The Heretofore Unachievable

July 4, 2013 |

hot-chocolateA Digest essay for US Independence Day

Sometimes I wonder if, of all the glittering contributions of The Australian Museum to cultural life, the placement of a hot chocolate machine in the East Stairwell will not prove one of the institution’s more important contributions to education.

australian-museumA generation of boys from Sydney Grammar School once congregated there. The Australian Museum was, being next door to the school, the only place “off-campus” that younger students were allowed to venture during the lunch hour. The hot chocolate machine became a gathering point for the restless and the mischievous.

Yet, passing through the Museum on the way to the stairwell, by some process of intellectual osmosis, boys acquired a working knowledge of shales and sandstones via the Musuem’s extensive geology collections.

Sydney Grammar's auditorium is built directly into exposed Sydney sandstones

Sydney Grammar’s auditorium is built directly into exposed, porous Sydney sandstone

Otherwise, for certain our interest in the Museum would have started with the mummies and ended with the dinosaurs, as it usually is with young people. But a generation learned about the land, because of the chocolate.

Terpenes in the air

In later years, the fitness regime at the school for upper-level sports required a twice-weekly Bataan Death Run through the Royal Botanic Gardens to the Sydney Opera House, and back. It was there that one obtained a fairly intimate acquaintance with plant sciences.

If you could make it as far as the Rose Garden, on the return run, without any serious cramping in your legs, you were pretty much home free. But if you were feeling the pangs of oxygen debt no later than the waratahs and the kangaroo paws, there were serious agonies ahead before the the run was completed.

The Royal Botanical Gardens, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background

The Royal Botanical Gardens, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background

If you could smell the terpenes floating off the eucalyptus, it meant that the return run was into the headwinds — and in sufficient heat to sweat out every last electrolyte your body possessed.

The Death Run was measured out species by species, cultivar by cultivar. Sometimes of surprising things is an acquaintance with science born.

Thoughts which returned to me in interviewing Roger Stroud, the executive chairman of Algae.Tec, who preceded me at Grammar by a few years and who went on to earn degrees in geology and business before embarking on his remarkable commercial career. An interview which is published elsewhere in today’s Digest.

“Do good, and do well, and enjoy it.”

Now the business of making algae-based fuels and feed, on a commercial scale and at a profit, is not for the faint of heart.

Bill Haynes

Bill Haynes

But it does have something in common with what H. J. “Bill” Haynes (at the time the chairman and CEO of the Standard Oil Company of California) described, a generation ago, as the driving force behind the petroleum business:

“We are not in it just for the money. This is a business of sweeping opportunity, of far horizons. It is a business in which a man or a woman can still achieve the heretofore unachievable. It is a business in which the individual can test himself—against nature, against the odds…win big and lose big…do good, and do well, and enjoy it. It is a business in which a man or a woman can serve the public welfare, serve his family, serve himself, and need make no apology for doing so.”

Now, if you grow saltwater algae and just ignore it, the portion that is not devoured by predators will sink to the bottom of the ocean and, in about 60 million years, Nature will have applied enough time and pressure to blow off the oxygen and reduce it to fossil oil & gas, and will trap it in various muds and sands (which will, by 60.02 million years AD, have transformed into porous sandstones and shales).

The Heretofore Unachievable

So, in the algae business, the ‘heretofore unachievable’ is simply to accomplish what Nature does in 60 million years for nothing, in a couple of days for a low enough cost that it is cheaper to make it, than find and recover the algae from 60 million years ago that has become fossil oil and is trapped in the shales and sandstones of today.


If you find parallels between the situation in algae, and the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to one based on complex agriculture, give yourself a gold star. At the same time, though, beware of drawing the conclusion that, because agriculture defeated hunter-gatherer systems almost everywhere in the world, that the transition from one system to the other will be immediate or painless.

The Big Shift

There’s a curious anomaly that is often overlooked in the transition that our culture made from its hunter-gatherer roots to the agricultural systems in the days of Sumeria.

