There’s been a lot of concern lately about rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, but a recent study by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography raises an even more serious issue–the atmospheric oxygen level is dropping.
It hasn’t fallen by much, yet, but we are running on a narrow margin when it comes to oxygen. Our atmosphere is about 20% oxygen, and, according to OSHA standards,
“if the oxygen level in… an environment falls below 19.5% it is oxygen deficient, putting occupants of the confined space at risk of losing consciousness and death.”
To requantify that, while our atmospheric CO2 level has risen by nearly 50% and not made enough difference to get most peoples’ attention, a drop in the atmospheric oxygen level of just 2.5% would kill us. Long before that occurred, decreasing atmospheric oxygen would make it difficult to think clearly. Maybe we, and other surviving species, could make a quick evolutionary adaptation to lower oxygen levels. Maybe not.
That still might not alarm some people….”Hey, a tenth of a percent in two hundred years? It’ll be 5,000 years before we run low! No problem–for us, anyway! Let’s party!”
The authors of the article that brought this phenomenon to my attention, in fact, didn’t seem too concerned about the possibility of oxygen depletion, but I was surprised by some of the things they didn’t mention–such as the fact that both our major sources of oxygen are at risk. On land, the richly diverse, oxygen-producing rain forests of the world are being turned into cardboard boxes, toilet paper, and two-by-fours–and the ground they occupied, its natural cycle disrupted, dries up and turns into savannah, which produces only a fraction of the oxygen generated by rain forest. At sea, the continued acidification of the ocean threatens the continued existence of microscopic sea life that produces 70-80% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. And then there’s plastic poisoning…more on that later.
So, if we don’t end our carbon-dioxide belching ways, or if we pass a tipping point that sets runaway greenhouse conditions in motion, we really could smother ourselves, probably in a lot less than five thousand years. Hey, all you folks making big noises about “the rights of the unborn”–how about this issue?
Now for the “DEEP green perspective” on this.
Humans have been seriously exploiting the planet’s oil and coal deposits for only about two hundred years, and in that time we have used up about half the available crude oil and most of the best-quality coal, and have begun digging into “tar sands” in Canada and Venezuela, and “lignite” coal in a variety of locations. Tar sands would have become good quality oil in another few million years, just as lignite, in the natural geological evolution of the planet, would eventually have become anthracite coal. What’s the hurry here?
Both coal and oil were created when massive amounts of living matter, mostly plants, were buried and compressed for millions of years. At our current rates of consumption, we probably have enough oil and coal left in the ground for another hundred years or so of our current lifestyle, or maybe a little longer, since as they become rarer, their prices will rise and inhibit consumption. That will leave a gap of millions of years with effectively no available oil or coal on the planet–for all intents and purposes, they will be gone forever, which is too bad, because they are very useful, and the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room where we predict our future is that solar power, wind power, and biofuels, for all they can do, cannot replace the many functions coal and oil serve in our culture. In fact, they are all, to some extent, dependent on a continuing supply of “conventional” fuels for their manufacture and deployment. Oops!
It seems that, until recently, it didn’t occur to anyone that we might run out of petroleum and coal, with the result that we, like not-so-Wiley Coyote, have run off a cliff without noticing, and are about to fall a long way, with a very painful landing awaiting us.
Moreover, by burning so much oil and coal all at once, we have done serious damage to the web of life on this planet. It’s the only planet we have to live on, y’know?
If we were the only species at risk from our own behavior, I would say we were suicidal. But, since we have decimated or eliminated so many other species on the planet, I classify our behavior as not just suicidal, but murderously sociopathic.
If we had the intelligence with which we like to credit ourselves, we would have realized long ago, when the first coal mines played out and the first oil wells went dry, that there are only limited quantities of these marvelous hydrocarbons available, and rationed them out carefully like the precious substances they are, stretching our coal and petroleum supplies to last for thousands, not hundreds, of years, sparing damage to our environment, and allowing us plenty of time for careful research and transition out of our dependency on these irreplaceable gifts.
But no, we have not done that. We have exploited limited resources that took millions of years to create and burned them senselessly or turned them into stupid plastic crap that made a few people materially wealthy for a very few years and now will impoverish and sicken our children and what descendants they can manage to conceive for untold generations to come. Again, I have to ask, “where are all the ‘Right to Life’ people on this issue?” and I have to wonder what makes us think we are “Homo sapiens,” “the wise human”? Has our behavior really been so “wise”? Give me a break!
music: Talking Heads, “Air“