land, as it was then known, was part of New South Wales or, as many suspected, an island in its own right. The two youthful shipmates sailed (and named) Bass Strait from east to west and, threading their way through the Hunter Isles at the strait's western mouth, kept careful watch for the unknown coast to bear away to the south-east, conclusive proof of their island thesis. Sure enough it did. Introducing his Voyage to Terra Australis (which, incidentally, gave this country its name and has caused so much grief to Austrian postmasters), Flinders wrote: "The north-west cape of Van Diemen's Land, or island, as it might now be termed, is a steep black head which, from its appearance, I call Cape Grim."

 

THE WINDY CAPE stemmed the Roaring Forties in lonely isolation until 1976, a year in which, with the Vietnam War ended and the Middle East unusually quiet, thoughts turned to meteorology, the science of weather, an area in which even the most self-centred of nations can see advantages in exchanging information. While military men keep a covert eye on the world climate, they like to show themselves co-operative in a good cause and, as children everywhere have discovered, what sounds more seductive than "You show me yours and I'll show you mine"?

It was a time of bizarre weather events. In the early 1970s, India's life-giving monsoon failed and there were poor harvests in Africa and the then Soviet Union. Cities worldwide were getting grimier, with black-rimmed collars and high-rent urban vistas shrouded in smog – not the Great 1953 Killer Smog, caused by burning coal in a million grates, which paralysed London for three days and killed thousands, but something more complex and mysterious. In 1975, the World Meteorological Organisation, an offshoot of the United Nations, called for member states to finance a worldwide chain of twenty-two reporting stations in out-of-the way places to investigate these odd events. No one, for once, vetoed the innocent-sounding proposal. The decision gave Cape Grim a new global significance.

There was a precedent, of sorts. In 1957, another quiet year internationally, the United Nations proclaimed an International Geophysical Year, partly inspired by the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. That year, an American scientist-hero, Charles Keeling, set up an air-sampling station atop Moana Loa, a 4,169-metre peak in the Hawaiian Islands, surrounded by thousands of kilometres of pristine ocean air. Keeling nursed a suspicion that carbon dioxide, CO2 , was somehow changing the climate. A genius at scrounging funds, Keeling almost ran out of money several times, but kept on refining his methods and measuring the air.

Sure enough, his findings showed a steady, steplike climb of airborne CO2 between 1957 and 1975, but the quantities were still minute. Most of us know that the air we breathe through our air-conditioners is roughly four-fifths nitrogen and its derivatives, now rising; a fifth is oxygen, falling; and less than one per cent other gases and odds and ends, some nasty. Keeling's air samples showed an increase of CO2 from 315 to 330 parts per million of air in almost twenty years. But Moana Loa is an active volcano, volcanoes spew CO2 , among other gases, and maybe this was skewing Keeling's findings.

All that fuss, his critics scoffed, about a wisp of harmless gas. It is true that the danger, if there is one, is far from obvious. We all breathe out about a kilo of CO2 every day of our lives. It makes the bubbles in champagne, the froth on beer. It forms the swirling clouds of vapour through which ageing rock stars make their entries. Shopkeepers still pop a pellet or two of dry ice, the solid form of CO2 , into parcels of frozen food, and children find they bubble briskly underwater. Could this fun gas really end life as we know it? Keeling visited the Antarctic in 1957, not exactly crowded with human activity, and found that CO2 levels in the frosty air climbed in a single season. The pattern he detected at Moana Loa was repeated in the pristine Antarctic.

 

AUSTRALIAN WEATHER SCIENTISTS had long seen the possibilities of Flinders' sinister Cape Grim for a "baseline" station. It was an ideal spot to measure the atmosphere's minimum level of COand other suspect gases, before human or natural activity, nearby or distant, could add to it. A quirk of history had kept Grim all but untouched by human boots. In 1976, the Cape was still part of a grant of 22,000 hectares (220 square kilometres) made in 1825 to the London-based Van Diemen's Land Company (VDLC), intended to exploit the raising of fine wool in the then remote Tasmanian north-west, and thus called Woolnorth. The station still flourishes and still belongs to the VDLC, the only surviving Royal Charter Company, which also has holdings in New Zealand. The last volcanic activity in the region ended some twelve million years ago.

Woolnorth, originally staffed by indentured labourers from England with their wives and children, and ticket-of-leave convicts, got off to a brutal start, with records of "depredations" by the local natives – a sad glimpse of Tasmanian Aborigines, soon to disappear from human history – and of unauthorised, violent reprisals by the company's well-armed "servants". Woolnorth only began to prosper in the 1850s when gold was found in nearby Victoria and the VDLC developed Woolnorth as a supplier of beef, mutton and potatoes for the diggings; it has continue to prosper as a supplier of fine wool.

Bare and roadless, Cape Grim was unsuited for these profitable lines and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) acquired title to the tip of the cape with a buffer strip between it and Woolnorth in 1957. It was to become one of the World Meteorological Organisation's baseline monitoring stations. The first air samples were collected in April 1976, the brief being to analyse the four so-called greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and sulphate aerosols, which are co-emitted with airborne soot.

Carbon dioxide lingers for 150 years or more in the atmosphere and so has attracted the most nervous column inches. Methane, otherwise known as swamp gas, has more drastic affects on the climate but disperses after a decade or so. Nitrous oxide is a compound of oxygen and nitrogen, the main ingredients of air, and eventually breaks down. Sulphate aerosols, which are not gases, are better known to us as the smog that dims our cities. All are natural products and are present in all air samples. Methane bubbles up from vegetation decaying in swamps, or in the long swamp-like intestines of grass-eating animals or, in layperson's language, from farting cows. Nitrous oxide is produced when lightning heats air. Some sulphate aerosols come from volcanoes, some from bushfires.

Sure enough, ice cores record the four substances fluctuating in no discernible pattern over many millennia. Then, beginning about the end of the eighteenth century, the four begin what looks like a concerted climb. In the documents issued by the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Nairobi in April 2001 – the smoking gun of global warming, if there is one – the concentration of the four substances in the cores faithfully track each other until, as Grim and the other baseline stations take over after 1976, they approach the vertical. No one has come up with a better explanation than the obvious: the graphs show the consequences of human activity, the oncoming industrial, fossil-fuel-fired revolution, the still incomplete triumph of our own beloved hydrocarbon civilisation.

The views from Cape Grim are awe-inspiring – to the north, Bass Strait, to the west, the empty ocean, and, curving away to the south-east, Valley Bay, which convinced Bass and Flinders that Van Dieman's Land was indeed an island. In the distance is the wind farm operated by Hydro Tasmania, whose thirty-seven giant rotors power the whole operation and feed surplus electricity into the Tasmanian grid. But no one lives at Grim on a permanent basis. The offices and living quarters of the scientists and technicians are sixty kilometres away, in the nearest town, Smithton (pop. 3,495), a cheerful place named, like much else in these parts, for a long-dead director of the VDLC. For its size, Smithton has every mod con, with two pubs, three supermarkets, two ATMs, a hospital and a swimming pool filled from the Duck River on which the town stands.

The analyses of the air samples collected at Grim are automatically sent by the web to Smithton, to the CSIRO in Melbourne, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, United States, and other interested parties. But Grim's remit is to study not simply the baseline of CO2 in the atmosphere, but some other so-called "greenhouse gases" as well: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and a group of human-made gases incorporating fluorine or chlorine that do not occur in nature and for which there is therefore a simple, if heroic, remedy – stop making them. Constant refinements in detecting these gases require frequent visits to Grim by the scientists and technicians, and occasional overnight stays.

Alas, the term "greenhouse gas" is a metaphor which, like many such, started off as a brave attempt to make a complex idea clear and wound up befogging understanding even more and opening the way to charges of deceit and even fraud. To make things worse, it omits the most potent "greenhouse gas" of all – H2O, plain, ordinary, tap, river or seawater in vapour form. The truth is, your common or garden greenhouse has no greenhouse gases. It works by letting sunshine through its clear, glass or plastic walls. Homonuclear, diatomic molecules – a mouthful meaning the simple, healthy gases like oxygen (O2) and nitrogen (N2) of air – do not absorb any energy from sunlight, which shines through on to the earth floor of the greenhouse, warming it and the air just above it. Warm air rises, and so the air in the greenhouse warms up, trapped by the clear walls. It is said that greenhouse operators in cold climates like the United Kingdom have been known to add CO2 as well, but this is rumoured to give their tomatoes a woody taste and so is best avoided. Our Earth has no walls and is not a giant greenhouse – any rising, warm air is dispersed by the winds and mixed by turbulence. The principle involved is different and the other so-called greenhouse gases have nothing to do with greenhouses, real or metaphorical; sulphate aerosols are not even a gas. Still, "greenhouse" is easier to remember than homonuclear or diatomic, so we are stuck with the term, and had best understand it.

 

THE FIRST THINKER to have brought COinto the speculation on climate change was a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius, in 1896. He was then engaged in one of the hottest intellectual searches of the day for what had caused the ice ages. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, most people who thought about such matters were comfortable with the calculation of Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh in Northern Ireland who, by totting up the begats in the Old Testament, had worked out that the world was created on Saturday, October 22, 4004BC, at 6pm, so as to make Sunday, October 23, the first full working day of creation.

As mankind's last century of peace and hope, the nineteenth, progressed, evidence began to accumulate that the glaciers of Europe were melting, leaving characteristic heaps of ice-smoothed boulders behind. Such ice-gouged valleys and telltale piles of stones are to be found all over northern Europe, Asia and North America, revealing that as recently as 12,000 years ago, the areas where London, Stockholm, New York and many other cities now stand were buried under enormous sheets of ice. The oceans were then at an all-time low and early men walked barefoot from Asia to Japan and America and over the Bass Strait to what is now the island of Tasmania. These ice ages had happened not once but many times in the distant past. In one, the Earth had been a giant snowball, entirely wreathed in ice, which must have been a pretty sight. Strictly speaking, what we have had lately are mini-versions of the great snowball, more properly called glacial and interglacial periods, though we have come to call them all ice ages. "What had caused them?" Victorian-era scientists wondered. Could they happen again?

Indeed they could, argued Arrhenius, and from a chilly Swedish point of view this might be a good thing, just as some Russians now look forward to the first vintage of Moscow grapes. That weather is changeable we all know, and from our own experience we can see some of the reasons. Liquids like champagne hold more dissolved gases the colder they are, and these are driven off as bubbles as they warm up. Cold water contracts and sinks, hot expands and rises, which is why we stir a baby's bathwater before putting the little cherub in. The atmosphere is the other way round. Hot air holds more dissolved gas, particularly water vapour, cold air less, so that our days are either hot and muggy or cold and dry, unless it is actually raining. These contradictory tendencies interact in ways that defy short-term prediction, which is why meteorologists keep umbrellas in their offices. Yet, in a general way, the weather follows a pattern – we put our summer clothes away for the winter, and vice-versa.

Arrhenius thought about other phenomena that are hard or impossible to predict in the short term and yet almost entirely predictable in the long run, and came up with volcanic eruptions. He knew these spew enormous quantities of gases, including CO2 . This would raise air temperatures somewhat, which would increase humidity, which would increase warming, which would further increase humidity, and so on – a small input leading to a bigger output, what engineers call positive feedback. Conversely, argued Arhenius, if volcanic eruptions should slow or cease, the reverse process could see the CO2 already aloft being reabsorbed into the soil or seawater, vapour in the air would fall and, in the fullness of time, a new ice age would be upon us.

