Sulfur is one of a handful of elements that can be found in its native state, like silver, gold, and copper. The ancients knew about brimstone because they didn’t have to extract it—they could literally pick it up off the ground. With the emergence of industrial civilization the demand for sulfur and its products became so great that sulfide minerals became a more important source of sulfur. And since sulfides are the source of metals like iron, lead, and the aforementioned copper, extracting those materials produced sulfur as a by-product. Sulfuric acid, which is produced from sulfur, is among the most widely used of all industrial chemicals, something close to 200 million metric tons are produced annually worldwide. Most of it is used to make fertilizer from phosphate rock which means your food supply depends on sulfur.
In the old days people used fire for everything. They heated their homes, boiled water, and cooked food with fire. They also used fire for manufacturing processes such as smelting ores to obtain needed metals. Today we have electricity for that stuff, but we still get most of our electricity from fire. When we learned to burn coal and other fossil fuels in great quantities in order to generate electricity we moved our fires out of our homes and shops. Now we have special fireplaces (“power plants”) that burn better fuels than wood and burn them more efficiently. It was discovered early on that burning oil and gas created a great deal of pollution. Coal fires, in particular, are very messy. Soon people figured out that among the major pollutants were oxides of sulfur, and it was discovered that those chemicals could be recovered from the gases released by these fires.
Now all modern fire-making places scrub the sulfur from the exhaust. This is now the main source of our sulfur! We burn a hell of lot of fossil fuels and most of them contain significant sulfur and so we have a new, steady supply. What we used to think was a waste stream is now a resource.
That’s the lesson for me. There is no such thing as waste. We live in a material society that creates a lot a stuff. And we throw a lot of that stuff away. The steel, aluminum, and glass industries do a lot of recycling for example, so there’s proof that we can do a better job with our “one-and-done” system. But most things we make we use for a while and then we toss them. Our market economy requires new goods to be continually made and purchased so there is a lot of incentive to dump the old things.
In fact if we don’t keep buying our economy will collapse. Capitalism has to grow. A steady-state is the same thing as a death spiral. So we will continue to burn our great fires and dig up our minerals and build our things so that we can keep selling them and keep buying them. That way we can all see our wealth grow and we can continue to have faith in our economy so that we will borrow and spend and pay back our loans so that we can borrow and spend some more. All those who borrowed money expect to keep earning and all those who loaned money expect to be paid back. And so it goes.
All resources are ultimately finite. We won’t run out any time soon, even with billions of us demanding more everyday. We will however find it harder to get the stuff we need. And it will get more expensive. So we have to do better with what we have. We can’t just suck oil out of the ground and make plastic doohickeys and get rich selling them and then just let them float out in the middle of the Pacific. That plastic is enormously-resource intensive. We can’t allow that energy to be wasted. All things we make must have an end-of-life plan.
The only way we can do that is to re-work this notion of waste. There isn’t anything that is actually waste. Given enough time everything will return to its atomic constituents and get re-shaped by nature into something else. Right now we are counting on nature to take care of our messes for us. But that’s not going to work anymore. We have to see a barrel of oil not as a one-way arrow but as a circle. When we burn oil to make electricity and we recover the sulfur from the fumes that’s thinking like a circle. And that’s just a tiny little thing, imagine what we could do if we really tried.
I once had a nuclear engineer tell me he thought sealing up and burying nuclear waste was a mistake. He viewed the material by-products from the reactors as potential resources and wanted them stored in such a way that we could “get the stuff back when we need it.” I tell you I liked the way that guy thought! Maybe radioactivity makes you squeamish, it does a lot of folks, but if we are going to use it we need that kind of outlook.
God rains fire and brimstone down upon the unfaithful. Throughout the Bible those two things serve a symbol of god’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah got the fire and brimstone treatment, for example. These days we harness our fire and brimstone but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back and bite us in the ass. I don’t worry about god’s wrath, I worry we won’t catch on quick enough about this waste stuff. Because we’ll pay just as heavy a price as the S & G crowd did, just not as quickly. Their trip to oblivion was instantaneous, ours will be slow enough that we might not notice.