My beef with the whole “solutions” thing comes from my travels around the country, talking on college campuses and such; there is this whole clamor for “solutions.” The idea is, if you’re not optimistic enough, you should shut up. But there are subtexts to all these things. And the subtext to that particular meme is, “Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way we’re running it now, except by other means.” They don’t really want to hear about other arrangements. They want to keep on running all the cars, only differently. You know, like hybrid electric cars, or electric cars, or cars that run on algae secretions. But they don’t get that we’re done with that way of life. The mandates of reality are telling us something very different. They are telling us we have to inhabit the landscape and move around in it very differently in the future.
Scientists grasping at geoengineering straws to maintain a quasihuman technotopia into the post-Anthropocene have proposed a lot of bad ideas but occasionally something pops up that could conceivably work. Those in the latter category need to be put to the proof. We will have a closer look at one of those, but first a quick bit of background.
In 1989, when we were proofreading publishers’ galleys and drawing illustrations to go with our planned January 1990 release of Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do, two new books came across our desk that seemed to confirm the importance of what we were writing. The two were Bill McKibben’s End of Nature and Steven Schneider’s Global Warming. The first we dismissed out of hand because it seemed overly prosaic and we did not agree with the premise — nature was not going away, although we humans well might.
The second gave us greater concern because, like Climate in Crisis, it put the science out there for the average person to read in terms that were easy to comprehend, and it told a story by scientific discoveries, in a sequence not unlike our own, from ice cores to better light bulbs.
With the hindsight of 31 years, we’d have to say we owe Mr. McKibben an apology — he was right and nature really is dying. Much of it is already dead. Our approach, like Schneider’s, was too cautious, too conservative, and too timid. We proposed that the “Peace Dividend” from the end of the Cold War be used to remake a clean, green, economic engine of sustainable development — a solar-powered future. Looking at that now it seems laughable: a technofetishist utopia. Back in 1989 we couldn’t really face the worst —the Venus scenario — it was too horrible. We described it, but then we went right back to light bulbs and Energy Star appliances.
This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don’t work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.
Later space shuttles had a carbon dioxide removal system that regenerated its sorbent, leaving no wastes. The metal-oxide sorbent was cleansed by pumping air heated to around 200°C (400°F) at 7.5 scfm through its canister for 10 hours.
Activated carbon, made from pyrolyzed biomass, can also be used as a low-cost carbon dioxide sorbant. Once the activated carbon is saturated the CO2 can be removed by blowing air through the bed, but that would create dirty exhaust, so a better method is to immerse the activated charcoal in a reactant like soda lime, sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or lithium hydroxide that are able to chemically react and entrain the CO2. This is similar to the process we use when mixing sawdust or chopped straw fiber with lime putty in making lime renders and plasters for natural buildings. Over time, the carbon is incorporated into the hydrated lime, leaving a hard surface, just like limestone.
This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year’s harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can’t do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving… in the dust.
Rather than either embrace or reject the Global Thermostat process, we cautiously welcome air extraction as one more possibly helpful, hopefully harmless technology that could shave a few degrees off our sentence.
Air extraction by no means provides a license to keep the party going, as some at the UN event may have hoped, or to burn all those proven reserves. McKibben is dead right about this — those carbon reservoirs must remain in the ground if we are to stand any chance.
Air extraction, if and as it ramps up to Malta-size filtration farms by 2040, could also start pulling off radionuclides, which would be a good thing, taking us back pre-Fukushima, even to the pre-Trinity era c. 1943, when fallout referred to hair-loss. But, since no legislator has ever found a way to appropriate enough money to take nuclear waste from leaking tanks in repositories, overfilled swimming pools at reactors built on coastlines or earthquake faults, or any number of other death traps set to ensnare future generations, it is difficult to imagine spending taxpayer money on extractive radionuclide removal (never mind carbon dioxide). Will private business shoulder that burden? Show us the money.
Our more practical strategy, as we outlined in 2006 in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, remains to increase climate and economic adaptability and resilience — personal, neighborhood, community and regional — while working to facilitate a transition to a saner social arrangement that promotes planetary healing. That could and should involve air extraction, and not just for carbon. We just use trees. Real ones.
We need to let Gaia do what she does best. If we can just stop wounding her further, she might yet recover. She has the will to do it, although, at the moment, that happens to involve a serious and most unpleasant fever. It took us, the two-leggeds, hundreds of thousands of years of compassionate living, in the aggregate, for a stable Holocene period to emerge from the chaotic climate regimes of all preceding times. We pushed the edges of that stability with our cities, redirected rivers, man-made deserts and agriculture, but we also helped her recover, bypassing and even protecting huge expanses of rainforest and sacred, untouched mountains.
The balance our predecessors struck with our mother was a delicate one, and in a mere 150 years we destroyed it, but that equipoise may not be yet beyond redemption. We just have to put the forests back and stop soiling our nest.