I was reading through some back issues of Harper’s and came upon an article by Rivka Galchen about climate change and meteorological engineering. I’m sick to death of reading about climate change, but I was immediately hooked by this article – her perspective is fascinating, and she is an excellent writer who draws on a wide range of interdisciplinary elements. Equal parts science writing, memoir, self-reflection, tongue-in-cheek mockery, and elegy to her late father, meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen, this is a hell of a good article.
[F]unding far-fetched projects can be justified for reasons other than the practical, for reasons that are closer to why it makes sense to fund, say, art. These grand weather-control ideas, charted in mathematical detail, are works of the scientific imagination. I myself think of them as poems. They are constrained not by meter or rhyme or genre but by the stuff of our real world. We’re used to thinking of constraints as a way to enhance the artistic imagination; we’re just not used to these particular constraints, the laws of our universe as we understand them. When we treat certain scientific imaginings as pragmatic undertakings rather than as a kind of art, we end up with bumbling disasters, occasionally profound evil, and now and again something like a smallpox vaccine and affordable clean-water resources for millions of people. But as a way of dreaming rigorously, these poems of science might be like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, or Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Or like the work of the Marquis de Sade. We don’t ask of these creations that they fly us literally to the moon, or light up the path to a righteous future. Consider Buckminster Fuller. Maybe it isn’t wisdom and hindsight that make him seem so silly but rather the cataracts of age and the calluses of experience.
Precisely because so much weather-modification theory looks, smells, sounds like, and easily could be transformed into a nightmarescape technology, we should lament that the prepackaged outrage at such tamperings inevitably pushes the work out of the public eye and out of public funding. Letting some private company develop technologies so the government can keep its hands clean for now doesn’t avoid any real problems. It’s easy to imagine private industry designing an Offshore Hurricane-Away™ (which, like most commercial rainmaking today, might or might not work, and which might or might not cause disastrous side effects) for gated StayPut McMansion communities. A wealthy antiterror Weather Aboveground lobbying group will keep government regulations of such things to a minimum. Our fear of what we’ll do with scientific knowledge should be dwarfed by the prospect of that knowledge being pursued outside the public’s annoying, normalizing, sobering gaze.
(Oh, and in case there’s a chance of heading off the wingnuts: I’m recommending this article because it is unusually well-written and thought-provoking, not because I support or oppose the construction of giant hurricane shields. So if you really want to argue about climate change in the comments, go ahead, but I’m not going to pay any attention. Toodle-oo.)