Lessons From Dinosaurs

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

November 17, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- On Halloween, my grandson James, age four years and four weeks, went trick-or-treating dressed as a tyrannosaurus rex. He made this decision after considering whether he would look better as a brontosaurus, or perhaps a triceratops or diplodocus.

Last Christmas, his favorite gift was an inflatable stegosaurus, bigger than me, with which he wrestled through the winter. Before he was three, he could identify more species of dinosaur than I could of birds at his age.

We are living in the second dinosaur era. This one is driven by an irresistible force known as American merchandising, which creates fads and abandons them overnight, and sells us many ideas bad for our health. The previous dinosaur era, the Mesozoic, lasted a mere 100 million years and ended 70 million years ago.

Just why it ended has been a matter of scientific dispute and conjecture for decades. Some blame climate change caused by volcanoes or perhaps a huge meteorite. Some say there were epidemics, or that dinosaur eggs were eaten by other species. Others like the idea that the rise of young mountains eliminated the swampy ground where dinosaurs flourished.

I think I prefer a brand-new line of speculation, because it has a moral. It offers a clear warning about what could and probably will happen to the rest of us recently evolved species -- sooner, rather than later.

Poking around in fossilized dinosaur dung, researchers at Indiana University have found evidence that dinosaur flatulence may have been so exuberant that it helped raise the temperature of the Earth so high that the smelly brutes became extinct.

The researchers discovered bacteria and algae in the droppings, which suggests that plant-eating dinosaurs helped digest food by fermenting it. Fermentation creates methane, which is one of the gases responsible for the "greenhouse effect" that is trapping solar heat in the earth's atmosphere today.

If this theory is true, it fits the current belief that methane from cattle and other livestock is contributing to the much-debated "greenhouse effect." Nobody contends that dinosaur gas was the main reason that race died out, or that cow gas is the chief culprit in the way our Earth is heating up, but few doubt that the process is going on.

While the Indiana geochemist was telling colleagues about his dinosaur-dung findings, a New Mexico convention of experts on climate change was hearing warnings that regardless of disagreement about the pace of global warming, now is the time to act against it. They called for reduced production of carbon dioxide and yes, methane.

But they didn't focus their warnings on cows and sheep. They were talking about man, urging much greater energy efficiency in both industrial nations like ours and undeveloped regions where tropical forests are being cut and burned at an ever-increasing rate. More than half of current global warming could be eliminated by using energy technology already available, one of the experts said.

In developing nations, said another, so much money is being invested in means of producing electricity that other needs are seriously shortchanged. That demand for power would be cut by introducing high-efficiency machinery and appliances, thus freeing capital for vital investments such as infrastructure and medical care.

But in this country, those who make policy are biased toward use of fossil fuels, specifically oil, which of course contributes to global warming. They are opposed to mandatory fuel conservation and tax incentives for development of alternative energy sources. Rather than boost the miles-per-gallon requirement for U.S. autos, they would drill for oil in the last virgin wilderness of the Arctic.

No matter where they drill, some day in the future the oil will run out. Between now and then, like the dumb monsters of old, we will keep producing our own kind of deadly flatulence, from cars and power plants and inefficient factories. Most of us will not be here when this second dinosaur age gasps to its close, but we have to wonder whether our grandchildren like James, or his children, will end up like the real tyrannosaurus rex he imitated on Halloween.

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