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Mark Twain and the climate crisis

The explosion that sparked the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico marked, almost to the day, the 100th anniversary of the death of one of America’s most esteemed writers, Samuel L. Clemens. His humorous essay in Letters to the Earth, titled “Was the world made for man?” invites re-reading and thoughtful contemplation in light of the vast consequences of this latest, human-made disaster in fossil-fuel extraction.
In the essay, Mark Twain traces the long history of evolution of the vast variety of creatures, from invertebrates through oysters, fish, reptiles and mammals to man, which have peopled the earth through succeeding geologic ages. Especially intriguing is the account of burial, time after time, of “prodigious forests of tree ferns” and “no end of extinctions” of animal life through which the coal and oil fields developed which man has mined as his principal energy sources since the industrial revolution.
Fish, so the essay, were among animals in the scheme of creation which would be needed by man, and therefore fuels “to fry it with.” To this end, over tens of millions of years, vast areas of exotic vegetation and animals living off it would be sunk out of sight and let to rot, “to cold-storage their fossils.” Streams would then bury them under several feet of sediment; the latter, needing lots of time to harden and turn to rock would then “grow another forest on top [and] sink it.”
Through many repetitions of this over the eons, “the sickening slow job to build a coal-measure” would be accomplished; plankton and the remains of marine animals falling to the bottom of oceans paralleling the “cold-storage” process in forming oil.
Today, apart even from the danger of accidents with monstrous effects like the current oil spill, man’s burning the fossil fuels which Nature placed underground has had very bad side effects. It has been killing the planet, as scientists have made clear over the course of some decades, by putting greenhouse gases bound in these fuels into the earth atmosphere in vast amounts. Warming climate, disordered weather patterns and violent weather events have been the result, cause of great harm to wildlife, as to people and their livelihoods and security, the world over.
Mark Twain doesn’t fail to note the climate hardships for past earth creatures as glacial and warming periods followed each other repeatedly. “These poor orphans,” so the essay, were being chased “up and down and about the earth, from weather to weather, from tropic swelter to Arctic frost and back again and to and fro, never knowing what kind of weather was going to turn up next.”
With current state of knowledge of the threat to continuance of human civilization due to our energy habits one might expect a mirthful conclusion from Mark Twain that “The evidence is in.” It speaks to a long-overdue need of doing away with mining, drilling, and incinerating the buried fossil fuels and a crash program, instead, to “fry our fish” with their largely above-ground, renewable-fuel alternatives.