A Few Things Ill Considered

The New Age

The following article is a guest post by H. E. Taylor, who you might recognize as the one who graciously provides us with the weekly GW news roundups. Enjoy!

The New Age

An Argument for Geo-engineering

If you study civilizations of the past which have collapsed [1, 2, 3, 4], a curious fact emerges. Look at Rome, Sumeria, the old kingdom of Egypt, the lowland classic Maya, the Olmec, the Huari Empire of the central Andes, the Chacoan and Hohokam of southwestern America, the Minoans, the Harrapans of the Indus valley, Easter Island. These cultures all had different religions, different economic systems, different technologies — they had different conceptions of the natural world, what it was and how it worked, with differing degrees of closeness to it — and yet they all disintegrated.



A variety of elaborate and simple thories have been spun to explain why. Joseph Tainter [1] provides a useful overview itemizing the many theories and comes to the conclusion that in a pragmatic cost/benefit sense, maintaining the complex structure of a civilization effectively becomes more trouble than it is worth.

Fast forward to the global village of the third millenium. Under the control of its corporate masters, the first world culture sails on, blithely fulfilling its capitalist destiny. There is always another war to keep the economy ticking, another resource to be exploited, another confusion to keep you distracted.

How could anyone think there might ever be a problem?

Well the extinctions are a clue. The Red List [5] currently lists 12% of birds, 20% of mammals, and 29% of amphibians as threatened. Millions of people starving is another clue. The UNFAO currently lists 800 million people as malnourished [11]. The wacky weather is another clue. The cost of extreme weather events rises steadily. In the ocean, dead zones proliferate. On the land, forests are clear cut. Tons of topsoil are lost yearly. The percentage of human appropriated Net Primary Production [10]. keeps rising.

With the steady drumbeat of climate disruptions — droughts and floods, hurricanes and heatwaves — demanding attention, it is easy to miss the wider context. We have put ourselves in an ecological trap. We are taking from the natural world faster than it can replenish itself and in so doing we are disassembling our life support system. [6, 7] How long can that go on? That is the crux of the situation. Our fate is being weighed out in the particulars of that equation every day.

There have been local collapses before, but never a global ecological crash. People are rightfully uneasy. The world is changing and they don’t know what to expect. The empire is hanging on using fear, intimidation and force, but this too shall pass. Big change is in the air.

Since at least the start of agriculture, humans have been significantly modifying the environment [12, 13, 14]. Some scientists think that our impact on the planet is so great that we need to define a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene [8], to denote the time of human influence. Since the beginning of industrialism, when we started changing the composition of the atmosphere, this modification could arguably be called inadvertent geoengineering. Widely distributed small-scale, as opposed to large-scale geoengineering. Seen in this light, to geoengineer or not to geoengineer is not the question. The question is: are we going to continue our current ill-advised geoengineering? And beyond that, are we going to learn to live with the Earth? Or will that dreadful line of Tacitus become our epitaph: “they create a desolation and call it peace.” [9],

At the beginning of the Second Iraq War, Colin Powell famously said to George W. Bush, “If you break it, you own it.” Today it is clear, the same can be said to the human species with regard the planetary ecosphere. We have broken it. We are responsible. And there is nobody else to fix it — to terraform the Earth.

Welcome to the Anthropocene.

References:

  1. Joseph A. Tainter, _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ [ISBN: 052138673X]
  2. Jared Diamond, _Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed_ [ISBN: 0143036556]
  3. Ronald Wright, _A Short History of Progress_ [ISBN: 0887847064]
  4. Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, _Vanished Civilizations_ [ISBN: 2843232465]
  5. World Conservation Union – RedList
  6. William Catton, _Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change_ [ISBN: 0252009886]
  7. Global Footprint Network
  8. Wiki: Anthropocene
  9. Tacitus, _The Agricola and the Germania_ [no ISBN]
  10. Wiki: Primary Production
  11. UNFAO: The State of Food Insecurity in the World
  12. 2003//: Stanford: (pdf) The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands Of Years Ago by William F. Ruddiman
  13. Wiki: Plows, Plagues and Petroleum
  14. 2005/12/05: RealClimate: Debate over the Early Anthropogenic Hypothesis

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Comments

  1. #1 gaiasdaughter
    September 29, 2008

    Another good book on the subject is Eugene Linden’s The Winds of Change, Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations.

  2. #2 Patrick G.
    October 6, 2008

    But is there any other kind of geoengineering than “ill-advised” one in a complex system like Earth?

    I seriously doubt the consequences of massive/global geoengineering measures can be simulated or even guessed.

    Even recent history is riddled with humans changing our ecosystems deliberately, introducing species of animals and plants from other continents or out of the lab, “cleaning up” water ways, optimzing land use and so on.
    And much of it is done after extensive planning phases, but there are things that couldn’t and still can not be planned.

    And the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    Plus there is the problem of liability: Every meassure with global consequences will have countries or regions that would be affected negatively, by Public International Law this is a no-go.
    And getting all Countries in the World to unanimously agree on a meassure is simply not going to happen.

    My guess is deliberate and goodwilled Terraforming (in contrast to say a nuclear winter following a World War) will rather happen on a different planet like Mars than on our Earth.

    And that is the stuff of Science-Fiction.

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