This was a brave try, and on the right track. No one else had tried to factor humidity into the long-term weather or climatic equation. Arrhenius toiled long and late on his theory, laboriously calculating by hand estimates of humidity for every degree of latitude in the northern hemisphere and consulting such old records as he could find. His conclusions left the growing world scientific community distinctly unimpressed and the loyal followers of Archbishop Ussher jubilant. One experimenter tried passing infra-red radiation (the most warming kind) through a column filled with CO2 , about the same quantity as was then found in the atmosphere. There was virtually no change when the quantity of CO2 was doubled. No one then realised that CO2 absorbs radiation only in certain narrow bands of the spectrum, and that a mere trace of the gas produces bands as opaque as planks, so that adding more makes little or no difference. Writers hoping to humanise the dour, driven Arrhenius have attributed his burning of the midnight electricity to an attempt to forget the pain of a divorce and a bitter custody battle over his son. From this distance, he seemed more like a man seized by an idea that would give him no peace. In any event, in 1903 he became the first Swede to win the new Nobel Prize, not for his CO2 theory but for his discovery of ionisation, one of the most powerful insights of physical chemistry. His climatic theory became a neglected curiosity and if it influenced Keeling at Moana Loa, this awaits documentation.

 

IT WAS TO be another seventy years before evidence came to light supporting both these theorists, and then from a totally unexpected direction, deep below the Earth's surface characteristics.

The last ice age, we may almost recall, is only about 12,000 years behind us. The period since then, which ecologists call "the long summer", has encompassed the entire history of our agriculture, cities, writing, science, printing and the publication of university reviews, not to mention buying new cars and watching TV game shows. At the depth of that chilly but creative time, the CO2 in our bracing atmosphere was down to 180 parts per million of air, about as low as it has gone since there has been life on Earth. We know all this with such precision because the ice ages left two enormous iceblocks, which have never melted since the big freeze began. One covers Greenland, the other most of the Antarctic continent. It is noticeable that they are both on dry land standing above sea level. The sea cannot rise high enough to melt them. As they are snow-covered, and therefore white, they reflect almost all the sun's heat back into the sky, as the whole Earth did in the years of the great global snowball. The Arctic is, in contrast, an ocean with a thin skin of ice. Submarines have not only cruised under it but cheekily surfaced in one of the clear patches of water that have been appearing lately near the North Pole. Nature's two slumbering ice lollies guarded their secrets until the 1970s, when scientists began drilling into them, starting in Greenland, and using techniques developed by geologists to search for oil and other saleable minerals. Air carries moisture, and changes in air pressure cause precipitation in the form of snow on the ice. The result is to leave layers of snow-turned-into-ice, rather like the annual rings of a tree. Trapped in the ice are tiny bubbles of air brought down with the snow.

By a wonder of modern science, it is possible to analyse this air by heating it to luminescence and observing bands in the resulting spectrum of light. The most recent of these borings, conducted by the European Union at its Concordia site in Antarctica, reached a record depth of 3.2 kilometres. Similar drilling has taken place in deep-ocean sediments and the floors of ancient lakes. Taken with the geological record, they tell us that CO2levels in the air and sea levels around our world have risen and fallen in rough synchrony for the past 650,000 years, a time that has seen six full ice-age cycles plus a half, the one we're in now – with the data frozen unarguably in ice.

This gives us a glacial/interglacial period of roughly one every 100,000 years. We cannot date the rising and falling seas with any such precision, of course. But judging by the CO2 levels, what we see is what we would expect from a number of natural processes sometimes co-operating and sometimes in conflict, but tending in the same general direction – not a steady beat like a healthy human pulse but jagged lines with a regularly irregular pattern, a peak, or sometimes several, in airborne CO2 levels, a steady decline with many short-term reversals we might call peaklets, a low of both CO2 and sea levels, meaning maximum ice, and then a steep, almost cliff-like climb towards a new high CO2 , higher seas, lower ice peak. All of this was happening in geologic time, so that an individual Mr Hunter or Ms Gatherer might or might not notice a change from year to year like the changes we are, or think we are, seeing now.

The last set of peaklets, covering something like 100,000 relatively icy years, is of particular interest to us as they cover the entire history of anatomically modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, the "wisest of the wise", as we call ourselves (how our successors, if we have any, will smile at our conceit) – the big-headed, weak-jawed, sway-backed creatures you can see gathered around the office water cooler or, indeed, crouched at this word processor. In that short space of time, Homo sapiens sapiens perfected the use of symbolic language, walked out of Africa across the Suez land bridge, interbred with or wiped out our predecessorsHomo erectus, Homo neanderthalis and company and then – at least the most adventurous of us – made it over open-sea crossings to far-off Australia-to-be, arriving some 50,000 years ago. Yet the legends of the Middle Eastern peoples, full of floods, famines, whirlwinds and even the odd whale, tell nothing of advancing and retreating sheets of ice. The only reasonable explanation – another speciality, we believe, of Homo sapiens sapiens – is that Archbishop Ussher's biblical sources must have arrived from the other direction, after that human battle for survival had been won. In that case, give or take a few begats, his chronology may well be correct, his informants mistaking their own arrival for the beginning of things, as every new civilisation or generation does. Equipped with a portable religion whose sacred object was a book, the ancient Hebrews preserved their memories, which we still consult.

 

WE KNOW THAT the ice eventually melted, the seas rose, and Stockholm, London and New York became tidal ports. In the fullness of time, Sydney residents fought for harbour frontages to moor their yachts. From its seldom-exceeded low of about 280 parts of COper million of air, the ice cores tell us that CObegan to rise about 15,000BC – as indeed it was due, even overdue, to do.

Here we need to shorten our focus and get out a metaphorical magnifying glass. Some time around 1750, the CO2 level started to climb into the stratosphere, unsuspected by anyone on Earth. By 1900, it was around 300 parts per million of air, close to the cores' historic high. From there, it turned into what statisticians call a "hockey stick", a gentle curve developing a sharp upward hook on the end. When Keeling began operations on Moana Loa in 1956, it was 315 parts per million. By 1976, when Grim began sampling the Roaring Forties, it was 325.

When I checked for this article in early 2006, Grim was reporting 376 parts per million, pushing on for 380. It was already twenty-seven per cent higher than the peak recorded by the deep ice and ocean cores over the past 650,000 years. A conclusion seems obvious and may indeed be correct. The years 1750 to the present cover, very roughly, the Industrial Revolution, first in Europe, then in Asia. The Industrial Revolution involved, at least in its early stages, the burning of ever more fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel burning gives off CO2 . Therefore, to prevent or slow the warming of the climate, the melting of more ice and the rising of the oceans (they still have fifteen metres to go to reach recent historic highs) we should either burn less fossil fuels or find some way of keeping the resulting CO2 out of the atmosphere. All the proposals I have seen are variations, earnest or otherwise, on this simplistic but unworkable theme.

They ignore another statistic, seldom mentioned, tidings even grimmer than Grim. About now, Earth's human population is passing a stupendous milestone. There are now 6,500 million of us, six and CO2 a half billion for the zero-averse. These figures come from the World Census of the US Census Bureau, which gives March 1, 2006, as the date of destiny, and the UN Population Office, which uses slightly different criteria and makes it October 1, 2006. As of now, 249 are born for every ten thousand alive and only 108 die, a net increase of six million a month, almost four Australias a year. At this rate we may hit seven billion before 2050.

These statistics go far to explain why Arrhenius was scoffed at or ignored. In 1896, the world's population was between a billion and a billion and a half. Most of these were peasants – poor farmers growing for subsistence. We know that for every molecule of carbon in the atmosphere there are fifty in the oceans. The CO2 of 1896 probably wound up in the seas, or in growing trees, suggesting a possible upper limit of sustainable human population. But the billion and a half of Arrhenius's day, if we were that numerous, is now six and a half, a fourfold increase. And with the worldwide spread of fossil-fuelled, or hydrocarbon, civilisation, we now average four times the CO2 output per head of a century ago. Sixteen times the load has overwhelmed whatever kept the system in rough equilibrium, at least short term, and destroyed the comfortable "balance of nature" the nineteenth-century sages talked about. We have deeper questions. What is driving the surge of CO2 into the air, and with it global warming? The spread of hydrocarbon civilisation. But what drives that spread, and is it sustainable? And if it is not, what happens next, and when? For answers, at least provisional, we need to follow Bass and Flinders on their memorable voyage of discovery.

 

THE PEOPLES OF the Netherlands, who we inaccurately call the Dutch, have been battling climate change and rising sea levels since the end of the last ice age, some ten thousand years ago, and can claim more success than anyone else – using a technique that, the way we are going, we may all soon need. With its 16.5 million people crowded into 41,864 square kilometres, the present-day Netherlands is among the most densely populated of countries, especially considering that a fifth of its area is water – lakes, rivers and canals – and another fifth is reclaimed land, mostly below sea level. That this small gem of human diligence and ingenuity was once a world naval and trading power is one of history's wonders, highly relevant to our own climatically twitchy times.

When the last icesheet covering the North Sea melted, it uncovered the shared delta of two major rivers, the Rhine leading into the heart of Germany and the Maas (Meuse) doing the same for eastern France. The result was an intricate maze of thin, sandy soils left by previous glacial action with stretches of fertile alluvial mud brought down by the rivers. The mouths of navigable rivers, where sea meets land, have often become the sites of great cities, the risk of flood and plunder offset by the attractions of trade, as Shanghai and New Orleans attest. As the North Sea ice retreated, leaving an offshore barrier of sand dunes, adventurous farmers and fisherfolk entered the wet wilderness from higher ground, clustering around laboriously constructed mounds, terpen, where they took refuge from river floods and storm surges.

The Roman historian Tacitus reported that the swamps and sandbanks in the delta of the Rhine were inhabited by fierce tribes of Germanic origin he called Batavians, who lived mostly on fish and seabirds' eggs. Wisely, the Romans did not wade into them but accepted them as external allies, and occasionally as mercenaries, notably for their garrison in Britain. Around AD1000, the northern hemisphere was in the midst of the warm period in which 200 Norse (Viking) families from Iceland settled on the west coast of Greenland and others established a base at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. They may also have settled somewhere in North America, where they found grapes, and so called the region Vinland.

The melting glaciers, however, raised sea levels and forced a battle for survival on the inhabitants of the Rhine/Rhone delta. As the waters rose, floods and storm surges compelled the building of dikes around some 2,000 small delta towns, at first by the townspeople themselves, then by a mobile force of engineers and labourers paid by the town drainage boards, who levied the citizens. The delta-dwellers had long experimented with wind-driven pumps that had to be turned into the wind and so were limited in power. Early in the 1500s, some unknown Dutch genius developed the bovenkruier style of windmill, where only the cap turned to keep the sails headed into the wind. Not only was the characteristic Dutch landscape taking shape, but the Hollanders had found a new source of energy and a promising line of exports. A moliergang, a line of self-tending windmills (an ancestor of wind farms), could be set to pump out a shallow lake, uncovering the rotting vegetation of many centuries – an early stage of coal – which could be cut, dried and sold as peat, both useful for home heating and as fuel to distil gin, which could be drunk locally, in vast quantities, and shipped to a thirsty world.

Then, around AD1550, the climate changed again and Europe entered the Little Ice Age, which lasted on and off until the 1850s. The glaciers grew again, Londoners skated on the Thames, the North Sea fell and with it the constant nagging threat to the delta-dwellers, who had, by courage, stubbornness and hard work, laid the economic foundations for their independence and an improbable rise to world power.

