November 7, 2010
November 7, 2010
AS A way of saying you’ve arrived, being the subject of some carefully contrived paragraphs in the proceedings of a United Nations conference is not as dramatic as playing Wembley or holding a million-man march. But for geoengineering, those paragraphs from the recent conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, marked a definite coming of age.
Geoengineering is shorthand for the idea of fixing the problem of man-made climate change once the greenhouse gases that cause it have already been emitted into the atmosphere, rather than trying to stop those emissions happening in the first place. Ideas for such fixes include smogging up the air to reflect more sunlight back into space, sucking in excess carbon dioxide using plants or chemistry, and locking up the glaciers of the world’s ice caps so that they cannot fall into the ocean and cause sea levels to rise.
Many people think such ideas immoral, or a distraction from the business of haranguing people to produce less carbon dioxide, or both—and certain to provoke unintended consequences, to boot. It was the strength of that opposition which drove the subject onto the agenda at Nagoya. But that strength is also a reflection of the fact that many scientists now take the idea of geoengineering seriously. Over the past few years research in the field has boomed. What is sometimes called Plan B seems to be taking shape on the laboratory bench—and seeking to escape outside.
The most widely discussed way of cooling the Earth is to imitate a volcano. Volcanoes inject sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, where it eventually forms small particles of sulphate that reflect sunlight back into space. Volcanoes, though, do this on a one-off basis. Geoengineers would need to leave the cloud up for a long time, which could get tricky. If you put sulphur dioxide into air that already has a haze of particles in it, the gas will glom onto those particles, making them bigger, rather than forming new small particles of its own. Since what is needed for cooling is a lot of small particles rather than a few big ones, this approach would face problems.
David Keith, of the University of Calgary, and his colleagues recently came up with a way of keeping the particles small: use sulphuric acid rather than sulphur dioxide. Released as a vapour at high altitude it should produce a screen of properly sized particles, even in a sky that is already hazed. And the fleet of aircraft needed to keep that screen in being turns out to be surprisingly small. A study that Dr Keith commissioned from Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based company that makes high-altitude drones, concludes that it could be done by an operation smaller than an airline like Jet Blue, operating from a few bases around the world.
That airline would, however, do best with a fleet of newly designed aircraft. The most straightforward option, according to the report, would be to develop a vehicle capable of flying at altitudes of 20-25km (about 65,000-80,000 feet), distributing ten tonnes of acid a flight. Such craft might look like slightly portly U-2 spy planes, or possibly like theWhite Knight mother ship developed to launch Virgin Galactic’s tourist spaceships. About 80 such planes would allow the delivery to the stratosphere of a million tonnes of acid every year at a cost of one or two billion dollars over an operational life of 20 years.
A more intriguing idea suggested in the study would be to use a sort of hybrid plane-blimp along the lines of Lockheed’s experimental P-791 (pictured above), which generates lift through both buoyancy and aerodynamics. Lift is a problem in the rarefied air of the stratosphere, and it seems such a design can help. The study dismisses another blimpish idea, though: that of pumping sulphurous chemicals up a long pipe held aloft by a large tethered balloon. It also rejects the use of rockets and guns, both of which have also been proposed as ways of getting sulphur into the stratosphere (see chart).
On the face of it Aurora’s study is extraordinary. Given that a few million tonnes of sulphur a year might be enough to cool the Earth by a degree or two, the report seems to confirm what Scott Barrett, a political scientist at Columbia University, has called the “incredible economics” of geoengineering. The thought that a couple of billion dollars a year spent on sulphur could offset warming as effectively as hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in low-carbon energy suggests there is a real bargain to be had here. Maybe. But opponents of the idea are inclined to insert the word “Faustian” first…
November 7, 2010
Of course we should love, honour and cherish our species, says Mary Midgley. But should we have to worship it too?
Does the term “humanism” really stand for a new and better form of religion? If so, what is that religion? Or is it something designed as a cure for religion itself, a way to get rid of it on Christopher Hitchens’s principle that “religion poisons everything”?
Many people, no doubt, agree with Hitchens. But Auguste Comte, the founding father of modern humanism, would not have been one of them. For him, “humanism” was a word parallel to “theism”. It just altered the object worshipped, substituting humanity for God. He called it the “religion of humanity” and devised ritual forms for it that were close to traditional Christian ones. He thought – and many others have agreed with him – that the trouble with religion was simply its having an unreal supernatural object, God. Apart from this, the attitudes and institutions characteristic of religion itself seemed to him valuable, indeed essential. And he certainly had no wish to get rid of the habit of worship, only to give it a more suitable object. Surely (he said) worshipping human beings – who are real natural entities – would easily be able to replace the existing idle and artificial practices? So he ruled that, for instance, the enlightened citizen should start his day by worshipping first his mother, then his wife and then his daughter – after, of course, ensuring that they all did exactly what they were told for the rest of the time. And the other occasions of life could be similarly hallowed. This would all be part of his positivistic enterprise of developing the human scientific faculties that would finally enable us to abandon superstition
These precepts, however, did not work out easily. Comte’s new Christian-like institutions withered like alien vines once they were applied to their new objects, even though he carefully policed them and trained his priesthood in the newly-discovered skills of Sociology. I once saw the still extant Comtian temple in Paris, a tidy little Victorian church with round (not Gothic) arches, its walls lined with statues of the Saints of Humanity – Plato, Newton, Shakespeare, Beethoven. I asked its gloomy concierge whether she thought anybody ever worshipped there but she replied, “Nobody. I think, never.”