If you look at skeletal evidence from time to time, you will notice that those from the later years, when the transition to agriculture was underway or complete, were far smaller and showed far more evidence of nutritional deprivation than those of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

It is not the case that agricultural systems — the growing of food — was adopted because of the immediately-felt dietary impacts and lifestyle benefits they brought. There is every indication that the transition to agriculture was painful, and inevitable, because the food supply had changed and diminished. The hunter-gatherers had run through the resources without much care for future generations, who paid the bill in the form of shorter lives and statures.

If you are an avid reader of the Old Testament, and you focus on tone, the transition in the tone as the story of Genesis progresses, there is a genuine sense of loss. Loss of something special, loss of resources. Loss of Eden, and the carefree days of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, abounds in the text.

“Cursed is the ground for thy sake,” said God to Adam, “in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

At Góbekli Tepe

The evidence at the monumental complex at Góbekli Tepe, an 11,000 year old sanctuary in Southeast Turkey described as “the most important archaeological site in the world” suggests to its chief archaeologist that “mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals,” and evidence from DNA shows that modern wheat is most closely related to wild wheat growing at Mount Karaca Dağ, just 20 miles away.

The spread of 9000 potential settlement sites south of Gobekli Tepe in the immediate aftermath of the Neolithic Revolution.

The spread of 9000 potential settlement sites south of Gobekli Tepe in the immediate aftermath of the Neolithic Revolution. The grey square at center represents the Gobekli Tepe site.

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

The site forms a hub near which 9,000 potential early human agriculture-based settlements were closely located, according to satellite data interpreted by a group of MIT researchers. Settlements where it is believed that cattle and wheat were first domesticated.

Why the switch from hunting and gathering? Rising population and the loss of habitat for prey, caused by warming temperatures after the ice age. Overhunting probably played a role.

The circumstances of rising temperatures causing climate shift, and rising population causing an exhaustion of resources suitable for hunting and gathering, is not entirely different from our own.

What is different is that we have acquired an expectation of a transition from fossil fuels to renewables being a smooth one, driven by the unseen hand of the market: that when the cost of recovering fossil fuels becomes more than the cost of making renewable fuels, our society will painlessly shift to renewables.

What we see in the archaeological record, rather, is a society that made its choices and shifted habits far too late, and experienced a wrenching transition that included among its effects famine, malnutrition and the birth of angst.

That was the city we lived in then. Will it be the city we live in, again?

To find the old, or make it new

Algae, as a science, offers us other opportunities.

But, here is a challenge. We have the problem of insufficient information on the volume of underlying resources, the future of climate, and the opportunities that future technologies will present. Market signals are based on that information, and there is every likelihood that we have it wrong. Perhaps badly wrong.

To rely on a supply of ancient algae — or to make it anew — that is not the question. The question is “when will making it anew constitute a money-making enterprise?”

It is a race between population and depletion of proved fossil reserves, on the one hand, and ingenuity on the other hand. The ingenuity to extend fossil reserves through unlocking tight or deepwater supplies, and the ingenuity to make renewables at affordable prices without having to wait for Nature to make it for free, over 60 million years.

If we have technologists, we need more. If we have an educated public, we need a better- educated one. It is just as important that we have a culture that appreciates and supports science, and understands the implications of discovery, as to have scientists themselves. After all, it is the Broadway audience that sustains Broadway.

It’s probably asking too much that people re-read their Bible and see in it the wrenching story of a society transitioning, badly, out of the last Ice Age — their powerful sense of abandonment and sin in the face of unprecedented adversity.

But it would be good if we did not simply rely on happenstances such as the placement of a hot chocolate machine.

The many blessings of freedom

So, as we observe US Independence Day, we’ll consider the blessings of freedom throughout the day. There is political freedom, of course. But Franklin Roosevelt once defined the Four Freedoms as: “Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.”

Engraving of the Four Freedoms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Engraving of the Four Freedoms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

If we transition too late from fossil reserves — and who amongst us has all the perfect data on exactly what time of which day that transition must start — we will lose that freedom from want. As was lost in older times, and you can read about it.

So, today, might I ask you to encourage someone you know — especially a young person — to become more appreciative of the sciences. To think a little about the past. That encouragement is a building block of freedom.

Lt. Gen. James G. Harbord once wrote: “The roads you travel so briskly lead out of dim antiquity, and you study the past chiefly because of its bearing on the living present and its promise for the future.”


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