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We Must Mega-Engineer
Alan AtKisson, 19 Jan 06

James Lovelock's doomsday message ("The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years," The Independent, 16 February 2006, page 1) is, one fervently hopes, a prediction whose purpose is not to dispel hope, but to act as a last desperate plea for action, at the scale that is required to save the balance of natural systems on Earth. His book, The Revenge of Gaia, has yet to come out; but from the newspaper articles summarizing his argument, one notes that his prediction is based on assumptions that include (1) that the US and China will not control their carbon emissions in time, and (2) that we will not take otherwise sufficient action, globally, to avert the worst-case scenario of 5-to-8 degree Celsius global warming. If Lovelock can be proven wrong on both counts, one would conclude, then nature and civilization are both saved.

The only way to prove Lovelock wrong is to take him seriously, and prove him wrong -- by acting to change the world, so that these assumptions and conclusions no longer hold.

About the urgency and credibility of Lovelock's alarming pronouncement, I personally have no doubt. A year ago, when the news about global dimming -- which has been dampening the effect of global warming, by shading out 10-30% of the suns rays with our industrial smoke -- was reported in the scientific press, I was in Australia on a speaking tour. This news, I remember saying to government officials and others there, makes the situation far graver than we previously understood it to be. If the smoke disappears, as it mostly did over the skies of the United States after 9/11, the earth immediately heats up even more (as data collected during those days showed rather conclusively). It is possible, verging on likely, that Europe's heat waves were exacerbated by the fact that Europe has better air quality controls, thus reducing the shading effect of particulates. "Global dimming" is partly saving us from global warming.

Even with that dimming effect, the level of warming is already dangerous. And there are other feedback mechanisms -- such as the release of methane from melting tundra -- that are also lurking in the all-too-likely future, ready to accelerate warming still further. We are stuck in a dilemma, I noted to clients and audiences, far stickier than even the most concerned among us realize. We cannot afford to "clean the skies" too much right now, until we have come up with some other way to dampen the warming effect, or to change the carbon balance in the atmosphere. This is a terribly ironic, but inevitable and logical, conclusion.

Of course, I was just a consultant and author, and no scientist. So I confined my great worries to small lecture halls and to dialogue with professional colleagues and friends in the scientific and policy communities. Now Lovelock -- whose reputation as a scientist has grown enormously over the years, giving him a status approaching that of Darwin -- has made the world a bit safer for these public reflections. And he has also elevated the urgency of a great ethical debate.

In environment, conservation, and sustainability circles, it is traditional to view our ethical responsibility to nature in terms of leaving it alone, or actively preserving it as it is, unchanged. This ethic is applied to both small systems, like a patch of forest, and large ones, such as the global climate. Debates about "mega-engineering" the climate, which might include things like fertilizing the oceans (so that plankton will absorb more CO2) and various carbon sequestration technologies, are enormously heated. We must not tamper with natural systems at that scale, goes the anti-engineering argument, because we do not understand these systems well enough. We could set forces in motion that destroy all or part of an ecosystem, or even threaten to undermine an important food source for humans.

I respect that argument a great deal, and I sympathize with the spirit of it. Unfortunately, it is no longer tenable as a strategy, and this makes it untenable ethically as well.

When it comes to the atmosphere and its role in regulating global temperatures, we have already set forces in motion on a scale so great that we still, even after all these years of scientific study and international debate, do not comprehend how great a change we have already created. A "hands-off" ethic is entirely appropriate when keeping our hands off nature is what will save it. But it is too late for that. Keeping our hands off the system, as conditions are now, spells doom. The only way for us to save vast tracts of nature now -- and according to Lovelock, civilization itself -- is to put our hands to work at managing the climate system, as intensively as we can.

Let's start with global dimming. We must accept that we now have an ethical responsibility to manage this effect on a global scale. It is not a natural effect; indeed, it is entirely accidental and human-caused, the equivalent of a continuous large volcanic eruption. (Mount Pinatubo's expulsion of dust into the atmosphere similarly shaded the planet from global warming in the 1990s.) And yet global dimming is part of our current, entirely unconscious, "climate management strategy." We must consider whether we actually need more of it, to counter the warming effects we are already fated to experience because of the great delays in the climate system. (Even if we stopped emitting CO2 today, temperatures would continue to rise for many years to come.)

