Saturday, March 28, 2009

EARTH 2.0


Does anyone else find it alarming that there is now a back up plan for Planet Earth? In a Special Report in the 28 February 2009 edition of New Scientist, there was an article on the emergent field of Geoengineering that stopped me dead in my tracks. Here was a world of the future being described in terms of Artificial Trees, Space Mirrors, Cloud Seeding, Ocean Fertilization, Sunshades, Biochar, Carbonate Addition, and a host of other scientific remedies for what the article also described as our current stance “in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change.” Some methods are low tech like planting trees, others conjure sci-fi like placing mirrors in orbit. All address either taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or diverting solar energy from the Earth in order to dampen the greenhouse effect.

At a recent meeting about Geoengineering in London of British politicians and a selection of climate scientists, “the politicians and scientists all agreed that since cuts to carbon emissions will likely fall short we need to be exploring ‘Plan B’.” That said, there was agreement that “there is no single global thermostat which will bring about universal cooling.” While many of the above tactics are decades from realization, the really scary thing is that several have already been “field tested.” The good news is that they have inspired calls for international regulation.

Ocean fertilization, a technique which employs the “seeding” of the ocean with iron filings to stimulate CO2-eating plankton, has been tried by a firm called Planktos ironically enough off of the Galapagos Islands of Darwinian fame. The impact on ocean ecosystems is unknown at present and inspired protests by environmental groups including ETC. As a result of the protests, the London Convention on Marine Pollution acted to extend its agreement with 80 countries to include Geoengineering and also imposed a ban on commercial fertilization. It all conjures up the image of some “Greenfinger” individual mad scientist or nation acting single-handedly to combat climate change.

New Scientist reports that we came close in November 2005, when Yuri Izrael, former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Head of the Russian Global Climate and Ecology Institute attempted to persuade Vladimir Putin to release 600,000 tons of sulphur aerosol particles into the atmosphere “immediately.” No one knows what the impact would have been, but David Santillo, a senior research scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories said that if a nation or individual decided to go it alone, “there would almost certainly be an international diplomatic incident.” The US is not without blame either having conducted “rain seeding” programs during the Vietnam War. Whether it is severe drought or the rising of temperatures of between 5 and 10 degrees centigrade within decades, from methane releases to thawing permafrost and even “the breakdown of entire ecosystems”, the forecast is not for cheap sunglasses.

Still, our approach to carbon emissions is leisurely in the face of the fact that the US and China combine to now produce 40% of all such pollution (according to The Nation). The most recent European studies indicate a rise in the ocean levels of between 2 and 4 meters at the very least by 2100 along with shortages of fresh water—regardless of what measures are taken “yesterday” to control carbon in the atmosphere. We have "a very short window of time," Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicated in remarks at a Worldwatch conference last January, adding that the Obama Administration's stated goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 "falls short of the response needed by world leaders." Alan Weisman takes the idea of humanity’s impact on the planet several steps further and envisions what the earth would be like starting two-hundred years from now when humans disappear entirely from the scene. In his riveting 2007 book, The World Without Us, he presents a picture of the New York subways becoming underground rivers causing the streets above to crumble under the weight of skyscrapers and where the “asphalt jungle becomes a real one”. His scenarios are not the stuff of B movies, but are based on hard science and current situations like the nightmare of polymer "atolls" that are already growing in the gyres of the Pacific Ocean.

When I visited the Amazon in the 1970’s, I saw the scale of seemingly everything there as prehistoric—from the fabled Victoria Regia lilies that are so large that their leaves can be up to 3 meters wide with stems 7-8 meters long—to the world’s largest serpent, the Anaconda, which can grow to 45-60 feet long. (I have a photo of one which is only about 40 feet).What I felt most of all was the grandeur and power of nature which gave me faith that no matter what we humans were capable of doing to our home world, that the Earth had the ability to rebound in its own time. Weisman’s book also reveals an elegiac element in what he calls “the earth’s capacity for self-healing.”

I always wanted to visit the Amazon ever since encountering a mysterious reference in a book that changed my life called “Morning of the Magicians". I read the book when I was 15, and it enthralled me with arcane knowledge from the strange worlds of Charles Fort and contemporary alchemists living in Europe to the occult forces at work in Hitler’s Germany and the Thule Project. The obscure reference that titillated me most was the example the authors, Ernst Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, used to describe their perspective that despite the pursuit of science, there were still many worlds as yet unknown and new lands to be discovered. An area they cited between two tributaries of the Amazon, the Xingu and the Rio Tapajos, were said to contain thousands of acres of still unexplored territory. Later, coming across a Pink Floyd soundtrack for “Obscured By Clouds”, I was equally inspired by finding a map of New Guinea that still had areas that were marked with the same title of the movie.

The Xingu area is where a real Indiana Jones figure, explorer Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, disappeared without a trace. His story is now examined in a thrilling new biography by David Grann who retraced Fawcett’s final expedition in “The Lost City of Z". I was warned not to go to Xingu, but it was the humans that I was told about and not the native flora, fauna or tribal peoples. It was 1976 and the first leg of the Trans-Amazonica Highway had opened up the region to an influx of prospectors, cattlemen, farmers, rogues, mercenaries, and other characters straight out of our own historical Wild West. During my own “expedition”, I was warned that as a “gringo”, it would be unwise to stray far into the Interior.

What I found were t-shirts with logos, beer bottles, and communal TV sets that signaled the arrival of so-called Western culture and civilization, but what looked like the beginning of the end to me. It reminds me now of a hilarious incident described by Tony Horwitz in his 2008 book, “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World". When the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, they were met by Squanto, the chief of the Patuxet Indians who had already encountered enough white men to greet the Pilgrims in their own tongue. His first word of greeting to them was more like a question when he said, “Beer.” It’s not reported by history whether the Pilgrims were able to accommodate him, but no matter—his word set the karmic destiny of a nation, but that is a subject for a future post…or two.

My visit to the Amazon occurred before the martyrdom of Amazonian activist, Chico Mendes, and the real firestorm in the rain forest, but the jungle was already burning. I met one mercenary pilot who worked for an oil company and was just letting loose bombs over clearings in the vast jungle canopy wherever there was an opening that betrayed the existence of a tribal village. Lawlessness was the rule of the day and many of the towns in the Amazon looked like tropical, if very downscale versions of the typical frontier town of American Westerns.

It is well-known that the trees of the Amazon recycle carbon dioxide and generate at least 20% of the Earth’s oxygen. Yet, the fires that continue to burn the forest to clear it to make room for cattle grazing are so widespread that their plumes of smoke can be seen from outer space. But like the melting of ice shelves in the polar regions and many other situations that are either contributing to or the result of climate change, the Amazon is remote from our everyday life and like the statistics of climate models, is a concept that disempowers those of us who want to make a difference.

There are emerging ideas that might contribute to the kind of realignment of thinking that could enable corporations and individuals to a change of values. In a conversation last week with Kevin Henry of Bazzeo, we spoke about the concept of a Social ROI or Return On Investment. “What if, we asked each other, there was an index that guided companies and consumers to measure the potential social benefit—including sustainability—that projects, products, ventures and other commercial enterprises produced?” What effect would such an expansion of the traditional commercial value expressed by ROI have on the way that people not only invested, but also had on consumer choices? What if we could choose between companies that demonstrated an ROI for their shareholders and one whose SROI showed a commitment to giving something back? Clearly, we need to go beyond Corporate Social Responsibility and the current trends of “greenwashing” and bandwagon effects. It makes me crazy when I see an ad from a major oil corporation showboating what they are doing to improve the environment, alternative energy solutions, and my future.

The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility first appeared in the US several decades ago, but did not truly arrive as a field of management expertise until the turn of the 21st century. Originally, advocates from outside the business sector began pressuring corporations to adhere to more socially conscious principles. In short, the three areas where a need for change in corporate behavior was called for were in its social, economic, and environmental impacts. Recently, a stewardship ethics position has arisen within the business sector in response to CSR. The stewardship ethics orientation seeks to find ways to ensure that profitability and other economic criteria are met by practices that also serve to support social values and is a logical forerunner of SROI.

In today’s global economy, CSR has not experienced anything approaching universal acceptance. In the US, a majority of companies still have given only token acknowledgement of the need to appear socially responsible. No less than the Bible of the capital markets, The Economist, is still critical of stewardship ethics and environmentalism, and remains a steadfast supporter of globalization even in the face of very mixed results in emerging markets and the global meltdown. The conflict between dominant world economic powers and poorer nations continues to grow as the latter resist sustainability, which they view as a luxury that only grown economies can afford.

In another discussion last week with USC, UCLA Professor and Architect, Michael Hricak, he mentioned that the current LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for sustainable building fall short because they can’t quantify such components of the Green home as natural heating or passive ventilation. This leads to a second opportunity which is to augment such Green standards with those that go beyond the abstraction of carbon credits to innovations that will enable us to quantify nature’s contribution as a market. In other words, what if we placed a monetary value on the trees in the Amazon or the disappearing coral reefs of the world? The creation of a Green Stock Exchange model of valuation for nature would displace our current model which has us on a course set to create nature as a museum in the future.

Mark Hertsgaard first proposed a Global Green Deal in his 1992 book, "Earth Odyssey" and has outlined the plan once again in the March 16 issue of The Nation. He mentions that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Al Gore urged world governments in February to address the global economic crisis with spending that "launches a new green global economy." They noted that channeling Germany, Britain, Japan, and the US's planned $2.25 trillion stimulus in spending into "carbon-based infrastructure and fossil-fuel subsidies would be like investing in subprime real estate all over again."

Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, a fifth century B.C. text which became the standard operating manual for Mao Tse Tung’s revolutionary army in the 1940’s as well American business management in the 70’s said: “The considerations of the intelligent always include both benefit and harm.” Arthur C. Clarke said on a similar wavelength: “The proper study of mankind is not merely Man, but Intelligence.”

Looking at the current state of affairs of our environment, it might be better if we pointed the Arecibo receiving dish that is wired to SETI@home in search of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and pointed it back looking for it on Earth. If Earthlings as a species were to receive a cosmic report card, we would certainly merit a “F”. But, we are very small in the cosmic state of things as the Charles and Ray Eames classic short film, Powers of Ten, artfully demonstrates in its portrayal of the voyage from the human microcosm to intergalactic macrocosm and back again to quantum microcosm.

There are scientists like Hans Moravec at Carnegie Mellon who see a future where we will be able to dispense with the natural world altogether and download human consciousness to machines, no longer necessitating the hardware of our bodies. Others like Gerard O’Neil and his kindred spirits forecast Space Colonies and altogether abandoning what Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth. Another scenario, in some riff out of Erik Van Daniken’s “Chariot of the Gods”, has the Space Brothers showing mercy on our little world by coming to save us in the future. The statistics on all of the above occurring in the near future are less likely than the planting of the artificial trees discussed in the New Scientist article about Geoengineering.

Books like Michael A.G. Michaud’s Contact With Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears About Encountering Extraterrestrials have looked the pros and cons of what we might expect in such an encounter with what might be advanced intelligent or microbial life forms. There have been protocols developed for such an eventuality, but my favorite was tendered from a distinctly unofficial source. As a junior high school student, I worked for several summers in the mailroom of a New York publishing house. I remember that the subject of UFOs came up one day and my brother, Jeff, and I discussed what it would be like with our then mailroom boss, Herb, a brother from Uptown in Harlem. “What would you say to an alien if you met up with one?” I asked. After pondering the question for a moment, Herb’s eyes lit up and he replied matter-of-factly, “I’d just say, ‘what you got for the head?’”

One would hope that if we eventually meet up with an extraterrestrial, that they will see a paradisical home world and resident, conscious species that merit being rewarded by an intergalactic peace pipe and not vaporization.

10 comments:

thepicklebarrel said...

i believe we should pitch a new bruckheimer-esque summer schlock-buster on the subject: "WHEN WORLD'S COLLIDE...with THEMSELVES!"

strange and scary.

Kevin Stein said...

Dr. Picklebarrel, thank you for your comment and idea which I promptly stole in the traditional Hollywood manner and just sold with a phone call to a Chinese/UAE joint animation studio. I know you would heartily agree based on your legendary expertise with the animated aspect of the film medium that the forthcoming apocalypse will look better as a cartoon even though it's more expensive than live action. I think it's harder to approximate nuclear magenta using sets or CGI rather than paint. Moreover, if you think this week's post is scary, just wait until we take a look at the Entertainment Industry! It's guaranteed to make global climate change look like a warmup act.

thepicklebarrel said...

....wait, i can see them. up in the sky!

...it's....it's......IT'S THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE GALLOPING DOWN THE RIVER STYX!!!

fill your thumb-drives and head to your assigned escape pod!

Kevin Stein said...

Or as the Zeppelin pilot once said, "Please stand-by to crash..."

Kevin M Henry said...

Last spring when gas prices were breaking $3.00 a gallon, there was a great out cry from the public and people began to leave the Hummer at home or hid it in the garage or parked it on another block...Hummer? What Hummer? You must be thinking of someone else. The drop-off line at my sons school went from a calvalcade of Hummers and other SUV to one of Prius and Honda's...people had made there desires known and they had changed their buying habits to reflect the economy and changing awarness to environmental concenns. In this spirit, JEEP annouced in TV and print media that they had a solution to the rising price of fuel...thinking they were going to announce a new JEEP hybred...they instead announced that they would cover the buyers the cost of fuel for anything over $2.00 a gallon...completly missing the point the American consumer was trying to make...It is easy to see why Detroit is in complete meltdown.

Silvanus Slaughter said...

Bhutan measures GNH or 'Gross National Happiness' when considering the well-being of its country. Aren't we in the Hindi age of the Kaliyuga or something, and things are just going to get worse and worse. Do you know what comes after and if we survive (incarnated) to see it?

Kevin Stein said...

Kevin, thanks for your inspiration as always and in particular, on the SROI concept. Thanks also for your precis on why the American Auto Industry is missing the ball. Your commentary is worthy of an op-ed piece at the very least!

Kevin Stein said...

Silvanus, thank you for your reminder of Kali Yuga. I saw a t-shirt this past weekend at the Railfest up in Fillmore California that said: Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a Train!
Jim Morrison once said to a concert crowd, "I don't know what's going to happen...but I just want to get my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames!" Well, I guess he did. My final wish as regards any imminent Apocalypse Now is to just get the film rights...

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Kevin Stein said...

Thanks, Graciela, for your comment. I enjoyed visiting your informative blog recently.