Humans were put on Earth for the primary purpose of returning carbon to the atmosphere in order to warm the planet, at which point our services will be done, our world will become inhospitable, and we will depart, having helped restore planetary equilibrium along the way.
No, this is not a Mayan prophesy. More like a Gaian prophesy.
This is the premise of a fantastical and fascinating essay written 20 years ago by a self-described “extremely nerdy” computer programmer with a longtime interest in both environmentalism and alternative energy, though he hasn’t worked professionally in either.
Earlier this year, I came across the six-page essay, which could easily be mistaken for a scientific treatise but for the author’s précis stating that, while “loosely grounded in recent research in ecology and paleoclimatology,” the paper was “distinctly tongue in cheek.”
The paper, titled “The Consequences of Gaia, or The Carbonist Manifesto” (download here) was written in 1992 by a then 35-year-old computer programmer named Jeff Berkowitz. It is rooted in the Gaia hypothesis (also referred to as the Gaia theory or principle), the notion that Earth's biosphere is a dynamic, self-regulating system, first formulated in the 1970s by scientist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Their hypothesis states that the Earth is not just an amalgam of rocks and trees and water but a giant cell capable of adjusting to both small and large changes in an intelligent and holistic manner.
According to "The Carbonist Manifesto," we humans are one of those adjustments.
Berkowitz begins his essay by explaining how the temperature of the biosphere is largely controlled by the quantities of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the atmosphere. Seeking equilibrium, various geophysical and biological processes cooperate to lower the level of CO2 when the biosphere warms and release CO2 when it cools. But over the past 500 million years, the amount of available carbon in the biosphere has slowly decreased, as carbon was captured in hydrocarbon deposits, such as coal, oil, and seafloor sediments. That is to say, for millions of years, Earth gradually cooled as CO2 was sequestered.
Here, I’ll let Berkowitz take over the story:
The last 100,000 years have seen some of the coldest times in the 500 million years that have elapsed since the Ordovician period. These 100,000 years form less than 1/1000th of the intervening 500 million years. Oddly, they're the same 100,000 years that Homo Sapiens Sapiens have existed on Earth. Clearly, the biosphere has reached a point of crisis. The relatively stable processes of self-regulation that have worked for the past hundreds of millions of years have reached the limit of their ability to correct.
In response to the impending crisis, Gaia evolved a solution. At the edges of the ice sheets that flowed down over the northern hemisphere during the last ice age, Gaia brought it to fruition: a short-term corrective process designed to restore the natural balance of free carbon dioxide in the biosphere.
Yes, Man. Not the destroyer, the pillager, the environmental rapist of the popular lore; an utterly different view of Man the restorer, the savior, the solution to an environmental crisis more dangerous to the biosphere than even the giant stone that ended the age of dinosaurs. Man, whose only purpose in the Gaian system is to extract carbon from the rocks and put it back in the atmosphere where it belongs.
Next page: An elegant and poetic theory