Plainly, Comte’s simple recipe for grafting a new object on to traditional institutions – a new head on to the old body – did not produce the improved life-form he hoped for. This may seem odd. It should (we think) surely be possible simply to celebrate and admire the lives of past and present humans without getting committed to any questionable doctrines – without those suspect claims to a background beyond familiar facts which create the poison of religion for people like Hitchens. And of course we do celebrate people unpretentiously in this way. But our doing so hardly seems to constitute an ism, a cause, a distinctive attitude that says something about the whole human species. There is also the further question – even if you want to get rid of God, is the human race the right thing to be worshipping instead? Of course it is important to us simply because it is ours, but should we think of it as central to the cosmos, or even to earthly life? Considering that it is already making other species extinct at an increasing rate, do we really want to give it a kind of divine status?
Serious celebrations of individual human merit do not usually take us in this direction. We do not celebrate people simply for being specially human but for particular things they have done or said. They have changed our attitudes to particular ideals and values, and this new thinking can inspire quite new visions of reality. When a fresh prophet – Newton or Blake or Pythagoras or Jesus or Nietzsche or Darwin or Marx or Einstein or the Dalai Lama – appears among the existing Saints of Humanity, this contribution has wide consequences. Not only can it alter our map of human life, it can also call on us to change our whole world-picture. New ideals do not just alter our conduct. They can gradually change our whole conception of reality.
The reason why we revere these people is that they have extended the bounds of human experience, showing us things that the rest of us simply had never thought of. They have therefore encountered quite new problems and have had to describe them in new language, often using rich seams of metaphor that can never be unpacked literally. Subsequent efforts to work out their meaning can call for profound shifts which make everything appear differently – including, of course, both some splendid inventions and some fearful mistakes. And these shifts often change the way in which we conceive reality itself.
In doing this, we are not forced to stick to the revelations of a particular group of prophets who were specially revered during the Enlightenment. Indeed, even if we wanted to halt there we could not do so. There is no fixed, unalterable background map of the “familiar facts” that must survive all such shifts, and certainly no fixed schedule dividing real entities from fishy, imaginary ones. Entities like Fate and Progress and the Logic of History and the Hidden Hand of the Market come and go.
Materialists take matter to be what is typically real, but matter itself is not at all what it used to be. Newton’s reassuringly solid, inert particles are long gone. Energy, which succeeded them, seems now to be dissolving into a succession of more exotic possibilities. At present, many respected physicists advocate belief in the Multiverse, by which they do not mean just a crowd of existing extra universes but an apparently limitless string of new ones that continually come into being all the time whenever a quantum event is needed to decide between two possible alternatives. This idea strikes many of us today (as it would have struck most people earlier) as not just unlikely but meaningless, yet it is now viewed as the kind of thing that can merit Nobel Prizes.
Changes like this in ontology – in what is considered to be real – are known to be so common in human history that it seems surprising when people treat a current doctrine about it as a timeless truth. That, however, is what has happened to the rather crude form of materialism that Comte himself enshrined by his positivist doctrine. Positivism got rid of Cartesian dualism – the twofold world of Spirit and Matter that had seemed so obviously final to Newton – not by rethinking it but by simply eliminating Spirit, leaving Matter to manage on its own. The main reason for doing this was undoubtedly the fear of religion. The whole concept of Spirit was seen as too dangerous because of its history, notably, of course, the political oppression of the churches. Thus, as often happens, the new insight was shaped chiefly by contrast with the previous one and taken as a final refutation of it.
But Matter had been so carefully defined by dualists as inert and alien to life that it was really hard to see how it could do all that was now expected of it – how it could be the source of conscious, active living animals, including ourselves. The unlucky consequence of this clash can be seen in what is now called the Problem of Consciousness, the desperate ongoing attempt by many scientists to find ways of talking about human experience in “scientific” language – language that has been carefully designed to make all such talk impossible.
This problem began to distress people during the 1970s because that was when the behaviourist veto on ever mentioning subjectivity finally lost its force. Behaviourists had been following positivist principles in dismissing the phenomena of consciousness as effectively unreal, since they could not be described in physical terms, and they concluded that psychologists could only study outward behaviour, taking no notice of experience.
Not surprisingly, this worked so badly that the theory was officially abandoned. Yet the general suspicion of talking about conscious experience remained very strong. Odd though it sounds, psychologists seem still to have thought thatattending to subjectivity was the same thing as being subjective – that is, biased and uncritical. The world, in fact, consisted solely of objects with no subjects to observe them. As Marilynne Robinson has lately pointed out in a very sharp little book called Absence of Mind, this meant that our inner life – the place where the whole drama of human thought had till now been carried out – had somehow been scientifically proved not to exist. Thus our only source of information about the outer world was no longer available.