Geoengineering Makes Everyone Uneasy, but It Shouldn’t

OnEarth
Stories from OnEarth, a Survival Guide for the Planet
Dec. 4 2012 4:37 PM

Terraforming Earth

Geoengineering doesn’t have to be science fiction.

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When ideas move from the atmosphere to the ocean, they get even scarier. One of the most hotly debated sequestration plans would have us dumping iron dust into the ocean to promote algal blooms, which would eventually sink, taking their carbon load with them. Last July, a California entrepreneur and geoengineering advocate tried doing this off the coast of British Columbia—and found himself in trouble with Canada’s environmental ministry, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the broader scientific community.

Among their concerns is that actions like his could disturb the ocean’s nutrient balance and food chains. But they also worry about accelerating ocean acidification—a problem for which there exists no geoengineering solution. Some have proposed dumping pulverized limestone into the ocean to neutralize its acid; the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, however, has concluded that the amount required would be equal to the White Cliffs of Dover, and then some. This is a fine addition to the parade of images that feature prominently in the eco-disaster subgenre of British science fiction, and it reminds us of an important lesson: We simply don’t have the power to reverse all that we’ve done.

So geoengineering the atmosphere looks iffy at best; geoengineering the oceans even worse. What about the land? We’ve been altering our landscapes for thousands of years, of course, so there’s ample “proof of concept.” But just as technology has aided us in the task of deforesting and draining our wetlands, so too does it now provide us with the capability to do things like reforest and rehydrate. Thinking about such potential reversals makes me believe the definition of geoengineering should be broadened. Our actions have a global impact; it’s good to be reminded of this by giving that impact a name. Were we to take up hybrids and electric cars in great numbers, for example, could that be considered geoengineering? Under an expanded definition, absolutely. Whatever we do as a civilization of seven billion is inevitably going to have a geoengineering effect.

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What about that number, 7 billion? Could stabilizing our population count? Again, yes. And we know of one good way to achieve this goal: promoting women’s legal and social rights. Wherever they expand, population growth shifts toward the replacement rate. This particular geoengineering technology nicely illustrates how the word technology can’t be defined simply as machinery; it includes things like software, organizational systems, laws, writing, and even public policy.

Were we to change our lifestyles in order to conserve resources, could that be thought of as geoengineering? Consider the example of Zurich, which is hoping to become a 2,000-Watt Society. The city government is embarking on a grand experiment, encouraging citizens to live on 2,000 watts of electricity per person, per year—what each of us would have were the world’s electricity distributed equally. (Right now, Americans average more than 10,000 watts a year, Bangladeshis about 200.) Zurichers who have participated report no diminishment in their quality of life; on the contrary, they say that their lives have been augmented by new feelings of accomplishment and virtue.

As a science fiction novelist trying to write the realism of the 21st century, I’m convinced that these broader definitions of geoengineering better describe what we’ll all be doing in decades to come. In my books I’ve imagined people salting the Gulf Stream, damming the glaciers sliding off the Greenland ice cap, pumping ocean water into the dry basins of the Sahara and Asia to create salt seas, pumping melted ice from Antarctica north to provide freshwater, genetically engineering bacteria to sequester more carbon in the roots of trees, raising Florida 30 feet to get it back above water, and (hardest of all) comprehensively changing capitalism.

These fictional methods range from promising to risky to crazy. All of them make for interesting stories, I hope—and also compel us to think about what we can do to help Earth’s biosphere, both individually and collectively. We have many opportunities to act; those actions scale up. If we take advantage of the opportunities, we’ll be creating a permaculture that works in balance with our planet over the long haul. We’ll all be geoengineers—without ever even having to try any of the more dangerous experiments we now think of when we come across that word.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of OnEarth magazine.

Kim Stanley Robinson is the award-winning writer of more than a dozen science fiction novels and short-story collections.