Sundin column: A complete history of the world |

Sundin column: A complete history of the world

Hal Sundin
As I See It

According to modern science a proto, Earth was born (without its moon) more than 4.5 billion years ago. The current hypothesis is that a smaller planet, Theia, was in a nearby orbit and collided with the Earth, creating the Earth’s unusually large moon from the debris of the collision. During the next 4 trillion years, the earth cooled, water vapor condensed to form oceans and protocontinents formed. During the last few thousand million years of this time period, single-celled life appeared in the oceans and evolved into the first multi-celled life.

Between about 540 million and 250 million years ago, life formed in more complex water species, and the first land plants began to appear. This was followed by the appearance of the first vascular land plants, coral reefs and the first air-breathing animals. Warm and humid conditions facilitated the spread of lush peat swamps, forming the world’s coal and limestone. Gradual warming also led to a flourishing of species, including dinosaur precursors. This period ended with the largest of the three mass extinctions that wiped out much of the life that had evolved — this one extinguished nearly 95% of marine species and nearly all land species, likely caused by greenhouse gases.

Between 250 million and 66 million years ago, conditions were favorable for the flourishing of species, including dinosaurs and the first true mammals. But once more, massive extinction wiped out a majority of them. The survivors involved tropical and temperate forests, the earliest birds and huge dinosaurs. This period ended with yet another mass extinction caused by an asteroid colliding with earth, causing an extended night.

This was followed by the prevalence of mammalian life. About half a million years ago, hominins (ancestors to primates) emerged. Then progress began to accelerate. Humanity started walking on two feet around 2 million years ago, and our current species, homo sapiens, evolved in Africa about 300,000 years ago. Modern man and civilization emerged only 12,000 years ago, and has expanded explosively in the last 100 years.

In 1796, when world population was approaching 1 billion, Thomas Robert Malthus published an essay on population in which he noted that the population of Europe was growing faster than its food production and that this would soon result in mass starvation unless something was done to reduce birth rates. His prediction did not occur, because he did not foresee the massive increase in food production from North America, and that would come with the advent of agricultural fertilization.

But time may ultimately prove him right. Even though the population of the world has mushroomed to nearly 8 billion, food production has been able to keep up with it until recently, as the effects of human-created climate change (rising temperatures and spreading drought) and the conversion of crop land to housing and manufacturing take their toll on the ability to feed ever more people

Climate change is also having a major effect on the livability of major portions of our planet. Temperatures are rising throughout the world, in many places exacerbated by high humidity, making them deadly. Some of the worst are Mexico and Central America, the Persian Gulf, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and subsaharan and northwest Africa.

Humanity must change its ways to preserve the livability of the planet. This means reducing and reversing the amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere — but how?

The major culprit is transportation of people and goods, driven by the internal-combustion engine. Easy, you say — “Just replace it with electrically driven vehicles.” But where will the electricity come from? From generators, some of it from hydropower, but mostly from fossil fuels? Oops! Nuclear power, which comes with significant safety hazards? And what will we find to replace gas and petroleum for heating our homes? Oops, again!

The inescapable conclusions are that mankind is facing a bleak future of rising world temperature, increasingly violent weather, drastic reductions in transportation and ability to heat our homes, and not enough livable land to meet the conflicting needs for people to live on and to raise the food needed to keep them alive. In Europe, a real threat is the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap, which it is feared could enhance the Labrador Current, blocking the Gulf Stream and making the climate of northern Europe like that of Alaska.

I won’t be here to witness whether these predictions come true, but those who are much younger should tuck this away and see if I “told you so.”

“As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at

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