why don't we just terraform the earth?
July 2, 2015 10:57 PM   Subscribe

In the past few years, science has lurched closer to envisioning habitable Mars, though at the moment estimates for creating breathable oxygen range from hundreds to 100,000 years in the future, the soil is currently toxic to astronauts, and travel is so unwieldy that scientists have proposed "printing" humans on Mars. Meanwhile, I wondered why not make Earth's increasingly inhospitable deserts greener.
posted by the man of twists and turns (28 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is exactly the kind of research and discussion I've wanted to see all in one place -- so thanks. I am of the mind that we are not going to de-technologize, not willingly and without a catastrophe. More to the point, we as a species simply cannot de-technologize, not even if we all agreed we ought to.

It's not that I think the technological deus ex machina is ideal -- it's a crappy outcome. But every other outcome is far crappier.
posted by argybarg at 12:11 AM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


When I was a kid, I used to imagine some sort of scheme (verging on perpetual motion, no doubt) whereby we would pump water into the deserts somewhere (probably the sa-hairiest parts of the Sahara, places where camels say fuck it and turn around) using electricity generated by focusing the sun on some of that water to drive generators and desalinate the water for drinking and irrigation. You would still be left with the salt, but maybe that could be returned to the sea in a salty slurry. And so on. It would cost a few gazillion dollars, but I figured some oil-rich people could buy desert land on the cheap and make a killing in real estate when they brought fresh water and electricity to the wastes. Then you start building soil and vegetation, practice sustainable agriculture, and slowly push back the desert.

But it's still smarter just to not fuck up what we've already got. Instead of (or at least in addition to) spending our time trying to invent new ways to fix self-inflicted foot wounds, we should try really, really hard every day not to shoot ourselves in the foot.
posted by pracowity at 2:09 AM on July 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


pracowcity: the Qattara Depression Project. In its most recent incarnation, the plan included the use of 213 nuclear bombs for blasting out the necessary channels that would move seawater inland.
posted by XMLicious at 2:45 AM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well if we try to teraform Mars we can't screw it up an make it much less hospitable than it is now.
posted by sammyo at 4:05 AM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


I hear these proposals all the time, jokingly since the technology doesn't yet exist, but also wishfully -- people really want simple technological solutions that "fix" ecological problems without requiring us to change our lifestyles. It's worth remembering how many current ecological issues stem from earlier attempts to supposedly improve things, like introducing invasive species.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:17 AM on July 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


"just".
posted by mhoye at 4:33 AM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


And yet, the Green Belt Movement doesn't involve any of this bombast.
posted by glasseyes at 4:40 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


It may not be apparent to us, but deserts have a role in our global ecosystem.

What that role may be, I don't know - but that's precisely it, NONE of us do. So why would we want to get rid of something that we don't know what it's for? This isn't like we built the Earth flat packed and an extra piece leftover or anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:01 AM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


How to Terraform the Moon: "When it comes to remaking a celestial body in Earth’s image—“terraforming” it—the moon has clear advantages".
posted by dgaicun at 6:17 AM on July 3, 2015


It may not be apparent to us, but deserts have a role in our global ecosystem.

Exactly. And we do know a lot about their role in our ecosystem. For example, the country I live in, Spain, is incredibly fertile in part because of the enormous clouds of dust that are blown across the Mediterranean from the Sahara every year.

It's also problematic to think about reverting ecosystems back to the way they were before human intervention. I was recently reading about pollarding, a practice that used to be widespread in western europe, and which is now being abandoned. Pollarding all the trees in a given area for hundreds of years created an ecosystem with predator/prey relationships that are now in danger. Once you let the trees grow too thick, rabbits, for example, become more scarce, and the birds of prey that lived off the rabbits run into trouble.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 6:21 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you look at what the end goals are, then the Earth is a 99.999% terraformed Mars already, one with better suited gravity. If we can't sort out the last fraction of a percent at home we sure as shit can't do it millions of kilometres away. I call bullshit on terraforming another planet as our only chance for survival as a species. It would be a thousand times easier for us to live under the sea than to build a a habitable Mars, and we can't even do that.
posted by furtive at 6:26 AM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


In other words, Mars colonials should be considered interplanetary preppers of the worst kind.
posted by furtive at 6:28 AM on July 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Expanding our planetary options is better considered a very long-term insurance policy against rare extinction level events than a solution to the serious, but by no means existential, climate challenges on Earth.
posted by dgaicun at 6:37 AM on July 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Isn't the easiest way to terraform Earth simply to reduce human population growth to sane levels?
posted by Beholder at 6:56 AM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Isn't the easiest way to terraform Earth simply to reduce human population growth to sane levels?

