How Pillage and Plunder Plowed a Planet
How materialist, consumerist sewage and waste gave this planet its name.
We have been taught to loathe a flock of modern sins: materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display. Not to mention imperialism, colonialism, and growth. We have been told that these sins are a product of industrialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. But they are not. They are products of nature. And they arrived in this cosmos long before the advent of human beings.
In fact, nature has used materialism, consumerism, and waste to achieve a surprising goal. To bioform a poison pill of stone. To green and garden a planet of hostile rock. To give us a nurturing earth. In fact, nature’s waste and sewage has given this planet its name. Here’s the story.
In its early days, roughly four billion years ago, the infant earth’s volcanoes spat forth jewelry—shards of glass. Then bacterial looters came along to turn that glass into housing and food. The first wave of volcanic glass desecrators were damned good at what they did. And what, pray tell, was that? Materialism and consumerism. Acquiring material things. And turning them into gadgetry.
They snabbed, grabbed, corralled, hoarded, chewed, and used the stuff that a materialist covets and accumulates. They clawed pieces of the existing order and used them as Lego blocks to assemble outrages, alien engines, materials and processes that should never have been. They pulled together matter with an inventiveness that makes Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk look like midgets of ingenuity.
For example, they kidnapped toxic atoms like sulfur and phosphorous, turned these poisons into pistons, and used them to expand the powers of their metabolic machinery. They sucked energy from the strange twists of iron, oxygen, and hydrogen. Small as they were, the bacteria turned hundreds of billions of tons of dead matter into bio-stuff. Then they showed a callous indifference to the sanctity of their environment. They junked their waste.
You heard me right. Nature’s first daughters, her bacteria, were trash producers, litter scatterers, and garbage heap makers. They were industrialists without a conscience, mass-producers of detritus, ruins, and decay. They left old, played-out colony-sized homes behind. They trashed the place with their tubes and their layers of bedding, their sewage, and their rubbish. But their environmental indifference paid off. Their outrageous irresponsibility and their destructive, exploitive atrocities produced a gift.
The first generation of bacteria laid the base for life. They initiated what ecologists call “primary production.” They created the “soil” in which a second generation would thrive. They provided the riches that would make radically new “microenvironments.”[i] To quote Frances Westall, director of research at the Centre de Biophysique Moléculaire in Orleans, France, “As the glasses ‘age’, the autotrophs are replaced by chemoorganotrophs that use the organic carbon of the previous communities as a source.”
What’s the translation in simple English? The outrageous, ugly, materialist trash of the first generation was the treasure on which a second generation would thrive.[ii] But that’s not all. Housing materials and layers of garbage—layers of discards, litter, and material waste, trash pits of manufactured goods and discarded technology—stacked on top of each other over time and generated end products like “microbial mats.”
What are microbial mats? Generation after generation of materialist exploiters, of microbial growth-addicts, piled up their abandoned remains and destroyed the nature of their environment utterly. Or, to put it differently, they raped the virgin rock and desecrated the stoic purity at the bottom of the sea. With their mass production of garbage, litter, and waste, they produced a revolutionary new bottom line. A big one—a gooey, mucky, dirty one. It’s a substance that a fictional god would someday use to make a fictional Adam. The microbial rapists made mud.
Yes, mud would soon trash 70% of the seafloor of the world.[iii] Mud would soon cover, bury, and soil the seabed’s pure and virginal face. Mud would soon be one of the most important forms of waste in the history of the cosmos. Mud would soon be one of the biggest makers of change.
The bacterial rapists would turn raw rock into mud flats that would eventually be six feet deep.[iv] They would make so many layers of abandoned housing and sewage that eventually the pileup would despoil and re-create even the environment’s geology. The multilayered garbage heaps would compact and make new kinds of rock—chert. Or the striped structures known as zebra rock.[v] Not to mention the stone that the geologist, sedimentologist, and editor of the Journal of Paleontology Brian Pratt calls “microbial biolithics” with “lufa-like structures of calcified microbial filaments”.”[vi]
The undersea microbes raping the purity of the early oceans’ bottoms would even make limestone, and that limestone would submerge beneath the seabed, heat, liquefy, and become the next asthenosphere, the next fluid base of liquid rock on which new tectonic plates would ride.[vii] From dust to dust and from rock to rock—but not really. From rock to mud. And the difference would be huge.
What is going on here? Why all this despoliation, exploitation, desecration, and rape? Why all of this Franken-plunder? Why all this garbage? Why this litter on an orbiting gravel pile that is still virginal and new?
Life was on a growth binge. Life was expanding from a teaspoonful to a handful, from a handful to a truckload, and from a truckload to a mountain or two. Of what? Of something that blows apart the previous rules. Of something improbable. Of something utterly impossible. Molecule teams with persistence, hunger, and audacity. Molecule teams with factory-like capacities. Molecule teams hell bent on manic mass production. Molecule teams indifferent to the existing “harmony.” Molecule teams insistent on remaking their environment utterly. Narcissistic molecule teams, molecule teams obsessed with grabbing material stuff, “consuming” it, and making more copies of, guess what, themselves. The molecule teams of cells and DNA.
Those molecule teams were expanding a public works project. They were growing a global infrastructure, a collaborative initiative advanced by the efforts of every cell and colony. They were growing a new cloak that would recostume an insecure and tempestuous gravity pile circling the core of a mid-sized[viii] fireball, a mid-sized sun. They were growing a coat that with persistence would eventually swaddle and swathe the baldness of this gravity ball’s naked stone. They were growing the garment that would soon cushion this planet’s seizures of catastrophe. These molecule teams were growing something this solar system had never seen before—a biosphere. They were making nature into something that nature had never been. They were turning an orbiting slag heap green.
To see how, let’s go back to mud. Remember, mud was a toxic pollutant. It was the ultimate scar of consumerist and materialist desecration. It was waste. It was refuse. It was sewage and garbage. It was dirty. It soiled the virginal landscape. Hence another of mud’s names: soil. Yet mud would be the substance from which all that we call nature would arise. Mud would be the material that would give this planet its name.
Yes, pillaging microbes made the very soil in which others would thrive. Littering microbes turned a planet of catastrophe into something new. They turned a mashing, crashing, angry, twitching ball of barren stone into the beginnings of a rock that today is named after its coat of trash, its muck, its garbage, its sewage, its litter, its dirt, its filth, its materialist, consumerist waste–its mud. The sewage and ruins of microbial plunderers would be called earth.