PIRATE WIRES #8 // Terraforming Terra Prima
a few words on our literal scorched earth policy
Topics: a brief shift from Mars, global warming, climate engineering, standing in the middle of an ecological disaster zone, government broadly, and the state of California’s war on ride-sharing
Terraforming Terra Prima. How do we bring a dead world back to life and build another home for humanity? This is the central question of Anatomy of Next: New World, the second season of the podcast I run for Founders Fund. If you haven’t yet checked out the Martian arc, you can give the full season a listen on whatever podcast platform you prefer (Apple link here). Trust me, it’ll be a nice break from our protracted 2020 dystopia vibes.
But while New World remains some of the work I’m most proud of, the show is not without its flaws. From the start it was always meant to be a concrete direction for the human race: how to get to Mars, how to adapt biology to new environments, how to terraform an alien planet and turn a red, barren hellscape into a lush world of forests and fields and oceans. But the story was also meant to be a kind of metaphor. Everything we learn on the Martian frontier can be used on Earth, and when I started the project I hoped that thinking about all of the amazing things we could do on alien world, where no current model for civilization exists, might inspire people here at home. We can build whatever kind of world — right here, today — that we want to build. But all of this was perhaps not as clear as it could have been, as one of the big criticisms leveled against the season was “what about Earth?” This is a great question, and yes, I agree, we should absolutely terraform this planet too.
It was 130 degrees in Death Valley this week. That’s the hottest temperature we’ve recorded on Earth since we started recording temperatures on Earth (admittedly not a long time, and keeping in mind there have been periods of history in which our planet was just an acid gas volcano world etc.). While records were being broken in Death Valley, I was in Palm Springs, ignoring Twitter from a 120-degree patio with an ice-cold, rum-based tiki drink in hand. The Bay Area — famously sweater weather in August — hit 103 degrees. Deserts are supposed to be hot, and sure, yes, San Francisco has a heatwave every now and then. But if you’re a global warming guy these are the kinds of data points that make you sweat. Now, the problem with global warming guys is so many of them are environmentalists, and curbing global warming seems not to be primarily the goal of environmentalism. Preserving a “natural” environment as conceived of in pre-industrial, quasi-spiritual dimensions, preferably in a world without people, seems to be the goal of environmentalism. There are few things that make this fact more clear than the constant disdain for nuclear power from people purportedly interested in curbing emissions to “save the planet” for humans. No offense to the stans who painted a messianic portrait of Greta Thunberg’s face on the side of a San Francisco high-rise, but while she is a fantastic environmentalist, she’s kind of a fraud on global warming.
My sense is we’re still asking the wrong questions. It doesn’t matter whether or not anthropocentric global warming is real (I personally think, to a significant enough degree, it is), nor does it matter if our planet is generally warming (folks, it really seems like it is). The questions should rather be: what temperature do we want our planet to be, generally speaking? How high do we want our sea level? Are we comfortable with the amount of arable land available globally, and our stores of fresh water? Then, we should shape this planet to our preferences. Much of the focus of environmentalism has been on reducing the carbon emissions of Europe and America (never India or China, but that’s another wire for another day). By extension, as we have almost no source of energy reliable enough to replace fossil fuels, and people who ostensibly care about global warming seem hellbent on curbing nuclear power, what we’re really talking about is reducing western industrial output. In a world where industrial output means, in a quite direct sense, the food we’re eating, a world of greatly reduced industrial output would be workable for pretty much rich people only.
Fortunately, transforming our planet is the entire premise of the global warming debate. This means we’re actually primed for success here. When you break it down, that we are capable of changing the chemical nature of our world to so dramatic a degree is extremely empowering. For a moment, let’s table the warming conversation and talk about what we can do to cool our planet down. It’s time to start climate engineering. A few new tricks to consider:
Carbon sequestration: on this subject’s ground floor we’re capturing carbon and burying it, and there are hundreds of methods. Then, what about genetically modifying plants for aggressive “afforestation?” In a sense reprogramming a handful of forest flora to grow faster, and everywhere. Related, and I’m just spit-balling now, we have almost a century of experience genetically modifying crops to resist pests, to survive draught, to use less nitrogen. What about tweaking them to use more carbon? What about flowering, rooftop gardens in every city guzzling our emissions? And if climate change is truly the crisis of our time, why aren’t the people most loudly screaming about the issue not obsessed with any of these solutions?
We could fertilize the ocean. We could seed designated regions of the sea with iron, stimulating phytoplankton blooms, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in huge quantities and — bonus — do you like sushi? Because fish eat this stuff, the really tasty fish eat that stuff, and last I checked we’re overfishing the planet into oblivion (thanks, China, truly the nation that never stops giving).
