Geoengineering our Future

The Economist had an article in a recent issue about the “anthropocene” period, our new geologic era, where mankind is the dominant force in the geology of the planet.  A period where our agriculture, cities, dams, etc literally have and will permanently change the face of the earth itself, forever.

The article suggests that we are the driving force on a GEOLOGIC scale, and will never and can never go back to Walden Pond, and that a planet that supports 10 billion of us WILL look vastly different than it used to.  And that it has too.  Or it can’t support 10 billion of us.  And that that may be OK, as long as we worry about how a DIFFERENT look for Earth can be sustainable, even though it is not “pristine” and “natural”.

It got me thinking.

Not too long ago I wrote about some comments by renowned Lawrence Berkeley energy scientist Art Rosenfeld, describing the potential and low cost of white, “cool roofs” both to combat the heat island effect in cities, and to massively and cheaply manage energy use and carbon footprint.  He even commented how coupled with literally changing pavement color could make a massive difference, and called for policies and products to change the game.  Is this not just geoengineering for low impact?

REDD and forestation carbon credits and programs, just coming into their own in a big way, boil down to geoengineering by tree planting – not much different in principle than the geoengineering we’ve done by reworking forests into crop fields and native grasslands into modern hybrids, just optimized for different outcomes.  Is this just sustainable geoengineering optimization?

The Athabasca tar sands from space apparently look like a massive scar on the Earth.  An unmitigated environmental disaster, right? But consider, a few years ago I went back as an adult to the Boy Scout High Adventure camp at Philmont. I’d been there as a boy 15 years before.  When I was first there, the practices were all about low and zero impact backpacking.  Leave no trace was the mantra.  When I went back to a camp handling massively larger volumes of Scouts, that had changed.  You were literally forbidden from leaving the beaten path.  Built in permanent “sumps” for food disposal were in almost EVERY camp site.  Low impact does not mean no impact, and the volumes of people they were handling were much too high, and low impact was becoming high impact, so they’d changed to “concentrated impact” where necessary.  Is Athabasca just another permanent sump?

Are we at the same point as a globe?  Does sustainability need to recognize this?  What if geoengineering for sustainability means low impact needs to also mean concentrated, controllable impact on a global scale?  Does that make the tar sands maybe not quite as bad an environmental disaster as thought?  Because, to paraphrase a statement made to me in one recent conversation, nobody would go there otherwise, so what better place to do it if we have to?

So I ask, what if geoengineering IS our de facto future?  Because we’re just too large a population for anything else.  What if the Economist article is right, and we’re already there and have NO choice?  Does that change our perspective on cleantech, sustainability, and policy?  I think it may.

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