Death is a feature

Doc Searls
7 min readMar 16, 2018
When Parisians got tired of cemeteries during the French Revolution, they conscripted priests to relocate bones of more than six million deceased forebears to empty limestone quarries below the city: a hundred miles of rooms and corridors now called The Catacombes. It was from those quarries that much of the city’s famous structures above—Notre Dame, et. al.—were built in prior centuries, using a volume of extracted rock rivaling that of Egypt’s Great Pyramids. That rock, like the bones of those who extracted it, was once alive. In the shot above, shadows of future fossils (including moi) shoot the dead with their cell phones.

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars.

This is a very human thing to want. But before we start following his lead, we might want to ask whether death awaits us there.

Not our deaths. Anything’s. What died there to make life possible for what succeeds it?

From what we can tell so far, the answer is nothing.

To explain why life needs death, answer this: what do plastic, wood, limestone, paint, travertine, marble, asphalt, oil, coal, stalactites, peat, stalagmites, cotton, wool, chert, cement, nearly all food, all gas, and most electric services have in common?

They are all products of death. They are remains of living things or made from them.

Consider this fact: about a quarter of all the world’s sedimentary rock is limestone, dolomite and other carbonate rocks: remains of beings that were once alive. The Dolomites of Italy, the Rock of Gibraltar, the summit of Mt. Everest, all products of death.

Even the iron we mine has a biological source. Here’s how John McPhee explains it in his Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World:

Although life had begun in the form of anaerobic bacteria early in the Archean Eon, photosynthetic bacteria did not appear until the middle Archean and were not abundant until the start of the Proterozoic. The bacteria emitted oxygen. The atmosphere changed. The oceans changed. The oceans had been rich in dissolved ferrous iron, in large part put into the seas by extruding lavas of two billion years. Now with the added oxygen the iron became ferric, insoluble, and dense. Precipitating out, it sank to the bottom as ferric sludge, where it joined the lime muds and silica muds and other seafloor sediments to form, worldwide, the banded-iron formations that were destined to become rivets, motorcars and cannons. The is the iron of the Mesabi Range, the Australian iron of the Hammerslee Basin, the iron of Michigan, Wisconsin, Brazil. More than ninety percent of the iron ever mined in the world has come from Precambrian banded-iron formations. Their ages date broadly from twenty-five hundred to two thousand million years before the present. The transition that produced them — from a reducing to an oxidizing atmosphere and the associated radical change in the chemistry of the oceans — would be unique. It would never repeat itself. The earth would not go through that experience twice.

Death produces building and burning materials in an abundance that seems limitless, at least from standpoint of humans in the here and now. But every here and now ends. Realizing that is a vestigial feature of human sensibility.

Take for example, The World Has Plenty of Oil, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal ten years ago. In it, Nansen G. Saleri writes, “As a matter of context, the globe has consumed only one out of a grand total of 12 to 16 trillion barrels underground.” He concludes,

The world is not running out of oil any time soon. A gradual transitioning on the global scale away from a fossil-based energy system may in fact happen during the 21st century. The root causes, however, will most likely have less to do with lack of supplies and far more with superior alternatives. The overused observation that “the Stone Age did not end due to a lack of stones” may in fact find its match.

The solutions to global energy needs require an intelligent integration of environmental, geopolitical and technical perspectives each with its own subsets of complexity. On one of these — the oil supply component — the news is positive. Sufficient liquid crude supplies do exist to sustain production rates at or near 100 million barrels per day almost to the end of this century.

Technology matters. The benefits of scientific advancement observable in the production of better mobile phones, TVs and life-extending pharmaceuticals will not, somehow, bypass the extraction of usable oil resources. To argue otherwise distracts from a focused debate on what the correct energy-policy priorities should be, both for the United States and the world community at large.

In the long view of a planet that can’t replace any of that shit, this is the rationalization of a parasite. That this parasite can move on to consume other irreplaceable substances it calls “resources” does not make its actions any less parasitic.