Yep, and the easiest way to do that is economic development, women's rights, and access to birth control.

Isn't it nice when improving things improves things?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:04 AM on July 3, 2015 [26 favorites]


may not be apparent to us, but deserts have a role in our global ecosystem.

What that role may be, I don't know - but that's precisely it, NONE of us do.


One example would be that the Sahara Desert is really important for nutrients and minerals to the Brazilian rainforest via the wind. Not too long ago NASA released a video of the process in action: link.
posted by barchan at 8:40 AM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


...people really want simple technological solutions that "fix" ecological problems without requiring us to change our lifestyles.

Very much this. That's where I worry that "terraforming" is the thin edge of the geoengineering wedge, which is an excuse for large corporations to promote giant engineering projects to correct the problems they themselves have created. It has been suggested that this is a Neoliberal strategy to profit from our inability to alter our current course:
We think most people on the Left don’t fully realise that the phenomena of science denialism, emissions trading and geoengineering are not in fact unrelated or rival panaceas but rather constitute together the full neoliberal response to global warming.

The reasons this array qualifies as ‘neoliberal’ are twofold. First, they all originated from within think tanks and academic units affiliated with the neoliberal thought collective; second, the net consequence of all three is to leave the problem not to the state but to the market. Denialism buys time for the other two options; financialisation of the carbon cycle gets the attention in the medium-term; geoengineering incubates in the wings as a techno-utopian deus ex machina for when the other two options fail.
Speaking of techno-utopian deus ex machinae...
posted by sneebler at 8:43 AM on July 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


just finished ramez naam's infinite resource last nite where i think he provides an informed and nuanced take on geoengineering:
[T]echniques to reflect more sunlight into space are far from perfect, but... we'd rather have the option to cool the Arctic than not have the option... embrace the power of "and." Climate is a large enough challenge that we're going to need multiple approaches. I'm always surprised when I see the vehemence of some climate activists' opposition to nuclear energy or carbon sequestration or solar radiation management. "These can't possibly work," I'm told. Or, "this is just an industry story to distract us from what needs to happen now."

It's true that we need C02 emissions reductions now. We can't wait for technologies that are twenty years away. But we shouldn't try to fight climate change with one hand tied behind our back... the problem is big enough that we need every possible tool available for use. Future technologies like solar radiation management shouldn't be used as an excuse for not acting now. But neither should we discourage research and development into them. Indeed, we should accelerate it.
speaking of terraforming: "beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive."

naam also squarely takes on malthusian pessimism and turns it on its head:
Malthus said that population rises geometrically while production of food rises linearly. But what we've learned from recent history, from ancient civilizations, and from the nonlinear behavior of cities and economies is something else. As population rises, consumption rises. But it's innovation that rises geometrically with respect to population. A world with twice as many people may consume more. But it's innovation will rise faster than its consumption. And in that lies a tremendous amount of hope, and a reason to revisit our views of population...

People aren't just mouths. They're minds also. Each of us is both... Left in hunger, poverty, and without education, we are primarily mouths... Fed, educated, empowered, and guided by a future iteration of capitalism that values all of our resources and aligns incentives to protect them, our minds produce far more than our mouths consume. If we fix our economic system and invest in the human capital of the poor, then we should welcome every new person born as a source of betterment for our world and all of us on it.
he's an admitted techno-optimist, but as a realist looking at the economics from a resource perspective on 'the true limits to growth':
The physical resources of our planet are enormous. Farming at the highest possible efficiency, on the current amount of farmland, could provide an American-style diet to 300 billion people. The crust contains every mineral we use in quantities that will not be exhausted for thousands of years at our current rates of mining (even the so-called "rare earths"), even before considering our growing ability to reuse minerals.[*] The planet's oceans contain thousands of times more water than we need, and the water we use is constantly recycled back into them. And energy—the resource that can unlock so many others—is available from our sun in quantities 10,000 times greater than we consume today from all sources combined...