Religion, that ennobler of individuals and potent poisoner of human affairs, was central to the story. Through complicated dynastic manoeuvres, the self-appointed sword arm of Catholicism, Spain, laid claim to all seventeen provinces of the Lowlands. Like the Romans, the Spaniards avoided a physical presence and ruled through Dutch-born deputies who bore the hereditary title stathouder, a kind of lieutenant-governor. Controlling some of the busiest waterways of Europe, the Netherlands was soon emotionally awash in the passions unloosed by the Reformation, finding that its rejection of distant, dry-shod external authority and stress on individual conscience was an apt expression of the "Batavian spirit", in the phrase of the Anglo-Dutch historian Simon Schama, the joyless Calvinism thundering from Geneva being especially attractive to the smaller, poorer, stiffly self-righteous towns, the Dutch Bible Belt. When Spain's sea power went down with the Armada in 1588, the seven provinces of the Northern Netherlands seized the chance to declare themselves an independent republic, the States General, with its seat of government at Ten Haag (The Hague), where it still is.

 

RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES DID not, however, prevent the hard-headed Hollanders from discovering and profiting from a nice little earner. Some time during the Little Ice Age, huge schools of herring migrated for unknown reasons from the Baltic to the North Sea, leaving hungry herring lovers behind. About the same time, the tightening of Roman Catholic discipline with the Counter-Reformation increased the demand for pickled herring to brighten meatless Fridays in the European hinterlands. The Dutch were well placed to satisfy both wants, limited only by the profitless time spent sailing to the fishing grounds and returning to salt down the catch ashore. Even before independence they had developed the herring buss, a factory ship with sixteen to eighteen crew who gutted and salted the herring at sea in six-week spells. These seagoing behemoths were far beyond the resources of individual fishermen. They were financed by the herring merchants of Amsterdam, who took up shares on the long-established model of the municipal drainage boards. Another key element of our modern world was taking shape, all unsuspected, beside the North Sea.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada unlocked the world for Dutch merchants and their ships. Where once they had been small-scale fisherfolk and farmers, they expanded to a near-monopoly of the grain trade from Prussia and Poland to the Mediterranean, of Swedish copper and Stockholm tar, of wool from England and, beginning with a few accidental strandings on their own beaches, of sperm-whale oil for the lamps of Europe, a trade that eventually took them from overhunted Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya as far as the Bering and Davis Straits, to Baffin Island and the White Sea. At one time, an entire quarter of Amsterdam, known as the stinkerijen, was devoted to boiling down whale blubber and warehousing oil. "The merchants of Amsterdam held their noses and patted their purses," records Schama.

These successes pointed to the biggest prize of all, the spices of East India, in hot demand all over meat-eating Europe and, up to that point, a monopoly of the Portuguese, not long brought under Spanish rule. At first, the Dutch merchants, failing to find a north-east passage to the Far East, tried single-ship voyages to the Spice Islands (now collectively called Indonesia) via Africa and the Indian Ocean. The natives were ready enough to trade and the Portuguese were somnolent but the risks were enormous and, back home, the traders competed with each other, driving down prices.

The loss of lives and worse, of investments, drove the normally standoffish Dutch cities into the kind of arrangement Australians have learnt to call a single-desk strategy or, more bluntly, a monopoly cartel. In 1602, Dutch officials, with much haggling and arm-twisting, organised the merchants of the Netherlands into the United East Indies Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC). The fastest out-and-back voyage to the Indies took at least twenty months – the equivalent, these days, of doing business by rocket ship with the nearest star in our galaxy – so the VOC was given enormous powers, to build forts, raise armies and make treaties with Asian potentates, almost those of an independent government, which, for all practical purposes, it became. The financial arrangements were equally innovative. Anyone with spare cash could invest in the VOC, but the company was controlled by seventeen directors, in proportion to the trading cities they represented (Amsterdam had half) with the seventeenth as chairman and tie breaker. The funds were invested, not in individual voyages, but in the company itself. The obligations of shareholders were limited to their investments. Shares could not be cashed in, but could be sold at the local commodity market, the Beurs, which thus became the world's first continuously operating stock exchange. Here we see, in embryo, the financial system that now runs our overcrowded world.

 

AT THE INITIAL stock offering, 1,200 investors contributed 6,425,588 guilders, an enormous sum for the time, which by VOC rules was a permanent block of capital never to be liquidated or distributed. The first voyages – which took most of the company's capital – were billed as a huge success, with profits of 125 per cent on fast-moving cargoes of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and mace. Some critics pointed out that much of this profit was distributed in kind to the shareholders, at prices set by the VOC, but as the important ones were themselves merchants, this argument could as convincingly show the advantages that come with a well-run monopoly. In any event, the new system showed a well-marked, still powerful feature – to attract more investors, and satisfy the existing ones, the enterprise had to have, or seem to have, rapid continuous growth, the only inducement to offset the risk being the investors' expectation of getting more out than they had put in. The VOC duly expanded at high speed.

The visionary who saw our own future beckoning was the company's first Governor-General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Realising the need for a fortified base and entrepôt actually in the Spice Islands, in 1619 he set up shop in – where else? – Batavia, now Jakarta, whose old part of town still has the neat look of a Dutch trading port. To get hold of spice at low prices, Coen at first experimented with slavery, a business with which the Dutch had a long experience in the West Indies, but soon found that forced trade, in which VOC men set the prices at the point of a blunderbuss, was far more cost-effective. In 1624, the company took advantage of a civil war ravaging China to set up another trading post, Fort Zealandia in Formosa, the present-day Taiwan. They had already wrested the cinnamon trade of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, away from the religion-obsessed Portuguese. In 1641, the shogun of Japan allowed the VOC to set up an unfortified trading post at Deshima, a small artificial island in the deep-water harbour of Nagasaki, after the company had lent its cannon to help suppress a rebellion by Japanese converts to Catholicism in the nearby Shimabara Peninsula, reportedly shouting, "We're not Christians, we're Hollanders!" to explain their coldly commercial intervention. For the next two centuries, the Dutch – guarded like convicts, forbidden to bring their families, denied all but minimal contact with local people, mostly shopkeepers and prostitutes – comprised the only Western outpost in a Japan sealed off from the outside world. They were obliged, despite bitter protest, to trade at prices set by the shogun's men, their own tactic in the Spice Islands, to send a yearly delegation of merchants bearing tribute to the shogun's court at Edo, now Tokyo, and to perform comic dances to show how ridiculous foreigners really were.

Why did the Dutch endure these humiliating terms for a trade that never turned a profit? It was all part of the master plan of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Inhospitable as they may have been, the Japanese were, as long as their mines lasted, the world's only source of silver not controlled by Roman Catholics and thus available to the Protestant Dutch, and silver was the one payment (until the British found opium) the Chinese would take for their tea, silks and fine ceramics, greatly in demand throughout Asia, particularly in Japan, with good future prospects in Europe as well. Governor-General Coen was planning to buy cheap in Asia and sell dear in Europe and the rest of the wealthy world by getting the Asian trade to finance itself. "I am of the opinion," he wrote to the seventeen High Mightinesses, the directors of the VOC, "that matters can be brought to a point that you will not be obliged to send any money at all from Patria", the latter the VOC's obsequious term for Holland, much as latter-day overseas executives might diplomatically email head office.

Never fully achieved, we can see here the ultimate dream of the Walmarts, Kmarts and the rest de nos jours. It was in pursuit of Coen's vision that his successor, Anthony van Diemen, in 1644 sent his most adventurous captain, Abel Janszoon Tasman, to see what deals the rumoured Great South Land might offer. Other VOC skippers, misjudging their longitude, had been wrecked or had close calls on the coast of what is now Western Australia where (little did they know) there was definitely no business to be done.

Tasman's sailing orders were to keep further south to the Roaring Forties and see where they took him. We know that this took him to the discovery of New Zealand before returning to home base in Batavia, missing Australia except for the fragment he called Van Diemen's Land. It was not until 1657 that the English East India Company, originally a coffee-house traders' clique, stole a leaf from the VOC's account book and began selling shares, not in single voyages but in the company itself. By then the VOC was easily the biggest and wealthiest commercial enterprise the fast-shrinking world had seen.

It was Dutch capitalism – if that term, yet to be invented, is appropriate. Daniel Bell, in his classic 1978 bookThe Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, prefers "economism", arguing that the former Soviets practised it too, and we might call it "bottom-lineism". It certainly got off to a flying start, especially considering that the Netherlands' own products, gin, cheese and various cottage crafts – were not exactly in global demand. Amsterdam was Europe's wealthiest trading city, Dutch wages the highest in the world. As mentioned before, Amsterdam's Beurs was the first continuously trading stock exchange; and in its first few decades, Dutch punters pioneered short-selling (ominously, in Dutch, windhandel), option trading, puts and calls, debt-equity swaps, merchant banking, unit trusts and the rest of the speculator's bag of tricks, much as we now enjoy them. With the first capitalism came its specialised offshoots: insurance, retirement funds and other attempts at risk reduction, the first asset-inflation bubble, the Tulip Mania of 1636-37, and even, in 1607, history's first bear raider, a sly ex-shareholder named Isaac le Maire who dumped his VOC stock, forcing the price down, and then bought it back at a discount. The breathless speed with which it all surfaced beside the Zuider Zee suggests that capitalism as we know it may be less the Devil's invention than what happens naturally when hard men who sincerely want to be rich meet to do business, free of all cultural, class or religious restraints.

To contemporaries, there seemed something magical about it and the Dutch of the Golden Age (1603-1689) were not the first people to mistake a temporary run of luck and favourable circumstances for the discovery of the Secret of Eternal Wealth and Happiness. The free-market fundamentalist's argument that market-based economies automatically generate liberal social institutions is more dubious. Rather, the Dutch experience suggests that a society newly freed of impediments, often as the result of external accidents like the defeat of the Armada, is then likely to generate both market economics and a liberal intellectual climate; but, as many examples from Franco's Spain to Pinochet's Chile suggest, markets can continue long after liberal ideas have been stifled. Holland's Golden Age certainly exemplified capitalism's first, fecund, stage.

The success of Jan Compagnie's freebooters in making Holland the world's corner grocery shop was soon confirmed on Europe's doorstep by the Dutch Republic's new navy, made possible by a certain Cornelis Cornelisz van Uitgeest's 1596 invention of the windmill-powered saw, easing the worst bottleneck to an expanding fleet, the sawing by hand of ships' timbers.

When King Charles lost his head in 1649, the new Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth, General Oliver Cromwell, tried to interest the Dutch in a common front of the two Protestant republics against Rome. The Dutch were as amused at the idea of an alliance with their main trade rival as the French were three centuries later when Winston Churchill offered them a political union with l'ennemi héréditaire. Instead, the English and Dutch fought three wars over trade and resources, provoked by English insistence that they owned the Channel and that the Dutch dip their ensigns to English warships.

As the Bible offers few useful tips on seamanship, Dutch maritime experience soon corrected the humiliation. In June 1667, the great Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter sailed boldly into the Thames, burnt most of the English fleet, captured the flagship Royal Charles and towed her back to Holland, a broom lashed to his masthead signalling that he had swept the English from the seas. The diarist John Evelyn called it "a dreadful spectacle as any English man saw and a Dishonour never to be wiped off". When another Dutch squadron followed, Mr Secretary Pepys of the Admiralty, in his secret diary, quoted an English officer as wailing: "I think the Devil shits Dutchmen."

They were desperate days in England, coming on the heels of the Plague year, 1664 and the Great Fire of 1666, and the English were ready for any peace they could get. The Dutch terms were hard. In exchange for their trading post on the Hudson, Nieuw Amsterdam, where no groceries grew, the Dutch accepted Suriname, with slave-grown sugar, and Pulo Run in the Moluccas, sure they had the better of the bargain. Yet such are the vagaries of human affairs, within two decades the Golden Age was over and the VOC headed for ruin and a grim warning for our day.

