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Planet Zoo

More than a generation of Americans have been urged to save the Earth. A survey of the current climate and every H.G. Wells-inspired geoengineering project shows it’s time to pray for Homo sapiens.

Julia Sonmi Heglund for TMN

Here’s a metaphor: We’re in a car. The road is foggy and we’re cruising along at a good clip. A few signs on the shoulder warn there’s a cliff ahead, but the radio is on, we have places to be, and it’s not entirely clear who put up those signs anyway.

Some of us might slow down. A few might stop. One or two of us might put the kids in the backseat to work sewing parachutes.

But most of us keep going. Ultimately, we figure either:

  1. The cliff isn’t really there
  2. The cliff won’t be nearly as big as those signs make it look
  3. The cliff is so far away, our kids will be driving by the time we get there
  4. We’ll manage to skid to a stop right at the edge, or
  5. Shit, we’ll sail right off and hope our kids are virtuosos with parachute silk.

Reduce emissions, curb emissions, stop emissions. We—and by we I mean me, my friends, my older brothers, everyone I know under 45—we are the first generation that cannot claim we did not know. Silent Spring was published 10 years before I was born. At elementary school assemblies I was among the little curly-headed ciphers who read cheerful environmental tips into the microphone: “Don’t let the faucet run while brushing your teeth!” Freshman year in college we were handed Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. During my sophomore year, 1992, 1,500 scientists, including more than half the living Nobel laureates, admonished in their Warning to Humanity: “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

So what have we done? Not much. From 1992 to 2007, global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels rose 38 percent. Emissions in 2008 rose a full 2 percent despite a global economic slump. Honeybees are dying by the billions1, amphibians by the millions, and shallow Caribbean reefs are mostly dead already.2 Our soil is disappearing faster than ever before, half of all mammals are in decline, and a recent climate change model predicts that the Arctic could have ice-free summers by 2013. Unchecked, carbon emissions from China alone will probably match the current global level by 2030.

“The god thou servest,” Marlowe wrote in Dr. Faustus, almost 400 years before the invention of internet shopping, “is thine own appetite.” Was he wrong? How significantly have you reduced your own emissions since you first heard the phrase “climate change?” By a tenth? A quarter? A half? That’s better than I’m doing. The shirt I’m wearing was shipped here from Thailand. The Twinkie I just ate had 37 ingredients in it. I biked to work through 91-degree heat this morning but back at my house the air conditioner is grinding away, keeping all three bedrooms a pleasant 74 degrees.

My computer is on; my desk lamp is glowing. The vent on the wall is blowing a steady, soothing stream of cool air onto my shoes.

 

Here’s the Royal Society of London (pdf), writing in September of 2009: “Whilst it is still physically possible to deliver emissions reductions of the magnitude required by mid-century, there is little evidence to suggest such a transformation is occurring.”

Here’s the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Risk Report, published two months later: “It may be too late to avoid runaway climate change…. A ‘war-footing’ may be the only option remaining, with no guarantee of success.”

Here’s environmental educator David Orr in Down to the Wire, published in November of 2009: “I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future.”3

Al Gore, global warming, the End of the World—it’s all sort of tiring in its doomsaying earnestness, isn’t it? We recycle our plastic bottles, we ride bikes, we admire the solar iPhone chargers in SkyMall. But sweeping, stringent, meaningful change—in the way we get our food, design our cities, and educate our kids—seems as unlikely as ever.

 

I, for one, am skeptical that prudence will ever trump appetite. Most of us know what we’re doing, but we’re still doing it. Sure, it’s socially acceptable nowadays to compost your coffee grounds and turn off your thermostat and grow strawberries on the porch, but it’s still considered uncool to suggest that the American capitalist system is untenable. Go to a birthday party for a sweet five-year-old girl, a friend of your kid’s, and suggest to the birthday girl’s smart, well-meaning parents that by buying their daughter the My Little Pony Ponyville La-Ti-Da Spa, they are dooming all of us to a future of desertification, dead seas, and cataclysmic weather events, and see how that goes over.

“The god thou servest,” Marlowe wrote in Dr. Faustus, almost 400 years before the invention of internet shopping, “is thine own appetite.” Was he wrong?

As more and more of the world’s citizens purchase clothes dryers and refrigerators, as automobiles pour off Chinese assembly lines, as we build more houses in Western deserts, the catastrophic overheating of our planet will become more and more real. We’re not going to radically transform the way we live, unless something radical makes us do it.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. Lately serious and thoughtful scientists of all stripes, including folks at the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, and the American Meteorological Society, have been talking about a Plan B—an array of bizarre climate-rescue proposals that have come to be known as geoengineering.

