Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hack the Planet, by Eli Kintisch

Hack the Planet, by Eli Kintisch. John Wiley and Sons, 2010. 279 pp. 978-0-470-52426-8. which we learn about some of the outrageous solutions scientists and engineers are proposing to counteract global climate change.

I picked up this book because I'd heard a little about the topic of geoengineering, but I didn't know enough about the topic to have more than a vague feeling of unease about it. Geoengineering, or the field where scientists and engineers essentially "hack" the planet's atmospheric, oceanic, environmental, etc processes in order to achieve the desired result, is still a highly controversial field. There's a lot of infighting among the environmentalist groups over the topic, and scientists can't agree whether geoengineering would work, or if it'd be a good idea. Because geoengineering doesn't call for a reduction in carbon emissions, it's a popular solution with politicians who tend to side with big business. But because it involves massive amounts of tampering with very significant global processes, it's pretty unpopular with many factions within the environmental movement.

The book is written at a level that makes it very accessible to the general public, but it does assume a fairly basic understanding of atmospheric cycling, ocean currents, and climate science. Kintisch does an admirable job of researching his topics thoroughly, and he has quotes and input from people on both sides of the issue. For the most part, the he is pretty impartial when discussing the different proposed experiments, and until the last chapter he lets the reader decide whether these experiments are or aren't a good idea.

Some of the geoengineering solutions in the book include solutions that involve particles in the atmosphere, ocean fertilizing, and improved methods for carbon sequestration that are also beneficial to industry. Kintisch describes several variations on atmospheric particles; all of these proposed solutions involve the dispersion of particles (usually a mist of some kind) to reflect sunlight away from the earth and provide shade. The ocean fertilization experiment involved dumping large amounts of tiny iron particles into the ocean. These iron particles would encourage the growth of large algal blooms. Presumably these algal blooms would remove carbon from the atmosphere, and then when the algae die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking their sequestered carbon with them. Another possible solution involves sequestering carbon in cement used for construction projects.

In addition to the chapter-length discussions on each solution, each chapter is prefaces with a one or two page anecdote about previous attempts to engineer the earth to fix humanity's mistakes. For example: introducing invasive species B to control invasive species A, resulting in a massive derailment of the local ecosystem. Or, the introduction of a new species of fish to Lake Victoria to make it more productive for local fisheries, resulting in 2/3 of the native species going extinct. With the exception of the anecdote that precedes the concluding chapter, all of these stories are stories of disastrous failure.

After discussing the various proposed solutions fairly impartially, Kintisch concludes with what is probably the most important chapter of the book. The final paragraph was, to me, the most powerful in the book:

Control may be comforting, but it's also an illusory burden we should not fall into the trap of seeking. We have no choice but to understand it. Maybe we'll succeed. But hacking our planet is not yet our fate. We might be able to avoid it. Perhaps David Brower, a modern-day romantic if there ever was one, was right: technology does make the world into a cage. Maybe geoenginerring makes it more like a terrarium, an enclosed, controlled garden. Even if geoengineering helps us one day to stave off the worst of the climate crisis, we'll still be inside its walls. (page 243)

Kintisch does a great job of presenting all the wonderful potential that geoengineering has, but anyone with any understanding of humanity's ability to ruin basically everything in the natural world should walk away with at least a shred of doubt about the field. Also, relying exclusively on geoengineering isn't a full solution, it's a band-aid. We'd be treating the symptoms of a problem that we are causing, instead of just, you know, trying not to cause the problem in the first place. God forbid we change our behavior! So much easier to just mitigate the problem later, right?

I should note that Emma did a review of Superfreakonomics. Superfreakonomics has one chapter devoted to the topic of geoengineering, and ultimately supported it. They went so far as to describe one of the geoengineering solutions (adding massive amounts of aerosols to the atmosphere to produce a global cooling effect, never mind its potential effects on ocean currents, agricultural output, etc...) a "fiendishly simple plan" (page 195 of Superfreakonomics). Maybe in terms of economics, it is fiendishly simple, but I completely, whole-heartedly reject the premise that these decisions should be made by people who can only look at it from an economic or political point of view, rather than look at it from a whole-earth perspective.

I strongly recommend Hack the Planet for anyone who has an interest in global climate change, environmental politics, or environmental philosophy. Actually, I recommend it for anyone who has an interest in being alive and the long-term survival of the human race. As much as I am skeptical of relying heavily on geoengineering as a solution, the topic is not going away anytime soon, and if you aren't well-informed on the pros and cons of it, you can't really effectively participate in the discussion surrounding geoengineering.

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