 

WHAT WENT WRONG? The answer has long been hidden in scattered records in Dutch, a language not every scholar reads. In their path-breaking study, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500-1815, (Cambridge University Press, 1997) Professors Jan de Vries of Berkeley and Ad van der Woude of Wageningen in the Netherlands have joined two potent techniques, the French Annales School of "eventless" daily life and American econometrics, to unearth a prophetic rise and decline. In 1689, the resolutely Protestant English Parliament, fending off a feeble attempt at a royal coup by the not-so-covert Catholic James II, invited the stathouder, William of Orange, and his wife (and cousin), Mary Stuart, James's estranged daughter, to ascend the English throne as joint sovereigns, William and Mary. Both were reassuringly rock-ribbed Protestants, but the invitation came with conditions: the pair were henceforth to have no power over the kingdom's finances, which would be voted annually by Parliament. Since then, English (soon to be British) bonds have been backed not by the good intentions of a municipality, the honest face of a merchant or the promises of a king, but by a body with power to raise taxes to redeem them. "Gilts" soon became the world's most sought-after investments, paying a sure six per cent, year in, year out. The long-term effect on the Dutch Republic's finances was fatal.

But, relates Simon Schama in his The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Vintage, 1987), ethical decay had already set in across the North Sea, instancing one of Rembrandt van Rijn's most celebrated works, The Night Watch (1642). From his mountain fastness in Geneva, Jean Calvin had taught that great wealth, a likely result of the idea that success in one's worldly calling was a sign of Divine favour, was a test of moral fibre. Between 1630 and 1680, the VOC cleared three million guilders a year in gold and silver from Asia to its shareholders in Patria. Dutch burghers, reports Schama, failed this "ordeal of prosperity", succumbing to the lure of pageantry and display, recorded by the school of painters who have made it immortal in their paintings on canvas with ground pigments spread in varnishing oil, a technique invented in the Netherlands with ingredients available in seaports.

In 1642, Rembrandt accepted a commission to paint a gigantic canvas, four and half metres by five, of such a ceremonial occasion, a public parade of the Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, generally calledThe Night Watch. Captain Cocq's men, however, are not soldiers, but prosperous merchants from the drapers' quarter of Amsterdam, and look it – sleek, paunchy and hugely self-satisfied. As a painting it is magnificent, but the theme might well come from Hello! magazine or Life Styles of the Rich and Famous. Other paintings of the school show such upper-crust domestic tasks as weighing pearls and choosing silk gowns for chamber concerts. As Schama wryly observes, republics rarely live up to the innocence of their origins. If born in austerity, they invariably flourish amidst pomp. "At the zenith of its power and brilliance in the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was no more immune than any other from acts of elaborate self-congratulation," he writes.

What the painters did not record, presumably because there was no market for them, were scenes out on the sea frontiers where the money came from. On VOC voyages to the Far East, two ships out of every hundred foundered on the way out, four on the return, and only a third of those who took to the sea ever came home. This left Dutch girls without husbands and exhausted the supply of adventurous young men from the smaller Dutch towns. Immigrants flocked in, mostly from Germany, depressing Dutch wages as the Dutch birthrate began to falter. Competitors, notably the British, eroded VOC profits, while the wealthy began to invest in British gilts or in Amsterdam real estate, which they could look at every day. The bold investors of the republic's early days had become risk-averse rentiers obsessed with showing off their wealth (Dutch historians call the later republic The Periwig Age). Once-united Netherlanders divided into classes, the have-much and have-little, would-be reformers and last-ditch defenders of the status quo.

The VOC's finances faltered but Jan Compagnie was so central to the economy that it was nationalised and blundered on as before. As significantly, Holland stalled on the technological frontier that had opened up across the North Sea, with James Watt's 1769 patent of the separate-condensing steam engine. Dutch drainage boards were among the first buyers of steam engines, and Newcastle coal cost the same in Rotterdam as in London. But the wind saws, the peat fires and their owners were too well established, and the Dutch system of loosely co-operating vested interests, which had been its strength, was unable to meet the new challenge. Schama estimates that before the steam engine, the Dutch were already using more energy per head than anyone else, but it was only a way station. Simultaneously assailed by reformist Patriots and invading French revolutionaries, the Dutch Republic, unmourned and awash in public debt, collapsed in 1795. It was "rich without being prosperous", an economy going nowhere. With Napoleon Elba-bound, in 1814, the despondent Dutch recalled a prince of the House of Orange from exile in England to be their first king, inevitably Willem I. The next half-century was rough, as the modern Dutch nation struggled out from the wreck of a glorious, and for us a most instructive past.

De Vries and van der Woude conclude about modern economic growth, on the Dutch example: "It is not self-sustained, exponential and unbounded and – not to mince words – the [Dutch] Republic's pioneering experience in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, including its experience with stagnation, may end up being a fair model for the process begun in most Western countries some time between 1780 and 1850."

Now let's see. Two centuries on from 1800 brings us to about now. This is getting rather close to home – a warning, if not from Abel Janszoon Tasman himself, then from two of his most scholarly, insightful compatriots.

 

IT WOULD BE unfair, or fairly unfair, to present all the Dutch of the Golden Age as snobbish, conscienceless money-grubbers. Dutch humanism has left us a legacy equally important to the state we're in now. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536), the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest and a physician's daughter, later a priest himself, was a wandering scholar who visited Renaissance Italy, France and Tudor England, listening with a good-humoured "Dutch Ear" (his term) to the theological disputes of the oncoming Reformation. Erasmus rejected both Martin Luther's doctrine of predestination and Rome's claim to total authority, arguing that no human can claim infallibility, urging the disputants to use commonsense and, as we should say, to lighten up: "Even the wise man must play the fool if he wishes to beget children," he wrote inIn Praise of Folly. The Dutch seaports were havens of toleration and diverse thought. Protestant Huguenots expelled from France flourished, as did "New Christians" (actually Sephardic Jews) from Spain and Portugal, and later Ashkenazi Jews from Germany. The painter Jan Vermeer lived and died a Catholic in Delft. The cosmopolitan Dutch ports even tolerated a measure of intolerance, a difficult test: the sublime philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-77), who combined a deeply spiritual outlook with the questioning of all dogma, was excommunicated by his Amsterdam synagogue for (Jewish) heresy and became the first person in Europe without a religion, and lawyer Hugo Grotius (Huig de Groot to his neighbours in Delft, 1583-1645) laid the legal basis of freedom of the seas, peaceful trade between nations and just terms for the defeated in war, much as we apply them in theory now.

There was a living link between the Dutch Golden Age and our own outlook, and we know his name. Bernard de Mandeville was born in Rotterdam in 1670, studied medicine but was drawn to a big-city career as poet, wit and controversialist. Wandering the bordeel, Amsterdam's red-light district, he had a shrewd insight: the whores exhibiting themselves through the windows of their houses in Vermeer-like interiors were the mirror image of respectable Dutch domesticity and, in fact, made it possible for virtuous women to live in safety a few streets away from the docks where sex-starved sailors landed after long, dangerous voyages from the Far East. His essay, "A Modest Defence of Publick Stews", later got him into trouble with the prim London magistrates, but he had undoubtedly described a sad, sordid aspect, then and now, of every busy port city of the world.

In 1699, de Mandeville moved to London to learn English, married an Englishwoman and fathered two children. He also developed a taste for English satire, the tradition continued today by Private Eye. This inspired 434 lines of engaging doggerel called The Fable of the Bees, or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, which was denounced as undermining public morals and, as a result, went through many editions with Mandeville's replies to his shocked critics, who nicknamed him Man-devil.

It tells of a wealthy and powerful beehive whose inhabitants act only in pursuit of gain and fame. Nevertheless, they espouse an ethic that condemns this behaviour and frequently lament that their society is full of sin. Irritated by their constant whingeing, their god decides to make them all virtuous. In a flash, their prosperity collapses: commerce and industry fade away, and the bees leave their once flourishing hive and withdraw to live austerely in the hollow of a tree. The moral is that virtue can only lead to a poor, ascetic society, whereas the vices are the necessary engines of a wealthy and powerful beehive/nation.

The entomology of this is dubious – real beehives are more like absolute monarchies, if not prototypes of globalised production – but de Mandeville makes some shrewd points, overstated for satiric effect. Hypocrisy and self-righteousness do often go together, public philanthropists are trying to buy good reputations, few of us are as high-minded as we like to believe, and so on. De Mandeville was trying to shock, and nowhere did he succeed better than among Scottish intellectuals, haunted like the Dutch by a stern Calvinist inheritance. Frances Hutcheson, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, wrote a fiery book denouncing de Mandeville.

But Adam Smith, Hutcheson's star student and Glasgow successor, took what at first sight seems a different, even a Mande-villainous view. In his book The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Smith followed his teacher in holding that "virtue is upon all ordinary occasions ... real wisdom and the surest and readiest means of obtaining both safety and advantage". But, Smith wondered, how could a society function when people were no better than they should be, or even not as good? To find out, he undertook fieldwork, or rather tavern work, among Glasgow tobacco merchants – hard, unsentimental men. The result was the most famous of economics texts, An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations, which introduced the metaphorical, if not mystical, notion of "the invisible hand", mentioned in only one passage: "Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."

Or, more succinctly: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love."

Those who have not waded through The Wealth of Nations are often convinced that it rewrites Mandeville in a Scots accent, but this is far from true. Wondering why Scotland, united with England since 1707, was poor – at least in comparison with its southern partner – Smith hit on the division of labour that was made possible by England's far bigger internal market. The biggest manufactory ("factory" for short) he cites is an enterprise making pins, which employs nine workers, but his reasoning is sound: neither they nor their employers can live on pins, but must exchange them for the products of farms, forests or other factories. The secret of wealth therefore lies in trade, not in governments amassing bullion, which Smith denounces as "mercantilism". As he knew, all known human societies in touch with their neighbours engage in trade, and many have hit on money in some form or another to avoid having to lug their products to market and to act as a store of value between times. Trade does not work on elevated moral principles, but on the meeting of willing sellers and willing buyers.

The "invisible hand" was, in fact, no more than an aspect of human behaviour, long known and not at all mystical. Smith himself lived by lofty moral principles, never traded a plug of tobacco in his life and had a low opinion of those who did, and of employers generally: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices ... We rarely hear, it has been said of the combination of masters, though frequently those of workmen [aka trade unions] but whoever imagines upon that account that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject." Smith's remedy for these evils was not the invisible hand of self-interest but vigilance by the authorities to break up monopolies, an independent judiciary, free public education for poor adults and a strong military.

Nevertheless, long before The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, his theory had been exploded in its only practical test, the Dutch Republic. De Mandeville left Amsterdam in 1699, when the first modern economy was in its Golden Age and everything seemed possible. Adam Smith pursued his philosophical studies in France but never visited, much less studied, the republic as it tottered towards collapse. The Dutch merchants had pursued their self-interest, as they saw it, resulting in a divided society, mountains of debt, a real estate bubble and an obsession with ostentatious luxury, particularly in displays of exotic food and drink – times, come to think of it, disturbingly like our own. Who could have suspected, as Abel Tasman set off on his long business trip, that the world would one day be conquered by an economic system invented by a crowd of merchants haggling on an Amsterdam fish wharf, in the rain?

 

DID THE DUTCH-INVENTED system we call "capitalism" create our modern fossil-fuelled world economy, or did fossil fuels make the Dutch system viable? The historical record is clear: they grew together, one reinforcing the other. In 1776, coincidentally the year The Wealth of Nations was published, the future firm of Boulton and Watt, machinery manufacturers of Birmingham, England, installed its first two commercial steam engines, one to pump out a coalmine in Staffordshire, the other to power the blast furnaces of the pioneer ironmaster John Wilkinson, whose name is remembered by a brand of razor blades. Watt had actually built the first working model of his separate condenser engine in 1765 at Glasgow University, where he was a friend of Adam Smith, but it remained a scientific toy until Watt met Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Ironworks in Birmingham, who saw that Watt had found a relatively efficient way of capturing the energy released by burning coal for productive purposes, among such purposes being the mining of more coal. Watt's was not the first device to turn heat energy into motion but it was by far the best up to his time and, as important, the first to be made and sold on capitalist lines. Boulton borrowed £10,000 from the London bankers to perfect and market Watt's idea, and both sides made a tidy profit. Watt and Boulton became wealthy men, loaded with honours, and towards the end of his life the Scot Watt even began to take holidays.

