Tim Blagg

Blagg: Part of our carbon footprint

Let’s talk about cellulose.

No, I’m not kidding ... cellulose.

You see, cellulose is an incredibly abundant organic polymer that makes up the tough fibers that constitute plant material. Stems, stalks and tree trunks are made of cellulose, and we humans — and our primate forebears — have been taking advantage of its strong fibers for millions of years.

We build houses of it, cover our bodies with it, and if you are reading this column in the print edition of The Recorder, you’re reading it on paper that’s made of cellulose.

Much of the food we eat is either a direct product of cellulose or is a by-product of the animal life that eats it.

It’s familiar — but you may not know that cellulose is an invention. It was created through evolutionary processes by plants as part of their unending war to gain a bigger share of the sun’s energy, while also frustrating the multitude of animals that consume their leaves.

It happened about 380 million years ago. The giant ferns and fungi that had dominated plant life up until then found themselves — literally — in the shade of the new, taller and tougher plants that used cellulose-strengthened trunks to push their leaves up into the sky, where they could gather more sunlight. That growth also put their delicate leaves farther out of the reach of browsing animals.

It was a triumph for plants and it took animals millions of years of evolution to respond. From the tree-top browsing of giant dinosaurs to the scrambling of arboreal monkeys, the fauna of the planet was eventually able to regain equality.

But this amazing invention also created a problem. The fungi, mosses and bacteria that had been busily reducing fallen ferns to their component chemicals were stymied by this new material. Until they, too, had evolved new strategies, they couldn’t cope. So for millions of years, trees and other stalky plants died, fell to earth — and stayed there, piled in trillions of tons on the forest floor.

The result, during the Carboniferous Age some 360 million years ago, was a enormous mass of woody material. It was eventually buried by geological processes, put under enormous pressure, and turned into coal, gas and oil — fossil fuels — the source of much of today’s energy.

Eventually, fungi and others evolved species that could gobble up cellulose and reduce it to its component parts — we call that process “rotting” — and it’s the reason we aren’t overwhelmed by masses of dead trees and plants today.

Since one important component of all plant life is carbon, rotting produces carbon dioxide, adding to global warming. Burning wood liberates it and so does rotting. One is quick, the other slow, but both result in extra carbon in the atmosphere.

Why all this talk about cellulose?

Because there are other ways to reduce it and free its carbon.

One is through fermentation — allowing bacteria to “eat” plant life.

Today, we see that on a large scale in the production of ethanol — the alcohol used to supplement gasoline as automobile fuel. In the U.S., the most common feedstock for ethanol production is corn, which is grown especially for this purpose. Elsewhere, other plants are used to produce ethanol, but corn is king here in the U.S.

And that’s a problem. Corn can also be eaten, so diverting it to make fuel means less food for the world’s hungry people.

And corn is an energy-intensive crop, requiring fuel to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport it. Natural gas is used in ethanol factories, so thousands of tons of carbon is released every year in the manufacture of ethanol.

But Congress is intent on keeping the ethanol — and cash to farmers — flowing. At regular intervals, politicians have to trek to the Midwest, hats in hand, to beg for support. The Iowa caucus has become an important part of presidential campaigns, and no candidate would dare to seek Iowan votes without backing mandatory ethanol use.

So we’re stuck with ethanol, despite clear evidence that it fails to deliver on the promise of reducing pollution and carbon dioxide production.

I find it ironic that fossilized cellulose is competing with fermented cellulose as the feedstock of choice for heating our homes and fueling our air, land and sea vehicles, and that both inevitably contribute to global climate change.

There are alternatives, of course. We can harness the sun’s rays directly through photovoltaic arrays, or indirectly through hydro or wind power (rivers are fed by rainfall — water that’s been evaporated by the sun, and the wind is powered by solar radiation’s effects on our atmosphere).

Or, we can turn to the one source that isn’t derived from the sun — naturally occurring radioactive ores like uranium or thorium that can be “burned” in nuclear power plants.

When you look at our energy choices from this point of view, our choices are really quite limited ... isn’t there some sort of lesson in that?

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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