Our problem in the near term is not that resources are in short supply. It's that we use those resources incredibly inefficiently, with side effects we have yet to eliminate. We're tapped into small, polluting, depleting sources of energy, while a much more abundant, clean, multibillion-year supply goes relatively untapped. Our industries produce pollutants that, history teaches us, we can almost entirely eliminate, and at a cost far lower than we're likely to predict. Resources aren't the problem. It's the way we go about getting and using those resources. And that we can change.
either way though, i'd point out that we already are terraforming the planet, only we're doing it wrong. naam helpfully and compellingly lays out ways to do it better... in four easy steps!
  1. Fix our markets to properly account for the value of the commons.
  2. Invest in R&D to fund long-range innovation.
  3. Embrace technologies that stand poised to improve our lives while bettering our planet, even when they seem alien.
  4. Empower each of the billions of minds on this planet, to turn them into assets that can produce new ideas that benefit all of us.
here's his simple plan:
First, tax carbon. For the first five years after the law is passed, the tax is 0. This is a time for industry and consumers to get ready. In year six, start the tax at $10 per ton of CO2 That's equivalent to ten cents per gallon of gasoline and roughly 0.7 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity (1 cent for coal, half a cent for natural gas).

Second raise the price until you've met your goal. Every year that the United States is not on target for reaching an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, raise the price by another $10 per ton. If the United States is on target, leave the price where it is. If the price gets to a ceiling of $100 per ton, or $1 per gallon of gasoline and 7 cents per kilowatt hour, stop. Adjust all these prices for inflation.

Third, put a tax on any imports from countries that don't have a carbon price, to level the playing field. Calculate the tax by dividing a country's carbon emissions by the fraction of its manufacturing goods that are shipped to the United States, and applying our rates. Conversely, if a U.S. export is going to a country that doesn't have a carbon price, refund the carbon tax to the U.S. manufacturer. Those two steps keep U.S.-manufactured products on a level playing field with products manufactured in countries that don't have a carbon price.

Fourth, give all the money back to tax payers. Divide it up evenly between every man, woman, and child in the United States. For convenience sake, this would probably be done as a reduction in payroll tax and income tax, showing up as lower withholding in each paycheck, and more take-home pay. Economists encourage us to tax the bad rather than the good. In this plan, we'd be shifting some of the taxes away from income, and onto pollution.
that's it :P

---
[*] i esp like the idea of mining landfills: "Sometimes (as in the case of piles of thrown-out electronics, or in the case of copper) the [waste disposal] process actually concentrates valuable things beyond the levels at which they're found in nature... raw materials are nearly infinitely reusable, and because it takes less energy to reuse already processed materials than to mine and refine new ones, we're gradually becoming a society that reuses materials as much or more than we extract new materials from the land. More than half of the copper and aluminum used in the United States, and two-thirds of the lead, is produced from recycling rather than mining... As the technology of mining dumps and waste streams improves, those numbers will rise. And they bring with them, and indeed are motivated by, tremendous energy savings... Recycling aluminum reduced energy needed by an incredible 95%."
posted by kliuless at 12:48 PM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


Isn't the easiest way to terraform Earth simply to reduce human population growth to sane levels?

No. It is to vastly reduce consumption in places with fairly stable populations. But that would affect mostly white people so let's just ignore it as an option.
posted by howfar at 12:58 PM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Resists urge to make Dune references... fails.

The planet is effectively run by clowns and Harkonnens and that may be the biggest issue we have.
posted by juiceCake at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well if we try to teraform Mars we can't screw it up an make it much less hospitable than it is now.

You underestimate mankind.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:28 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Naam on techno-optimism: But it's innovation that rises geometrically with respect to population. A world with twice as many people may consume more. But it's innovation will rise faster than its consumption.

We need an derisive epithet for irrational faith in something that a) doesn't currently exist, b) can't be measured, and c) is based on physics that has yet to be discovered.

Farming at the highest possible efficiency, on the current amount of farmland, could provide an American-style diet to 300 billion people.

Srsly dude, are you listening to yourself? Current estimates are that the human population will level off at around 10 billion. There's also a pretty strong consensus that our current ecological footprint is unsustainable at 7.2B. They still teach biology in schools, right? Suggesting that the world could feed 300 billion people demonstrates such an abysmal ignorance of biology that nothing he says should ever be taken seriously again.

Climate is a large enough challenge that we're going to need multiple approaches. I'm always surprised when I see the vehemence of some climate activists' opposition to nuclear energy or carbon sequestration or solar radiation management.

I don't know, using words like "solar radiation management" instead of geo-engineering is a clue. And again, carbon sequestration and "solar radiation management" are technologies that either have not been demonstrated to be economically or energetically feasible, or don't exist.

In my view, it's clear that a bigger part of the "challenge" is convincing people that it's an important issue in the face of a well-funded and determined opposition who have already managed to stall meaningful action on CO2 reductions for several decades. It's kind of self-evident that this is a thing, but even without that opposition, we face enormous psychological and political challenges in educating people about the basics of climate science, and convincing them that global, prolonged economic hardship (or even a reduction in aspirations) will be necessary to avoid the worst effects of increasing CO2 emissions. Business As Usual benefits from ignorance, vast inertia and plenty of positive messaging.

naam helpfully and compellingly lays out ways to do it better... in four easy steps!

1. Fix our markets to properly account for the value of the commons.


This is explicitly the Neoliberal agenda. I thought we were looking for radical new solutions, not Markets as a panacea?

But there are wires crossed here too -- generally the next priority of Neoliberal thinking is The Virtue of Private Property, which is to be defended at all costs. What we've seen up till now is that with some careful planning, the commons can simply be privatized while no one's looking. Is that what you had in mind?

I agree with you about mining landfills though! My idea was to raise funds to buy a landfill and hang on to it for 50 years. It would be worth a pile of money. THEN the market could decide!
posted by sneebler at 7:09 PM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


sneebler:

>> 1. Fix our markets to properly account for the value of the commons.
> This is explicitly the Neoliberal agenda. I thought we were looking for radical new solutions, not Markets as a panacea?


If, say, there were a carbon tax sufficient to pay for removing an equivalent (or slightly larger) amount of carbon from the atmosphere, that sounds like a sensible technological solution, not a political one.

My AP Chemistry teacher (waay back in 1983), who was hardly a Liberal much less a Neoliberal, made a big point in our class of how existing energy pricing didn't account for the societal costs of using them, and advocated first a carbon offset tax, and then a transition to a hydrogen economy. Today, I have to pay PG&E an extra amount to get my home power from wind farms. That's backwards!

I find it unfortunate that that such ideas can be so swiftly dismissed as being an agenda.
posted by dylanjames at 9:18 AM on July 4, 2015


Current estimates are that the human population will level off at around 10 billion. There's also a pretty strong consensus that our current ecological footprint is unsustainable at 7.2B. They still teach biology in schools, right? Suggesting that the world could feed 300 billion people demonstrates such an abysmal ignorance of biology that nothing he says should ever be taken seriously again.

he actually starts from biology to make his (back of the envelope!) calculation :P
The maximum efficiency of photosynthesis is believed to be around 13%. That is the highest fraction of the sun's energy that can be captured by a process of combining sunlight, water, and CO2 to make sugars. Today, a typical field of crops captures only around 0.1 percent of the sunlight striking it. Ten billion people on the planet all eating diets as resource intensive as that of a typical American would need a little less than five times as much food as is produced today—or around 0.4–0.5 percent of the sunlight that strikes our farmlands. If we grew our food in a manner that captured the full 13 percent that is physically possible, we'd be producing nearly 30 times as much food as would be required to feed 10 billion Americans. We could, in theory, feed 300 billion people on this planet an American-style diet, if we boosted overall crop yields by another factor of 100 or so. That may sound like a tremendous task, but it's just a fraction of the 10,000 times multiplier of yield that we've achieved over the course of our history.

There's no sign that this planet will ever host 300 billion people. On current trajectory, it appears that our population will peak at or below 10 billion people and then, unless steps are taken, decline.

Let's assume for the moment that rather than shrinking, we stabilize our population at 10 billion. In that world, if we raised crop yields to their physical maximum, and everyone on the world ate an American-style diet, we could shrink the amount of land needed to grow food by a factor of 30. That is to say, we could reduce agricultural land by 97 percent.

