When scientists reported that carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere reached a new record last week, I thought of American writer Henry Adams whose 1918 Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, included a chapter entitled "A Law of Acceleration."
Adams noted that "in the nineteenth century, society by common accord agreed in measuring its progress by the coal-output. The ratio of increase in the volume of coal-power may serve as dynamometer." He tells readers that the "coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power, for the ton of coal yielded three or four times as much power in 1900 as in 1840."
Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and the great grandson of John Adams, a celebrated Founding Father of the American republic and its second president. Henry knew something of the trajectory of American life and of the world as a whole.
Today, we mark both our progress and our peril through such observations. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is the keeper of what is known as the Keeling Curve which charts the rise in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii from 1958 onward. That rise is, of course, due primarily to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, something Adams tells us would be a barometer of improvement in his own age.