…the Myth of Scientific Supremacy
In recent years, confronted with the earth-shattering dangers from Global Climate Change (“GCC”), governments and NGOs alike have looked into the potential for scientific/technological solutions to save us from the environmental catastrophe caused by our avarice and ignorance. Rising temperatures worldwide, increased acidification of the oceans (along with their being the world’s largest plastics dump), loss of forests/jungles and the massive extinctions going on under our noses, all point to a planet in critical danger of loss of almost all life.
Shocked by the rapid decline in the ecosystems that have supported the world’s lives for hundreds of millions of years, Mankind — supposedly the smartest lifeform on this planet — wants a “silver bullet” to undo the catastrophe of its own making.
The latest form of this “instant gratification” solution is “geoengineering,” the scientific/technological means of manipulating the global environment to counteract GCC. Seriously? So we’re now playing God?
While it sounds benign, geoengineering actually presupposes that Man can alter not just local weather, but regional and, eventually, global climate. Through the use of seeding the atmosphere to reflect a portion of the Sun’s light and heat, to changing the patterns of rainfall and ocean currents, we supposedly will be able to reverse the decades and centuries of our environmental abuse which has wreaked many ecosystems.
The problem is that the magnitude of these changes and their unbelievably complex interconnectedness make it virtually impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what the end result will be.
This reminds me of “The Myth of Scientific Supremacy,” articulated by Stewart Udall in his seminal work, The Quiet Crisis (1963, Holt Rinehart Winston). In it, Udall pointed out that in our arrogance we thought that “scientific/technological supremacy trumps all problems.” Not so fast, he pointed out.
Let’s look at one profound example of the danger of pursuing that notion.
In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was warned about how deadly the malaria virus was. Annually, it killed many millions of people, mostly in the tropics. U.S. troops were spread out in Asia and in the Pacific and were exposed to the mosquitoes who carried this disease. Pres. Roosevelt directed the Army’s R & D people to come up with a solution. They did. It was called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). It was wildly successful, and soon anyone with a sprayer was busy spraying DDT in lakes, ponds, meadows, swamps, anywhere where there were standing bodies of water which were the natural breeding grounds of mosquitoes.
Billions of mosquitoes died — but not all of them. Some survived, and the DDT-resistant bugs continued to fly around, laden with the deadly pesticide. Birds ate the mosquitoes and were contaminated by the chemical. Soon, millions of birds died, or, worse yet, laid eggs with excessively-thin or incomplete shells. The bird populations died, and, as a result, far more bugs that damaged or killed our crops infested farmlands. More pesticides had to be used, increasing the exposure of human beings to the chemicals. Soon, birth defects, miscarriages, and other health problems ravaged people around the globe, and this continued until DDT was finally banned in 1972, but not until the catastrophe had wreaked countless damage to our crops and on human beings.
All because we thought we could play God….
Now, imagine trying to calculate the impact of a 22% reduction of sunlight reaching the Earth over the mid-upper Pacific Ocean on winter storms in Europe or Russia. How about adding 40% precipitation to the northern Sahara? What would be the impact on the Gulf Stream if we reduced sunlight off the northeast coast of South America?
There’s the old notion in chaos theory of the “Butterfly effect,” e.g., a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could potentially cause a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico about a week later.
The problem with geoengineering is that it presumes artificial intelligence levels significantly higher than presently available, doing the calculations using quantum computers that won’t be available for perhaps 50 or 100 years. GCC will make the Earth fundamentally uninhabitable for humans in that time frame, so even an elegant, powerful geoengineering solution would come far too late to provide meaningful relief.
No, geoengineering is not the silver bullet many have hoped for. It could be used by the already-powerful to leverage their dominance even more, and hold the rest of Mankind hostage to their goals. Who would be wise enough to properly govern the deployment of geoengineering? Who determines who gets rain, or doesn’t get it? Who makes the life-and-death decisions that could save regions and kill off other regions?
At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I would tend to favor natural processes that have evolved into a stable state over the millennia or longer so that the World, as a whole, has achieved a degree of continuous reliance on tried-and-true ecologically sound checks and balances. A forest fire burns old growth and chars the soil so that new growth can come forth and thrive efficiently. Old forests give way to new, taking more CO2 out of the atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen.
Are we smart enough? More importantly, are we wise enough to make the right decisions? As recent history has demonstrated, we lack both the knowledge and the good judgment to make the best choices.
Perhaps we will, someday, far far from now, but we lack judgment and knowledge right now. Better to stop making the effort to attain a silver bullet and learn, instead, of how to avoid making the mess in the first place.