I am not proposing that we stoke up our coal-fired power plants and increase the number of planes flying just to shade the planet. I am, however, proposing that we must take seriously our responsibility to monitor and actively manage this effect, at a global level, and even to investigate whether there are other ways to shade the planet without contributing to even more global warming through increased CO2 and other emissions, without increasing acid rain from smoke deposition, and the like.

In sum, we must become conscious of the fact that we are already mega-engineering the planet, on an absolutely enormous scale -- and doing it quite unconsciously and very, very badly. The nature of our debates must now switch from "Should we tamper with these things?" to "How best do we tamper with them, in order to preserve both nature and the needs of human life?"

Mega-engineering the planet does not release us from the obligation to push harder on changes in our high-consumption lifestyles, perverse economic incentives, insufficient sustainable development in poor areas and the like. Indeed, our responsibility to attend earnestly to such things is only increased with every passing day. We need to engage every possible and humane lever of change available to us, ranging from individual conviction that change is necessary, to global treaties to secure purposeful collaboration among nations. The United States and China, as the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, have a special responsibility in this regard.

But in our thinking and action on climate change, we can no longer avoid the fact that we are past a point of no return. Pandora's box is not just open, but long since emptied. Genuine hope is to be found not in doing less tampering with the climate, but in doing far more: far more regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, with market and non-market mechanisms. Far more research into carbon sequestration. Far more development of alternative energy prospects. Far more willingness to imagine strategies that currently sound like science fiction -- such as building space-based solar energy arrays that would simultaneously power the planet, and partially shade us from the sun, so that we can regulate global temperatures long enough to learn how to restore a more "natural," self-regulating, life-sustaining balance to the global atmosphere.

Lovelock revolutionized the life sciences by demonstrating that the entire Earth is a living mechanism, working in systemic harmony to maintain the conditions for life itself. We are a product of that system. Currently, we are, as he puts it, Gaia's malady, and we have disrupted its regulating mechanisms far beyond their capacity to self-repair in time to save the things we love.

So we must repair them. We have it in our power to become the regulating consciousness of this great living spherical fabric of life. We have the power to regulate the climate: that power is evident in the destruction we have already caused, unconsciously. We must now, with all due haste and urgency, begin to take our new role as planetary managers and engineers far more seriously, so that we learn to do it well.

James Lovelock, whose Gaia Hypothesis was at first dismissed, was ultimately proven right, because he accurately described something that was demonstrably true, but which science had previously failed to see. But the future is not yet a fact. We must now do everything in our power to prove this great scientist wrong -- not by dismissing his warning, but by heeding it.

Alan AtKisson is the author of Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World, as well as the International Transition Director of the Earth Charter Initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and do not represent the views of the Earth Charter Initiative or its affiliates.

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I agree that we have the power to try to control these things, but if you're arguing we have the knowledge, or that we should be acting on grand scale ideas like fertilizing the oceans, then I disagree. We'd be like an oil-stained mechanic sticking their arms into a huge running engine that we've never seen before. We're more likely to break it or get our arm chopped off than fix it. When Man interferes with Nature we rarely do the right thing - we only seem to learn from our mistakes and our best hope is to recognize them as such and stop doing them, rather than start some new grand 'solution'.

My bet is that it will be us vs. the cockroaches in 500 years.

Posted by: Erik on 19 Jan 06

It doesn't matter that what we're doing now is causing calamity, making sure that deliberate tampering doesn't make matters worse is still an issue (unless the choice is between 'do nothing and die', and 'do something and maybe die quicker, or perhaps not at all'. I don't think we're at that point, yet.)

So, I suggest that any deliberate terraforming projects that we embark on need to be as reversible as possible (the solar shade idea seems to fit that bill. Seeding the tundra with methanogenic bacteria does not)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 19 Jan 06

Tony's comment reminds to mention a possibility I fear might happen.

