During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.
Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Teachers say it’s the end of the world.
Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.
Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.
During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)
Hide under a desk.
Pretend that furniture is enough
to protect us against perilous flames.
Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.
The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.
Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,
but some kids giggle.
They don’t believe that death
Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.
We know, now. At least, some of us do.
Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.
Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.
Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.
Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.
But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.
Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.
You, as an individual, can only do so much.
When I hide under my frail school desk,
my heart grows as rough and brittle
as the slab of wood
that fails to protect me
We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.
Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.
Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.
We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.
We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.
Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.
Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.
Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.
The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.
But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.
Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.
Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!
But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.
Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.
Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.
And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.
A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.
And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.
Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.
As a society, we’ve made enormous sacrifices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re wearing masks; we’re staying home; children are missing school.
We’re all cooperating to protect the people who are most at risk.
The risk profile for Covid-19 is opposite the risk from climate change. Covid-19 is more dangerous for the old. Climate change is more dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.
There’s another way to phrase this – Covid-19 is more dangerous for the wealthy, and climate change is more dangerous for those who currently have little or nothing. This is true both temporally and geographically.
(Wealth obviously protect individuals from Covid-19. Despite all his buffoonish posturing, when Donald Trump was infected, he received higher quality, more expensive medical care than almost anyone else. But on a population level, increased wealth is correlated with increased risk. Wealthy people are privileged to live longer, and in our capitalist society, people often accumulate wealth as they age.)
People with low risk from Covid-19 are making enormous sacrifices to protect others from it. But those with low risk from climate change are, in general, making no efforts to stop it.
Which conveys a clear message:
Younger people, you must solve this problem on your own. Despite your willingness to make sacrifices to protect us, we will not make sacrifices to protect you.
If we knew in March 2020 what we know now, we wouldn’t have closed schools. If you’re interested in some of the reasoning behind this, you should read this February 24, 2021 New York Times editorial from Nicholas Kristof.
We are hurting kids under the guise of protecting older people. But we’re not even succeeding. Schools have such low rates of Covid-19 transmission that we’re hurting kids without accomplishing anything.
People from “my” political party have orchestrated this harm, which makes it feel all the worse.
The New York Times recently printed an editorial from someone at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute chiding us for our totally un-scientific school closures. Members of the Republican party are positioning themselves as the defenders of public education.
The Republican party has been trying to undermine public schools ever since the Supreme Court decided that maybe Black kids deserve an equal chance to learn. And we’re letting them posture as the defenders of education?
During the vaccine roll-out, the New York Times set the stage for a big reveal – younger people were never in huge amounts of danger from Covid-19.
I don’t want to sound cavalier about this – Covid-19 is dangerous to people of all ages. It’s very similar to influenza.
Many people have a misconception that influenza is relatively harmless – sniffles & a runny nose – unless you’re elderly.
That’s not true.
Although the majority of cases of seasonal influenza are mild, it’s a deadly disease. Young healthy people die of influenza every year.
Most influenza deaths are recorded as “pneumonia” during post-mortem reports. To compare the dangers of Covid-19 to influenza, we’d want to measure how many more pneumonia deaths we’ve seen recently.
In a typical year, there are about 130,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States – these might be caused by influenza, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, etc.
Many if not most of these deaths are caused by influenza – the column of numbers reporting verified influenza deaths is so low because we don’t always test for it, and when we do we typically use a low-quality antigen test.
Last year, though, was much worse – between January 1, 2020 and February 24, 2021, there were 670,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States. During those 14 months, five-fold more people died from this set of symptoms than we’d expect during a normal year.
We’ve also had about five times as many infections. Usually, about 30 million people contract seasonal influenza each year. The CDC estimates that perhaps 100 million people contracted Covid-19 during the ten months from February 2020 to December 2020.
That’s why the CDC’s roughestimates for the “infection fatality ratio” of Covid-19 are about the same as for influenza.
Last year, more people died from Covid-19 than would be expected from a typical year’s burden of seasonal influenza, but that’s because there were many more infections.
Seasonal influenza and Covid-19 are both deadly diseases. And it’s worth comparing them because the pandemic might be declared “over” once Covid-19 deaths fall to influenza-like levels.
