Meet Dave


CO2 Rising. The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge. Volk, T. 2008 . The MIT Press , Cambridge , MA . 223 pp. $22.95 (hardcover) . ISBN 978-262-22083-5 .

Dave is the name of a particular atom of carbon, which has a story to tell. It was one of just a few (1020 or so) that took part in one of the first modern measurements of the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere taken by David Keeling, our atom's namesake. In CO2 Rising, we also hear of Dave's trip through the photosynthetic machinery of a barley plant, which winds up with Dave partnered with an ethanol molecule in a glass of beer. Other carbon atoms begin their stories in deposits of fossil fuels or in a bubble of ancient air trapped in an ice core. Rarely have innovations in chemical nomenclature been as fun as this.

It is funny to think about a writer bringing the carbon cycle to life. What could be more alive than the carbon cycle? If you have to bring life to it, where would you bring it from? And yet, much of the literature on the carbon cycle and climate change has a lot of really clunky and unappealing language in it. Think gigatonnes and mitigation (although, on the plus side, there are wedges). Fairly dry language overall. But not here. Tyler Volk writes elegantly, and does a magnificent job at kindling a sense of wonder at the machinations of the biosphere.

The idea that hooked me the most deeply was the energy slaves. Each American uses energy at a rate of about 60 times his or her own metabolic output. It is, as if, we each live like the Pharaoh, with 60 slaves scurrying about us to do our bidding. Forget to turn off a light? It is ok; it is just a few slaves pumping away on a generator, no worries. I believe my first reading of CO2 Rising was the turning point in my own personal transition, in my woodshop, from using an electric power sander to sanding by hand with a wooden block. Nowhere are the energy slaves as vivid as in a power woodshop.

Tyler Volk is a professor of earth sciences at New York University, and he has made important contributions to the science of the carbon cycle, ideas that have been as creative and insightful as the visions offered, in this enjoyable and scholarly book.