Generations of students have learnt the sequel, the triumph of progress and (on the whole) peace of the nineteenth, the British century – the happiest time, it was argued, that humanity had up to then known. No one was more dazzled by capitalism's achievements than the fiery young scholar Karl Marx, writing hisCommunist Manifesto in London in the year of revolutions, 1848: "The bourgeoisie [by this fancy French term Marx meant that not the urban middle class, but anyone with money to invest, like his wealthy patron and collaborator Friedrich Engels] during its rule of scarce one hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?"

The manifesto goes on to express, in billowy language, Marx's sharpest insight: there can be no rest for a system that depends on never-ending change and expansion: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society ... All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."

What, we may well ask, is the attraction of this non-stop, wearying technological razzmatazz? The best answer comes, predictably, from a romantic poet, Lord George Byron, who describes to a friend what still sounds like a night at the trots, a Sunday paper or an evening's TV.

The great object of life is Sensation – to feel that we exist – even though in pain – it is this "craving" void which drives us to Gaming – to Battle – to Travel – to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.

We live, in more with-it language, for kicks, and supplying them is yet another ever-expanding business.

There is no simple, cause-and-effect relationship between the Industrial, or hydrocarbon, Revolution and the explosive growth of human population. As with its physical counterpart, the climate, the neat notion of cause and effect is not an adequate tool for analysing phenomena with complex inputs; causation is a human invention, made in the Stone Age, to enable us to get a handle on the way the world works and plan tomorrow's activities, and it still serves us well enough in daily life. In strict truth, things are interconnected and everything causes everything else, but to a greater or lesser extent.

Scientists have long been accustomed to expressing their conclusions in terms of the probability that a given set of conditions, all other things being equal (which they never are), will have an estimated range of consequences, so that the scientists of Working Group One of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported from Nairobi in 2001 a sixty to ninety per cent chance that the CO2 concentration in the air had not been higher in the past twenty million years, which is yesterday in geologic time, and the equally star-studded scientists of Working Group Two offered similar odds that by the year 2100, which some of us may well see, the global average air temperature will be up by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees, from rather warm to a real scorcher, and mean sea level up from 0.09 to 0.88 metres, the difference between a puddle and a pond. The scientists are only trying to err on the side of caution, but to the rest of us this can sound like the sort of sporty wager Lord Byron recommended to keep life interesting, and maybe it will, the way we're going.

 

THAT SAID, WE have begun to see a pattern of sorts in the stages by which the industrial system, aka hydrocarbon civilisation, is still taking over the world. It bears a family resemblance to the British prototype, which, being the first, cannot have been imitated from anywhere, except in its financial arrangements from Holland. The sequence goes thus. First, improvement in agriculture creates a food surplus. This can follow the introduction of new crops, but the most favourable condition is peace, in which "best practice" spreads among farmers, most of whom have long been accustomed to growing food for a parasitic military class.

Next, or at about the same time, a distribution network is created or refurbished. Water transport is still the most energy-efficient, which is one reason the original Industrial Revolution began in the British archipelago, and in Asia in the Japanese. Britain acquired inland waterways in the early 1700s, climbing over hills by means of pound locks, long in use in China, and financed by the Dutch system of selling shares. One strong horse could pull an eighty-ton load. Transport systems need labour to build and enlarge markets; the Grand Union Canal, for instance, made a port out of centrally located Birmingham.

Next, a source of fossil fuel is required. Marco Polo, visiting Cathay (North China) in the 1280s, noticed that the Chinese heated their homes by burning black stones, but no one in Venice believed him or saw the point. Captain James Cook learnt his seamanship in the 1750s as mate of a collier hauling coal from Newcastle, England, to Bristol, and, remembering the blue line of mountains and low shore of South Wales as seen from across the Severn Estuary, named his discovery in the South Seas twenty years later New South Wales. Cook's coal had been destined for the many small ironworks that had sprung up in the hilly Severn area using the local streams for power, and the operator of one of them, Abram Darby, had already succeeded in smelting iron with coke, in place of the charcoal which had used up most of England's remaining forests. The Darby family were "weighty" (strict) Quakers kept out of the profitable casting of cannon by their pacifist views. Darby visited Holland and brought back Dutch workers to demonstrate their iron-casting skills, which he adopted for making pots and pans. The first stage of the first industrial revolution was completed when George Stephenson's Rocket hauled the world's first steam-powered passenger train from Stockton to Darlington, near Durham, in 1825. Thirty years later, in 1855, Australia's first steam-powered railway ran from Sydney to Parramatta. Hydrocarbon civilisation had transported itself halfway around the world.

The population surge of the nineteenth century owed something to all these developments. The new railways made it possible for farmers' sons and daughters to flock to the new industrial cities. But, for a generation or two, they followed the reproductive pattern they had learnt on the farm, where children were hands to work and, if they survived, insurance against old age. Living conditions in the cities were harsh, but nevertheless they expanded, and the new moneyed middle class took to sending their sons not to the Army or the Church, but to private schools and universities where some took up science or medicine, with great benefit to public health. The railways ended the famines that had kept populations in check, except in Ireland, which had become dependent on a single crop vulnerable to disease, the potato. Famine emigrants swelled the labour forces of England, Wales and Scotland. Britain became the world's leading exporter, not only of power-loomed textiles but of technology, coal, capital and people. By 1900, one Englishman or Welshman in ten was a coalminer, as the world was drifting, suspected by few, into a titanic, industrialised war over access to resources. Marx, in his role of failed prophet, considered that such "imperialist" wars were impossible, but when the guns began to fire, the new industrial proletariat of Europe, grown relatively prosperous since 1848, patriotically flocked to join up. What had made hydrocarbon civilisation and thus industrialised war both possible, and inevitable?

 

NO HUMAN EYES saw the formation of the fossil fuels that have made our hydrocarbon civilisation possible and its future problematical. It was the one-off event, never to be repeated, that geologists call the Carboniferous Age. It began 360 million years ago and ended seventy-four million years later. In that (relatively) short time, all the coal we use so profligately and the oil we pursue so voraciously was laid down, once and for all time. Fourteen million years' worth of that undeserved legacy went up in smoke in the last century alone. Our own fair-weather species was far in the future when it was laid down but we can see the circumstances that produced our coal, oil and natural gas, and begin to understand why it will never happen again, all from a deckchair on a comfortable river cruiser a few hours away from Strahan, a journey that will take us past Sarah Island, the short-lived convict settlement in Macquarie Harbour, along the Gordon River and deep into the Tasmanian wilderness, the last stand of the vegetation of our lost southern super continent, Gondwanaland.

Trees and plants have primitive ancestors, just as we do, and the green walls we see on either bank are living fossils, Gondwanaland's last stand against what is our still-evolving world. If you look closely at the celery-top pines gliding by, you will see that they have no leaves but rather the feathery fronds from which leaves descended aeons ago. The flowering swamp gums, fifteen metres high, are not true trees but the world's tallest plants. The river under you is stained dark brown by button grass, topped with foam from the rapids higher upstream, and looks exactly like Guinness stout, but is pure to drink. Then, as you leave saltwater behind, you see Huon pines, surely the strangest of all living trees. To defend itself against insect and bacterial attack, the Huon pine relies on oil, which makes it practically worm-and rot-proof, ideal for boat-building – the reason convicts were sent to bleak Sarah Island to cut it. Slow-growing – some are 3,000 years old – Huon pine has closed-grained yellow wood, showing fine detail in carvings. Felling is forbidden, but convict-cut trunks and branches that have lain in ooze since the 1830s are still found, perfectly preserved, and turned into handy bowls and cheese boards.

The Huon pine is not endangered – there are seedlings by the thousands scattered through the wilderness, which will mature four or five hundred years hence. At Heritage Landing, well up the Gordon, tour boats moor at a boarded walk into the rainforest, with 2,000-year-old Huon pines close enough to touch and all but impassable ferns, mosses and creepers below our feet. A seaplane from Strahan's wharf lands higher up the Gordon, near its junction with the Franklin, and also accesses a boarded walk on the wild side of the rainforest. Our world, the only one we have, was a damp, wholesome place millions of years ago, as we can see. Drink in hand, diesel throbbing below, I'm not sure we've improved it much.

 

THE CARBONIFEROUS AGE can never be repeated. Evolution (or some, following the Prophet Job, might say the Lord) has given and evolution/ the Lord has taken away. In 1916, the prophet of the theory of continental drift, the German geologist Alfred Wegener published what then seemed a far-fetched explanation of a fact first noticed by medieval map-makers, namely that the bulge of eastern South America tucks neatly under the armpit of West Africa. Wegener surmised that they had once been joined, and that all the other landmasses had been linked as well in a huge single continent he called Pangea (Greek for "all lands"). This had first split into two, a southern super continent which Wegener called Gondwanaland, after a place in India, composed of the present Australia, New Zealand, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, India, Ceylon and South America, all centred on Antarctica, and a smaller northern landmass he called Laurasia, which included the present Europe, Greenland, Siberia, North America, Kazakhstan and North China. Since then, he theorised, the continents as we now fly over them had been drifting apart and occasionally running into each other, like lost surfboards. But what were they drifting on? Not the oceans, which simply gushed in to fill the gaps. The only other possibility was the core of the earth itself, known from volcanic eruptions to be liquid and very, very hot.

The world had other things on its collective mind in 1916 and Wegener's idea attracted little support. A true hero of science, he died in 1930 at fifty, on an expedition to the North Pole to look for more evidence. It was not until the 1960s that confirmation began to flood in from a dozen different sciences that Wegener had been right. Under the name "plate tectonics", the theory has been immensely fruitful and is all but universally accepted. And, although we cannot see coal and oil forming, much less make any more, the process is now well understood.

Life as we know it is not made possible by supermarkets, but by the green pigment called chlorophyll, which uses the energy of sunlight to synthesise carbohydrates, organic compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

The last two are the components of water, so carbohydrate means "watered carbon". This process began under the sea, protected from the sun's most destructive radiation by a layer of water and, as a souvenir, our blood has almost the saltiness of our marine mother, and the haemoglobin that carries oxygen to our muscles is a close chemical relation of chlorophyll. Seaweeds and algae are still hard at it in the upper layers of the sea, but when dry, or dryish, land eventually surfaced above the waves, green-tinted vegetation soon followed, if a billion years is "soon". Free oxygen is a product of splitting the hydrogen and oxygen of water, so in a geological trice we had both green vegetation to add oxygen to the air and creatures to breathe it, starting off with our little friends the insects (little because their system of absorbing oxygen through many small external tubes severely limits their size).

 

AT THIS POINT, the world entered the Carboniferous Age. In some ways it was curiously like our own. Average temperatures and humidity were much like ours, both considerably lower than before or since. A landmass (Pangea's successors) stretched from pole to pole, blocking the natural circulation of wind and currents from west to east (because the planet turns the other way) and producing such odd eddies and oscillations as the El Niños and Gulf Streams of those times. C0in the atmosphere averaged lower than ours, around 300 parts per million, while oxygen was higher, between thirty and forty per cent, making possible strains of giant insects looking for vegetation to supply their daily carbohydrates. The big difference was in the vegetation, the pre-trees we have already glimpsed in the Tasmanian wilderness. The interaction of insects, fungi, bacteria, climate and continental drift produced coal, oil and natural gas, a combination of circumstances now well understood.