Basically, geoengineering encompasses a suite of technologies meant to redesign the earth. If we can’t, the argument runs, redesign how we live, let’s redesign where we live.

 

Most geoengineering proposals sound like something straight out of H.G. Wells. We could, for example, drizzle iron sprinkles into our oceans, which would encourage vast carbon-eating plankton blooms. Or we could launch a trillion giant ceramic tea saucers into space to serve as gravitationally suspended sunshades. Or we could use gigantic hoses to spew ultra-fine sulfur particles into the atmosphere, in effect mimicking the effects of a massive volcanic eruption. The sulfur, like the giant tea saucers, could deflect a portion of incoming sunlight, which could theoretically cancel out a century’s worth of warming.

Yes, respected scientists are contemplating this stuff. Pollute the crap out of everything to save everybody.

Or we could build a fleet of crewless, wind-powered ships to wander the seas and spray seawater into the sky, thereby improving the reflectivity of low-altitude marine stratocumulus clouds. Or we could paint the world’s rooftops white. Or we could pump a few zillion gallons of desalinated ocean water into the Sahara to irrigate massive eucalyptus plantationsin a decade or two we’d have a North African forest huge enough to gobble up all our emissions.

Of course, why bother with real trees at all? A physicist at Columbia University is currently building artificial trees that could sit on our lawns like freaky, high-tech shipping containers, each one sucking a ton of carbon out of our air every day.

There are, of course, about 12,000 reasons never to attempt any of these outlandish strategies. The first that springs to mind is their inherent unpredictability. Our climate models—decades in the making—remain imperfect and approximate. If the weather guy can hardly predict next weekend’s rainstorm, how can we expect him to foresee the effects of a thousand ships blasting half the surface water in the North Atlantic into the firmament?

Some folks, for example, believe sulfur particles intended to block sunlight will also damage the ozone layer. Others predict that altering the stratosphere could reduce precipitation in Asia. Or in South America. Or in Egypt.

Then there’s the concern that if we develop an inexpensive, unpredictable, and relatively simple method to radically cool the atmosphere, a single nation or a motivated do-gooder billionaire could act alone and, say, retrofit a few hundred thousand artillery shells to hold sulfur particles. What’s stopping a dictator in a flooding capital from rolling out the sulfur cannons before we know what effects they’ll actually have?

Which brings to mind the gargantuan geopolitical hurdles. My wife and I duel over the thermostat in our house; if, someday, scientists manage to install a planetary thermostat, how are six, eight, or 10 billion of us going to agree on where to set it? What politician is going to want to choose between one scheme that robs Brazilian farms of rainfall and another that causes them to flood? What sort of worldwide famine is going to have to happen before the prime minister on duty at the thermostat can decide, heck, today’s the day we start spewing a gigaton of sulfur into the atmosphere?

 

In most American feedlots, beef cattle live their lives standing in or near their own manure. E. coli O157:H7—often found in cow feces—infects about 70,000 Americans a year and kills about 52. Undercooked or raw hamburger has been implicated in many of the documented outbreaks.

What has been our solution? Take the cows out of their own shit? Not quite. Instead we’ve decided to ramp up the antibiotics and treat ground beef with ammonia-drenched filler. We love technological fixes that allow us to preserve our existing systems. Professional football players are getting too many concussions. What’s our solution? Lobby for better helmets. Cheap calories are producing heart disease in too many Americans. What’s our solution? Give people anti-cholesterol statins that may be linked to anxiety and depression.

Look, I wouldn’t trade the 21st century for any other. We have toilet paper and vitamin-fortified milk and a measles vaccine. We can buy avocados in Fairbanks in January. But sometimes, particularly in the United States, we tend to put too much faith into the transformative powers of technology. Is progress really a curve that sweeps perpetually, unfailingly higher? Wasn’t toy-making or winemaking or milk-making or cheese-making or cement-making sometimes performed with more skill 300 or 700 or 1,900 years ago? I think of a tour guide I once overheard in the Roman Forum. She pointed with the tip of a folded umbrella at an excavation and said, “Notice how the masonry gets better the earlier we go.”

Perhaps the most compelling argument against geoengineering is that the whole thing is a massive and ruinous distraction. We ought to be sharply curbing our appetites right now, not having hypothetical debates about where we might build mile-long tea-saucer cannons.

In other words, we should be taking the cows out of the cowshit.

 

But the other side of the argument, my side of the argument, suggests that there’s nowhere left to put the cows. They say geoengineering is our only practical hope, our one big Hail Mary pass, and we better start rehearsing it because we’re running out of time.

But wait, one might argue. Geoengineering sounds unnatural. It sounds too dangerous. Haven’t we all read Frankenstein?

