When scientists reported that carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a new record last week, I thought of American writer Henry Adams whose 1918 Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, included a chapter entitled “A Law of Acceleration.”
Adams noted that “in the nineteenth century, society by common accord agreed in measuring its progress by the coal-output. The ratio of increase in the volume of coal-power may serve as dynamometer.” He tells readers that the “coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power, for the ton of coal yielded three or four times as much power in 1900 as in 1840.”
Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and the great grandson of John Adams, a celebrated Founding Father of the American republic and its second president. Henry knew something of the trajectory of American life and of the world as a whole.
Today, we mark both our progress and our peril through such observations. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is the keeper of what is known as the Keeling Curve which charts the rise in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii from 1958 onward. That rise is, of course, due primarily to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, something Adams tells us would be a barometer of improvement in his own age.
In its announcement last week Scripps included a calculation that might been in Henry Adams’ autobiography were he writing it today. The Scripps release stated: “The build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere has also been accelerating. It took over 200 years for levels to increase by 25%, but now just over 30 years later, levels are at a 50% increase.”
Contemplate that for a bit. The amount of excess carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere doubled in the last 30 years or so. But, the first half of the total buildup took 200 years. That’s the kind of acceleration Adams would surely have noted.
There are other numbers which he might have included. As of 2011, half of all the oil ever consumed was consumed between 1985 and 2011. The same is true of copper. (I have not been able to find calculations adjusted for 2021.) The rate of electricity consumption worldwide has more than doubled between 1990 and 2019.
Adams marveled at the acceleration he witnessed during his lifetime. The trouble is, we still marvel at such acceleration and largely equate it with all things good.
Using the internet as an example, between 2000 and 2020, internet users mushroomed by 1,266 percent. The total amount of data created, captured, copied and consumed has risen by a factor of 30 since 2010. All that data and all those users require enormous amounts of energy to service though clear estimates of how much are hard to come by. (This piece has some interesting figures though on examination, not all are up-to-date.) The so-called Internet of Things—devices connected to the internet such as industrial monitoring devices, alarms, wearable devices, surveillance cameras, and household appliances—is projected to triple from 2019 to 2025 to 75 billion devices. That will add considerably to internet-related energy use.
Climate scientists tell us we need not just a deceleration in growth of greenhouse gas emissions, but actual rapid declines to address climate change with any hope of success. Given how we think about acceleration, it’s hard to imagine that our global society will seek accelerated reductions in emissions as a primary goal.
Figure: Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide (Keeling Curve) by Robert A. Rohde 2007. “This figure shows the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations as directly measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. This curve is known as the Keeling curve, and is an essential piece of evidence of the man-made increases in greenhouse gases that are believed to be the cause of global warming.” Via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide.png