Of course by the time John Carter got to Mars it was already too late.
Great civilizations had crumbled. Oceans had dried up. The very atmosphere was on life support. And all that remained were red warriors, green barbarians and multi-limbed beasts to fight over the rubble.
Carter’s story was the ultimate dystopian fiction.
Ok I’ll admit it. I was seduced at a very young age by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the mad master of pulp.
Tarzan of the jungle. Carson of Venus. Innes of Pellucidar. The Moon Maid. The lost continent of Caspar…I ate it all up.
In my pre-teens I devoured his fantastical tales, overlooking the inconvenient fact that Edgar wasn’t much of a writer but a hell of a story teller.
Tarzan got all the attention (which I never understood). But John Carter, the Virginian gentleman turned gunslinger turned red world warlord was my favorite.
But of course, he got there too late.
Mars was already on life support. Literally.
If not for the forboding, fortress-like “atmosphere factory” – pumping out its life-giving air for a thousand years – all of Burroughs’ creations would have been as dead as we now know the red planet to be.
In truth, Burroughs wasn’t any keener a scientist than he was a writer. His science, noted one critic “is just enough to spark imagination, but does not quite measure up to earnest analysis.”
But of course, imagination is what sparks human creativity. Always has.
And I have to admit that, lately, I’ve been thinking about Barsoom’s atmosphere factory as a convenient literary device for putting an entire planet on life support.
Which brings me to Earth’s best known atmosphere factory.
The Amazon rain forest.
On fire now. And every burning moment releasing vast amounts of the carbon that it has been dutifully capturing and locking up for millennia.
They tell us this amazing ecosystem generates 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Which seems like quite a lot to me.
But to be fair, it’s not like we don’ have emergency rainforest backups.
Like Tarzan’s old stomping grounds.
Which, as it turns out, has fire problems of its own.
Heck, the island of Borneo alone is legendary for its massive tree cover.
Or at least what’s left of it after all the timbering and land cleaning they’ve done for palm oil plantations.
We will be hearing a lot about Borneo in the coming months and years. Because Indonesia plans to build a brand new capital city where trees and orangutans once ruled supreme.
This because its current capital city, Jakarta, is slowly sinking into the sea under the sheer weight of its 22 million population.
But never mind all that.
The point is that, after the rainforests have been cut down, burned off and “tamed” so ranchers can raise more cattle and we can all eat more hamburgers…
…we can probably build all of the artificial atmosphere factories we’d ever need to make up our, um, oxygen deficit.
No, seriously, we can do this.
We put a man on the moon.
We invented Tang, for goodness sakes.
Maybe we haven’t figured out how to use the 9th ray of the sun to manufacture air, as the Barsoomians did.
But there are all sorts of “big ideas” to cool down our overheating planet floating around out there.
We can build giant mirrors in space.
Or lighten the very clouds themselves
Or fertilize the oceans with iron.
What could possibly go wrong?
Still, ticking off all of the heroic efforts mankind might make to compensate for the loss of earth’s, um, lung capacity notwithstanding. One question remains.
If a single nation, one intransigent regime, is determined to destroy one fifth of the Earth’s lung capacity…
…is the rest of the Earth collectively obliged to sit by idly and allow it to happen by sheer virtue of someone else’s “sovereign” privilege?
Because Edgar Rice Burroughs’ real gift from Barsoom to we mere earthlings wasn’t the hope that we might possibly, one day, in some way, be able to to build massive atmosphere factories in order to prolong our lives and our civilization.
Not at all.
Perhaps what he was really telling us is that we, as a species, do not have the luxury of merrily dancing our lives away while others interrupt “the uninterrupted working of this planet.”
It shouldn’t require a scientist, or even a great writer, to deliver, let alone understand, that message.