These fossilised fuels are essentially carbohydrates that have lost their oxygen, making them more concentrated sources of energy when dug up and recombined with the oxygen we still have left in our air.

The process of capturing and preserving ancient sunlight for our future use was, at best, chancy. The simple vegetation of Gondwanaland and Laurasia grew in swamps and along the courses of slow, meandering rivers.

When sea levels rose or lake levels subsided, the vegetation was drowned, preventing bacterial action. Titanic floods or marine inundations covered it with layers of silt, sometimes thousands of metres deep, where heat and pressure compressed the swamps into coal measures, sometimes inches, sometimes tens of metres thick. The timing had to be just right – if the water rose too fast, no worthwhile accumulation happened; too slowly, and the swamp was uncovered and dispersed.

Australia was well placed, having in those days a very wet interior and being close to the centre of the action, the always-frozen Antarctica, which is why Chinese coalcarriers now queue outside Newcastle and Gladstone. The formation of oil was even chancier, which is why there is much less of it to fight over. Coal stays where it is, under overlying sandstone, limestone or shale, depending where "is" is, until someone digs it up or rips off the covering layers. Oil started off like coal in drowned vegetation but, before it could solidify, migrated through nearby rocks that happened to be porous, to a reservoir, usually fifty metres or so thick (an "oil window") solidly sealed under an impervious cover that can be kilometres deep. For reasons not clearly understood (except by those who see the hand of Allah), but possibly connected with the ice ages that continued through the Carboniferous Age, the flat land and immense rivers of the future Arabia saw a lot of oil formation, some three-quarters of the world's known reserves. Natural gas (methane or swamp gas) followed a similar course, and is held in equally deep, impervious and rare reservoirs.

Why did it end? The explanation can be glimpsed in the Tasmanian wilderness, one excellent reason for its being declared a World Heritage Site in 1982. Lacking a true sap system, the ferns, mosses, plants and creepers of the wilderness, or temperate jungle, could never stray far from running water, which demanded constant, heavy rainfall (up to two metres a year in many places). It was not until true trees, with bark and leaves, evolved that terrestrial vegetation was able to survive drier, colder conditions. Bark is mostly lignin, a tough substance that resists fungi, bacteria and insects. The resulting forests are hardier and more dispersed and, if inundated, simply return their carbon to decay underground, unavailable for future use.

Why, then, does the Tasmanian remnant of Gondwanaland survive, resisting the invasion of all but a few "modern" trees? For the same reason that locates Cape Grim, and Tasman's landfall, further up the coast. All are well within the Roaring Forties, the winds that circled the planet as they blew around Pangea, when it was our sole continent. For proof, there are some inaccessible islands off southern Chile. They were once our neighbours in Gondwanaland, and they too preserve something of its ancient vegetation.

But evolution is a one-way street: there is no way back.

 

THE SAME APPLIES to us, anatomically modern men and women, Homo sapiens sapiens ("the wisest of the wise") as we call ourselves, Homo smartypants as we might be better named, being too clever for our own good. Charles Darwin's guess that we originated in Africa has since been supported by such an avalanche of fossil finds as to become accepted wisdom, although, being the argumentative creatures we are, some will always be found to disagree, which is as it should be. There is little serious argument, however, about naming the first of our line to trudge out of Africa. He (embracing she) was Homo erectus, upright man, and hit the road some two million years ago. While not, perhaps, a type we would invite home to dinner, Homo erectus is an ancestor we can take pride in. He stood about 180 centimetres tall, his lady a few centimetres shorter, and both had massive eyebrow ridges and heavy jaws (they ate their food raw, at least in their early days). As the poet/philosopher Ogden Nash put it:

They had an aspect somewhat simian;

And not like regular men and wimmian.

Pin-ups or not, Homo erectus still had formidable achievements. They survived at least a dozen glaciations and hot interglacial spells, where we are getting windy about one. They made simple stone tools. They pioneered the human uses of fire. They had the vocal equipment for speech, on the high-pitched side, more Boy George than Peter Dawson. They spread throughout the Old World, the first of our kind to do so, although they seem to have done no boating and never made it to Australia or the Americas. They did, however, leave their remains in Indonesia (Java Man), North China (Peking Man), Africa (Turkana Boy) and other places, carbon dated at up to 1.8 million years old. As the aeons rolled by, the original Homo erectusevolved into subspecies, Neanderthal Man and Heidelberg Man being the best-known among Europeans. What kept them on the move? The curiosity we still have about what lies over the next hill. And what happened to them? We're not sure.

What we do know is that our own kind, Homo sapiens sapiens, took the well-trodden trail out of Africa a bare 120,000 years ago and, in that blink of geological time's eye, has taken over the world and is looking for new ones to conquer. What did/do we have going for us? Certainly not physique. Our brains, however, are twenty-five per cent bigger than stolid old Homo erectus's, pushing our physiology to our design limits. The human birth canal cannot get much wider without compromising a mother's walking ability to keep up with the group, meaning that we are born even more helpless and our full growth has to be postponed to the years of adolescence. Our jaws are so weak that we cannot get food down without cooking or grinding it. What's in our big brains? Not simply speech – Homo erectus had that – and our four-footed mates from the Stone Age, our dogs, can communicate their feelings to us quite well – but abstract speech, the ability to manipulate reality in its absence, to plot, plan, tell stories, reflect on yesterday and tomorrow and eventually to get to the Moon.

We know that we shared the Earth for something like 60,000 years with more sophisticated later versions ofHomo erectus, although the periods of close contact seem to have lasted for a thousand years or less before, as far as we know, the latecomers took over. What happened to the losers?

It used to be thought that we interbred with them, more along lines of kidnap and rape than moonlight and roses, and that this violent intermixture might account for the geographical concentration of humans of different outward appearance, commonly – if erroneously – called races. An old-school anthropologist, the unfortunately named Carleton S. Coon, in 1962 published a book The Origin of Races in which he identified five: Australian, African Bushmen, Caucasian (a term which survives as a police euphemism for white), East Asian and African. Terms like Middle Eastern, Mediterranean or European had no part in his system and Coon conceded that, as far as we know, all living humans are mutually fertile, implying close matching of genetic inheritance. Coon did his extensive fieldwork in the 1920s and 1930s, but in the shadow of the Second World War, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, many scientists responded with a darker view of the human personality. Based on a proposal by the Australian anatomist Raymond Dart, the idea of "man the killer ape" found wide credence. A 1961 book by Robert Ardrey, African Genesis, ringingly begins, "Not in innocence, and not in Asia was mankind born." As to our Homo erectus rivals, maybe we just did them in. This would certainly account for our racism, in the sense of hostility and contempt for people of different appearance, and for the synthetic racism of beards, badges and uniforms to distinguish otherwise identical-looking friends and foes.

This controversy was raging (it rages still) when a new sensation came out of Africa. In 1987, an international team headed by the New Zealander Allan Wilson, following the then-new discipline of molecular biology, published an intriguing article in the scientific journal Nature theorising that all living humans were descended through a maternal line from a common female ancestor, who was inevitably nicknamed Eve. In Japan, where the theory became the basis of a hit TV series, she was renamed Masako, meaning "feminine elegance". The theory does not imply that Eve was a single buxom proto-beauty, rather that Homo sapiens sapiens started off with as few as 10,000 breeding pairs in the cool highlands of East Africa some 150,000 years ago.

 

FROM THEN, OUR history, written in the gases trapped in the ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, shows that no new species debuting on the world stage has ever had it so good. About the time the boys were courting Eve, no doubt with more slap than tickle, we went through our first and only hot spell, quickly followed by a shortish interglacial, another slow cool-off and then the longest interglacial, some 60,000 years, that the record has to show, so benign from our point of view that scientists call it the "interglacial holiday".

Then, about 20,000 years ago, we had the one and only glacial period we have had to weather, with low CO2 concentrations, high ice and low seas. It was, significantly, the icesheets spreading over Europe that finished off the last of our late erectus rivals, Homo neanderthalis and his rough-hewn cousins. There is much evidence that agriculture began in the Middle East, somewhere north of present-day Iraq, on the fertile margins of the retreating icesheets. Yet the trove of Middle Eastern myths and legends that survive in Hebrew, and thus also Christian and Muslim scriptures, while they relate many floods and some droughts, never mention sheets of ice. An explanation leaps from the records: while Homo erectus battled the ice, we were living in the balmy climate, with no need for the insulation of clothing, remembered as the Garden of Eden. No wonder our myth makers thanked our creator, the divine prototype of all of us Homo sapiens sapiens.

Naturally, being human, we ascribe our good luck to good management. A better explanation was provided by the Serbian astronomer Milutin Milankovitch, who identified three irregularities in the Earth's yearly trip around our private star, the Sun, and daily revolution on its own axis. Briefly they are: Earth's orbit, which is not circular, but elliptical; its tilt from the vertical; and its axial precession, known in the trade as the "Milankovitch wobble". It so happened that all three have, in our time, been near the centre of their ranges. But the cycles go on. Thanks to axial precession, the seasons wander the globe and Sydney should have a winter Christmas some 12,000 years hence, assuming that either is still remembered.

Other elements that seem to have been working for us have been a relatively quiet time in gaseous eruptions on the Sun's surface, no known major strikes by asteroids, the absence of earth-darkening volcanic blow-offs and a favourable placing of our sun and its satellites in our own galaxy.

Closer to home, Milankovitch offered an explanation for the glaciation ("ice age")/interglacial cycle that in the past couple of million years seems to have settled into a ragged cycle of around 100,000 years. On this count, we are due, if not overdue, for a hot time around now; the Earth should be warming, as his theory predicts, the questions being: how fast? and by how much?

To be sure, we have not helped matters by ripping holes in the atmospheric security blanket over our heads, nor by using our fossil fuel windfall to go forth, multiply and get rich, to the point that by 2040, on some respectable estimates, we will need a second planet Earth to support us all on a sustainable basis. As our daily serving of climate-caused disasters reminds us, we are being forced by population pressure and the need to fill our stomachs to live in places a more prudent species would take care to avoid, magnifying the cost of more or less routine bad news and the speed with which we now see it.

Lifeboat Earth is dangerously (criminally if we were paying passengers) overcrowded as we navigate the stars, and more than a little sky-sick. What, on past planetary form, should we expect to run into, some foggy night?

 

THE TRACK RECORD of our planet, forever set in stone and sand, warns us unequivocally to expect the worst. Of all the species that have ever lived, 99.9 per cent are extinct, including all our close relatives and such cutting-edge specimens (for their day) as the sabre-toothed tiger and the well-padded polar dinosaurs who used to work the area yet to become fashionable beaches near Melbourne. The past 450 million years have seen five mass extinctions, ascribed to various causes that have not gone away: bursts of cosmic rays, super-volcanoes, colliding continents. In the most severe, the Permian-Triassic Event, ninety-five per cent of all marine species and seventy per cent of land species perished, clearing the way for relative newcomers, the dinosaurs, to become kings of Castle Earth. They, in turn, got their come-uppance in the Cretaceous-Tertiary Event, sixty-five million years ago, when fifty per cent of species went west with them. The K-T Event, in palaeobiologists' shorthand, is widely believed to have been the consequence of the impact of an asteroid in the vicinity of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, leaving a crater some thousand kilometres wide, which can still be traced.

These mass extinctions were in times of darkened skies, boiling heat, glacial cold and other climatic conditions sure to be fatal to a fair-weather species like us, so picky about our environment. The conclusion is clear: one of these days we, too, are due for the celestial chop, the only boxes to be checked being when and in what catastrophe.

