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Mr. Burns as the Face of Geo-Engineering
Amanda Reed, 19 Oct 10

WorldChanging Ally Dale Carrico suggests that we make Monty Burns, of The Simpsons, the face of geo-engineering on his blog Amor Mundi.

He begins:

Alasdair Wilkins reports this good news over at io9: "The United Nations's Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to either ban outright or limit research into space sunshades. Although NASA and other organizations are looking into these sunshades as a possible way to slow climate change, environmental advocates have criticized this research as providing only a short-term fix that wouldn't affect the underlying issues, like humanity's overuse of fossil fuels. There are also serious questions about how blocking out part of the Sun's rays could affect weather patterns, ecosystems, and agriculture."

But more important still is Wilkins's next insight: "But let's be real here -- we all know what happens when people try to blot out the Sun…Matt Groening has extensively documented the folly of trying to block the Sun…on The Simpsons..."

And ends:

A clip follows Wilkins' claim over at io9 about the key role of The Simpsons in educating a whole generation about the folly of sun-blotting schemes, in which his point is illustrated (er, that is to say, Mr. Burns blots out the Sun). But I was reminded in watching the clip of another of my favorite episodes, The Old Man and the Lisa, in which Mr. Burns is reduced momentarily to penury and finds his way back to super-wealth through the opportunistic exploitation of Lisa's earnest environmentalism, culminating in the creation of the Burns Omninet, woven together from plastic six-pack yokes (yes, that's what they're called, awesomely enough, I looked it up), which "sweeps the sea clean" of life, from which to create "L'il Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry." (L'il Lisa "makes Little Debbie look like a pile of puke," declares Moe, a line from the episode Eric and I repeat with ridiculous regularity at home, as we also do the line from the episode in which Mr. Burns is paralyzed in his first trip to a grocery store pondering the difference between "Ketchup…? Catsup…" The applicability of early season episodes of The Simpsons to life's every circumstance is truly wonderful.) Right then and there, pondering the memory of Mr. Burn's vast recycling plant and Lisa's horror upon realizing that the vile corporate-militarist Mr. Burns could indeed turn even wholesome environmentalist impulses to evil in the service of his profit-taking, I realized it, Mr. Burns is the pop culture archetype of "geo-engineering" as such.

I'm sure that other fans of The Simpsons can provide legions of examples in which Mr. Burns attempts comparably catastrophic evil futurological schemes. Do please let me know.

Let's make Monty Burns the face of "geo-engineering."

More from Dale Carrico in the Worldchanging archives:

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Trouble is, I don't think this form of demonising is particularly helpful.

Anything done to alleviate global warming could be classified as 'geo-engineering'. I will take it to refer to techniques that address the symptoms rather than the cause.

In this context, Geo-engineering buys us much needed time at best. At its worst, it's merely used an excuse to paper over the cracks and party on as normal (while making the problem worse). I think it's important to recognise the difference (which Lisa failed to do, although she veered the opposite way to this article).

Still, 'The Old Man and the Lisa' is an apt metaphor: when all is said and done, who's going to be footing the bill?

(Bad Monty! Ba-a-ad ancestor!)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 20 Oct 10

Anything done to alleviate global warming could be classified as 'geo-engineering.'

If that's true then what exactly is excluded from the category, and what clarified through the introduction of the term?

Aggregate impacts of environmental regulation, widespread lifeway changes, subsidization of sustainable energy provision and infrastructure can have impacts comparable to those attributed to speculative "geo-engineering" proposals, making it still more difficult to understand just what should be included and excluded from the category. This makes it still more difficult in turn to see how the category facilitates the weighing of risks, costs, benefits of particular proposals described as "geo-engineering" or not according to proponents for whatever reasons. Meanwhile, few mega-scale corporate-military "geo-engineering" proposals could be expected to achieve their desired outcomes in the absence of effective regulation and oversight.

And so the preemptive declaration of the failure of conventional environmental politics and regulatory processes that accompanies so many "geo-engineering" arguments seems more to defeat than support them. But if such politics and processes can indeed still be effective enough to facilitate "geo-engineering" proposals then it is difficult to see why we would turn to "geo-engineering" to save us as a last resort or what have you in the first place.

Unless "geo-engineering" is just a neologism repackaging conventional proposals for the promotional purposes of futurologists as distinct from serious science policy questions? In which case, as Mr. Burns might say... "Excellent."

Posted by: Dale Carrico on 20 Oct 10

The thing to keep in mind is that the last couple of hundred years have been the largest geo-engineering project imaginable. You would think at this point we would know better than to second-guess the wisdom of natural systems with enormous feats of technophilia....

Posted by: ajseattle on 24 Oct 10

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