Long, Long Ago

Long Long Ago

an essay by
Daniel Bull

Created January 19, 2009
Last Modified September 5, 2023


Long ago, before the world began, at least my own modern world, I was a sort of factotum for a group of scientists who spent their working days screening various clods of matter for microorganisms that might produce substances that had interesting pharmacological properties. Usually what these scientists sought was antibiotics. What they usually found was something else. Those ‘something else’ compounds often held minor positions in the history of microbial physiology. In my role, I learned a great deal of life science as it was considered at that time.

I was well trained for my work, with a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering from the University of Michigan, an institution with what was probably a richly deserved reputation among public universities. In addition to my engineering, physical science, and mathematical training I studied microbiology, virology, even limnology and physiological chemistry. My thesis work was a study of enzyme kinetics, particularly in an organism then known as Pseudomonas ovalis, later to go by the somewhat more lugubrious moniker of Pseudomonas putida. But I was trained for growing cells on a scale larger than laboratory flasks. Even mammalian cell lines, including human. My vessels for such growth ranged from 20 liters to about 20,000 liters in gross capacity. In preparation for such efforts, I was required to use many of the same skills, using similar laboratory facilities, expected of the primary researchers.

I am now an old man, and through the years I faded out of the scientific scene. Imagine my amazement when at age 84 I read four enlightening books by two authors. All four were for general, not scientific audiences. The authors were Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Gene: An Intimate History and The Song of the Cell, and Ed Jong, who wrote I Contain Multitudes, and An Immense World. Even as popularizations these works helped me to realize how much progress had been made since the mid-seventies, when I had a different consideration of what life was all about. Although I was not moved to read the original papers, I was made aware of the concepts involved.

All this is prologue to a reconsideration of an idea that had possessed me for some time, namely that of life without humans. We can think of Earth without humans, and we can go further and think of Earth without life. Climate change, the climate change we are experiencing today, is a phenomenon perfect for exploitation by modern authoritarians. More accurately, denial of climate change science is being used as a propaganda tool, particularly by agents of the political far right. Denial of climate change allows for the continuing plunder of what the deniers (and others, customarily) call resources, without regard for untoward consequences. Yet these are not resources, they are part and parcel of what should be thought of as the constitutive elements of the planet. These ‘resources’ cannot be destroyed, at least not by humans. But they can be transformed, dispersed into materials of increased entropy.

By the term ‘plunder’ I mean degradation. This can mean excavation, such as has been done with so-called ‘fossil fuels’ which cannot be reconstituted within the span of human existence, or exploitation, at a rate faster than can be replaced by natural means, such as overfishing of the oceans, or degradation from a state supportive of abundance such as transformation of fertile soil into sterility, with much of the fecundity washed into the oceans. It can also lead to pollution, including such as producing ‘immortal’ plastics, in that they are not biodegradable, and other grievous insults to our only home. In the process, average planetary atmospheric temperatures are increasing inexorably, we can almost certainly no longer stop it, and destructive storms of ever-increasing intensity are becoming commonplace.

I now subscribe to a belief, who knows, perhaps transitory, and perhaps a commonplace to many, that complete annihilation of life on Earth due to human action is probably nearly impossible. Even if ‘mankind’ were to cover the Earth with radioactivity, probably not all life would be destroyed. Setting aside nuclear holocaust, an inappropriate terminology in any event, we can be assured that another species of catastrophe is under way. Given that climate change can no longer be avoided (indeed, it is almost certainly underway, irreversible in the short term) then soon enough the planet will be unsustainable for terrestrial beings we might term megafauna. But it seems probable, and I offer this opinion without proof, that megaflora might survive. And it seems even more certain that microbes, that is bacteria and archaeon will stick around. Many simple flora and fauna, particularly in benthic habitats, might also survive.

What we can be confident about is that humans will pass from the scene when the atmosphere becomes uncontrollably disturbed, and the waters become disastrously warmed. If the Earth is returned to the state that obtained before multicellular entities evolved, then there might begin a multibillion-year process of evolution again. But we should bear in mind that the source of all life, our Sun, is, by the preponderance of scientific evidence, destined to run out of fuel and become a ‘red giant’, enveloping the Earth and all the planets in fiery demise.

Thermodynamics is a bitch, but infallible.