Probably nothing anyone does at this point stands more than a remote chance of averting any but the very most extreme, apocalyptic tolls humanity’s trashing of the planet could inflict on the global ecosystem and human society within the next few decades. The time when people could have addressed this already-ongoing disaster of our own creation via anything less than drastic, awful, bitter, intentional upheavals of our economies and ways of life passed literal generations if not centuries ago. The next long time, possibly forever, is going to have to suck pretty hard, for everyone who got used to or aspires to the kind of lifestyle the average reader of this blog post enjoys, for the sake of not sucking even worse. Good afternoon!
Maybe you have heard that one proposed measure for addressing the problem of our hot, carbon-poisoned atmosphere is something called “geoengineering.” As Dave Levitan described it over on Earther a while back, this is the process of filling the sky with “tiny aerosol particles designed to deflect bits of sunlight back into space”; the idea is that by reducing the amount of warming sunlight that can reach the earth’s surface and be trapped there by our sickened greenhouse atmosphere, the planet can be cooled, or at least not made any hotter. Now a paper in the Environmental Research Letters journal (covered here by the Boston Globe) stops short of recommending geoengineering but concludes that it would be both “remarkably inexpensive” and fairly easy, certainly compared with other methods of acting to curtail the effects of runaway climate change.
Since pumping yet more particulate trash into the sky is both a) the cheapest option, and b) the one most in line with the unforgivably stupid means by which humanity motherfucked literally the only celestial body in the entire fucking universe ever known for sure to have contained either native life—any native life at all!—or the requisite conditions for life, you can probably guess where this is going. Levitan, at Earther, described it as inevitable, and he’s almost certainly right: At some point, probably fairly soon, humanity’s leaders will make the choice to darken this planet’s skies, even if only a little at first, because people will convince themselves and each other that this is a practical idea.
Before that happens, I just want to go on the record: Don’t blot out the goddamn sunlight. This is a bad, dumb, terminally chickenshit idea. A long time ago everybody knew that burning coal, oil, and gas was an effective way to power the engines of industry and infrastructure and technological advancement; nobody knew for sure what else it would do, but they did it anyway. Now, hundreds of years later and at incalculable, irreparable cost to the ecosystems and food chains that sustain life here, everybody has learned that transforming all the world’s fossil energy resources into hot, poisonous, aerosolized soot and blasting this shit into the sky for a few hundred years was actually pretty fucking dumb. At best it addressed a set of near-term problems by creating infinitely graver long-term ones, which is the exact wrong way to live. The lesson to take from this is not Everything about that was good, let’s do it again but with a different kind of shit this time.
The sun is real important, my friends! It is the power source, directly or indirectly, of all virtually all the life that has ever existed on earth, and the basis for every food chain you depend upon in order to live. (If you start in on the geothermal food chains at the bottom of the ocean right now, I swear to God I will jumpkick your fucking forehead off.) When the authors of that Environmental Research Letters paper caution that artificially darkening the planet’s skies would come with a “currently unknown environmental price,” that is not a way of saying that maybe it would turn out to be extremely fuckin’ rad. That is a way of saying that it certainly would be bad for ecosystems that have evolved to make use of a certain amount of solar energy, but that nobody knows exactly how bad it would be. As for which food chains would be harmed by this, the answer is: for all practical purposes, all of them.
Worse still, geoengineering only works as a treatment—a bad, destructive, shortsighted treatment—to just one of the myriad grave symptoms of the bad shit humans have done to this planet. It would not reduce the amount of carbon dioxide poisoning the atmosphere. It would not fix all the ways that earth’s plant life is being warped by gorging on this overabundance of carbon-dioxide. It would not restore the all-but-eradicated populations of pollenating insects many of those plant species require in order to reproduce. It would not reverse the acidification of the oceans. It won’t break the industrialized world’s late-stage terminal addiction to fossil fuels; it won’t address the monumental cruelties and injustices done every day to feed just this one country’s hunger for gizmos powered by rare-earth stuff that must be hacked up out of the ground beneath what were once habitats for living things. It will do nothing to buck the shameful historical pattern of humanity’s wealthiest societies uniformly rejecting uncomfortable but necessary choices in favor of cheap half-measures that pass drastically worsened consequences on to everybody else, including however many future generations there are left. It will, you can be sure, introduce all manner of new problems and upheavals, to add to the existing ones it failed to address, in a dim world filled by dim shameful idiots so deeply habituated to punting that it’s the only play left in their playbook.
I don’t really think there are aliens out there in any kind of configuration that will ever matter in any kind of practical way to humans; we’ll be gone long before anyone develops the capacity to so much as detect, let alone contact, any vaguely intelligent life anywhere else in this endless scattering universe. But I do sort of like to imagine a vastly distant-future alien archaeologist, telling a classroom of attentive (probably squid-like) alien pupils the tale of the weird hominids who briefly overran this little random blue planet and then died. It would be a cautionary tale, wouldn’t it, about a species of graceful, intelligent beings who, with too few exceptions, didn’t figure out until they’d already done far too much damage, and entrenched society-wide addictions too deeply to kick, that the astonishing, bursting, overflowing abundance provided by the cleanest, steadiest, most efficient, most constant, most renewable energy source to which they would ever have access—the warm light of their stable nearby sun—was as good as they ever ought to have demanded. They had one last chance to figure it out, the archaeologist would tell the fucked-up-looking octopod youths, shaking the most head-like of its various supple, horrifying extremities in a wistful, disappointed sort of way. They were on the brink of destruction. It might have been too late already, in fact! But maybe if they got their shit together and made one big arduous species-wide turn, toward using the energy of the sun instead of burning their own planet and pouring its remains into the air above their heads, who knows? Maybe some of their descendants would be in this classroom today! But instead of spurning the poison to harness the sun, they did the exact opposite. They darkened the sun, literally put up a barrier against sunlight, so that they could continue poisoning themselves for a little longer. They chose to die in gloomy barren half-light so that they would not have to figure out a new way to keep their phones charged. They had learned nothing.
It’s probably too late for this story not to be stupid! But still. Don’t blot out the sun. We can leave its light for whatever survives humanity, instead of taking both with us to our graves.