In fact, many scientists argue that the Sixth, or Holocene (the geological period in which you are reading this) Mass Extinction is already well under way. In his famous 1975 book, Sociobiology the New Synthesis(Harvard University Press, reissued 2000), the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson calculates that we are now losing 30,000 species a year, which your calculator will tell you is three gone every hour. Wilson lists the reasons: landscape change, the over-exploitation of species, air and water pollution and the introduction of new species. These are due he says to people (us) who "excuse their gluttonous behaviour in crushing the planetary life support system".

All of these are the work of Homo sapiens sapiens and began not with the Industrial Revolution or with the invention of capitalism, but with the introduction of agriculture some 11,000 years ago, dividing the natural order into "crops"(useful to us) and "weeds" (to be eliminated).

Like the doomed Dutch Republic before us, however, we have gone much too far down our primrose path to even think of turning back. Nor, in our hearts or heads do we really want to. Just as the Golden Age of the Dutch left us a priceless legacy of humanism, reason and toleration as well as the businesslike explorations of Captain Tasman, so fossil fuels have brought us the sobering knowledge that we are mortal, as a species as well as individually, new forms of art and literature, longer, more comfortable and secure lives for more of us, and (perhaps not such a notable achievement, this) the up-ended packing-case CBDs of our great trading cities. To these achievements we can perhaps add political democracy. When humans are useful only as muscle-power, no one really cares about what is in our heads. Only when we become consumers are we likely to be consulted as voters. By coincidence, the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, which at least uses the language of democracy, was issued in 1776, the year of The Wealth of Nations and first sales of the Watt steam engine.

But "capitalism" and "democracy" are not identical twins: one is an economic order, the other a political system. Above all we now have the growing realisation that, sink or swim, we are all in this together, to the bitter end. So how to proceed?

 

ONE APPROACH THAT has run into the sands is the 2001 Kyoto Protocol, already destined to join such high-minded curiosities of history as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 that outlawed war forever, and was in hindsight more of a hope that the winners could hold on to their gains without having to fight for them. The joint work of hard-fisted deal-makers and unworldly visionaries, Kyoto began with the idea that the market mechanism that is pushing fossil-fuel consumption, air pollution and, indirectly, populations ever upward could, with suitable tinkering, be redirected to slowing and, with luck, even reversing these ominous trends.

Kyoto, like Kellogg-Briand, fell at the first hurdle. It divided the world, whose common problems it supposedly addressed, into two: the rich nations ("Annex 1" in tactful Kyoto-speak) and the rest, the developing nations, eager to burn fossil fuels as fast as they can, and exempt from Kyoto restrictions. As the atmosphere doesn't care who pollutes it, this was inherently absurd, compounded by allowing the "Annex 1" nations of Europe to erect their own mini-Kyoto, the so-called "bubble" that allowed poorer European Union nations, such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal, to exceed their carbon quotas as long as the "bubble's" books balanced which, it is already clear, they will not. Kyoto's fatal defect was indicative of much to come: the climate problem is the world's but the effective players are nation-states, with completely different imperatives: polls, elections, national rivalries and, when all else fails, our large, fossil-fuelled armed forces.

What happens when a community tries to live beyond its resources? The best-known if somewhat confused approach is that of the Judeo-Christian mystic who received from Jesus, via an angel, the Revelation of St John the Divine, the last book in most versions of the Bible. The author is unlikely to have been the Apostle John, whose version of the life and preaching of Jesus is in a plain, workmanlike style; the only similarity is that the two Johns write in Greek. St John the Divine's revelation is suffused with the numerology of the Babylonians, common to much of the Middle East, with the prime number seven figuring in visions of seven seals, seven veils and so on whose meaning, if any, has largely been lost. However, discussing the limits imposed on a small, newly agricultural people, the ancient Hebrews, struggling to survive natural and human-made disasters, the prophet sees these personified as four horsemen, as ridden by nomadic warriors, the scourge of farmers everywhere.. Although the symbolism is obscure, these are generally identified as War, Famine, Pestilence and the appropriately pale rider, Death. The expression is cloudy but the ideas behind it are clear enough, and highly topical.

War. The Red Rider is already abroad, according to British Defence Secretary John Reid, and he has resources on his agenda. Climate change, Reid warns, is likely to make "scarce resources, clean water and viable agricultural land even scarcer", which "will make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely". Indeed, considering that three-quarters of the world's known oil reserves, the key to global economics, war-making and elections, are in the Middle East, it would be an odd coincidence if the wars and threats of wars of that region had nothing to do with oil. It is notable that Reid does not mention population pressure as the root reason for these scarcities, presumably because he wants people to vote for his party.

If another species tried to take over our planet, or even interfere with our plans, we would, without hesitation, order a cull, as we have done with barking cows and snuffling hens, not to forget uppity crocodiles and kangaroos surplus to our pets' requirements. When it comes to a human cull, or intra-species conflict, we draw back, and rightly so. Even such renowned cull-artists as Genghis Khan, who made mountains of skulls outside defiant cities, was more concerned with intimidation than extermination: while the Mongol ruler was all for a single world government (his), like a modern investor looking for economic growth, he wanted to encourage production so that he could enlarge his own cut. War between cullers and cullees is a distinct possibility, if likely to be called by some other name.

Human purpose and destiny are much more the province of religion than science, and wars of religion are notoriously bloodthirsty, free of any pity or moral restraint. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, "the bourgeois Marx", identified the invisible hand that ensures that our share dealings serve a useful social purpose as the Hand of God, with any small mismatches being safely left to private charity, but this would horrify a Hindu (which hand, of which god?) and baffle a Buddhist, with no god at all, and living in an external world that doesn't really exist.

It is true, if not exactly reassuring, that religious wars have historically led populations to decline, at least temporarily. The wars of religion of early modern times reduced Germans from thirty million to ten million, delaying those formidable folks' entry into the scramble for empire until unfashionably late in the nineteenth century. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed under the pressure of Germanic barbarians, many posing as good Christians, the ensuing Dark Ages saw one of the only two falls recorded in world history, from 257 million in AD200 to 208 million in AD600. But by AD1000, with the feudal system operational, the world population had almost recovered, to 253 million. Despite the best the Red Rider could do, we have generally been in favour of life, at least for ourselves, and only in the past few decades has anyone felt uneasy about where this might be leading. Adam Smith raised no enlightened eyebrows when he wrote: "The most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase in the number of its inhabitants" and the same, he presumed, applied to the collectivity, the world. There will never be a shortage of plausible causes to fight over. We can even imagine war between environmentalists and neo-liberals: "Kill those who are killing our Earth" is a slogan observed on recent ultra-Green websites. The success of the Red Rider may turn more on the destructive power of our weapons rather than our skill in inventing causes to fight over.

He must, however, have taken heart from recent developments in China and India, the two tsunamis of humanity threatening to swamp Lifeboat Earth. Despite years of civil war, famine, foreign interference and opium smoking, the population of China reached 500 million in 1948, just before Mao Zedong, one-time chairman of the library committee of Beijing University, became Chairman Mao of his newly proclaimed People's Republic of China. Echoing Adam Smith, Mao saw only good in this mass of mostly illiterate farmers, declaring, "China's vast population should be viewed as a positive asset. Even if it should multiply many times, it will be fully able to resolve the problems created by this growth. The solution lies in production ... Revolution and production will resolve the problem of feeding the population."

China's population did multiply, more than once and, such is the perversity of politics, has managed to feed itself, but not by means Mao glimpsed in his worst nightmares. After the Soviets broke the American nuclear monopoly in 1949, Mao saw another use for all those millions. China could win a nuclear war by simply having more dazed survivors on deck when the fallout cleared than any rival. Part of his thought was an atom-proof shelter for himself and his entourage dug into a mountain in Shaoshan, his home village, which I inspected (it was damp and gloomy, but functional) in 1978. But that nuclear war never happened and half-hearted efforts were made to interest Chinese in family planning.

Between 1963 and 1973, China's population more than doubled. In the first three of those years, corresponding to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the birthrate reached forty per thousand per year, among the highest ever recorded in a human population, while deaths fell to just over seven per thousand, a result achieved by "barefoot doctors" (simple public heath measures), a sparse diet (1,800 calories a day), little booze and cigarettes (too expensive), and healthy, life-prolonging personal transport by foot or bicycle. In 1966, the last family-planning clinics were closed, followed by campaigns to "learn from the people" (shutting China's universities for four years, with no doctors, engineers or, worst of all, teachers qualifying) and to criticise Confucius, Beethoven, the Italian film director Antonioni and other enemies of the people.

The reaction of Chinese farmers was predictable. Too hardheaded to go forth and multiply at the command of Mao, or anyone else, they simply assumed that he was off his rocker – a verdict history will long debate – and took out the immemorial farmer's insurance policy against times of turmoil, many children to work the farm and support them in old age. But, thanks to Mao's "fair (if skimpy) shares" policy, they and their parents survived. By the early 1980s, when the dark nights of Mao had begun to lighten, China had 550 million under the age of twenty-one just about ready to enter their own child-bearing years. Mao's babies are themselves having babies, so that, even with official rewards for only one child per family and heavy penalties for more, China's population at the beginning of 2006 was a staggering 1,306,313,815 and the fertility rate was still 1.72 children per woman, where it should be one, or better yet, under one, so the population continues to grow, if slowly, and may reach 1.5 billion by the 2020s. Only a tenth of China is cultivable, the rest deserts and photogenic mountains. This is half the land per head available to Indians, one-tenth the share of Americans. Now you know why farmers' sons and daughters by the hundreds of millions are invading China's burgeoning industrial cities hoping for a chance to make your shirts and shorts and soon, your cars and trucks, with millions behind them pleading for their jobs at any wage. China tested a nuclear weapon in 1964: Mao's morose calculation may yet shape her leaders' actions in a crunch.

This is likely to involve India, if President George W. Bush's agreement of March 2006 to share nuclear technology "for peaceful purposes" and Prime Minister Howard's not-now-anyway reply to India's request for Australian uranium, despite India's status as an under-the-counter nuclear power, are any guide. Nuclear power can lead to nuclear weapons, as India's own case illustrates. Prime Minister Nehru, mused in 1949, somewhat anachronistically, that India would not have fallen into British "slavery" if it had possessed parity of weapons. India took a drubbing from China in 1982, although no fallout stained the Himalayan snows that failed to separate the combatants, even though India had tested a nuclear device made by stretching "peaceful" technology in 1974. But the Chinese were not headed for Delhi, and the Indians were headed nowhere, except home. Nevertheless their populations have grown exponentially, on similar lines, with India staying a demographic step behind its giant rival.

In 1950, with the disturbances of partition, independence and civil war behind it, India's population was 358 million, China's 555 million. Last year, India's passed the billion – to be exact, 1,085,264,388, still roughly a quarter less than China's – but the other comparative statistics (courtesy of the CIA) paint a different picture, that of leader and led. China's population growth rate is now down to 0.58 per cent per year, India's is nearly triple that, 1.4 per cent per year. China's fertility rate, 1.72 babies per woman, is below the replacement mark of approximately 2.1 babies per woman, India's well above, 2.78 babies per woman. The Indian tortoise, in short, is gaining on the bigger Chinese hare.

India has shown an inefficient and muddled approach to family limitation ever since independence from Britain. In the early days, there was interest in periodic abstinence (the rhythm method) in line with the principles of self-control advocated by the martyred Mahatma Gandhi. It achieved little. Schemes for intra-uterine devices and voluntary sterilisation have foundered on inexpert fitting and advice.

