Tuesday, June 13, 2017


The Sun Dims, Three Billion Years Early

The eternal silence of these infinite, vast spaces frightens me.  Thus wrote Blaise Pascal, aged thirty, in Pensees (1669).  He was less impressed with human power than the infinite, which bounded it.  The great apes who have inherited the earth are a fulcrum without a niche in the natural world, capable of catapulting us beyond our planetary home into that frightening vast space.

The world has failed at the task of CO2 mitigation. It is a consequence of a conceptual split from the natural world which many would argue goes back to the neolithic, when we became settled farmers with stores of grain to guard and distribute.  Out of this came the fortified granary -the polis - the treasury, and a new, more complicated sense of us and them, beyond tribalism - though it persisted as well. Hamilton cites Jacob Burckhardt (198), who wrote that history is “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness.” Or in biblical terms, the Fall.
It is “inconvenient” to curb greenhouse gases in our greedy pursuit of a status quo which now consumes all of the Earth's annual output by early August, as of last year. We ignore it, but every act has a moral component, and our failure to wean ourselves from fossil fuels is a moral one. Our split from nature, which began as conceptual, has become reinforced until it is also a moral stance, consciously chosen (baldly stated in several Renaissance-era texts and speeches).  Amazingly, the 2012 London Olympics dramatized this in the opening ceremony, where the figure of Caliban comes to the stage and speaks poetically of his love for his island, its beings, sounds, breezes, and textures, only to be rudely replaced by Industrial Man and his smog-belching factories.  The 2012 Olympics celebrated this.  We are conscious of our vaunted  exceptionalism, blessed in the book of Genesis when its author says that Y-hw-h loves us above all creation. 
But as the Bible also tells us, we are only creatures of clay, adamas, and as such, subject to the same natural laws as all other living things.  And now the petri dish on which we live, this poor Earth, is overcrammed with humans, and we are not only reluctant to check our numbers (be fruitful and multiply), but our covetous hunger for food, the built environment, and toys.  Believing in the infinite power of our intellects, fired by god-like imaginative powers, we now dream of mass-producing steaks without the cows, and our most fashionable philosophers speak of a human realm that has no need for the natural world. 

The distinction men have drawn between “natural history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of millions of years – and “human history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of years, decades and centuries – has collapsed (D. Charkabarty).  “With the Anthropocene, humans have become a geological force so that the two kinds of history have converged...”(Hamilton, 198). Anthropogenic climate change affects the atmosphere, the chemical composition of the oceans via acidification, the biosphere, via habitat loss and species extinction, the cryosphere, melting ice mass, and the lithosphere itself through vast mining projects and mountaintop removal (and the now-flooding New York subway system).  If you're not yet convinced that we are, in the words of Brian Swimme, a “planetary power,” consider this: geologists project that unchecked global warming will cancel the next Ice Age, perhaps three of them, altering the planet's climate for up to 500,000 years. 

Since we have known for decades now that fossil fuel burning causes atmospheric warming, anthropogenic climate change is now deliberate, even if the effect of our action may not be. (161)  Anthropogenic climate disruption is creating biospheric and social problems, but instead of accepting the challenge of changing behavior, “we live in societies predisposed to seek technological answers to social problems.” (174) And the technocrats have a huge backing among the economists, who see geoengineering as far cheaper than restraining our fossil fuel consumption. Newt Gingrich is typical of political figures on the right in his summation, “Geoengineering holds the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year.  Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention...Bring on the American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.” (168)

As an example, Hamilton outlines in detail the efforts of governments and large fossil corporations to create carbon capture and storage (CCS), which was initially considered quite feasible. As with the Vietnam War, the effort was continued (and continues still) long after it was apparent it would not be workable.  In doing so, companies like Exxon hoped beyond hope to assuage their guilt for being complicit in creating the conditions for climate disruption. The result, Hamilton notes, was a “lost decade” in working for emissions reductions.  The dilemma now is that  pursuing climate engineering will similarly make emission reductions less likely to be pursued, and the lost decade will quickly turn into three. Hamilton sums up the issue succinctly: “But if climate engineering is inferior to cutting emissions (in the sense of being less effective and more risky) then merely by choosing to engineer the climate instead of cutting emissions we succumb to moral failure.” 162

Our moral failure is huge, and we would atone for it by playing God on a scale beyond the many precursors to the ultimate move of managing the global climate. My question is, when have we ever looked at a new technology and refused it?  I have already reviewed at this site a book which emphatically answers “never”: Too Smart for Our Own Good.  But there have been hesitations along the way to our status as the “God Species.”  Hindus claim that they discovered rocket science during the Vedic era, but that the brahmin priests decided it would create too much mischief. More recently, the NYRB reviewed a collection of letters between the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and his wife, in which the scientist describes how he and his colleagues passively resisted Hitler's pressure to develop the atomic bomb after discovering nuclear fission in 1939.  Heisenberg was a brave and thoughtful man. 

