The Physics of Oatmeal

The thing about the laws of physics is that, like facts, there aren’t alternatives. Physics is physics, fact is fact. To wit, the same laws apply to cooking oatmeal as to a volcano erupting. OK, there are demonstrable differences in the two. Eating lava sucks, even with brown sugar and milk, and cooking oatmeal doesn’t take out a village. But the foundation of both is that heat cooks stuff, changes the physical state of a substance, and creates pressure that has to go somewhere. As I watched the oatmeal bubbling in that Yellowstone mud pit sort of way, news was breaking on the tragic eruption of the volcano in New Zealand that wreaked predictable destruction and took lives. What was also predictable was the inevitability that the mountain would blow. The people on that island knew that was a possibility, but were no doubt certain it wouldn’t happen during their visit. I also don’t doubt that the proprietors of the touring company that arranged the visit were certain that the trip would be safe. Until is wasn’t.

A gauge meant to assess the risk of volcanic eruption – developed by GeoNet – is a zero-to-five-level scale, ratcheted from “No volcanic unrest” to “Major volcanic eruption.” The scale was set at level 2, “Moderate to heightened volcanic unrest,” the day the volcano erupted.

If there were a similar gauge for the state of our planet, it would most certainly be reading at level four today — “Moderate to Severe planetary disruption” — and tours to the planet would be suspended. It would likely have been set at level two during the heyday of the Industrial Age. We were well into the twentieth century before computer analyses showed the path we were on, but at the point when we could have started shifting to a low-carb[on] diet, the sense of urgency among the populations was nonexistent. The thrill of “business as usual” trumped changing course.

Unfortunately, we live on the island that is already smoldering, and there is no cruise ship to take us to a safe place. Yet we still have tour guides who are more than willing to tempt the climate gods because of the cash that denial brings in, and we have thrill-seekers who accept the assurances of safety from the tour guides – to our peril – because, well, they want to get that thrill. Physics doesn’t care whether you believe it or not. Denying facts because they don’t line up with a particular narrative or point of view doesn’t change the facts. Like a colleague once posited, it’s like complaining that gravity pisses you off. Sorry. Jumping from a plane without a suitable parachute is still going to end badly. When oatmeal sets on the heat too long, it quickly goes from edible to a charred mess. With oatmeal, I just toss it in the compost and start over. We don’t have that option with the planet.