The real reason is not far away. Poverty breeds, and hundreds of millions of poor Indians (a quarter live below the poverty line) took out the farmer's insurance of large families, whose poverty drove them to the growing cities, where they continued to breed big families. The resemblance to Britain's pioneer industrialisation is striking. Ironically, the social conditions that limit families are well known. They are education, particularly for women, which gives them the choice of living useful lives not exclusively devoted to housekeeping and child rearing. China now has a male literacy rate of 95.1 per cent, female 86.5 per cent, while India's rates are male 70.2 per cent and females only 48.3 per cent. On present trends, India is due to overtake China in population by 2030 or so, both nuclear-armed military superpowers courted as allies, feared as rivals in whatever configuration the world has arrived at. What happens then is, as a Hindu might say, in the lap of the gods. Already, however, India's dash for greatness has had unexpected results. India's middle class now approaches 250 million, all keen on cricket, so three-quarters of the circulation of cricket's Baghavad Gita, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack is sold there, and India now dominates the world game. Many of the middle class are highly educated, in English, so India has become a world leader in IT technology and offshore service provision – a legacy, like the railways, of the years of British rule.

 

PESTILENCE. THE WHITE Rider has had a thin time of it lately but his preferred preconditions – human populations bursting at the seams of mushrooming cities, fast global communications, porous borders – are ever present, and the rider's luck may change. As recently as 1970, I spent a week on a cholera train in India evacuating refugees from the war that created Bangladesh, with the train barely slowing to dump emaciated bodies still wearing the waist-cord haughtily indicating their status as (dead) Brahmins. The cure is simple – rest and clean water to drink – but unattainable in the chaos of war, a reminder that bacilli, viruses and other nasties are forever vigilant, waiting for us to drop our defences while we are otherwise engaged. The Black Death (plague) managed to reduce world population from 442 million to 375 million in a series of waves, probably from Asia, that eventually fizzled in the 1600s.

Famine. The Black Rider can appear in many forms. As long as our oil-based fertilisers hold out, we are not likely to run out of enough to fill our bellies, if not always to find ingredients for fine dining, but this presupposes a perfectly functioning growing and distribution system no invisible hand can guarantee. The world economy, for instance, shows a disturbing resemblance to the last days of the Dutch Republic – gigantic, uncollectable debts, ever intensifying international rivalries, deeply entrenched vested interests, a plethora of reform schemes but no agreement even on which problem we seek to solve.

A worldwide slump would certainly clear our skies of sulphate aerosols, one of the "greenhouse gases" (although it is actually a pall of fine, light-absorbing particles), but no one knows where this would lead. Some researchers see us in an era of "global dimming" and clearer skies caused by reduction in industrial activity which would accelerate global warming, raise sea levels, flood low-lying land and further disrupt our overloaded system. One-crop failure, like the Irish potato blight, could reappear.

Water consumption per head tracks fossil fuel use, and drinkable water too, shows signs of running out all over the world.

Death. The sickly pale green rider is the joker in the pack, the one thing we can expect with real confidence – the unexpected. Death has many options: tsunamis, volcanos, sunspots, asteroid strikes, the One We Never Thought Of.

We could also, of course, be lucky: no one knows what caused the mini Ice Age of the 1700s, and we could always have another, but this would simply postpone the day when the lifeboat will be obviously full and we (to our credit, in our own human eyes) shrink from pulling up the ladder, Jack, while hoping no one else pulls it up on us.

Here the Dutch may still offer a good example. When the water started to rise, they applied small, local palliatives, a dike here and a pump there, rather than grand schemes, and a Dutch firm is still thinking along similarly modest lines, offering a tethered houseboat that simply rises to ride out storm surges and falls back when terra becomes a little firma. What we need to rethink is the economic system the Dutch stumbled across, and failed at themselves. We have Tasman and his ancient island as a reminder and we can thank his lack of curiosity that Melbourne is not called Nieuw Rotterdam and this is not entirely written in Dutch. Nothing can be achieved as long as, under the name of "economic growth", we insist on divvying up every saving in energy we make into shares and selling them to the biggest borrower, thus getting deeper and deeper into debt to our uncertain future.. This is not a moral question: the market system is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and we need another, as yet undiscovered, that will serve us all better. As the economic historian Josef Schumpeter once remarked, stationary feudalism was an historical entity, stationary socialism an historic possibility, but stationary capitalism an historical contradiction in terms, it must continue to expand endlessly, or collapse.

A small start might be a new name, perhaps with an Australian ring to remind us that we are the emitter-in-chief's deputy out our way and, as the world's biggest coal exporter, may well be doing better than the boss. So recent is our discovery of Lifeboat Earth that we have no name for it that doesn't mean something else. Earth is what we put in flowerpots, world means the totality of things in general, monde means a lot of people and so on. James Lovelock now thinks that his coinage Gaia, suggested by his writer neighbour William Golding, was a bit airy-fairy and hard to pronounce, even by literate Chinese ladies. How about Emoh Ruo? This would translate neatly as Suon Zech and Tlew Resnu and, with a bit of jiggling, into !Xosa, Afrikaans (Siuh Sno?) and all the Asian tongues.

Emoh Ruo is an idea whose time has come. We can only hope it has not already gone again. 

References and Supporting Information

Amid the Noah's flood of literature, printed and electronic, rapidly rising on this subject, I have not found an attempt to bring together the climate science, as far as it is known, with the economics, ethics and demographics involved. Hence this essay.

I have no solution to offer, not even a course of action to recommend, but rather a compilation of what seems to me relevant. I can claim no prescience. The present piece is the result of a very long, and often confused, journey, geographical and conceptual, made over many years.

Like most of us, particularly Australians, I saw the future in terms of our (fossil-fuelled) national development. In my youth, I hunted rabbits from a motorboat, drove thousands of outback kilometres to mine opals and chopped down trees for exercise. I owned an eight-seater off-road SUV to transport my wife, Jenny, our dog, three children and their friends, plus camping gear.

Being inquisitive (the journalist's ruling passion) I have kept up, as best I could, with the proliferating new studies - molecular biology, fractal geometry, chaos mathematics - that were steadily undermining the old certainties of high-school science. I have no special authority in any of these fields, only a general idea of where to look and what to look for. How we got to where we are now may or may not be a useful guide to what lies ahead for our planet and its human crew. But it is the only one we have.

Our consideration must begin with the observed, quantifiable facts we possess - the levels of carbon dioxide and the other "greenhouse gases" found in air bubbles trapped in the cores, some kilometres long, drilled into the ice that covers Greenland and Antarctica. The graph below shows that levels of carbon dioxide, taken as a marker for all the "gases" (one is actually a kind of soot), have peaked fairly regularly four times in the past half million or so years. Each period is about 120,000 years and, although a bit late, we seem to be headed for a fifth in the presumed series about now rather rapidly, as if to keep to a climatic timetable, according to the air samples taken at Cape Grim on the north-west coast of Tasmania over the past three decades. These steep peaks have ascended from low points that have also recurred with pulse-like regularity. But the pattern of peaks has been less clear and they failed to appear when the series, projected backwards in time, suggests they should have, around 550,000 and 650,000 years ago.

What are we to make of all this? The simplest deduction is that high CO2 levels go along with high global temperatures, melting icecaps and glaciers, and so produce high sea levels, while low CO2 levels have meant more ice, more glaciers and lower seas. Ice and snow, both being white, reflect the Sun's heat back into space (what astronomers call "albedo") and stay cold, while exposed earth, being earth-coloured, absorbs the sun's rays and warms up.

But what reverses the cycle at either end and why does it happen every 120,000 years or so, or at least, has lately? We have, in simple terms, not the foggiest notion. The variables that might be responsible, including sunspot activity, changes in the Earth's and Moon's inclination and orbit, continental drift, deep-sea metabolism, magnetic shifts and extraterrestrial strikes, are mind-bendingly complex, and none shows a periodicity anything like the observed 120,000 years. Human activity may well be accelerating, or "forcing", as climatologists say, the current upward climb but we could not have caused the previous ones as (by carbon dating of human and humanoid remains) we were not around then. Some religions put it down to God's (or the gods') inscrutable purpose but this is not much use for prediction, the ultimate aim of all science.

This gets us to the most vexed and heat-generating aspect of the whole subject - where is the proof of any of the gloomy predictions we hear every day (there seem to be fewer calls for proof of the optimistic ones)? What, indeed, is the nature of scientific proof?

The most accessible treatment of this subject is An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by Rudolf Carnap, edited by Martin Gardner (my copy from Dover Books, 1995, ISBN 0-486-28318-6 (pbk). A former member of the Vienna Circle of philosophers who migrated to the United States and taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, Carnap recommends (at pp 35-36) particular precision in making what he calls metascientific statements, that is, assertions about science itself. Someone might well ask a scientist, he explains, "You tell me that I can rely on this law in making a certain prediction. How well established is the law? How trustworthy is the prediction?" The answer, says Carnap, has to take the form "the hypothesis is confirmed to a degree of 0.8 on the basis of the available evidence" and then has to list the evidence on which the scientist is relying.

In other words, if more evidence turns up, the hypothesis could become a very long outsider or even pure moonshine. This is getting a long way away from the deceptively crisp "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" of high-school physics but it goes far to explain why the scientists of Working Group One of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced from Nairobi in 2001 a 60 to 90 per cent chance that CO2 concentration in the air had not been higher in the past twenty million years, and Working Group Two, another galaxy of star scientists, offered similar odds that by 2100, the global air temperature would be up between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees C.

To nonreaders of Carnap, this might sound more a bookie's pitch than a clarion call to sacrifice, and few were moved to trade their SUVs for bicycles or boats. This clash - cautious science assailed by politicians, publicists and sceptics both informed and ignorant - will cloud the debate far into such future as we may have, with the chance of agreed action fading by the day.

In contrast, the findings of Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station are clear and open to the skies. The instruments on the cape's tip are often unattended and the area is closed to tourists, but a close approach is possible and the station has its own elaborate website with figures and many photos:

http://www.bom.gov.au/inside/cgbaps/cg_specs.shtml

The population statistics on which I confidently rely come from the CIA's exhaustive website:

http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/

For estimates of pre-modern human populations I have consulted:

A Concise History of World Population, second edition, by Massimo Livi-Bacci, Blackwell, 1998, ISBN 0-631-20455-5 (pbk)

The clearest account of the indictment of CO2 and its noxious cousins I have found is:

The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart, Harvard UP, 2003, ISBN 0-674-01157-0 (alk.paper)

On the early successes and reasons for the ultimate fall of the Dutch Republic, my best authority has been Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches: an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Knopf, 1987, ISBN 0-394-51075

For the daily ebb and flow of new science, old objections, arguments and counter-arguments, I am addicted to the lively Cambridge Conference (CCNet), a scholarly website edited by Benny Peiser, who teaches social anthropology (skirts rather than skulls) at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom. Dr Peiser is exuberantly eclectic in his work and if there is an aspect of the climatic debate he hasn't covered, I have yet to spot it. A particular merit is that, as well as scientific papers with links, references and abstracts, he keeps in touch with journalistic accounts of new developments and the flood of rumours, praise (rare) and insults (many) sloshing around the web. Subscription is free at: l listserver@livjm.ac.uk V("subscribe cambridge-conference")

dilemma - Find out more versus Do something now - which was already being agonised over when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. As he has said:

"A recent survey among some 500 international climate researchers found that 'a quarter of respondents still question whether human activity is responsible for the most recent climatic changes'. How decision makers and the interested public deal with these scientific doubts and uncertainties is another matter. But it is vital for the health and integrity of science that critical evaluation and scepticism are not scorned or curbed for political reasons."

That said, there are still 6,500,000,000 of us in the same boat. If not the PhDs at the tiller, who?


From Griffith Review Edition 12: Hot Air © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review