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To say that David Biello’s new book, The Unnatural World (Amazon US / Amazon UK), is not uplifting would be an understatement. Its upshot is that we have seriously f—ed up this planet, along with all of the organisms and ecosystems residing on it, and the situation is likely to get much, much worse. But that’s hardly news at this point.
Biello knows that something must be done to keep ourselves from putting yet more CO2 into the atmosphere and to counter or adapt to the effects of all the CO2 we’ve spewed thus far. His book is an attempt to explore our options for doing so. But the resulting book is rambling, disorganized, and disjointed, filled with belabored, needlessly complicated sentences like “China is living in the future past, a Dickensian steam punk sci-fi drama in Mandarin, complete with high heels and disfigured orphans.” (?)
Each paragraph feels like it barely holds together, let alone each chapter or the book as a whole. Still, The Unnatural World is sobering and important.
Feeling new age
We are now well into the Anthropocene, a geological age wherein the global environment is created and defined by the activities of men. And make no mistake, it is primarily men that have made the discoveries, technologies, and decisions that led us to this mess.
We are not the only species to have shaped the Earth’s environment. The only reason humanity could even arise is because microscopic single celled proto-photosynthesizers used sunlight to split water and liberate oxygen, providing air for us animals to breathe. But we are the only species to knowingly alter the state of the entire globe, by continuously burning the corpses of earlier photosynthesizers. We are also the only species to have a geological age named after us. (Of course, we are the only species with enough consciousness to actually name geological ages in the first place.)
Carbon dioxide levels began their modern rise in the early 19th century with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Maybe we can date the start of the Anthropocene to 1850, when people started noticing the cherry trees blossoming earlier than usual in Kyoto. Or maybe to July 16, 1945, when the first test of an atom bomb spread cesium-17 through the atmosphere for the first time ever. We could use 1950, when a black line of soot—the byproduct of burning fossil fuels—starts to appear in the geologic record. Or July 1977, when Exxon scientists concluded that our burning of fossil fuels was raising CO2 levels and therefore temperatures. Those same scientists also concluded that those new CO2 levels would have terrible effects if we didn’t stop soon (but their bosses decided not to tell anyone).
Regardless of the Anthropocene’s precise start, we’re here. How do we fix it?
Options, but not good ones
Opinions and technologies range from conservation to rewilding and de-extinction, from scrubbing CO2 out of the air to burying it in rocks or oceans, from finding alternative energy sources to developing a way to burn fossil fuels without emitting CO2. But is the goal to bring the Earth, or parts of it, to a pre-industrial state? A pre-agricultural state? A pre-human state? If we could imagine such a pristine wilderness, would generating it even be possible, or desirable? And who gets to decide?
Such big decisions might soon be taken out of human hands, much like driving; drones guided by computer programs have already been used to assess and institute what is best for given regions, independent of human interest. We might already be witnessing the end of the Anthropocene and the advent of the Robocene.
Beyond solutions for local habitats, we’re looking at geoengineering. Biello suggests that geoengineering solutions are problematic, and not just in a logistical sense. We know that our actions can have dramatic, long-lasting, and unforeseen environmental consequences. So we should probably heed the lessons of our past actions and proceed with caution when applying technological fixes on a global scale.
The considerations involved in implementing geoengineering projects are reminiscent of those for genetic engineering, where the social and ethical considerations and ramifications for the future are equally immense. But at some point, a more apt comparison might become to the genetic engineering of a terminally ill patient: if the situation gets dire enough, there is not much to lose. Riskier ventures start to seem a lot less risky.
But perhaps the largest barrier to any of this—geoengineeing, de-extinction, carbon sequestration, and any other technologies to mitigate, halt, or reverse the effects of our relentless pumping of carbon into the air—is that there is pretty much zero motivation to do so.
“The problem is that no one—neither farmers in Iowa nor emirs in Oman—wants to replace the atmosphere as the world’s dump,” says Biello. It took the Great Stink and several cholera epidemics to induce London to stop dumping its waste in the river and install a modern and sanitary sewer system in the 1850s. We probably need a similar disaster to galvanize all of us to stop befouling the sky. The good and bad news is, such a disaster might well be inevitable.