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Virgin, the dynamo, and the prize

Like most American kids in the 1960s, I was an avid Star Trek fan and I rooted for every new development in the US space program. I'll never forget staying up past midnight to watch Neil Armstrong take Man's first steps on the moon.

But by the time of the first shuttle disaster in 1986, I was less concerned with the Star Trek mission and more concerned with the fate of the Earth. Apart from the human tragedy of the disaster, the setback to the space shuttle program didn't seem to matter much, and the image of the Challenger flameout at 48,000 feet over Florida seemed symbolic of the utter failure of Western society to create a sustainable civilization on Planet Earth.

The recent release of the IPCC's fourth assessment on climate change is just one more milestone documenting the disintegration of Earth's planetary life-support systems. The world must act quickly, but I am not impressed by the announcement last week that Sir Richard Branson, founder of a company that is building a fleet of excursion vehicles for the space tourism market, has offered a $25 million prize for the invention of new carbon-sequestration technologies.

Branson's space travel company, called Virgin Galactic (in line with his other ventures, Virgin Media, Virgin Trains and Virgin Airways), is building five suborbital spacecraft based on Burt Rutan's X-Prize winning design, SpaceShipOne. Tourists will pay about $200,000 a ticket to spew greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere and enjoy an hour of bouncing around in microgravity. Presumably, it was the success of the X-Prize competition in producing this space toy that inspired Branson to offer the carbon-sequestration prize, which he calls the Earth Challenge. Sadly, Branson's prize may do more harm than good.

There are two big problems with the Earth Challenge prize. First, and most important, it sends the wrong message to those who are just waking up to the true threat of climate change: it says we can solve this problem by inventing the right techno-fix. Branson himself said it at his news conference announcing the prize: "Man created the problem; therefore Man should solve the problem."

If "Man" is about to jump in and fix the carbon problem, then we'll all be able to carry on with business as usual, right? Yikes! If this perception becomes widespread, then there will be no motivation to change our wasteful habits. We can relax, because we have plenty of coal in the ground and our techno-heroes will find a way to capture and store those pesky carbon molecules out of the way somewhere.

Encouraging complacency is one problem. Then there's the problem that any techno-fix solution big enough to make a difference has the potential for dangerous unintended consequences of planetary magnitude. Ideas like pumping CO2 deep into the ground or the ocean may sound promising, but can create new disasters. For instance, the oceans have already been absorbing much of the CO2 generated during the fossil fuel era, and as a result, they are turning acidic. No one knows how much more acidic the oceans can become before the calcium shells of animals like clams and corals begin to dissolve.

We can also inject CO2 into old oil and gas fields and coal beds - it is being done right now in Norway, Texas and Canada. But in order to be effective as a carbon-sequestration strategy, hundreds of underground reservoirs would need to be created and maintained. Jeff Goodell, writing in his book Big Coal, says that each reservoir would spread out "fifty or so square miles underground, which means that if carbon sequestration does indeed become widespread, tens of thousands of people will be living above giant bubbles of CO2." Leakage is a problem, he says, "CO2 is buoyant underground and can migrate through cracks and faults in the earth, pooling in unexpected places." A 20 percent concentration of odorless CO2 can cause a person to lose consciousness in "a breath or two" and asphyxiate.

And here's an unintended consequence I have never heard discussed - what happens to all of the oxygen in the CO2 molecules that get sequestered? When plants pull CO2 out of the air and use it to grow stems and roots, they recycle the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Are we in danger of burying a needful portion of our oxygen deep in the Earth?

Ultimately, Branson's Earth Challenge prize reflects the same attitude that got us into the climate crisis in the first place. It's a wet dream for engineers who now get to play with a whole planet, acting out their favorite science fiction scenarios. If they want to terraform a planet, I say send them to Mars, but don't experiment with the Earth.