That’s what most public health experts said when they were interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for an article in The Atlantic – that a reasonable goal is for Covid-19 “to mirror the typical mortality of influenza in the U.S. over a typical year.”
Which seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re going to call it “over” while people are still dying?
But we have to. Covid-19 will probably be with us forever. Like the coronavirus OC43, which we picked up from cows and which probably killed over a million people during the 1890 pandemic, Covid-19 will continue to make humans sick indefinitely.
Elderly people – especially those who weren’t exposed to Covid-19 as children – will always be particularly susceptible.
Early on during the pandemic – when we already had a good sense that younger people weren’t in much personal danger but also knew that we could only slow the spread of Covid-19 if younger people made sacrifices – we concocted a narrative that healthy young people were at high risk, too.
In March 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Fiona Lowenstein, a 26 year old who became tragically ill, saying “Millennials: if you can’t stay at home for others, do it for yourselves.”
In May 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Mara Gay, a 33 year old who became tragically ill, saying “I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.”
This year, healthy young people have gotten very sick and even died of Covid-19 – which is tragic, but not unusual. Every year, healthy young people get very sick and die from influenza. This past year, with about five-fold more infections of an equivalently deadly disease, we’ve seen about five-fold more of these tragic young people’s deaths.
Now that a vaccine is available, though, the narrative has shifted.
In the February 28, 2021 New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Ethicist” column says that “Health care workers who are in their 20s and don’t have certain medical conditions aren’t at high risk if they contract Covid-19. Perhaps we could save more lives if we left them [to be vaccinated] until later.”
Now that we have a limited supply of vaccines, older, wealthier people benefit if young people are less afraid of Covid-19.
By delaying Covid-19 infection, young people increased their personal risk. Early during the pandemic, the virus was not particularly dangerous for young people. By now, though, there have now been millions of transmission events – millions of opportunities for mutant variants to arise.
And indeed, in February 2021 the New York Timesreports that “it is likely that the [new Covid-19 virus] variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.”
Currently, we’re rationing the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines based on age.
This is hypocritical, and potentially misguided.
When people develop such severe complications from Covid-19 that they require ventilation in order to have a chance of surviving, a younger person is more likely to benefit from the treatment. This holds both in terms of absolute number of lives saved, and is even more dramatic if you consider the years of life saved.
With a limited supply of ventilators, you can accomplish most by reserving them for the young – and we said that would be horrible.
In a March 2020 article for the New York Times, Sheri Fink wrote that the health department’s civil rights office would ensure “that states did not allow medical providers to discriminate on the basis of … age … when deciding who would receive lifesaving medical care.
In April 2020, Joel Zivot wrote for Medpage that “Rationing ventilators by age is wrong.”
Although we declared that it would be unethical to ration healthcare (ventilators) by age, we’re now rationing healthcare (vaccines) by age. The difference is that a different group of people – older, on average wealthier – benefits.
Rationing vaccines by age doesn’t even save the most lives.
Based on the CDC data, if both a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about ten times more likely to die. That’s scary!
The major benefit of the vaccine is that it reduces the chance of severe illness if you are exposedto Covid-19. But we also know other ways to reduce the odds of exposure – a person can stay home, wear a mask near others, minimize the number of unique individuals they come into contact with.
If the 70-year-old has retired, they should be able to reduce the number of unique individuals they see each week to ten or fewer. But a 50-year-old grocery store clerk might see a thousand or more unique individuals each week, and have to spend time in fairly close proximity to each.
If the 50-year-old is at least ten-fold more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, then you’ll save more lives by giving the vaccine to them instead of to the 70-year-old.
Not only did we declare that rationing healthcare by age was wrong when it benefited younger people, but now we’re doing it even though it doesn’t save the most lives.
The unfairness is even more dramatic if we consider the risk of hospitalization. According to the CDC chart above, if both a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about five times as likely to be hospitalized. But Medicare will pay the hospital bill. If a 20-year-old is hospitalized, they might face ruinous medical debt.
It’s quite likely that the obligations of most 20-year-olds – going to school, going to work, taking care of family – make them at least five times as likely to be exposed to Covid-19. We could stop lives from being ruined by medical debt if we vaccinated 20-year-olds first.