Once it becomes obvious that disruptive climate change is upon us, there will be a strong temptation for quick, easy, cheap fixes whose main appeal is letting us continue our sloppy and wasteful habits.

The quick fixes will be loudly, arrogantly boosted by the usual suspects. They'll become campaign issues and the subject of tax breaks and pork-barrel spending.

A possible example: Dumping iron filings in the ocean to encourage CO2-sucking algea blooms. A few years back WIRED ran a profile about the cranky self-promoter touting the scheme. Has it run any of the follow-up research describing the damage this fix might do?

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 19 Jan 06

My preference is to minimize our human footprint on Mother Earth's face. That means the alternative energy sources like nuclear, but also renewables like solar and wind, that generate the most energy with least impact. We need to radically improve our recycling technologies and programs to minimize pollution. And finally, Birth Control -- we need to shift humanity ever farther towards living longer, healthier lives and having fewer kids.

Posted by: sanman on 20 Jan 06

I agree that we have already pulled the pin out of the grenade. However, we are learning that the Earth is an immense non-linear dynamical system, in which each organism and molecule of water is a degree of freedom. We nowhere near characterizing the dynamics of the system to where we could ever control it. Any brute force attempt to control the system is doomed.

I am convinced that our survival involves a combination of developing space and minimizing our footprint. Regarding minimizing our footprint, I think the Cradle-to-Cradle paradigm of William McDonough and Michael Braungart, if put to full use, will work. Regarding the development of space, we should not try to use it to control the Earth (e.g., orbiting sun shades, etc.). Instead, space will provide a source of materials that we currently pillage the Earth for (such as metals for enabling technologies, or "technical nutrients" in Cradle-to-Cradle speak). Further, space will provide the gateway to the next phase of life: to move beyond the Earth. We are currently ruining (and are considering terraforming) the only known habitable body in the Universe. Instead, let's minimize our footprint on the Earth by stepping off.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 20 Jan 06

Right now, the paradigm of the Bush administration is more techology will solve everything. Even if that were true, rest assured that not enough money will be left over after all the tax breaks, Iraq, global war on terror, etc. to make much difference. Can you imagine what we could have done with all the money we've blown in Iraq? We could have outfitted at least half of the U.S. with solar collectors for Christ's sake.

We want to believe that there's plenty more around the bend to take care of whatever problems we are confronted with. We will only conserve upon pain of death. Why, I go to the Post office and people leave their mega SUVs and trucks on while they gab with the postmistress inside the post office. Yeh. Maybe it's just symbolic, but it's a damn potent and telling symbol of where our ethics are and what they hath wrought.

The world, of course, will somehow go on without us and, probably, for the better.

Posted by: tom on 20 Jan 06

Hm. There was a guy, Arthur Smith, I think, who'd occasionally pop up on WorldChanging and talk about building solar power stations in space and beaming the energy back down.

Gerald O'Neil had a well worked out plan to do just that, using building materials from the moon.

It's plausible. If things are as bad as Lovelock says, it becomes a very, very worthy project to spend five billion bucks investigating.

Posted by: vinay on 20 Jan 06

Jamais and I had a brief e-conversation about this.

Lovelock has made 2 kinds of predictions. The first is that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere past a tipping point, and global mean temperatures will rise by 5 to 8°C, making most of the planet unfit for human habitation. He is well qualified to make that kind of prediction.

His second prediction is that, even having been warned by an overwhelming consensus of scientists, human beings - especially in fossil-fuel-hungry nations such as China and the United States - will choose extinction rather than change course.

I really admire Jim Lovelock, but he's no more qualified to make that second prediction than you or I. How does he know that?

The basic scientific facts are scary, and should grab the attention of anyone with more brains than a box of mud. (That may leave out certain folks, but it can't be helped.)

But I think that what scares the willies out of most folks is the idea of reconfiguring our society, and of abandoning some stories we've been telling ourselves since The Epic of Gilgamesh. We're so desperate to cling to those stories that we're trying to negotiate with physics. (Laws of Physics? Me? But I have a Platinum Visa!)

