Dial “C” for Carbon

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Climate Post is away this week, trying to estimate sea-level rise from first-hand observation (or, at the beach…). Before life in Washington picks up again in the fall, why not take a step back and look at a way to organize the big picture? The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star recently asked us for an op-ed, reproduced below, which first ran two weeks ago and has since been picked up by the McClatchy wire service. See you next week, and have a good Labor Day.


Alfred Hitchcock filled his movies with suspense by picking some object of life-or-death consequence–microfilm, documents, uranium-filled wine bottles–and setting his characters in pursuit. The great director had a nickname for this plot-driver: the MacGuffin. The funny thing is, as long as his characters found the MacGuffin something to kill for, Hitchcock never particularly cared what the consequences were.

Too often the media treat topics of great national import as MacGuffins, the things that politicians are fighting over this week–though it never seems to matter what thing or what week. Our national storytellers never particularly care what the consequences of “it” are.

Case in point: Senators will return in two weeks from their summer recess and are expected to consider a climate-change bill similar to the one the House narrowly passed in June. The policy would gradually reduce U.S. carbon emissions by adding a price to polluting that commodifies its potential social cost. Judged by the steady ticker of news headlines this year–Wall Street bonuses! Health care! Climate change!–it would be reasonable to conclude that “carbon” is just another in a series of media MacGuffins. This is to our universal impoverishment.

Never mind the serious risks posed by climate change, and the difficulties we have in addressing them. Instead, think about this: What are the consequences of narrowly depicting “carbon” as “troublemaker,” as the MacGuffin we chase to move the climate-change story forward?

There are two main consequences here. The first is that we have become blind to something much bigger, the greatest detective story of all time. It’s not a tale of murder–not yet–but whatever the reverse of that is. Carbon is the story of life (itself!): what science over the past couple of centuries has revealed about it.

About 20 percent of you is carbon. About 80 percent of your DNA is carbon. Life on Earth is a great story, even though we’re uncertain how it begins and ends. The carbon atom, the most “sociable” of the elements, is the fastest way to learn the most about everything larger than a nucleus and smaller than a planet.

Think about this the next time you skip past an article about “carbon emissions,” “carbon footprints,” or “carbon regulations.” Have you ever wondered why leaves are green, why cars go and airplanes fly, how pharmaceuticals work or don’t, and what makes diamonds sparkle? If you’ve ever wondered about how most anything works, carbon is a valuable entry into the conversation, a lowest common denominator for organizing much scientific knowledge.

In the last 150 years or so, but mostly in the last few decades, scientists have identified nearly 50 million different kinds of stuff (molecules). This stuff is made up of combinations of atoms. And there are just 92 kinds of naturally occurring atoms: the chemical elements. A reasonable guess would be that these atoms mix and match pretty evenly to produce those 50 million kinds of stuff. But they don’t: Of those 50 million molecules, all but 100,000 or so contain carbon.

The story of carbon has fallen through the yawning cracks between scientists, who see it as so mundane and obvious that, well, they don’t even see it, and everyone else, who are made uneasy by thoughts of high school chemistry or who write it off as the “Star Trek” cliche of human beings as “carbon units.” Or who tragically think it’s just the ephemeral reason we need an ephemeral climate bill.

Instead of being a policy-world boogeyman, carbon is the most important word that people understand the least, a portal into how life persists and empires rise. If we conduct the climate conversation ripping “carbon” from the context of life on Earth, then we are both leaving ourselves ignorant and missing a terrific yarn. Primo Levi wrote, “The number of [carbon] atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story.”

Consequence No. 2 demands attention because the gee-whiz, science-is-neat, nature-is-beautiful argument doesn’t work for everyone. So we turn to economics, the heart of the neoclassical paradigm, Adam Smith himself.

By treating carbon as a policy-debate MacGuffin, rather than as a central character itself, we are coming close to tripping Smith’s admonishment that an economy of atomized people may lose sight of the big picture. Division of labor, he wrote, drives economic growth by encouraging skills development and efficiency. But too much specialization erodes the system’s overall health.

He wrote: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.”

As proprietors and employees we thrive by honing high-demand skills for our own benefit. As citizens, we thrive together by substantively confronting present and future threats to the Republic. But because we’re overspecialized–and busy, to boot–we have too little context for framing these complicated civic risks.

To adapt a line from a non-Hitchcock thriller: “Follow the carbon.” As the Master of Suspense might agree, it makes a heck of a story.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist.