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The carbon paradox Print-ready version

Carbon, born inside stars, catalysed life on Earth — but lately it’s been getting a bad rap. This is carbon’s journey from cosmic wonder to global pariah. It starts at an (in)famous music festival in 1970.

by Nick Kilvert
July 11, 2022

This article is best read in its original form

On a mid-Saturday afternoon in August 1970, singer-songwriter-cum folk legend Joni Mitchell is seated at a piano in the centre of a towering timber stage.

Before her, in a field in Afton Down on the Isle of Wight, a sea of long-haired, blue-jeaned bodies stretches an estimated 600,000-strong to the horizon.

With the crowd swelling and more threatening to smash their way in through the perimeter fence, Woodstock the year prior was starting to look like a warm-up.

Amongst the masses about "200 to 300 feet back" from the stage is 14-year-old American Kevin Gillespie. He's travelled with a friend from Paris to see the likes of Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, The Doors ... what he calls one of the most "crazy" line-ups ever assembled.

"Sing it with me now," Mitchell says, before turning back to the piano: "We are stardust, billion-year-old carbon ..."

The lyrics might sound like a bit of poetic licence, but as we're about to explore, they're rooted in good science.

The fact that so much of that sweaty, "billion-year-old carbon" was now gathered together in an English paddock, singing about itself, is just the icing on the cake.

This is the story of that carbon - from its birth, to the miracle of complex life, to the complicated mess we've made together.

Like all good stories, it begins just after the Big Bang.

Back then... there was no carbon.

Set the controls for the heart of the sun At the dawn of the universe, there was a whole lot of hydrogen and helium, a little bit of lithium, and not much happening.

Fast forward about 2 billion years from the Big Bang, around 12 billion years before the Isle of Wight Festival, and massive amounts of hydrogen and helium have coalesced to form suns.

Gas clouds "will become the nursery of a next generation of stars." Supplied: Global Mechanic/Bruce Alcock The centre of these giants are under immense pressure, as astrophysicist Tamara Davis explains in Carbon: The Unauthorised Biography.

"In mature stars, the core is really dense, and gets really, really hot - like 100 million degrees," says Professor Davis.

"That's where carbon starts forming."

But to actually produce carbon, even inside stars, requires quite an unlikely set of events and some split-second timing.

"You've got to have two heliums bashed together, which forms beryllium. But [beryllium] is really unstable, it doesn't last for long. It basically disintegrates as soon as it is born," Professor Davis says.

"And in that fraction of a second - a millionth of a billionth of a second - when [the beryllium] is still hanging around, it needs to be hit by another helium. When that happens, then you form carbon."

So these suns were generating huge amounts of carbon in their cores. But all suns eventually burn themselves out - including our own, if we look 6 or so billion years into the future, past the Isle of Wight Festival.

And if they're large enough, they explode in a catastrophic supernova.

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, this sends the ingredients for new galaxies shooting out across the universe.

"Where do those molecules go? Where do those atoms go?

"They scatter into the galaxy and they'll collect where there are gas clouds, that will become the nursery of a next generation of stars."

The first stars in the Milky Way started forming over 13 billion years ago.

The Earth didn't make an appearance until around 4.5 billion years ago. Carbon was a wallflower

So are we really "billion-year-old carbon"?

Probably older, says Professor Davis.

"Most of the carbon that makes up us and the Earth and all of the life around us comes from the inside of stars."

"About a fifth of our bodies are made up of [that] carbon."

But it's a big leap from the early, fiery, hostile Earth to us animals and our music festivals, so let's back up a bit.

In the early days of the Earth, things would have looked very different, according to palaebiogeochemist Martin Van Kranendonk.

"Three and a half billion years ago, you wouldn't even recognise what our Earth looked like.

"You would have seen this green water-world, with a few black islands, and orange puffy clouds - a totally different planet."

At the time, carbon was in the background, a "wallflower", and early carbon-based life was eking out an existence in the form of cyanobacteria around hydrothermal vents and hot springs.

We see evidence of that today, in fossilised stromatolites left behind by the cyanobacteria in some of the oldest rock formations in the world, in Western Australia's Pilbara.

We still don't know the exact secrets of how the very first life began, according to geologist Robert Hazen.

"The real mystery, the key to understanding the origin of life, the thing I would like to know more than anything else before I die, is: how does carbon make copies of herself?"

"That's the origin of life."

But given what we do know about how carbon behaves, it was only a matter of time before the party really got started, Dr Hazen says.

"The secret has to do with a rule of nature."

"There are certain combinations of electrons - exactly 2, exactly 10, or 18 or 36 - and when you have those numbers of electrons, you've got an extremely stable atom."

"Carbon has six. And as a result, carbon does every trick in the book to bond to other things to get more electrons."

Basically, like lots of the hippies listening to Joni Mitchell, carbon is right into free love.

"She loves to bond with hydrogen, that's a big one. You find a lot of carbon-hydrogen bonds.

"But she goes over to oxygen, she takes nitrogen, she goes to phosphorous and ... she'll bond with iron and nickel and cobalt, zirconium for gosh sakes ...very few elements want to bond with zirconium."

So very early on you've got carbon bonding all over the place, including to oxygen atoms, to make carbon dioxide - which by now is all through our atmosphere.

But carbon also has another ace up its sleeve - it can bond to itself, forming huge chains of carbon, each with different properties depending on length.

When packed into lengths of six alongside hydrogen and oxygen, via a little trick called photosynthesis, it provides the energy for a new type of growth that's about to take over the Earth - plants.

As those plants take over, they're laying the groundwork for the human chapter of this story, when things take a dramatic twist.

You say you want an [industrial] revolution?

By 500 million years before the Isle of Wight festival, carbon-based life forms - plants, sponges, and multicellular animals like jellyfish and flatworms - had taken over the ocean floor.

Then the plants started moving onshore, Dr Hazen says.

"About 400 million years ago, life learnt to creep onto land and within tens of millions of years, you had forests on Earth for the very first time. For the first time, Earth was green.

"And so what happens is these forests grow, and as they grow the plants get taller - tree-like plants that were 30-40-50 feet tall, and they grow and then they'd die and they'd fall over.

"But they did something strange. If a tree falls over today in the woods, you come back two or three years later and the fungus has got it and it dissolves and just goes back to the soil.

"[But back then] the trees would fall and they'd just sit there, they wouldn't rot in the same way."

That's because the bacteria, microbes and fungi that break down fallen trees today didn't exist yet.

"And so a tree would fall and another tree would fall and you'd get layer upon layer and you'd get these accumulations of 50, 100, 200, 300 feet."

Trees are made of about 50 per cent carbon by dry weight.

"At first that carbon is just dead trees. But as you keep burying them deeper, the pressure gets higher, the temperature gets higher, they get squeezed, they get baked, it becomes richer and richer in our element carbon."

Which is where we come in.

When we first fired up the furnaces of the industrial revolution with coal, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were at about 280 parts per million.

Burning fossil fuels was a bit like reversing the storage of ancient sunlight.

We did it for the heat. But all those carbon atoms now freshly unleashed were doing what carbon does best - bonding; and oxygen was the partner of choice.

By the time 14-year-old Kevin and the 600-thousand odd revellers made it to the festival gates in 1970, atmospheric carbon dioxide had risen to about 325 parts per million.

"I don't know if anyone at that point, in my consciousness anyway, was talking about climate change," Kevin says.

"I knew we had to do a better job [on the environment], but I don't remember anyone saying 'hey, it's going to get hot'."

Caught in the devil's bargain

Kevin ran out of money after three days at the festival, so got a gig selling The Evening Standard newspaper across the site to get money for food.

But it's unlikely there would have been any articles on climate change in that paper.

It's not that no-one knew.

Though she got little credit for the discovery, American scientist Eunice Foote published a paper in 1856 showing the effect of sunlight on different gases, including carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.

She found that when the sun's energy bounces off the Earth's surface in the infrared frequency, it hits molecules of carbon dioxide, as well as others like methane and nitrous oxide.

They in turn get excited, vibrating faster and releasing that infrared energy as heat in every direction.

Some of that energy radiates into space, while some is captured by other greenhouse gas molecules, holding that heat close to the Earth.

The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon - we're just ramping up the dial. Supplied: Global Mechanic/Bruce Alcock But for any rare festival-goer who may have heard of global warming, it was all so far off in the future, and there were more pressing matters at hand.

A group rumoured to be French anarchists griping over ticket prices and the perceived commercialisation of the festival were outside the fence, threatening to tear it down.

The music was running way behind schedule, and Joni Mitchell had been brought up the bill to try to pacify some of the agitation in the crowd.

She'd later say they "threw me to the beast". She'd invited the crowd to sing along with her in an effort to get them on side.

Depending on who you speak to, experiences of the festival ranged from a dream to a nightmare.

The end (beautiful friend)

The crowd had been so unexpectedly huge, to the authorities anyway, that parliament amended the local council act to limit "overnight assemblies in the open".

The Isle of Wight Festival wouldn't return until 2002.

In the meantime, a story played out that we're mostly pretty familiar with.

A decade after the 1970 festival, when atmospheric CO2 had reached around 340ppm, scientists started sounding the alarm.

Kevin went on to have six kids, and feels hope for their generation. Supplied: Global Mechanic/Bruce Alcock In 1990 at 354ppm, the first IPCC report warned that "we are certain" emissions from human activities are contributing to the greenhouse effect.

Slowly but surely the word was getting out that we'd need to start changing our thinking about carbon, and CO2.

Kevin says he became aware of climate change sometime in the '80s or '90s.

In the 200 or so years between the start of the industrial revolution and the Isle of Wight festival, humans added about 45ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere.

In the 52 years since, we've added almost double that and right now we are edging past 421ppm.

Warming is expected to pass 1.5C above pre-industrial-revolution levels in the next decade.

While fossil fuel companies aren't keen to see us give up coal, oil and gas, Kevin hopes we can get on top of clean technology, both for the planet and so he can continue enjoying motor-biking adventures with his kids.

He's got hope that their generation can turn the ship around.

"Hippies in general ... a lot of it was about recycling, taking care of Mother Earth and 'make love not war'.

"I still move with that kind of energy, I still believe that stuff ... I've tried to instil that kind of care and kindness and compassion in my children and they're awesome, absolutely fantastic.

"We all go riding together, we ride dirt bikes fast ... but I think they're way more open-minded and way more aggressive in wanting to protect [the planet]."

Carbon - The Unauthorised Biography

This is the paradoxical story of the element that builds all life, and yet may end it all. Watch the film tonight at 8:30 on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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Added to Library on July 12, 2022. (1567)


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