Edge question: What changes everything?

At Edge.org John Brockman has put up the answers to his annual question. This year it was “What changes everything?” I’m not sure it’s the best question he has ever posed, because it does somewhat play up to a transcendentalist tendency which needs little encouragement in many of those Brockman questions. But it brings forth some interesting answers. There’s a number of different conceptions of telepathy and similar things, there’s various energy stuff, of course, there’s first contact with aliens, there’s Bad Things (nuclear weapons, tech collapse) and much more. Worth checking out; it’s possible that when I have had a chance to work through a fair part of its book-like length I may post a few favourites and discussion, but don’t hold your breath. My favourite to date is Brian Eno‘s.

My offering is on geoengineering. Here’s the core of it, but feel free to go over and read the whole thing.

Why do I think those attempts will change the world? Geoengineering is not, after all, a panacea. It cannot precisely cancel out the effects of greenhouse gases, and it is likely to have knock on effects on the hydrological cycle which may well not be welcome. Even if the benefits outweigh the costs, the best-case outcome is unlikely to be more than a period of grace in which the most excessive temperature changes are held at bay. Reducing carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to be necessary. In part that is because of the problem of ocean acidification, and in part because a lower carbon-dioxide climate is vastly preferable to one that stays teetering on the brink of disaster for centuries, requiring constant tinkering to avoid teetering over into greenhouse hellishness.

So geoengineering would not “solve” climate change. Nor would it be an unprecedented human intervention in the earth system. It would be a massive thing to undertake, but hardly more momentous in absolute terms than our replacement of natural ecosystems with farmed ones; our commandeering of the nitrogen cycle; the wholesale havoc we have wrought on marine food webs; or the amplification of the greenhouse effect itself.

But what I see as world changing about this technology is not the extent to which it changes the world. It is that it does so on purpose. To live in a world subject to purposeful, planetwide change will not, I think, be quite the same as living in one being messed up by accident. Unless geoengineering fails catastrophically (which would be a pretty dramatic change in itself) the relationship between people and their environment will have changed profoundly. The line separating the natural from the artificial is itself an artifice, and one that changes with time. But this change, different in scale and not necessarily reversible, might finish off the idea of the natural as a place or time or condition that could ever be returned to. This would not be the “end of nature” — but it would be the end of a view of nature that has great power, and without which some would feel bereft. The clouds and the colours of the noon-time sky and of the setting sun will feel different if they have become, to some extent, a matter of choice.

Image from edge.org

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[…] controversy, might want to browse further in the geoengineering category; a nice start is this post and the article it links to, and the IMO post is quite fun […]

Pingback by More superfreakonomics « Heliophage

[…] everything: ideas that will shape the future, the latest Jon Brockman anthology, which contains my squib on geoengineering from last year. It is a mark of consistency or lack of intellectual progress, depending, that the two don’t […]

Pingback by Another geoengineering piece « Heliophage

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