I posted this essay before, but here goes again - because it says what I mean far better than I ever could:

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Jan 06

I read and then re-read the Lovelock piece. I was halfway through the third reading when it came clear to me: "oh, wait, you can stop now, he's just a nut." This thing is so badly written. He's managed to scare the crap out of the choir (meaning those already convinced) while writing in a style that, frankly, is confusing to those not already on board with his vision. He writes like a man in love with metaphors that don't fit, but hey, they're all he's got so he's going to run with 'em. The commentary by Bruce Sterling at viridiandesign is the best I've seen yet.

I suspect this comment (mine, the one you're reading) will fly like a lead zeppelin in this venue. Just volunteering the viewpoint of someone who's interested in worldchanging but who's frankly turned off by Lovelock. If things are as bad as he says, I for one have little time for mystical horsepucky and am much more interested in the human to human side of the problem, because either there's a human solution (we work out our problems) or we're all screwed. And if we're all screwed, well what the hell do I care about apologizing to Gaia?

As far as mega-engineering projects go, well, now you're talking about the human realm again. You've got to find someone to bankroll your barge full of iron filings, get port clearance and permits, and so on. If you want to mobilize people, I'd really advise we find a better muse than Lovelock. He reads to me like an embarrassing relative in his holiday cups.

Posted by: dsgeorge on 20 Jan 06

dsgeorge, I think you'll find that more people here than you might expect agree with your negative take on Lovelock's essay.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Jan 06

God what tripe. It's only past the half-way mark that Lovelock finally asks "So what should we do?" only to offer that only a few will survive. Biofuels, windmills? Ludicrous! The final suggestion: make our peace with Gaia while we still can.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 20 Jan 06

And what if we accept the hypothesis, institute a massive program to, for example, shade the earth, and then there is another volcanic eruption the size of Tambora in 1815? As millions freeze and billions starve, will we then institute a crash program to insure more sunlight strikes the earth?

Posted by: Dave on 21 Jan 06

Two creative suggestions:

Why not redesign our own biology to be more metabolically efficient and less reproductivly oriented?

Why not engineer new forms of life to multiply rapidly, disperse quickly & then go extinct as they rebalance greenhouse gasses, collect carbon particles & heavy metals & metabolize industrial waste & pollution?

If humanity's problems are expanding exponentially then we need a solution that response likewise. Synthetic lifeform design has this potential.

Posted by: Richard Wheeler on 21 Jan 06

Re Mike Tierney’s comment:

Minimizing our footprint > yes!!

Developing space??? >> Having wrecked one planet… and over the last 40 years even managed to leave a pile of space garbage spinning around their own planet (9,000 major items as reported on BBC today)… why would you want to let this destructive species (us) loose in the solar system and beyond??? What chance would the universe have??

As you ably put it yourself: “space will provide a source of materials that we currently pillage the Earth for” > so having pillaged the Earth you recommend that we now start pillaging space??? (Oh… that’s right… space is so big that you would never notice the garbage… hang on, wasn’t that what said about our oceans…)

The point here being; that until the human race LEARNS… there is no hope. And I see no sign of this yet… we are still too focused on war, political in-fighting and entertaining ourselves to death…

Posted by: glynne jones on 21 Jan 06

we even have to change our outlook on preserving nature unchanged too given that much of nature has been shaped by people over thousands of years and it may need our active intervention to survive rapidly changing conditions.

could the simplest possibilities for mega-engineering the planet start with simple fixes across the footprint of man-made property, eg cooling trees in urbanised areas, plus white and reflective surfaces everywhere? I understand this is different in that it's a ground level whereas global dimming occurs in the atmosphere, but could such a measure help?

I agree with glynne, inhabiting space is mental when comparatively, we're talking about simple and cheap measures to address climate disruption. We've evolved in conjunction with the complex planetary systems and organisms of Earth. We're native here and we need to commit to staying for the foreseeable, indefinite future. We can't even run a biosphere let alone set up a self-sufficient space colony.

Posted by: Flannel Flower on 23 Jan 06

It is true that we have evolved to live in conjunction with the complex planetary system, but as primates, we had evolved in conjunction with a specific habitat, and we left that one as well. Humanity is not (yet) extinct because we hurl ourselves into the void and learn how to survive. Also, I think the boundary between humanity and the rest of life is fictitious. We are life, just a particular instantiation of it.

I think it is no coincidence that our emerging awareness of the Earth as a precious system came about just as we ventured out from it. Our view of Earth from space finally drove home the idea that we all live downstream. It is an essential component of our education. The human race does need to learn. This is a key part of the lesson. It is true that we have not managed to run a biosphere. However, in learning how to sustain humans in space, we have learned a great deal about the interconnectedness between people and dirt. Another fictitious boundary.

Thanks to Glynne Jones and Flannel Flower for the comments. Please, let's keep this going.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 23 Jan 06

From my perspective, humanity has come face to face with an incredibly unique point in history. First, we have the wherewithal to "see" the whole planet at a very granular level. For instance, we can measure and record not just local weather, but the totality of the entire weather system. We can test not merely whether *our* well is running dry out back, but how much fresh water is available *in total*. In short, we have achieved a level of technology and communication that allows us to see the limits of the system in which we live.

Moreover, we have reach "the ends of the earth," in the sense that there are no new landmasses to discover, no new places to move to and exploit. We have grown to the limits of our habitat.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we've achieved the ability to minipulate the system in which we live. We are, suddenly and irrevocably, all in the same boat together.

What's missing in my opininion is very long term planning, and other than perhaps the longnow foundation, no one's doing much about it. While our rapid growth, both in terms of population, and knowledge, may be helping to cause significant climate change, it also demonstrates our ability to act as one to affect major change. In this case, unconsciously, and for the worse, but we don't have to accept the status quo - we can choose to be more.

Lovelock may well be wrong in his specifics, but it's very safe to say, based on history, that weather patterns *will* change on this planet in long and (for us) dramatic cycles. Asteroids *will* threaten life at some point. Tsunami's vastly greater than the one in Indonesia will happen, tremendous volcanoes will erupt, and vast pandemics will happen. Eventually.

In short, we can safely predict that disasters are coming. Why *not* plan for them? Here in the US, everyone has witnessed how poorly prepared we are for vast disaters, whether manmade or natural. Why? Do we lack the resources? The technical knowhow? What needs to change above all other things is our willingness to contemplate and prepare for the future. Trying to get people to agree on, let along prepare for James Lovelock's future is probably a lost cause. But getting people to agree to prepare for largescale problems is hopefully still within our reach.

Most people reading this probably have an IRA, and a general plan for retirement - you've prepared to some extent for your future. Why should we not have plan for the future of our species? If we can't agree on the nature of what's coming, we can probably agree that *something's* bound to come, and we can realistically make plans for such problems.

Why not set aside, on a global scale, resources that can be used to offest major disasters, whatever their nature? Let's invest in warning systems that at least alert us to coming problems. Let's look at research that can ameloriate the worst possible scenarios. The people of Gaviotas moved into a semi-arid region precisely because they believed mankind would have to know how to live there someday. And it's that kind of thinking we ought to be engaged in. We can debate weather or not the planet is going to become semi-arid and to what extent, but we can actually plan for and potentially avoid widespread drought and famine. Just as you might insure your house against a fire, we should insure our species against equally great disasters.



Posted by: neil on 23 Jan 06

Mike it's true that with each identifiable 'level' of technological development and its associated mindset comes both a new set of issues and a new level of comprehension of the issues. Seeing Earth from space has given us a new perspective.

If we're capable of creating self-sustaining colonies for billions of people in an inhospitable environment such as space or a new planet, then why leave Earth to do it? Just prepare to do it here. Start by doing it under the sea. If only we spent as much exploring our oceans and crust as we do on space: perhaps our perspective would broaden yet again. We don't know much about our deep oceans, ocean floors or the planet's mantle. Try to live self-sufficiently in one of those locations. And send me a postcard pls! 8)

Posted by: Flannel Flower on 23 Jan 06

Why leave earth to do it? Because we want to.

