A Green Old Deal

Many billions of years ago, somewhere in the vast darkness of space, there was a lonely dying star. As the furnace that had kept it bright for millions of years began to run out of fuel, the star started burning parts of itself just to keep warm. And as it did, it’s outer layers began to expand, just like an ailing heart determined to keep beating, desperate to defy its approaching death. But the light show had already started to dim a very long time ago. Without any warning, one day the star had a violent heart attack. Its mostly empty now helium core collapsed into a thousand pieces like a paper-thin eggshell, and the rest of the star’s body soon followed: it fell victim to its own gravity, splitting apart into trillions of miniscule pieces in a violent explosion, otherwise known as a supernova. Only a tiny black pearl made of neutrons remained at the centre, a silent monument to mark the place where the star once stood. Everything else flew out in space, never to return. 

But the star’s ashes had a second life to live. Carried by the freezing cosmic wind, they brought with them to Earth the most precious building block of life: carbon. Formed originally at the star’s core, it had taken a furnace of 15 million degrees Celsius to create the most important element in the bodies of all plants and animals. With over 9 million different carbon-based natural materials on Earth, carbon is the “wild” card in the poker game of chemistry: it can be used to make anything and everything you can imagine: from the invisible, delicate floral scent of a rose, to a hard diamond that can cut through steel. Lately scientists have even discovered a compound called carbene, which is made entirely out of carbon and is so light yet so strong, if they had enough of it they could build a ladder to the moon if they wanted to. 

Carbon is so precious on planets like Earth that, although there are 118 elements in the Periodic Table, the study of chemistry itself is divided into two big disciplines: the study of carbon compounds (organic chemistry), and the study of all of the other 117 elements, the non-carbon compounds (inorganic chemistry). 

But Earth was a violent place when it first formed. There were no roses, probably not even diamonds. Much of the carbon was in the form of dangerous greenhouse gasses such as methane and CO2. All of this changed when life arrived and began weaving miracles made out of scraps of different elements that were randomly floating in the ocean. Carbon was one of these elements, but there was something special about it: it was like the string in a necklace: able to bring together different elements, organise them and put them in a row as part of a bigger structure. Carbon was the glue, combining elements that would otherwise either fail to “gel” or would have reacted violently to each other: Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen were all “loners” until carbon came and began combining them in the most imaginative molecular superstructures. From its phospholipid outer membrane to its proteins and even its DNA, the first organism on Earth was made entirely out of a carbon backbone. And since then, all of us continue to be. Carbon may comprise less than one-fifth of our body weight, but it is in every single biological molecule: proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, hormones, even our main food source, glucose, is carbon-based. 

There were many important renewable energy technologies that Earth’s first organisms developed and deployed very early on, and before they even became multicellular. These were part of the Green Old Deal. The first was the world’s first solar panel: chlorophyl. It was also the world’s first and only solar nanotechnology, a tennis racket-shaped molecule made of a few carbon rings with a Magnesium crystal in the centre, which harvested the sun’s energy very efficiently and deposited it in big battery stacks called chloroplasts. Plants and early bacteria used this clean energy for all of their needs including building, intracellular transport, even cooking their own food. This continues today.

Another huge innovation was carbon capture. From sea creatures depositing calcium carbonate into their shells, to huge trees absorbing carbon from the atmosphere to build their trunks, to methane-feeding bacteria, carbon was being taken out of the atmosphere quicker than volcanos could replace it. As the land gradually turned green, the sky turned into a familiar blue. 

Trash disposal was practiced in a completely respectable and hygienic way as well. Did you know that plants hold on to all of their trash until they die? Each plant cell has a compartment called a vacuole, which is mostly empty at first. The cell uses this space to dump any unwanted or toxic materials, rather than dumping them outside of the plant. Scientists have analysed vacuoles and have discovered that plants use them to safely dispose of, and isolate human-engineered toxins like pesticides and radioactive isotopes. Imagine if, as a human, you kept all your trash with you on your body until you died. You would be a mountain-sized ball of plastic with a tiny human creature in the centre.

Early plants and animals made the Earth’s atmosphere and environment liveable for humans to arrive, and have maintained this process to this day. As they turn the planet back into ashes, humans are trying to develop and implement, renewable technologies that these organisms had figured out billions of years ago. The Green Old Deal was a gift from the first organisms of the planet to humans. The Green New Deal is a gift from humans to investors, paid for in lives: both human and non-human.

To be continued…(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , read his books or join his mailing list

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