In his landmark critique of Technological Man, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, historian William Irwin Thompson observes: "When we have moved beyond the desolation of all our male vanities, from the stock market to the stock pile of rockets, we will be more open and receptive. Open and bleeding like that archaic wound, the vulva, we will be prepared to receive the conception of a new civilization."

The truth is that we already have all the technology that we need to save ourselves. Most of the world does not drive cars, use air conditioning or fly in airplanes, let alone spaceships. Provide an African village with a few solar panels and they can have lights at night, and a refrigerator to store medicines. Add a satellite dish and a computer, and they have the world's knowledge and culture at their fingertips. If the environment around them is healthy, it can provide everything else they need for a good life - water, food, clothing, shelter, musical instruments and the enjoyment of nature.

The new, post-carbon civilization will require that we be open to radically new ways of living. At the same time that the industrialized world helps African villagers upgrade their lifestyles to include electric lights and computers, it needs to downgrade its own lifestyles to eliminate wasteful consumption and feel the Earth again.

But what will motivate the rich populations of the industrial world to do this? Conventional wisdom says that they will never give up their wasteful luxuries. They will embrace every techno-fix imaginable before making even the smallest sacrifices, because they feel that they have already won the prize. The prize, in fact, is their monopoly over fossil fuels and the concern is that someone - greens, Arabs, Venezuelans or Russians - will take it away. It's no accident that Daniel Yergin's definitive history of the oil industry is called The Prize.

We must come to see that the ultimate prize is not sitting on top of a pile of consumer goods; the ultimate prize is the miracle of our continued life on this beautiful planet. Unfortunately, Richard Branson's offering of a carbon-sequestration prize perpetuates the dangerous illusion that we can avoid the hard choices because Technological Man will always prevail.

That said, however, perhaps Branson's contest will surprise me. His roster of judges includes the brilliant Australian evolutionary biologist Tim Flannery, who has written The Weather Makers, the best book yet on climate change. Flannery is well-qualified to root out false solutions and sniff out unintended consequences.

And there are many practical things we can do to enhance the natural carbon-sequestration ability of fields and forests, like planting and fertilizing trees and using no-till agriculture. There is even a potentially revolutionary technique waiting to be developed that could greatly accelerate carbon storage in soils.

The technique is called "Terra Preta," Portuguese for "black earth." It is not new. It was invented by an ancient agricultural civilization in the Amazon that made charcoal and buried it the soil. The charcoal absorbs and holds nutrients from manure and supports beneficial microbes. Some of these fertile soils are more than 1000 years old. You can read more about Terra Preta in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.

There is a company called Eprida that is developing a process to manufacture this agricultural charcoal with a biofuel as a co-product. Perhaps they will apply for the Earth Challenge prize and perhaps, if the judges are open to it, their process or some similar process will win the prize.

Survival requires that we restore a balance to our relationship with the Earth. This is the balance that Henry Adams wrote of upon his visit to the great Paris Exposition of 1900, in The Education of Henry Adams. The experience was heady for him as he recognized that the world was then teetering between the pull of two great forces: the powerful engines of the future he encountered in the Hall of Dynamos, and all the spiritual truths of the ancient world as represented by the Virgin of Chartres:

"As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring - scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power - while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame."

Now, barely 100 years later, we see that the baby is too close to the frame, and the age of the dynamos has brought us to the brink of disaster. It is this disaster that Richard Branson, possibly with the best of intentions, is responding to. And his prize may yet do some great good, particularly if he honors his creation's namesake, the Virgin of his Virgin Enterprises.

For the Virgin is none other than the ancient Goddess of the Earth. Henry Adams says, "She was Goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction - the greatest and most mysterious of all energies; all she needed was to be fecund."

We don't have to roll over the Earth with our dynamos. We have a much better chance of success if we can find ways to work with the Earth to enhance her fertility and restore her natural cycles.

As Henry Adams noted, wandering through the cathedrals and museums of Paris, the "force" of the Virgin "was the highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art, exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of ... All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres."

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

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