The day space colloies realy can grow and work there will be several billion people on earth ready and willing to go find a new life in a new land even with all the dangers invloved. Just as happened last time we found a new world.

Posted by: wintermane on 23 Jan 06

wintermane has hit on the nail on the head: cos we wanna to do it & by the time we can, we'll be quite some time in the future. Meanwhile we need to address more imminent risks and problems, such as impending climate disruption and the billions of hungry mouths. We can continue to work on space projects, keeping a healthy perspective and knowing very clearly that it's not a substitute for minimising our impact on planetary systems.

Posted by: Flannel Flower on 24 Jan 06

I really have to wonder about the motivations of people who say things like "Any brute force attempt to control the system is doomed."  How do you know that?  We're seeing brute-force inputs (both natural and human) and watching their effects now.  We know what an injection of X million tons of SO2 into the stratosphere does, because we've seen it (and the world didn't end).  If we were to do it deliberately, we'd get a similar effect (and the world won't end).

People who argue against going into space have no sense of history and are being downright silly.  Aren't they aware that one of the most powerful images of the ecology movement was a picture taken from from space - specifically, an Apollo mission to the moon?  That huge amounts of knowledge about weather and climate has come from investigation of other planets, where things vary in ways that we cannot test on Earth?

Going into space would be a huge benefit, because it would force us to build ecosystems rather than taking them for granted.  Like that picture of a blue, brown and white Earth floating like a marble in space, it would drive home just how difficult ecosystems are to make, and thus how precious they are.  It would be the single biggest consciousness-raising thing we could do.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 24 Jan 06

It would be idiotic for us not to colinize Mars,Luna,Europa, and maybe Titan. The human race is the best chance the Earth has to keeping Gaia immortal. Leaving Earth means packing a lunch that can propogate itself. The rest of the Solar System is probably prebiotic so why not extend Life into the Universe. Jupiter has all the hydrogen we'll ever need.In space there's no one to exploit. It's not inhabited! And yes, it is a good idea to begin terraforming Earth. If you like the term rewilding better that's fine. But if the Amazon is turning to desert and you can't stop it, then the thing to do is buy the Sahara(which I'm sure our American dollars could do) and transform it into rainforest.
Rainforests make their own rain so there's no reason you could not slowly build biodomes out of sand-glass, fertilize the sand inside and plant rainforest ecosystems that would survive once the glass was removed.
Meanwhile we can build domed sustainable cities in the third world where materials are cheap and so is labor.

Posted by: jonathan oneal wilson on 24 Jan 06

A sense of adventure is the cornerstone of being human.
It's more important than faith.

Posted by: Neal on 24 Jan 06

When I said that any brute force to control the system (Earth as an enormous non-linear system) is doomed, I meant that we have no idea what the outcome would be. Non-linear dynamical systems are extremely sensitive to initial conditions, etc. It's not that we aren't applying brute-force inputs now (we are). But we don't know what the outcome will be. There are a thousand unseen tripwires between today's average temperature and another degree C. Each one of those tripwires may lead us to some unforeseen outcome.

I agree with everything you said. Instead of tinkering with this ecosystem, let's build new ones, and relieve the stress on this one.

And now for my favorite: our grandchildren will either live on the moon, or howl at it.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 24 Jan 06

Nikola Tesla worked out how to power all machinery of earth from a single yet not charhed for location... He got shut down by oil tycoon J.P.Morgan.
The Principle is to put oscellations in the electro magnetic atmosphere harmonically tuned to the circumference of the upper atmosphere divided by two, then played against the speed of the wave. then with an antenna and a ground one can harness energy from anywhere.
More to come at

Posted by: Ken Huber on 25 Jan 06

Another Tesla cultist.  Oh, joy.

Look, before you go on your next round of spamming blogs and stuff, why don't you demonstrate the free energy or whatever it is you're peddling?  The Nobel prize you get will greatly enhance your street cred.

If you can't demonstrate it, you've got nothing and you probably don't understand what you're talking about.  That's good reason to shut up.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 26 Jan 06



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