Or, correctly, saprophytic; since a saprophyte is “an organism which gets its energy from dead and decaying organic matter.”

Moving on to coal, the .8 trillion tons of it in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin now contributes 40% of the fuel used in coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Here’s the biggest coal mine in the basin, called Black Thunder, as it looked to my camera in 2009:

About half the nation’s electricity is produced by coal-fired plants, the largest of which can eat the length of a 1.5-mile long coal train in just 8 hours. In Uncommon Carriers, McPhee says Powder River coal at current rates will last about 200 years.

Then what? Nansen Saleri thinks we’re resourceful enough to get along with other energy sources after we’re done with the irreplaceable kind.

I doubt it.

Wind, tide, and solar are unlikely to fuel aviation, though I suppose fresh biofuel might. Still, at some point, we must take a long view, or join our evolutionary ancestors in the fossil record faster than we might otherwise like.

As I fly in my window seat from place to place, especially on routes that take me over arctic, near-arctic, and formerly arctic locations, I see more and more of what geologists call “the picture”: a four-dimensional portfolio of scenes in current and former worlds. Thus, when I look at the seashores that arc eastward from New York City— Long Island, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Cape Cod—I see a ridge of half-drowned debris scraped off a continent and deposited at the terminus of an ice cap that began melting back toward the North Pole only 18,000 years ago—a few moments before the geologic present. Back then, the Great Lakes were still in the future, their basins covered by ice that did not depart from the lakes’ northern edges until about 7,000 years ago or 5,000 B.C.

Most of Canada was still under ice while civilization began in the Middle East and the first calendars got carved. Fly over Canada often enough and the lakes appear to be exactly what they are: puddles of a recently melted cap of ice. Same goes for most of the ponds around Boston. Every inland swamp in New England and upstate New York was a pond only a few dozen years ago, and was ice only a dozen or so centuries before that. Go forward a few thousand years and all of today’s ponds will be packed with accumulated humus and haired over by woods or farmland. In the present, we are halfway between those two conditions. Here and now, the last ice age is still ending.

As Canada continues to thaw, one can see human activity spark and spread across barren lands, extracting “resources” from ground made free of permafrost only in the last few years. Doing that is both the economic and the pestilential thing to do.

On the economic side, we spend down the planet’s principal, and fail to invest toward interest that pays off for the planet’s species. That the principal we spend has been in the planet’s vaults for millions or billions of years, and in some cases cannot be replaced, is of little concern to those spending it, which is roughly all of us.

Perhaps the planet looks at our species the same way and cares little that every species is a project that ends. Still, in the meantime, from the planet’s own one-eyed perspective, our species takes far more than it gives, and with little regard for consequences. We may know, as Whitman put it, the amplitude of time. We also tend to assume in time’s fullness all will work out.

But it won’t.

Manhattan schist, the bedrock anchoring New York City’s tallest buildings, is a little over half a billion years old. In about the same amount of time, our aging Sun, growing hotter, will turn off photosynthesis. A few billion years later, the Sun will swell into a red giant with a diameter wider than Earth’s orbit, roasting the remains of our sweet blue planet and scattering its material out into the cosmos, perhaps for eventual recycling by stars and planets not yet formed.

In a much shorter run, many catastrophes will happen. One clearly is what our species is already doing to the planet during what geologists correctly call the Anthropocene. I suppose that’s a good reason for Elon and crew to “save” a few members of our vain little species. But why fuck up Mars before we’re done fucking up Earth, when there’s still some leverage with the death we have at home and that Mars won’t begin to have until stuff dies on it?

I’ve always been both an optimist and a realist. Specifically, I’m an optimist for at least the short run, by which I mean the next few dozen years. But I’m a pessimist for our civilization — and our species. Death is always a winning bet.

But hey, maybe nature knows better what to do with us than we do.

An ancestor of this piece appeared in on 4 March 2008



Doc Searls

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.