”Everything in moderation” -- a favorite mantra of wise folks, from Aristotle to my mom. It’s also the basic lesson of Eric Roston’s new book, The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. In one sense, the story of carbon is a tale of supreme irony: The very thing that allows complex things to exist now threatens our complex existence. But really, it all makes perfect sense.
Existence is a balancing act. And the carbon kingdom makes up a large part of that balance. By showing how intimately human life is intertwined with carbon, The Carbon Age forces us to care about all kinds of things we might have overlooked -- none so much as the carbon in our atmosphere.
Roston’s book takes us from the beginning of the universe to the present day, telling the story of carbon along the way. The stuff is absolutely everywhere. From the nuclear fusion of numberless stars, it spreads out universally (literally). It’s in the graphite we use to write to the diamonds we use to propose. And Roston's book is essentially a soap opera journey though its various iterations, with way more drama and appeal than a science book should have.
After its fiery creation, carbon is spread throughout space via supernovas. Here on Earth, it forms an integral part of countless processes, and is fundamental to millions of compounds -- more than all other elements combined.
Carbon is as basic to human technology as it is to human life. It’s used in everything from high-powered drills to Kevlar vests. We've even made a habit of noting carbon's absence: Its rate of radioactive decay allows us to date organic compounds with astonishing accuracy. Without carbon (specifically Carbon 14, one of its radioactive isotopes), we would still be wondering if the Turin shroud actually displays Christ’s body (it doesn’t) or if humans ever lived side by side with dinosaurs (they didn’t -- duh!). Granted, we’ve always guessed at these things, but carbon allows us to know.
It also allows us to exist. It's in the air we breathe, the water in our oceans and the ground under our feet. As something so ubiquitous and elemental, it permits much of the intellectual scaffolding that makes up our new god: science. Organic chemistry, the basis of modern medicine, is essentially the study of carbon, as is biochemistry. And Roston’s book is can seem like a portrait gallery of scientific geniuses (which is certainly not a bad thing).
But there's also an underlying theme: the supreme usefulness of carbon. Nature was first to realize this, employing the element redundantly as it developed its processes and structures. But humans -- always finding nature an able teacher -- were quick to pick up the practice. Our history is often, to an intriguing extent, the history of carbon use. For the longest time we knew not what we did; but once we figured things out, locating and naming element after element, our use of carbon only accelerated. Dangerously, it turns out.
And that's ultimately where the book takes us: to the land of dangerous carbon accumulation. Carbon may be the key to life, but too much of it -- especially in our atmosphere -- could end life as we know it. And Roston’s book drives this point home in a unique way: It’s much easier to accept carbon’s vital role in our future now that we know how essential it was to our history.
The book is a good read for anyone curious about the universe and where it is going (and who entirely escapes this category?) since, basically, you have to understand carbon to understand energy and life. Fortunately, it’s a fascinating element. And Roston does us a service in writing a carbon bible for wide public consumption.
Yeah, you end up learning a lot of science. But it's pretty painless. And the result is that you're better informed about an issue of vital importance to human existence: climate change.
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