A friend of mine works in a take-out & delivery pizza restaurant in Chicago. For other people to be able to stay home and order food, he had to go in to work. His risk of exposure to Covid-19 was much higher than other people’s. As a healthy athlete in his late twenties, he wasn’t at high risk, but he was unlucky – when he got sick, he was so ill that he spent weeks in the hospital. He’s still recovering from his ruptured lung. He has no idea how to pay the $200,000 medical bill.
Because we’re rationing care by age, we’re not protecting people like him. Even though his risk – interacting with customers all day – made it possible for others to stay safe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been awful, but I was pleased that people took fewer plane flights. Our carbon emissions briefly dropped.
Now that older people have received vaccines, though, they’ll resume flying.
For a February 17, 2021 article in the New York Times, Debra Kamin writes that “When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas, Texas. But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their Covid-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.”
“Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel – often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine.”
Newly protected against Covid-19, they’ll increase their contributions to climate change.
Climate change has the opposite risk profile from Covid-19. Covid-19 is most dangerous for the old; climate change is most dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.
In some sense, it’s trivializing to even compare these. The risk from climate change is so much more severe.
If we make our planet inhospitable – if our crops fail due to storms or heat waves – the carrying capacity of Earth could easily fall by half.
We will see billions, not millions, of deaths.
Someone who is elderly today is unlikely to survive long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change – although it’s true that in severe weather events like Chicago’s fluke summer heat waves or Texas’s fluke winter storms, elderly people who live alone are exceptionally vulnerable.
Still, younger adults will have to endure worse calamities. They’ll live through more years of severe weather, crop failures, dangerous heat, lingering smog. And, since society will be forced to spend more money each year to maintain humanity’s precarious place on this planet – rebuilding after fires or floods – younger adults will face an increasingly inhospitable world with less wealth at their disposal.
Today’s children will encounter even worse. They’ll experience every disaster that today’s young adults will survive to see, and then some.
Generations not yet born may inherit a nightmare.
When people who currently have wealth were in danger, we created a narrative that everyone needed to make sacrifices. The largest sacrifices came from those who benefited least.
We’re still keeping children out of school – for almost no benefit in terms of Covid-19 transmission – in order to protect older, wealthier people.
Climate change is and has been caused primarily by those with the most wealth. If you can buy more meat, if you can take more plane flights, if you can purchase a bigger home, then you’re able to cause more climate change.
To stop climate change, we need wealthy people to make sacrifices. Buy less, fly less, eat plants.
But why would they?
Currently wealthy people aren’t in danger.
And – worse – currently wealthy people often became wealthy by treating the world as a competitive place. Now we’re asking them to cooperate? To make sacrifices for the sake of others?
Meat tastes good. Flying to Maui is fun. Doesn’t a person who worked hard deserve an enormous home?
A curious thought about the Gamestop stock trading phenomenon: Many small investors – often younger people – were convinced through emotional arguments to buy a few shares of stock and hold them with “diamond hands.”
Don’t sell, even if the price dips!
There was a strange cooperative / competitive system going on. The cooperative portion would have been illegal had it not been done in public – people were colluding to make the shares hard to get, which forced the hedge fund to pay more in order to cover their short sales.
Short sales: a hedge fund had borrowed many shares of the stock and sold them, hoping the price would fall and that new shares could be purchased more cheaply when it was time to return them. So the hedge fund had basically announced, “On such & such a date, I must have this stock, no matter the price!” If other people all cooperate and say, “On that day, don’t sell it for less than $420.00,” then the hedge fund has to pay $420.00 per share, even if the company that the stock represents is worthless.
But here’s the competitive portion – the company, Gamestop, is probably going out of business eventually. Driving to a strip mall to buy a video game cartridge instead of downloading it? The stock isn’t worth much money. So people wanted to cooperate to hurt the hedge fund, but people were also forced to compete because nobody wanted to be holding the stock at the end of the day.
Everyone would like to sell it for a bunch of money, but not everyone will get to sell it.
Even if more than a hundred percent of shares are short sold, not everyone will get to sell it – the hedge fund can satisfy all their contracts by buying a share, returning it to someone, buying the same share back from that person, returning it to someone else, and so on.
So if you know that everybody else has put in a “sell order” at $420.00, because they think it’s a funny number, you benefit by putting in a sell order at $419. That way you get almost as much money as anyone else, but you’re guaranteed to sell yours, whereas only a fraction of the people with $420 sell orders get to trade their (worthless) stock for money.
But then, if you know that other people are going to plug in a sell order at $419, you benefit from selling yours at $418. Because what if too many people sell their shares at $419?? You might still be left out!
So there was an incentive for savvy investors – wealthy people who might have thousands of dollars on the line – to convince other people to hold onto the stock no matter what … even while selling their own.
Billions of dollars changed hands. Some people “made” a lot of money. And it wouldn’t have happened without cooperation – lots of people colluding against the hedge fund.
But the particular people who benefited were determined by a con. By selling shares while promoting a narrative that “if we all hold with diamond hands, this is going to the moon!”
In some ways, our response to Covid-19 encourages me.
So many people – especially younger people – have shown themselves to be willing to cooperate.
A cloth mask traps your exhalations. Wearing a cloth mask makes your life worse, but it protects other people. Almost everybody in my home town wears a mask. Every young person at school wears a mask.
Young people are willing to make sacrifices to protect older people. But therein lies the con.
We’re not making sacrifices to protect them.
Our carbon emissions are no different from pulling off this face mask and intentionally coughing in a young child’s face. We ought to feel ashamed.
The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.
I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.
But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.
These numbers don’t mean much to me.
I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.
Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.
So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.
A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.
An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.
An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.
Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.
The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.
But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.
Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.
Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!
Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?
The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.
Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.
But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.
And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.
Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?
Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.
And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?
I wanted to fix the clock.
The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.
Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.
Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.
Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.
Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.
By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.
And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.
Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.
The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).
Humans appeared 1 minute ago.
So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.
Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.
But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.
So many stories could fit into that span of time.
It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.
Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.
Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.
But it needn’t be us.
The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.
We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.
We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.
We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.
Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.
Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.
For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.
We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.
So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.
We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.
Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.
The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.
kind of sad. I like being alive, and I
like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone.
Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends. But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence. Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn.
These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time. Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.
Unless we go extinct sooner. Which we might. We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.
Venus used to be habitable. We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony. But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change. Now Venus has no liquid water. Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog. Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.
rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.
There are things you can do to help. In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.
should still turn off the lights when you leave a room. If you can walk to the park instead of
driving, do it! Every effort you make to
waste less energy is worthwhile!
But it helps to take stock of the numbers. If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas. If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.
to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.
Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.
it’s hard to make this switch.
Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel
compelling. It’s like the difference
between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is
doomed. Those spikey mandibles close and
that’s the end! When a bug lands on a
pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it
finally topples into the digestive water.
The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary
between life and death is unnoticeable.
climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we
see the precipice it’ll be too late.
In Foer’s words,
The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story.
planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought
over there. We are aware of the
existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our
survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it. That distance between awareness and feeling
can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people –
people who want to act – to act.
not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become
history. With regard to the fate of our
planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound
problem. As the marine biologist and
filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring
subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”
that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story. He writes about his personal struggles to be
good. If it were necessary to blow hot
air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a
cheeseburger, few people would buy them.
But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know
vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will
exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children
will one day have to bear.
brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in
time and space. Push a button, hear a
sound! Even babies understand how to
work a toy piano. Even my ill behaved
dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in
My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause. Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence? That’s not compelling for my dogs. The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.
Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure. That’s not compelling. Our brains can’t easily process that story.
understand it, but we can’t feel it.
that’s the message of Foer’s book. How
can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right
thing? How can we make cheeseburgers feel
An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling. Climate change is too dull a story.
worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our
extinction. In We Are the Weather
– an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms
that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because
that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even
mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60
years in the future.
change is dull. Antibiotic resistance is
even more dull.
pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.
Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison. Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses.
It was a
clever strategy. We’re helping bacteria
do the same thing.
world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working. My own children are three and five years
old. They’ve gotten infections that we
needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times. Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my
kids got better.
world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through
animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids.
You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance. By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.
Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time. Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics. We are actively making these drugs worse.
resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.
To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday
grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the
biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug
metabolism. You’d need to be able to see
in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.
honestly? People who can vividly picture
a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the
ones buying cheeseburgers.
But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.
assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. Neither have I. The number of people who have done the actual
cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.
I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.
the rain forest is beautiful. Future
generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of
jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it
I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. In retrospect, I’m
not sure what this entailed. We raised
money and sent it off in an envelope. I
don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the
arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees.
have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that
money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct. Many of the world’s problems would be easier
to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for
everyone. At the very least, if there
are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are
currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage
other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.
Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed. Everyone in the world would suffer as a result. If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.
you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this
policy on your own. If I decided to
split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would
get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.
guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can
accomplish as an individual.
In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today. We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems. It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.
describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself. This sensation grows more intense as he
watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?”
knows that he could choose to help. Each
day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.
is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that
parades as acceptance. Those of us who
know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the
anger. We should be terrified of
ourselves. We are the ones we have to
defy. … I am the person
endangering my children.”
if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat
it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest
to be destroyed.
Eating meat is pleasurable. A good cheese pizza can be divine. Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious. Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.
Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades. He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments. He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.
this knowledge isn’t enough. He still
surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.
why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years? Why has it become harder? I crave meat more now than I have at any
point since I became a vegetarian.”
wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants.
meat is pleasurable. Eating cheese is
heroin is pleasurable too. Driving a car
while drunk is pleasurable. Heck, even
cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance
behind you would be pleasurable.
In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances. Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.
and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all
(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets. If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change. If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change. Only 20%. By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change. You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)
If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently. If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.
we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas
emissions could be 50% of what they are currently. With no other changes, humanity would
survive. Our planet would remain
habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.
matters. I’m an atheist, and I’m well
aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will
go extinct eventually. I don’t believe
you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness
or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.
life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.
I support responsible hedonism.
Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that
protect our planet. Most people think
that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your
sexuality only with other consenting adults.
Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in
our culture, a social norm restrains us.
wishes that we, as a people, could choose better. He’s been struggling to eat food made from
plants. But he doesn’t struggle to
restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students. In those instances, our social norms make it
easy to do the right thing.
And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants! If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.
been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a
graduation-requirement course in linear algebra.
Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool. Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena. Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum. Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population? Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).
But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky. I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology. She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.
I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more. A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.
Whereas … linear algebra? This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics. If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math. A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.
Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear
algebra. He made huge contributions to
our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally
held him back. He never quite understood
the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to
provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.
retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.
doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think
that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession. After each evening that I spend working with
my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her
ability to nurture children isn’t improving.
yet. Somebody in an office decided that
all university students here need to pass this class. I don’t think this rule optimizes the
educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing
something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.
Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse. Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice. What exactly do you hope to optimize?
wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.
all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed
Limit 45” is a design flaw. A car that
accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as
passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally
creating as many traffic jams as possible?
That’s a feature. That’s
what self-driving cars are designed to do.
Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?
This assumption seems reasonable. After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem. Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians? This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.”
the manufacturers won’t sell cars. Would
you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?
the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often. But here’s a question that will arise daily:
if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re
car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours
serving as a low-cost taxi. If demand
for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available,
unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to
squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.
But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?
Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income. But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles. Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.
But they won’t park. In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc.
The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour. Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed. If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices. If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.
money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as
close to a standstill as possible.
for the car, this is an easy optimization problem. It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby
areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there. As more and more self-driving cars converge
on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them
to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.
person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those
streets. All the self-driving cars will
be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!,
they get to think. Meanwhile the human
is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who
made their choices months or years ago.
those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.
But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s
worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by
philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean
air, or habitable planets.
The amount of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere is already too high – ideally, our net emissions should be negative. Which is entirely feasible. When we cultivate forests, trees pull carbon from the air. But each tree can do only so much. We also need to reduce the amount of energy we consume.
We don’t need to be less happy, though. As the economy improved, people began flying more … but many flights aren’t producing happiness. Most people look harried and sullen in airports. If we all switched to taking trains, the cultural expectations for the rhythm of our lives would shift – instead of short bursts of misery, our travels could be pleasant spells of intermediate time.
And the giant server farms needed to run websites like Facebook gobble energy. Facebook, just like any other advertising company, profits by making people less happy. Many people would be happier in a world where these servers used less energy.
We have a compelling reason to change our behaviors. If we don’t, the global climate will rise by two degrees Celsius or more. (Of course, any individual location could become much warmer or colder – a nearby warm ocean current keeps Europe’s climate mild, but if melting polar ice redirects this current, countries like England could become quite frigid.)
How different might life be if global temperatures changed by two degrees?
In the year 536, global temperatures were about two degrees lower than they are today. (Which does prove, obviously, that the global climate can change for reasons that are not humanity’s fault. But the current changes are caused by us.)
Historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick believes that this two degree change in temperature made our planet an utterly miserable place to live. A volcanic eruption had darkened the sky, preventing incoming sunlight from warming Earth. “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick. Snow fell in summertime; crops failed; people starved.
And now we, in all our wisdom, are about to tug the needle just as far (if not farther!) in the other direction.
The Dark Ages were literally dark. Ashen clouds lurked overhead. Beset by such nightmarish conditions, people feared that God had forsaken them. Europeans abandoned science and literacy partly as penance, hoping to appease the source of wrath that was killing them and their children.
Plants have evolved on Earth for many millions of years. Many plant species will find a way to endure even if we change our planet’s climate. But human food crops are quite young, in evolutionary terms, and exist in precarious swaths of monoculture. A two degree increase in global temperatures will cause these plants to die. Famine will ensue. Global violence and warfare will increase as hungry people fight to survive.
A two degree change in
temperature is totally sufficient to usher in a new worst year to be alive.
If we change the global climate by two degrees, there’s also no assurance that our planet won’t keep warming. Weather is dictated by complex feedback loops that we don’t yet understand. Our oceans soak up heat, which is changing their chemistry; warmer water takes up more space, flooding the coasts, and will melt the polar ice caps from underneath, which further accelerates warming because ice reflects sunlight, but bare ground or water absorbs it.
Venus may have been habitable, once. But climate change spiraled out of control after the atmosphere filled with too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide. The oceans evaporated. Now, searing sulfuric acid falls as rain from the sky.
If we tip over the precipice, every living creature on earth will be doomed. No one understands enough about the feedback loops that dictate a planet’s climate to know how close to the precipice we are.
Although, really, a two
degree change would be awful enough.
Which is worth reiterating … especially because the cohort of humans that has contributed most to climate change, and currently holds the wealth and political power needed to prevent catastrophe, is of an age that perhaps they want the world to be a little warmer. Wealthy Americans in their fifties to seventies have long migrated south in pursuit of warmer climate.
The current generation of 50- to 70-year-olds was given the most of the Earth’s plenitude. The world of their youth was very different from the world in which my children were born. While that generation was alive, insect populations plummeted by 90% or more. The fecundity of other wildlife diminished in turn. Forests were clearcut, and the environment – including the very air we breathe – was devastated to produce the world’s current wealth.
Perhaps some of the people
in power now do want a warmer planet.
But it is not theirs. As phrased
by Wendell Berry,
“the world is not given by [our parents], but borrowed from [our] children.”
We should feel horrifically embarrassed to return this world in worse condition than when we were lent it.
Featured image: Night Landscape with Ruined Monastery by Lluís Rigalt (1814 – 1894).
“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “
“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them. But oil companies bought all the patents.”
A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories. Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …
(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different. Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve. This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today. Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)
I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them. Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away. Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.
Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.
Or, last week, the existence of water cars.
In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel. At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.
When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”). The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.
If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening. For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box. The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time. If they were, you’d get energy from nothing. They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.
But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur. It violates the Second Law, and it can happen. Perpetual motion machines can exist. They are just very, very rare. (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die. That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)
When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:
The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.
For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen. Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion. The released energy moves your car forward.
And there’s a hill in the middle. This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction. Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy. Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered. Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.
Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next. The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.
(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start. Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.” If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power. Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses. This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.
But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier. It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure. Something like millions of degrees. I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)
With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs. Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward. Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine. High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.
(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)
Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.
A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water. There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.