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From the Belly of a Star

A new documentary explores carbon’s bad rap. It’s us, not her.

Dorothy Woodend 8 Mar

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Carbon. What is it good for? Absolutely everything!

Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography, a new documentary about this most ubiquitous of elements, premiered last week on CBC’s The Nature of Things and is available to screen on CBC’s Gem.

The film comes at a timely moment, as fossil fuels have come under even more intense focus lately. They are fuelling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And they’re also the principal culprits of our continued climate meltdown.

But poor old carbon has something of an unfair reputation. It isn’t carbon itself, after all, that’s the problem, so much as the way that we humans use it.

Co-directed by Niobe Thompson and Daniella Ortega, the film takes the long view, and by that, I mean really long, beginning with the Big Bang, when the building blocks of the universe were being assembled, atom by atom, in the belly of a star. One of these was carbon.

In order to understand how life came to be on our planet, we need to look at both space and time, explains astrophysicist Tamara Davis in the film. When elements were first coming into being, two helium atoms, hit by a third atom, formed carbon. Popular American astronomer and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson notes in the documentary that this process happened early and often in the formation of the universe. It continues to happen to this day as stars live out their lives.

Carbon is what makes us possible, Davis says. “We don’t exist separate from nature, because we are nature. We’re made of carbon and so is everything else.”

Carbon is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. A fifth of our bodies is made up of the stuff. (The old trope that we’re made of stardust is actually true!)

In spite of its universality, carbon is the most-talked-about, but perhaps least-understood element on Earth. The main contention of the documentary is that in order to survive, humans need to better understand carbon.

Sparks of life

From that opening premise, the film gallops along, gathering a bevy of scientists, researchers and biologists who offer up some clarity on how carbon works — where it came from, what it does and what happens when carbon’s destructive powers are unleashed.

Astrophysicists Davis and deGrasse Tyson join a number of prominent voices including Suzanne Simard (author of Finding the Mother Tree), climate scientists Katharine Hayhoe and Will Steffen, materials scientist Mark Miodownik and historian David Christian, among others.

The production team is also stacked with talented people from B.C., who contributed everything from the musical score to the animated elements that delineate complex scientific processes into understandable and accessible form.

As geologist and astrobiologist Martin van Kranendonk explains, the earliest beginnings of life on the planet happened not only in the deepest oceans but also on land, around complex environments like hot springs. Some 3.5 billion years ago, things got rolling.

The oldest evidence of this is found in fossil records in Pilbara, Western Australia, in stromatolites, that bear the signatures of life.

From this initial spark of life evolved everything on the planet, increasing in complexity and beauty over millions of years.

Carbon’s bad rap is a consequence of the last 200 years. That’s when humans discovered that ancient vegetal and animal matter transformed into coal or oil could be burned in order to generate heat, electricity and power. That is where things began to go off the rails.

But as deGrasse Tyson states in the film, “Don’t blame carbon. It’s not carbon’s fault.”

Creator, destroyer, transformer

When carbon’s bonds are broken, some not-so-great stuff happens. Fire releases carbon back into the atmosphere. That process may have started with early humans burning wood, but it took a mighty leap forward when people discovered coal. Ancient buried sunlight in the form of dead plant matter became concentrated energy, allowing humans to do things they’d never done before.

Coal fuelled a new industrial age and arguably kicked off a radical transformation of human society. Things like railroads, factories and mass mechanization might be the most obvious of the Industrial Revolution, but it was actually more ordinary stuff like electrical light that truly transformed human societies.

As historian Ian Miller explains in the film, those who had access to this new electric modernity were able to get ahead. But like any element of change, this development was coupled together with what Miller terms “moments of shadow.”

Carbon and war go hand in hand. As nations soon came to understand, the control of oil fields meant that you had the energy necessary for modern warfare. Which is apparently where we still are.

Considerable efforts are made to make climate science both accessible and entertaining in the documentary, thanks in large part to the work of voice actor Sarah Snook, who transforms carbon into a capricious, charismatic entity.

But there is no escaping the current state of calamity that we all face, as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere reaches dizzying new levels. Here, the narrative begins to take on a darker cast, with experts going into considerable depth on how excess carbon might very well be the end of life on Earth. A particularly grim section is dedicated not to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but to methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas.

A stable climate has allowed for human civilizations to grow and flourish, but that era of relative stability may well be coming to an end. The dire predictions of a rapidly closing window to ensure that the planet remains habitable continue to roll out, overshadowed by the drumbeats of war.

Carbon dioxide levels are currently the highest they have been in 15 million years — but back then, humans weren’t around. One of carbon’s principal roles is to regulate planetary temperatures, heating and cooling the Earth as needed, ensuring that the delicate balance that protects life on Earth continues.

But just as people learned to use carbon to destroy, it retains its innate ability to create. Almost everything on the planet is carbon-based, and, in all likelihood, so are other possible life forms on distant, yet undiscovered worlds.

From space dust we came, and to space dust we shall return. There is something strangely heartening in that. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed, and this is equally true of carbon.

Whether we humans can also transform remains to be seen.

'Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography' is streaming now on CBC Gem.  [Tyee]

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