What would we do with all that land? Perhaps we'd build parks. Perhaps we'd return it to nature...
naam is more evenhanded than you may think! i pulled the passages (out of context ;) from a chapter addressing some of what the club of rome's limits to growth missed in its initial predictions -- that some regulations were put in place (e.g. Nixon created the EPA, Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, HW Bush implemented cap and trade for sulfer dioxide) and innovation can be (and has been) combinatorial/factorial -- where he was making some speculative extrapolations on what the 'real' limits to growth (i.e. for population, resource consumption/pollution and wealth/well being) might be from a physical/biological/historical perspective.

anyway, he also devotes much of the book to why markets don't work (wrt commons/externalities) and why we shouldn't be complacent and is almost fatalistic in laying out the 'easy way' (outlined above) and the 'hard way':
On that path, we continue to deny the damage we're doing, the very real consequences, and the risk of much worse if we continue along this path. We keep on acting in the way we have, pumping carbon into the atmosphere, warming the planet, acidifying the oceans, hunting fish toward the brink of extinction, depleting the last fossil water buried under our lands. On that path, we'll eventually come to realize that we've made a mistake. When the rivers and wells run dry, when we can no longer find the type of fish we used to eat, when the corals we used to admire have all bleached, when droughts and floods and storms wreck our cities and fields, when the price of a barrel of oil climbs into the multiple of hundreds of dollars, then we'll realize that we've taken the wrong path.

And then we'll respond...
but it's instructive to look at where he went wrong since the book was published in 2013. oil prices have been cut in half with the saudi response to fracking and one of his main examples for political hope/leadership in fighting global warming -- australia's carbon tax -- was repealed last year. we are still resolutely taking the hard way.

otoh, Solar Cost Less than Half of What EIA Projected -- Solar: The First 1% Was the Hardest -- and further R&D could move it a lot lower! (with the battery technology to match :)
posted by kliuless at 11:42 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I don't mean to be so cynical, and I agree with many elements that you've quoted, especially the parts where we use careful analysis and numbers to back up forecasts, and he does recognize a series of disasters in the making. But this:

if we raised crop yields to their physical maximum, and everyone on the world ate an American-style diet, we could shrink the amount of land needed to grow food by a factor of 30.

is complete BS. I'm not aware of any concrete analysis that says these numbers are remotely possible or sustainable. Instead, our modern agricultural systems feed unsustainably large human populations by adding huge and polluting inputs of fertilizer and energy, mining fertile soils for short-term profits, and using biotech and antibiotics in irresponsible ways to produce food products that are objectively bad for us. The world's largest crop by acreage and weight is sugar*, for example, much of which is grown on land previously covered by productive and climate-stabilizing rainforests.

Not only that, but we currently throw away a huge part of biological production that we grow. Fatberg, anyone? Now we have to spend extra money on wastewater treatment systems just to get rid of all he valuable energy and protein we're pouring down the drain.

Finally, what really irks me about this claim is that current food distribution is plainly inequitable, so that undernourished populations are forced to rely on unsustainable harvesting and destruction of natural systems. In other words, in a world where we produce too much food, we're happy to take our share and let the rest of the world eat its biological capital while we die of diseases caused by excess consumption.


*I can't find the place where I learned this, but this site says corn is the biggest crop. According to Wikipedia, sugar production is an order of magnitude larger than corn.
posted by sneebler at 9:54 AM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


dylanjames :I find it unfortunate that that such ideas can be so swiftly dismissed as being an agenda.

I agree with you and your chemistry teacher about carbon pricing. Maybe it's a coincidence, but Neoliberal economic theories are primarily based on the idea that markets are the solution to many (all) of the world's problems, and we should just get out of the way and let them do their job. This world view is supported by a network of well-funded think tanks who explicitly and successfully try to influence governments and the public to believe that free markets are always better than regulation.

Maybe I'm overreacting, but when "fix the market" is the first item on the list, I don't know how to disentangle this from the Neoliberal agenda.
posted by sneebler at 10:09 AM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Eat Not This Fish - "What happens when Western aid meets ancestral food taboos in one of the world’s driest, hungriest war-scarred countries?"

We are already terraforming the Earth.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:50 PM on July 11, 2015


Margaret Atwood: It's Not Climate Change. It's Everything Change
Planet Earth — the Goldilocks planet we’ve taken for granted, neither too hot or too cold, neither too wet or too dry, with fertile soils that accumulated for millennia before we started to farm them –- that planet is altering. The shift towards the warmer end of the thermometer that was once predicted to happen much later, when the generations now alive had had lots of fun and made lots of money and gobbled up lots of resources and burned lots of fossil fuels and then died, are happening much sooner than anticipated back then. In fact, they’re happening now.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:59 AM on July 27, 2015


« Older The end of open records in Wisconsin   |   The Children Came Back Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments