Alchemy

Raymond Smullyan, in his book The Tao Is Silent, recounts a story in which a friend of his complains that Taoism is a philosophy of having one’s cake and eating it too, to which Smullyan responds, “I know, isn’t that great?”

I am, as is clear from this blog, fully aware of the damage that we our doing to our climate, and so to ourselves through our use of the fossil fuels that have powered our technological ascension over the past century or so. The obvious solution, of course, is to drop everything and become an agrarian society, willingly suffering the drawbacks of a medieval level of technology and medicine in order to preserve the habitability of our planet. Well, ok, that’s the obvious solution that a lot of climate deniers seem to think is being proposed. It is a solution that would be effective, or at the very least it would halt our CO2 output, which would help things in the long run. Of course there are other issues, given that there’s a lag in warming, and it seems increasingly likely that we’ve already passed the point of no return, and we are committed to a chain reaction resulting in a much hotter stable state that will have us fleeing to the poles and the mountains to stay cool, but that’s not the point here. The point is that I like technology, and I don’t want to give it up, thank you very much.

I want to have my cake and eat it too, and I think that it’s possible.

Here’s why I think that: over the last century, without even really realizing it, we have perfected alchemy.

Just a refresher, for those who need it, when I say alchemy, I’m talking about the ancient study of matter, the most famous pursuits of which were, among other things, the search for the elixir of life, and the search for the ability to turn base metals into gold. Yes, I’m serious, and no I’m not talking about literally turning lead into gold.

I’m talking about black gold. Really, I hate that term, because it exemplifies all that is wrong with our view of petroleum, but it also helps to perfect the analogy. Over the past few decades, we have perfected the ability, given enough energy, to turn any form of carbon into any other form of carbon. We can take plan matter, and turn it into whatever we need, be it building material, writing products, fuel for heating, or even plastics or gasoline or jet fuel. We’re even learning how to fabricate meat. We can make any carbon-based substance out of any other, provided we have enough energy, and here’s the thing – for all practical purposes, we have unlimited energy. The only point at which solar energy will no longer be available is the point at which the sun is gone, by which time we will either no longer be in this solar system, or we will be long gone for some other reason (climate change?).

Until then, we are getting better and better at harnessing solar energy, and we’re getting better at storing the energy we harness. As efficiency improves, we are able to create pretty much any carbon-based substance we need. Silicon is not in short supply, nor is hydrogen or oxygen, and many of the metals we currently use can be recycled and/or replaced by carbon alloys, certainly for long enough for us to develop the ability  to harvest some resources off-planet.

The flip side of all this is that switching to a heliocentric, alchemical society will require that we grow vast amounts of plant matter, in what ever way will give as the most amount of carbon the fastest. Our need for carbon-based materials will drive us to find what plants put on the most mass the quickest, while being cheap and easy to grow, and through that compulsive self-interest, we will not only be creating the materials we need, we will be, in essence, creating them by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Of course, it’s never quite that simple – we WILL need to get better at recycling. We need to push hard to reclaim all the metals currently wasting away in scrapyards and landfills. We need to conserve old electronics for the metals needed for circuitry, but guess what? We’ve got a start on that already.

Everything we need is here, materially. We can turn trees into gas into plastic into cars into fertilizer into trees, if we really want to. We have a mastery over carbon unlike anything any charlatan Magus of ages past claimed to have over anything, and we need not worry about running out of power with which to do it. This planet is a powerhouse, and the amount of energy is only going to increase as global warming drives stronger winds, and more turbulent oceans.

All we lack is the will, and hopefully that can be found from within us.

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