Allow me to introduce you to something called “solar radiation management.” This is a huge bucket, but most compelling to me is something I once talked about in the context of Mars, a technique here applied in reverse. On the Red Planet, we want to melt the icecaps to build an ocean. One potential method is spray-painting the icecaps black, increasing the amount of sun they absorb. On Earth, we want to cool our ice caps down and increase their mass, reversing the global sea rise and stemming the arctic methane leak. A humble proposal: what about a few tens of thousands of reflective sheeting (material? Spray?) over barren, arctic desert, safely bouncing solar radiation back out into space?
There are almost no shortage of things we can do to cool our planet down, at least in some measure. Marine cloud brightening, changes in grassland management, changes in crop management, changes in roofing! We haven’t even gotten to mega-engineering.
Repeat after me: Giant. Space. Umbrella.
Politicians have referred to global warming as this generation’s World War II. But if that’s the analogy we’re sticking with (and holy shit btw), it’s worth noting our grandparents didn’t just stop the spread of fascism in Europe and Asia, they fought back against and ultimately eradicated the fascist governments. Containment isn’t victory. Victory is victory.
I understand why many people are concerned about a warming planet. But why is no one talking about reversing the damage that’s already been done?
Disasterland. All the geoengineering stuff came up for me this week at a place called the Salton Sea, an ecological disaster zone in California. Long story short, in 1905, while attempting to irrigate California farmland via the Colorado River, a dam burst, which resulted in two years of flooding into salty lakebed. Ultimately, this created a four hundred square mile lake — still the largest in the state. Wildlife thrived, and a new, local economy blossomed. By the 1950s the Salton Sea was a popular resort town in a booming, post-war United States. But every year a little more of it evaporated into the atmosphere, not only shrinking the sea but increasing the sea’s salinity. Salt, in sufficient quantities, is poison. By the 1970s the sea was dying, and today it’s an impoverished, ecological disaster in the middle of a baking desert. It wreaks of toxic chemicals for miles. Nearly all marine life has been killed, and most surrounding land species that relied on marine life for food have vanished. Amidst localized depression, a few ruins in the area have become the popular destination of Instagram influencers who for some reason all think photographing themselves naked in a dystopian hellscape makes for thoughtful content. In other words, imagine if 2020 were an actual place you could visit.
A piece on the area appeared in the Atlantic back in 2015. The subhead reads “the shrinking Salton Sea is now a major source of air pollution—and no one seems to know how to stop it from getting worse.” This strikes me as, and I don’t want to mince words here, fucking insane. This isn’t a natural lake. We know exactly how it formed, and the Colorado River is still flowing, so…
*Waves hands, gestures vaguely at the apocalypse*
Are we really just ignoring this? Are we really just going to let this lake dry up completely, burning off a cloud of salt and chemicals that will affect millions of people, including vital farmland, for hundreds of miles? If fresh water is too expensive, and we’re just looking to stem a disaster rather than completely revitalize a region, why not pump in water from the Pacific Ocean? The Salton Sea is more than twice as salty as the Pacific, which seems to imply, in this rare case, seawater would actually be helpful. There are things we can do. We’re simply choosing, every year, not to do them. And in almost every context.
Let’s talk about our idiots. Every significant geoengineering project, from seeding the ocean and rebuilding the Salton Sea to — absolutely — messing around with a giant solar shade in space requires significant buy-in from competent political leadership. The problem continues to be our political leaders aren’t competent. A Manhattan Project for cancer would be hard, but banning vapes is easy and looks like you care so our politicians ban vapes. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that we can’t engineer our way out of an ecological disaster in a state where politicians are not even capable of allowing other people to build housing in the middle of a housing crisis. Truly, the answer in this rare case is just getting out of the way and they can’t even manage that. Reversing policy, or throwing policy away entirely, is perhaps more difficult, politically-speaking, than drafting new policy, and banning new things. So we ban things, again and again, no matter how disastrous the consequences, and the disastrous consequences are invariably blamed on unenthusiastic banning. In a crude sort of way, I guess our politicians are even right. Will there still be a housing crisis in California when Lorena Gonzalez, one of our elected idiots, succeeds in her mission of eradicating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the state?
We’re about to lose ride-sharing in California. Presumably, the job loss will be blamed on the fact that Uber and Lyft were ever allowed to exist. “We wouldn’t have lost these jobs,” Lorena will argue, “had they never been created in the first place.”
Makes you think!
Losing this many jobs in the middle of an economic crisis, itself nested in a pandemic, is of course a disaster — which by the way our politicians could avert, at any time, by simply opting not to destroy the jobs. Like, in this rare case, it’s actually that easy. But the broader problem here is an internalized sense in almost all of us our world is over. At the very least, America is over. The huge, inspiring stuff of America’s past is from another world. We won’t even hold our politicians accountable for hurting us because we no longer believe there’s any other way. I’ve internalized this notion myself. I’m trying to shake it. Maybe this all begins with holding ourselves accountable. Feel free, as ever, to keep me in check in the comments.