The American Scholar is on a roll with provocative climate change-related essays in consecutive issues. The summer issue has a brilliant coverline, “The Earth Doesn’t Care if You Drive a Hybrid,” touting this essay by Stanford physicist Robert Laughlin. People on opposite ends of the climate debate will likely find much to agree and disagree with in Laughlin’s elegant piece.
He takes a deep time perspective, of which the geologic record
suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy. Energy procurement is a matter of engineering and keeping the lights on under circumstances that are likely to get more difficult as time progresses. Climate change, by contrast, is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself. The earth doesn’t include the potentially catastrophic effects on civilization in its planning. Far from being responsible for damaging the earth’s climate, civilization might not be able to forestall any of these terrible changes once the earth has decided to make them. Were the earth determined to freeze Canada again, for example, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything except selling your real estate in Canada. If it decides to melt Greenland, it might be best to unload your property in Bangladesh. The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.
The Autumn issue has what might be considered a rejoinder (also prominently featured on the cover), titled, “Prozac for the Planet,” by Christopher Cokinos, who tackles the geoengineering question in a novel manner:
We’ve too long mistaken the present for some version of a human forever. We say we want to save the world. What we really want to save is the Holocene. We want to cast the world in amber, to preserve it as it has been, more or less, for the past century or two. We want to stay alive. More, to hold onto our economies, our life styles, our civilization. These impulses, if not always their consequences, are laudable, but let’s not delude ourselves: trying to extend the lifespan of the Holocene is selfish. We humans are not forever, nor is the time in which we find ourselves. Most of us would like for all of us, including wolves and tadpole shrimp and yellow-eyed penguins, to stick around for a while. Trying to extend the lifespan of the Holocene is also, in a way, compassionate.
Geoengineering may be the earthly pinnacle of our toolmaking ways and an expression of our animal will to live. Certainly it can be more than an attempt to control the future of the climate and civilization; it can be a way to understand our relationship to the nature of time and mortality, a way, perhaps, even to manufacture, or to finally recognize, kinships. But if we extend the lifespan of the Holocene by retooling the air yet fail to retool our own ways, our revels will end sooner than they needed to.
I love the way that sounds: extending the lifespan of the holocene. Might turn out to be a mixed bag, though, like the technologically aided final years being tacked on to individual lives in old age.