The truth is that we have already been geoengineering for centuries. We’ve put African bees in California, Indian crows in Zanzibar, and northern starfish in Tasmania. Unintentionally or not, we gave zebra mussels to the Great Lakes, goats to the Galapagos, kudzu to the American South, and Asian long-horned beetles to New York City’s maples. We’ve pumped so much plastic into our oceans in the last four decades that as many as a third of all albatross chicks born on the Midway Islands—3,000 miles from Japan, 3,000 miles from California, basically the absolute middle of nowhere—die because their parents have fed them too many lighters, bottle caps, and tampon applicators.

There’s mercury on our mountaintops and antidepressants in our groundwater. Earthworms in American farm fields have been found to have caffeine, household disinfectant, and Prozac in them. Scientists have found antibiotic-resistant genes in 14 percent of the E. coli in the Great Lakes. Maybe even more astounding, they’ve found antibiotic-resistant E. coli in French Guiana, in the intestines of Wayampi Indians—people who have never taken antibiotics.4

With every year that passes, Earth becomes a little more like a gorgeous, huge, and mismanaged zoo. Is it really relevant anymore to argue that one thing is natural while another thing is not?

More than 100 North American bird species, including gulls, owls, robins, chickadees, and finches, are spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago. Is that natural? Tree frogs in Australia have moved their mating calls to a higher pitch so their mates can hear them over the roar of traffic. Is that natural? Two years ago the mauve stinger, a jellyfish typically known for stinging swimmers in the Mediterranean, attacked a salmon farm in Northern Ireland and killed 100,000 fish. Is that natural?

Maybe. Maybe not. What’s clear is that nothing escapes our influence. Nothing is untrammeled. The human signature has been scribbled across the planet with absolute comprehensiveness.

So let’s not argue that we shouldn’t tamper with the Earth. We’ve already tampered with it. We’re tampering with it right now. Every time we dress, every time we drive, every time we eat, every time we plug something in, or touch a thermostat, or buy a toy, or send an email, we are geoengineering.

 

When a whale carcass washes ashore in California and investigators find 400 pounds of plastic in its stomach5, we lament. How terrible, we say. What a tragedy. But do we believe a hardworking mother of three who doesn’t hike the freeway every Saturday picking up windblown plastic bags is a whale-killer? Of course she isn’t.

Well, maybe she is.

Actually, she is. The truth is, we are all whale-killers. We are all contributors. We are all geoengineers.

Earth is going to be fine. It has seen five mass extinctions before. In the doozy of all of them—an event geologists call the Permian-Triassic extinction—as many as 90 percent of all species vanished. Ninety percent! Life on our planet—even a temporarily scarred, scorched, depleted, desertified, fuming Earth—will carry on without us. Eventually the ice caps will resolidify; new species will arise, the forests will teem once more.

With every year that passes, Earth becomes a little more like a gorgeous, huge, and mismanaged zoo.

It’s Homo sapiens we need to worry about. Some geologists have taken to calling the past 8,000 years or so the Anthropocene Period—a time when we’ve burned coal, impounded rivers, and reconfigured ecosystems. And now, in our lifetimes, we’re learning that perhaps this period is untenable, and like billions of species before us, we are not immune to extinction.

Maybe in 2100 we’ll be in a new era; maybe Miami will be underwater, the Appalachians will be a desert, and our grandkids will watch ads offering zip-line tours through the Saharan forest canopies. Or maybe they’ll drive solar cars to work while 300-meter guns on nearby mountaintops sling sun-blocking disks into outer space. Maybe their supermarket shelves will be empty and their roads will be clogged with refugees; or maybe they’ll work at clone farms while their kids bioengineer dinosaurs with basement lab kits.

But they’ll still know the mystery of dreams and the music of rain. They’ll still experience—even in our greenhouse future—beauty. There will still be light and wind and distance, and maybe the sunsets will be a searing, gory red, or maybe the constellations will only be visible between millions of gravitationally suspended sun shields. And maybe it will feel like mercy to our grandkids when they stare up into the sky to behold them.

Maybe the best thing we can do is stay open to every possibility, no matter how unlikely. Because the cliff up ahead of us might just be as real and as big and as scary as the signs say it is. And we’re surely not showing any signs we’re ready to take our collective foot off the accelerator.

Footnotes

  1. A World Without Bees, by Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum. Pegasus Books, 2009.
  2. The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One, by Sylvia Earle. National Geographic, page 13.
  3. Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, by David W. Orr. Oxford University Press, 2009, page 182.
  4. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life, by Carl Zimmer. Pantheon, page 111.
  5. Earle, page 97.
biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr