The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Global Warming - Geoengineering, Human Solutions to Human Problems

Humanity has a lot of work to do.  The reality is that our planet is slowly, incrementally heating up. And while technology will once again increase the carrying capacity of this planet, we will also likely have to turn to technology to mitigate the environmental excesses and errors of the past as well.  We MUST reduce carbon emissions.  We have no alternative.  But until we have the technological means and political will to do so, we will almost certainly be forced to take technological measures to mitigate the damage we have caused so far.

There has recently been a renewed interest in the prospect of geoengineering, of using technology to mitigate the effects of our carbon emissions and to mitigate the effects of global warming. Technologies that have been proposed include the construction of vast forests of artificial trees, which essentially draw in carbon dioxide and sequester it via chemical processes, increasing the albedo (reflectivity) of clouds through the introduction of benign chemical agents and scattering reflective particles like sulfur in the stratosphere to diminish the amount of sunlight that strikes the surface. This of course, will lead to increasing acidification of the oceans, however, this is another problem that can likely be resolved through chemistry and the application of technology.

While geoengineering sounds like science fiction, it is simply the logical and intelligent response to the reality that life is a messy process, that living things produce a lot of waste, a lot of gasses, and a lot of byproducts. Humanity has long been engineering the planet through any number of processes, irrigation, dams, agriculture, city construction, etc.  Active engineering and management of the atmosphere is simply the most logical means of mitigating our impact to maintain the Biosphere we know for as long as possible.

The stark and unforgiving reality is that eventually, the Biosphere we know and love, the distribution of plants and animals with which human civilization is familiar are destined to change no matter what we do. Extinction, even MASS extinction is a natural process in the life cycle of this planet. Even a cursory examination of the geological record indicates that ice ages come and go, over the course of thousands of years. Our Biosphere would certainly be dramatically altered if, for example, much of the northern and southern hemisphere were under a mile of ice as they were approximately 10,000 years ago. Historically speaking, we should be entering a phase of cooling, a period of re-glaciation, it is difficult to imagine the havoc THAT particular environmental terror would wreak not only on human civilization, but on the global Biosphere we know so well.

Nature does not play favorites, and whether we like it or not, if wish to maintain the Bisophere human civilization developed in, WE will have to actively work to maintain it. Fortunately, the natural cycles of this planet are incredibly long. Equally fortunate, in comparison to those cycles, human technological development is INCREDIBLY rapid.

And if humankind seeks to maintain a balance in the atmosphere through the introduction of gases and particulate matter? So what? Humankind has been THOUGHTLESSLY and MINDLESSLY pouring gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere for CENTURIES, manipulating the atmosphere without any rhyme or reason whatsoever. We are already engaged in geoengineering, we are simply doing it stupidly. If we do so intelligently for a particular purpose, to resolve a problem and maintain the world we know and love, that is not only profoundly wise, it is quintessentially human, it is transcendent. For in working intelligently and collectively to associate with and maintain the entire planet, that represents a heretofore unknown ability to meaningfully associate with an entire planet in a way humans have never known before. In this way, we give something back to the planet that has given us so much.

I simply do not understand the extreme environmentalist's revulsion at the idea of utilizing technology to solve the problems created by technology.  As I understand the argument, it is offensive when humans interfere because they disrupt the natural balance of life on Earth. This, however, is a ridiculous argument, because life on Earth is NOT balanced. It never has been. Nature is NOT in balance. The life cycles of Earth are NOT in balance. The life cycles of this planet almost invariably end with the mass extinction and utter annihilation of entire Biospheres, the decimation of entire ecosystems. Our own Biosphere is ultimately destined to be destroyed, 5,000 to 10,000 years from now. Why should we allow such a thing to occur? Why WOULD we allow such a thing to occur if we can prevent it? If humanity can evolve into a greater symbiosis with the planet, using our minds and our hands, our bodies, and our technology to maintain a balance that the Earth itself DOES NOT maintain, why is that bad?

I believe the extreme environmentalist suffers most from a profound lack of long range historical perspective. They have a visceral and deeply emotional attachment to the way things APPEAR to have been forever. And to be sure, our world HAS been remarkably ecologically stable since the last ice age ended.  When one steps back, however, it is hard to ignore the glaring fact that both before and after that time, ecosystems come and go. Nearly 99.8 percent of species that have ever lived on this planet are extinct. Our brief period of ascendancy is less than a yawn in Geological time. Countless ecosystems have been utterly annihilated by the natural rhythms of Earth and every single time, life adapts, evolves, rebounds and thrives in renewed splendor. We ourselves and everything around us are the results of the last great extinction event.

Given that our ecosystem is ultimately destined for destruction, even if we did not exist as a species, why would we not take every possible step to maintain the present Biosphere? To be sure, humanity has NOT taken great care of the planet, but up until the last century, humanity was not even conscious of the fact that there was a problem. Now that humanity IS aware that there is a problem, why would we not turn every technological tool at our disposal towards mitigating the damage, towards diminishing its effects, towards establishing the long term viability of our Biosphere? Why would we NOT utilize technology to do what the Planet cannot do for itself?

As a simple analogy, I offer the following: Catastrophic meteor impacts are a recurring natural phenomenon that have occurred throughout Earth's history and throughout the history of every planet in the Solar System. They are a natural phenomenon in a Universe in which massive objects travel at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour on divergent orbits over billions of years. Such collisions are, indeed inevitable. Our planet has suffered at least two such impacts since the advent of life, both of which extinguished nearly all living things on the planet. These quintessential natural phenomenon resulted in the total destruction of their respective Biospheres. If NASA or the European Space Agency were to announce tomorrow, that a massive asteroid was going to strike the Earth in 30 years, would we not turn every technological effort into avoiding it? Would we not utilize every technological tool at our disposal to shift its course?

Of course we would.

Such technology is within our capability even today. We can do something for this planet that it could not, in all of its 4.5 billion year history, do for itself. We can protect this planet from an external threat it would never have been able to see, let alone stop. We have such capability.

And if we would employ our vast technological capability to protect the planet from an external threat, why would we or SHOULD we not use our technological capability to engineer the planet to ensure its ongoing habitability? Such an act would enable humanity to achieve a level of symbiosis with our planet heretofore unimaginable. Earth itself will become a bio-technological hybrid and achieve a level of integration far beyond anything the ancients could have imagined.

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