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The smartest people in the world are most likely to kill us.

June 1, 2010

When are we going to realize we can’t engineer our way out of the impending environmental apocalypse? As oil spews merrily into the Gulf of Mexico, science writer Eli Kintisch sounds the alarm about the evil genius plans for cooling the planet being explored by actual scientists.

These ideas sound like something out of a James Bond movie:  One involves layering the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to replicate the effects of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which blocked the sun’s rays and lowered the global temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit

A writer for Science magazine, Kintisch is the author of the cautionary new book, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare –For Averting Climate Catastrophe. His subject is something called “geoengineering” — which he calls “a bad idea whose time has come” in this NPR profile.

Stating what should be obvious, Kintisch tells NPR’s Guy Raz that cooling the planet with something like “the Pinatubo Option” (it already has its own brand!) would not only fail to address underlying causes but could have disastrous unintended consequences.

“You might actually damage the ability of solar panels to take in energy, because you are blocking direct sunlight that those panels need to create energy,” Kintisch warns. “So by doing geoengineering and removing direct sunlight from the planet’s system, you’re actually undermining the alternative energy we need to get off our fossil fuel addiction.”

Some other mad scientist schemes: Encouraging massive algae blooms in the ocean to soak up carbon dioxide. Placing a giant lens between the earth and the sun to screen us from solar radiation. Spraying a fine mist over the entire Middle East.

These ideas are not the work of fringe lunatics, but serious mainstream scientists, supported by he American Geophysical Union, the Royal Society in London, and the National Academy of Sciences.

And it’s not just talk. German oceanographer Victor Smetacek dumped six tons of iron into the ocean near Antarctica last year, hoping to foster a carbon-chomping algae bloom. He did get algae to grow — but it was the wrong kind.

“In the case of fertilizing the ocean,” Kintisch explains, “you might create areas that are deprived of oxygen. You might alter ecosystems in ways you don’t understand. You might actually create organisms in your algae patch that put up greenhouse gasses more potent than the carbon dioxide, like methane.”

It’s human nature, I suppose. No one means to ruin the planet, but we don’t want to give up our cars, our gadgets and the cheap energy that runs them. So we’re betting science can come up with an easy-peasy fix. But it doesn’t work that way. Alternative energy and conservation, our only real hope, is so boring compared to, say, satellites beaming electricity to the ground.

It’s time we stopped putting all our faith in technicians and lent an ear to our prophets. Everyone — especially scientists and engineers — are hereby assigned to read (or reread) these classic examinations of scientific hubris: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; R.U.R., by Karel Kopek; and (especially) Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut.

These are the three titles to leap to my mind, but I invite you to suggest a few– I’d like to get a reading list of at least 10. Meanwhile, the science heads out there: feel free to explain (please talk slow), how I’m wrong.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:08 pm

    Why are you trying to scare me?

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 1, 2010 12:14 pm

    I don’t make the news, I just report it. Or, since this is a blog, re-report it. And whenever possible, make fun of either the newsmakers, or the original reporters. Such is life in the new media environment. I suppose I might take solace in the likelihood this state of affairs won’t last long, seeing as how the envirocalypse will send us back to a pre-modern, if not pre-agriculture, standard of living…

    But really, I think it’s not too late to save the planet, if we are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Alas, as a species we are addicted to ease and comfort, and we won’t give up the unsustainable modern way of life until the human race hits some kind of a bottom. May some of us survive it to learn the hard lessons it has to teach.

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:48 pm

    Smart, as in high intelligence quotient combined with a lack of common sense, right?

    I have read all about the Weather Modification programs, which were approved by the Clinton Administration and the United Nations. Cloud Seeding, Dyn-O-Gel, the HAARP array are all very real, and all very scary.

    At worst, these weather modification experiments provide inconclusive data due to their lack of a control. We only have one sky, quite it already.

    At best, Mother Earth will pick us off, like a scab.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 1, 2010 3:05 pm

      The idea that what we need is more technology is rampant, and I fear irresistible, when what we really need is modesty, conservation, a renewed appreciation of human values. I am all in favor of traditional values, and when I say “traditional” I mean it in the anthropological sense.

  4. Sean permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:55 pm

    I don’t know if it’s any good, but I’ve heard that James Howard Kunstler’s 2008 novel ‘A World Made by Hand’ is a kind of blueprint for surviving future scarcities. His blog, which I have visited, argues that life as we’ve known it won’t last and that technology won’t preserve the status quo. I don’t know how much to credit his scenarios of a de-globalized world – he could turn out to be Alvin Toffler – but he’s very readable and his work is an antidote to dreams of tech-topia. He’s definitely a prophet.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 1, 2010 3:19 pm

      Thanks, I’ve heard of Mr. Kunstler, but had not read him. A glance at his website: 1) He seems a kindred soul; 2) he’s even wordier than I am. But I’ll be on the lookout for his new book come October.

  5. John Karwacki permalink
    June 1, 2010 3:52 pm

    “I, Robot” by Assimov is a series of short stories, some of which deal with machines gone bad. “The Stand” by King where Captain Trips rips the U.S. a new one and facilitates a mondo good vs. evil climax. And my last but not least favorite pick – “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Stevenson which may be the ultimate good idea gone wrong. As that great philosopher Sting wrote, “never seen a military solution that didn’t turn into something worse…” Just because it looks good on paper does not mean it is so.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 1, 2010 5:14 pm

      Thank you, Mr. Wackykar, good suggestions all, and I’m sure I’m not the only geek in the audience who knows that the Syfy Channel played the 1994 miniseres adaptation of The Stand yesterday in its entirety. Talk about a marathon! It’s actually pretty good, though it loses steam as it goes along and the climax is cheesy. Jamie Sheridan, much as I’ve liked him elsewhere, is badly miscast as the incarnation of evil. I mean, he looks like a roadie for the Eagles, circa 1975, how evil could he–oh, wait. I get it now…

      Anyhow, good suggestions, and I’ve thought of a few more of my own:
      Orix and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
      The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells
      and, uh..MTK

  6. June 1, 2010 4:58 pm

    People believe that we are going to solve our of our problems with our big giant smart brains and technology. But I ask you:
    1) how are we going to nourish the big giant brains of the future if we run out of fresh water or contaminate our food supply?
    2) what technology have we ever created that hasn’t just ended up causing more problems then it was intended to solve?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 1, 2010 5:08 pm

      You have hit my point exactly on its little head. Fixing problems by way of technology, especially problems caused by earlier iterations of technology, almost always brings yet more problems by way of unintended consequences.

  7. emma t. permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:22 pm

    Glad to see you included The Stand, (which literary elitists often exclude from their own lists but have secretly read and loved), and Oryx and Crake (which I have not read but is at the top of my list). But what of The Road? Did you find its diction too droning or biblical? Please comment, Mr. Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 11, 2010 12:30 pm

      Emma, I don’t mind the drone, and I certainly don’t mind the biblical, having a special literary weakness for mythology (hence my devotion to Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana). But I do have a profound antipathy to Cormack McCarthy, who, in my dim lights, is among the great overrated writers of America. Not that I’ve read everything. But All the Pretty Horses is a lot of standard-issue-sub-Papa macho romanticizing bs, with unbearable overwriting. And I really detested No Country for Old Men. But that’s just me. See if you think I make my case:

  8. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 2, 2010 3:25 pm

    And in other envirnomental news…Al Gore is single again. So there is hope afterall….

  9. September 11, 2010 9:15 am

    About cooling the planet…..I had a beautiful cucumber patch this year in the garden. Then we had weeks of rain & very little sunshine. The plants rotted.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 11, 2010 12:31 pm

      I am so sorry to hear that. Cucumbers are one of God’s good things.

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