Creating irresistible demand
for a global atmosphere upgrade

Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Movement


Viridian Note 00457: Broken Rabble, Brutal Warlords
by Bruce Sterling
Key concepts:
James Lovelock, predictions of imminent climatic doom
Attention Conservation Notice:
James Lovelock is in his mid-80s, so won't live to see any of this utter mayhem he's prophesying.

Fortune: "Stormy with a Chance of Chaos" (((BP honcho Lord Browne sums up the task at hand: "Build 700 nuclear stations to replace fossil-fuel- burning power plants, or increasing the use of solar power by a factor of 700, or stopping all deforestation and doubling present efforts at reforestation. Achieve all three of these, and pull off four more equally large-scale reallocations of capital and infrastructure, and the world would probably stabilize its carbon emissions." Better get after it, then.)))

Wired: "Danger Zones" (((Alan Wexelblat remarks: "Here's a Wexelblat Disaster in the making. The permafrost supporting the trans- Alaska pipeline is melting. Reports say that up to 1/3 of the uprights are already out of alignment and it's just going to get worse. In theory you can fix them, but if the permafrost keeps being NON-perma, it's hugely unclear how to anchor the damned thing.")))

Lest we forget why we mysteriously 'dawdled past the point of no return':

Eager to save the wreck of civilization at the scrim of the melting ice cap? So are the Norwegians:

Source: Independent newspaper, editorial

'James Lovelock: The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years 'Each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain civilisation for as long as they can Published: 16 January 2006

'Imagine a young policewoman delighted in the fulfilment of her vocation; then imagine her having to tell a family whose child had strayed that he had been found dead, murdered in a nearby wood. Or think of a young physician newly appointed who has to tell you that the biopsy revealed invasion by an aggressive metastasising tumour. Doctors and the police know that many accept the simple awful truth with dignity but others try in vain to deny it.

'Whatever the response, the bringers of such bad news rarely become hardened to their task and some dread it. We have relieved judges of the awesome responsibility of passing the death sentence, but at least they had some comfort from its frequent moral justification. Physicians and the police have no escape from their duty.

'This article is the most difficult I have written and for the same reasons. My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news. (((I'm all for colorful, effective pop science writing, but "Gaia" doesn't "make" any person into any kind of planetary anything, much less a planetary doctor or young female cop.)))

"The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth's physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger. (((Okay, this part I'm buying.)))

'Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. (((Animals don't make British scientists into planetary physicians.))) It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics. (((Why don't we just say that "Gaia has made us into a suicide belt and blown herself up?" Wouldn't that be a lot less likely to offend our amour-propre as we're roasting in the lethal rays of Kindly Father Sun?)))

'Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves. (((What happens to that 40 per cent area of fertility when we humans are 90 percent dead?)))

'Curiously, (((interesting word choice there))) aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This "global dimming" is transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable. (((I don't want to cavil here, but if smoke is all that's needed to keep us from dwindling off like endangered polar penguins, what's wrong with a brisk little nuclear exchange? As I recall from 'nuclear winter theory,' those make plenty of nice new fresh smoke.))) 'By failing to see that the Earth regulates its climate and composition, we have blundered into trying to do it ourselves, acting as if we were in charge. (((Unlike Gaia, who's sitting there with the Three Fates weaving those feedback loops.))) By doing this, we condemn ourselves to the worst form of slavery. (((Guantanamo? Wait, I digress.)))

'If we chose to be the stewards of the Earth, then we are responsible for keeping the atmosphere, the ocean and the land surface right for life. A task we would soon find impossible – and something before we treated Gaia so badly, she had freely done for us. (((If you don't count those occasional ice ages and the annihilating meteor strikes.)))

'To understand how impossible it is, think about how you would regulate your own temperature or the composition of your blood. Those with failing kidneys know the never-ending daily difficulty of adjusting water, salt and protein intake. The technological fix of dialysis helps, but is no replacement for living healthy kidneys. (((Well, okay, but what if Gaia gave me a lousy kidney? I mean, some of us are born that way.)))

'My new book The Revenge of Gaia expands these thoughts, but you still may ask why science took so long to recognise the true nature of the Earth. I think it is because Darwin's vision was so good and clear that it has taken until now to digest it. (((Maybe Darwin should have written in a rather more metaphorical, anthropomorphic, mystical fashion.))) In his time, little was known about the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, and there would have been little reason for him to wonder if organisms changed their environment as well as adapting to it.

'Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth's skin – its forest and ocean ecosystems – as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth. (((Maybe, but I've noticed that when people lack shelter and food, 'instinctive feelings' are the first things they jettison.)))

'So what should we do? (((Die in large numbers from the grim consequences of our obscurantist inattention to physical reality.))) First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. (((Imagine preaching this screed to the Akkadians, Mayans, Easter Islanders and Greenland Vikings. "The best use of the resources WE have? What about those OTHER GUY'S resources?"))) Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, (((Look, if we're gonna crash anyway, it makes perfect logical sense to crash NOW before "Gaia" gets even more peeved))) so we need the security of a powered descent. ((("Security"?))) On these British Isles, (((Hey, speak for yourself, perfidious foreigner))) we are used to thinking of all humanity and not just ourselves; environmental change is global, but we have to deal with the consequences here in the UK.

(((I'm all for a tidy, eco-shipshape UK, but I question whether that would do much about a shift in the North Atlantic currents. If environmental change is global, even localities have to deal with global consequences, not local ones.)))

"Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas. (((I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to work. If there's no food anywhere, then everybody dies in short order. If there's food, but it's too difficult or expensive to ship, then every locality who doesn't produce a local agricultural surplus dies, not just Britain. If we entered a period of mass global famine, we would die off hugely and suddenly, in that thoughtful way that Gaia culls lemmings and deer herds. In a matter of a few years the survivors would be in a nigh-empty global wilderness. It might be stormy, but the emission problem would be history.)))

"We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, (((really? Wow))) but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. (((Aren't British wind farms largely offshore? Besides, hasn't the NIMBY crowd starved by now?))) We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. (((Britain is starving while USA, China and India are chugging right along? Who's shipping food to China?))) The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

(((If Lovelock were Chinese he would have written an article where China starves horribly as America, Britain and India all chuckle and play pinochle.)))

"Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. (((On the plus side, Gaia won't pen any editorials about that.))) Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; (((hey, speak for yourself, planetary physician))) we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe. (((And then, through us, her nervous system, Gaia went into the garage, turned on the engine and died of the fumes.)))

"We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. (((If we're heart and mind, plus nerves and damaged kidneys to boot, Gaia's got very few organs left.))) So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. (((Speaking of broken rabble led by brutal war lords, I'm moving to Belgrade in a couple of days. It was calamitous for years, but nowadays I kinda like it there.))) Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.'

(((For all the acerbic fun I've had with it, this is a very disturbing article. After some days' consideration, I've come to this conclusion about it. I don't think humanity has the capacity to put "Gaia" into a 100,000 year "coma." Humanity's heading for the clinic before Gaia does; we've already got dubious food security, some cracking little resource wars and emergent major-league diseases. We don't have the capacity to expand industrial development flat-out while being hammered by global climate change and three out of four apocalyptic horsemen. We won't need Gaia's Revenge to do us in – by the time Gaia was good and ready, we'd be doin' a heck of a job eliminating ourselves.)))

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