So German physicists, like their “Aryan” forebears in Vedic India, did refuse to pursue a technology.  Fatefully, our scientists did not. Robert Oppenheimer, observing the first nuclear test from a bunker in Nevada, compared the mushroom cloud  to Krishna revealing himself as an infinite series of beings in the Bhagavad Gita. But the genie was out of the bottle; Oppenheimer's flash of insight was after the fact.  Indeed, several of the men who created the bomb were unsure the earth's atmosphere would survive the shock. The Manhattan Project was a technical success. We built the bomb to save Europe – and we used it. 

On the micro scale, science is busily sequencing multiple genomes, redesigning DNA in cells by selecting for traits and swapping out genes. Though some called for public debate, there has been essentially none.  In Siberia, scientists are busily re-engineering the modern elephant to have some of the traits of the extinct woolly mammoth, so that the spruce forests invading the tundra might be turned back by a pachyderm herd jealous of its own food source – grasslands. This would restore the albedo effect of the vast northern tundra to help mediate the loss of sea ice.  Other scientists are keen to create designer genes to meet would-be parents' desire for perfect offspring. As Hamilton puts it, “Life is reduced to a manipulable genetic code” (179).

I have long been disturbed by genetic engineering and dismayed over the lack of public debate.  Where is the landmark court case turning back the hubris of great apes playing God by reshuffling the gene pool on a cross-species basis? Where are the preachers citing the magnificent text of Job in the face of our smug hubris (Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?)? And now, after splitting the atom and altering the blueprints of life itself, we are on the brink of managing the entire earth climate. We would re-engineer the global climate to save the “Earth”  from global warming – but on our terms, for us, our civilization.  

With atmospheric CO2 concentrations headed for 550 ppm and beyond (the upper limit of “safe” climate perturbations is 350-450 ppm), it seems only a matter of time before we have sufficient  motivation to start the application of sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere.  The big question is, who will have jurisdiction over this effort?  Will it be an extension of Cold War military gaming? How will the interests of poor vs. rich nations be adjudicated? Will it be overseen by the UN Climate Convention? What could the rest of the world do if a large rogue nation that is not a signatory to the convention decided to go it alone to create a solar filter? 

At the very least, there should be widespread debate on the need and feasibility of these plans, including a thorough discussion of the considerable risks (which are on a scale comparable to the risks of a nuclear exchange).  But if we have these discussions too soon, then one probable result would be that all efforts at mitigation would cease.  The Promethean and Soterian forces remain in opposition, with the Soterians arguing for using this technology only as a last resort in the face of climate emergency. Soterians (I am one) would continue to push hard for emissions reductions, for if we reach the 85-100% reductions needed from current levels (403 ppm), we could ground the planes indefinitely. The question is, how do we determine when we are in a state of climate emergency, given that the process leading to such a state is one of multiple tripping of tipping points, each of which leads to others. Once the process begins – and some scientists argue it already has – it is essentially unstoppable. 

Prometheans, who hold the power now, would argue to create the filter as soon as possible, to save money and avoid unnecessary (human) suffering.  With this shift, their goal of having the entire earth system under human control would be met, and geoengineering would be a permanent alteration of the heavens.

Any public debate should include scientists, ethicists, public intellectuals. And it shouldn't just be about saving the two-leggeds.  It will require as well folks who can speak for the voiceless: poets, artists, musicians and spiritual folk. Perhaps, after such a debate, we will still take the best available option, but at least we will do so with our eyes wide open to the enormous risks.  And we will have set the stage for  memorializing the earth we leave behind, the whole magnificent biosphere.
Once we engineer the climate, second-guessing the Sun, the first god for much of Earth history, we will have completed the process of circumventing wilderness, the Great Commons that once surrounded our human dwelling-places. The End of Nature, which Bill McKibben published in 1989, will be essentially complete, usurped by a full-blown, but not fully matured, Anthropocene. Ultimately, morality and beauty join as our bedrock values, and both will be displaced by a “functional” Earth engineered by our Promethean overlords.

If the distinction between natural history and human history fully collapses, then the sublime, that which gives humans awe and humility in the face of the unknowable and unimaginable will similarly move one step away, into the vast reaches of space over which we still have no control. But the sublime will haunt our move to control the planet.  The ”silence of vast space(s)” which Pascal feared will remain our destiny, postponed perhaps for a bit.  But the Earth, our home, will be eclipsed.  Oh terrible, sad, smudged fate!

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