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Geoengineering: A Worldchanging Retrospective
Julia Levitt, 20 Aug 08


Worldchanging Executive Editor Alex Steffen has become a respected voice of dissent in the global conversation about geo-engineering strategies. This fall, he re-enters the debate as part of the cast of front-line innovators featured in a new docu-style series from Discovery and Impossible Pictures. The program, called Discovery Project Earth, launches this Friday, August 22.

The series will profile some pretty extraordinary experiments aimed at slowing global warming, generating alternative energy and restoring natural resources. Cutting-edge thinkers around the world, including scientists, engineers and other innovators, stand at the helms of these most ambitious projects, which face no small amount of uncertainty in their quest to save all life on Earth.

Alex was tapped to comment both generally on the wisdom of geo-engineering and specifically on several of the climate-hacking initiatives featured in Project Earth. These plans read like the scripts of science fiction movies, but they are being worked on right now, to address what is perhaps the biggest challenge the human race has ever confronted. According to a press release issued by Discovery Communications:

From covering acres of Greenland's glaciers in protective blankets to stop it from melting to constructing space rockets to send tiny reflective lenses into orbit to planting thousands of saplings via a mass aerial drop to reforest barren areas, these are experiments on an epic scale. Each one will push the boundaries of science and technology, but will they produce groundbreaking environmental results?

Make no mistake: we need thinkers who are willing to go beyond the norm; who are willing to imagine on an epic, legendary, mythological scale; who aim to be the heroes who preserve life on this planet.

But Worldchanging has always encouraged careful debate and long-term consideration when it comes to geo-engineering. Drastic measures that dramatically alter intricate systems and delicately balanced exchanges on the Earth, in our oceans, in our atmosphere and beyond are daunting, because altering the natural flow of ecosystems is how we created this disaster in the first place.

Whether or not you'll be tuning in to Project Earth, we've put together a gallery of Worldchanging's past coverage of geo-engineering. We hope that this modest anthology will help those who would like to follow the debate and our role in it, and to help many of you deepen your understanding of some of the most cutting edge, beyond-the-pale, and, we worry, the most dangerous ideas now in the arsenal for our fight against climate chaos.

And remember, Worldchanging is a discussion, not a lecture. Our readers are highly educated, engaged and concerned. So we strongly encourage you to read the comment threads for some lively debate.

How Do We Intelligently Discuss Politicized Geoengineering?
Posted by Alex Steffen on June 10, 2008

This is a dangerous moment, one where words count, and geoengineering is being used to very direct (and dishonest) rhetorical purposes. In a very real way, discussions of geoengineering play into the political hands of those in the U.S. who would like to see climate change action blocked.
But at the same time, in order to have a worthwhile discussion about how to confront climate change and other planetary problems, we need to acknowledge both the full extent of human influence on the Earth and the need for intelligent planetary managemet.

No Time For Singularity
Posted by Karl Schroeder on June 11, 2008

…This upward curve of technological development rides on something: it rides on the back of humanity, and we ride (largely for free, until now) on the back of the natural system that sustains us. Once serious environmental deterioration sets in, the curve of technological change will flatten, even if we develop 'godlike AIs,' for the simple reason that intelligence itself is not enough to sustain growth … If there's to be a miraculous transformation of human civilization, it has to be accomplished by us, right now, before we develop our miraculous nanobots, genetically engineered carbon-sucking trees, or polywell fusion reactors.

Planktos, Geo-Engineering and Politics
Posted by Alex Steffen on February 14, 2008

And here we are led to what may be to me the most damning shortcoming of geo-engineering: These proposals are not actually very smart or cutting edge. They are a set of 20th century proposals kitted out in 21st century drag. This is the response you'd get if you took a bunch of 1950s scientists with slide rules and crew cuts, put them in a room, and showed them An Inconvenient Truth. "First, we build a space mirror, then, if that doesn't work, we'll fall back to the artificial volcano... it may be a long shot, but nothing else will save the American way of life!"

GeoEngineering in the Anthropocene Era
Posted by Jon Lebkowsky on November 27, 2006

In his latest Viridian screed, WorldChanging ally Bruce Sterling refers to an article from Wired, "Rebooting the Ecosystem," which acknowledges that we humans have screwed up our planet, and this means we're responsible for repairing the damage, but stopgaps like carbon sequestration just aren't going to cut it.

Drastic Measures for Cooling the Planet
Posted by Sarah Rich on June 27, 2006

The approach raises serious ethical questions: what is the right way -- if there is one -- to massively alter or impose upon the natural world, with the guiding principles being averting climate disaster and saving the earth? … What it does lead us to, however, is the ever more widely accepted understanding that this crisis is real, it's massive, and it is indeed time to be thinking up solutions on a scale appropriate to the challenge.

Why Geo-Engineering is a Bad Fall-Back Strategy
Posted by Alex Steffen on March 10, 2006

Given our extremely limited understanding of (and thus ability to manage) the planet now, with more modest expectations and under comparatively stable conditions, debating geo-engineering may even provide a stalking horse for climate "skeptics"…

The Open Future: The Reversibility Principle
Posted by Jamais Cascio on March 6, 2006

It's likely that, should we be forced to consider such global-scale engineering to respond to climate disaster, few of the options will be reversible. The question then becomes which option -- including the option of doing nothing -- would in the worst reasonable scenarios result in the least amount of death and destruction, and which would give us the greatest opportunity for gradual mitigation of harm. Underlying the choices will be the need to make the ways the options as reversible as possible, even if full reversibility isn't plausible.

And our very first deep discussion on the topic was Jamais Cascio's four-part series, posted during the summer of 2005:

Terraforming Earth

Terraforming Earth, Part II

Terraforming Earth, Part III: Geoethical Principles

Terraforming Earth IV: The Question of Methane

I say this to preface a look at a set of proposed feats of ecological engineering on a scale never before attempted intentionally. They may not be the best courses of action -- they may not be wise, or evince a good balance of benefit and risk -- but we should not rule them out simply because they involve making big changes to the environment. We're already making big changes, only without any foresight or design; to paraphrase Stewart Brand's 1968 epigram, we are already terraforming Earth, and might as well get good at it.

Image credit: flickr/Dead Air, licensed by Creative Commons.

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hey, I have an idea. Every time you go to the grocery store by recycled paper toilet paper, but washable cleaning cloths, make your own cleaners with NATURAL products. So much could be saved by following these simple steps. Imagine if everyone in America used only paper bags? Or actually remembered the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle slogan they taught us in grade school? We need to DRASICALLY reduce the amount of trash and waste. Why not start with that before we use more energy and resources to cover glaciers...just a thought

Posted by: zilla on 22 Aug 08

Coming from a place where the cane toads and rabbits reign, I am of the firm belief that no geo-engineering process should be considered unless it can be readily reversed. Not only does this assist in bailing you out of a sticky situation, but also implies a measure of control in the process (ie partial reversal)

Reversal is, of course, a somewhat vague term and it is unlikely you would get back to precisely the same state you were to start with! (given the global impact of these measures, I can't imagine them being permitted unless there was broad agreement on its value. eg although the sunshade idea appears to be reversible, climate modelling suggests it would suppress Indian monsoons and lead to drought)

Zilla: the call to use paper rather than plastic bags is one of those pale green arguments that highlights the need to know the backstory of a product.

Although paper is a 'natural' product, and can be either recycled or composted, it's production requires far more energy and produces far more toxic waste than does an equivalent amount of plastic. Besides, plastic can now be effectively recycled.

You are right in saying reduction is key.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 22 Aug 08

Seems like the Arctic is the first big candidate to experience some 'regional geoengineering', given that it is the fastest changing region.

Posted by: mitchell porter on 24 Aug 08

This thread is already dead, right? For such a grand beginning, it certainly didn't fall far from the tree.

The main point is a point most people don't like. You have to forget about reuse and recycle and spend all of your time working on REDUCE. As we start our various descents, from peak wealth, peak energy, peak power, peak this and peak that, we have to REDUCE our wants and desires. That will not turn out to be possible for lots of people, so we will end up REDUCING our numbers. That's all. Its simple.

Sorry that it comes down to something so small, so unheroic, and so personal. None of us needs an engineer to use less. We just need the thing you have to build yourself, out of your self; self control.

Posted by: Joe Bell on 26 Aug 08

Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D. has written a roadmap for a zero-CO2 emissions, non-nuclear energy future for The United States.

It can be found at the following URL for free:

I have studied it extensively and it is accessible to most readers.

In my best knowledge, since the 1950s, we've known the way to solve this crisis: Greater efficiencies with more renewable sources of energy.

Dr. Makhijani has successfully outlined this for all of us to plainly see.

Posted by: Christian Remington on 26 Aug 08

Reduce = great. The Answer. It's so obvious...but it's irrelevant given current planetary--and by that I mean human--circumstances. We can't "REDUCE" ourselves and our impact back to when we were a single force among billions in the biological, climatic, and chemical homeostasis of the planet.

We are now the single dominant input in these systems. Like it or not, we need to take control of that input. Right back to McDonough and Braungart: instead of reducing our waste and our impact--our very selves--we need to ramp up, to PRODUCE. We need to re-engineer our existence so that everything we do increases--diversity, abundance, complexity, redundancy. If we don't, our current momentum flatten everything.

I build houses. But I should also be building carbon sinks, sewage transformation centers, habitat corridors, and Wednesday night poetry slams. I should do these all, and more, at the same time, in the same place.

Posted by: Nick on 26 Aug 08

Will James Hansen be participating in 'Project Earth'?

As far as I know, he's the only scientist who has formulated an interesting set of steps to go carbon-negative.

In his famous 350ppm paper.

Has WorldChanging ever reported on this key document?

Posted by: Jonas on 26 Aug 08

I read McDonough and Braungart differently, apparently. It seems to me that their efforts all resulted in reduction of additives to get down to things that don't force you to try and find a place like "away" to put the residue. Waste is food is supposed to be literal. Whatever you don't use has to be edible ultimately. No Poison. No Radioactivity. No How. No Way.

Really, the reduction we all have to get on with in the Once Great United States is nearly all transportation. In the emerging economies it is not burning down their forest and letting more trees grow. That shouldn't be so hard.

As a specie we are well adapted to move ourselves around. So walk. If you need to carry your tools, make a wagon. If you have to go a long way, get a used bike. In a real sense, this particular journey begins with one step.

Posted by: Joe Bell on 28 Aug 08



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