Thursday, April 24, 2014

In Memoriam: Alistair MacLeod

           Canada has lost a national treasure. Alistair MacLeod, dead at age 77, April 20, 2014

            MacLeod left us poetry, two books of short stories and a novel. What he lacked in quantity he gave in quality. I recall my reading of the collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and the impact it had. I grew up along the Atlantic coast of New England, not actually on the coast but several miles inland. Still, we spent a lot of time at the beach. I recall being astounded at the power of North Atlantic storms, pounding the coast and geysers of seawater deflected from boulders shooting over a hundred feet into the air. The water from the geysers when it hit the sand would make the ground shake beneath your feet and the vibrations in the air made your lungs resonate in sympathy, an indescribable sensation..

             Perhaps that early contact with the North Atlantic opened a door, established a link of sympathy between me and MacLeod's stories of Cape Breton..

            Whatever the reason, when I finished that slim volume of short stories I realized that MacLeod had succeeded in capturing the soul of the land and its people. I learned more from the 160 pages or so of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood than I would have from reading several ponderous tomes on the region's economic and social history. 

Alistair MacLeod: No Great Mischief, McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1999, 283 pages

             A strange, poetic, elegiac on roots and love.

             The McDonald clan migrated from Scotland and live on the same Cape Breton soil they first set foot upon, during the American Revolution. They have deep roots..

                Theirs is a tragic tale. An unknown fatality weighs on the land and its people. The Soil is scrabble poor, poverty forces the MacDonald men to the mines of Ontario and South Africa. Life is hard for the McDonalds and they're tough people. Yet somehow, though doomed - as we all are, they have survived with dignity. "No Great Mischief" is an elegy to common folk, whom MacLeod loves, facing adversity and fatality with dignity.

                 Grandma's mantra, "All of us are better when we're loved", cycles like the returning beam of a lighthouse through the concluding chapters and ends the book. Another popular family mantra, "Blood is thicker than water",  is ironically betrayed by a young man from the branch of the clan most enamoured of the phrase.

                  "No Great Mischief" is really a story about love. MacLeod tells us that, facing the void, facing adversity, facing pain, our sole real arm is love: love between spouses, in family, love of the land, love of life itself.

                   A sad, elegant poetry runs through the text, giving the feel and tone of epic or legend:

                   "On the east coast, the native peoples who move across the land, harvesting, are stilled also.. They are older than the borders and the boundaries between countries and they pay them little mind."

                   "Once we sang to the pilot whales on a summer day. Perhaps we lured the huge whale in beyond his safe depth. And he died, disemboweled by the sharp rocks he could not see. Later his body moved inland, but his great heart remained behind", echoing the migrations of the McDonalds inland, to Ontario's mines, driven by poverty, not desire. Their hearts too remain behind in Cape Breton.

                    But there is more than poetry in this tale. One could call it a "philosophical novel" in the sense that MacLeod invites us to a deeper reflection on life and real values but subtly, without posing a specific question; it is left to the reader to pose his own questions. Thus MacLeod ceaselessly points to quotidian tragedies, ironies and absurdities: the young man who graduates from dental school on the same day that his namesake cousin loses his head in a mining accident.

                    MacLeod's universe is not a happy one though it has room for joy, lots of wonder and, above all, it honors love which, ultimately, redeems this lost world.

                    Alistair MacLeod is a national treasure though I fear he risks being forgotten: he lacks the imposing oeuvre whose sheer volume demands attention. Worse, he has favored the short story, not in favor in academic circles.

                    Nevertheless, his work fits common definitions of "great literature" well enough: universal in scope while parochial in content. MacLeod's prose is idiosyncratic - difficult if not impossible to translate or paraphrase without losing much. At its best, his work has the punch, the bang for the buck, all great literature gives. I recall reading his slim volume of short stories, "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" and ended up knowing more about the maritime soul than if I had waded through several thick academic tomes on settlement history and economic activity. This is surely a measure of great art: much is said in little space and the heart is moved.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Québec election: more questions than answers!

                Crossroads are places of choosing. Either route one chooses, one will never be the same again. This is how the Québec provincial election, April 7, 2014, left me feeling. Without being sure why exactly, I just felt something had changed somehow, without being able to say what exactly. Some loss of innocence perhaps..

Juan Ramón Jiménez: Mares

!Siento que el barco mío
ha tropezado, allá en el fondo,
con algo grande!
!Y nada
sucede! Nada.. Quietud.. Olas..
-?Nada sucede; o es que ha sucedido todo,
y estamos ya, tanquilos, en lo nuevo?-

I feel that my little boat 
has stranded, run aground
on something enormous, deep down..
And yet nothing
happened! Nothing.. silence.. the waves..

Nothing happened? Or is it that everything happened
and now we are already there, in the new? 

            Yes, that's the sensation, exactly, that the election left me with. Or to change metaphors, we engaged upon on a slippery slope, that of ethnocentric populism. And we avoided a crisis; for the moment, Reason triumphed. (That's one plausible interpretation, anyway..)

            Some crises are obvious. Think: war. Some crises are subtle. Perhaps only in retrospect do we realize how close to catastrophe we came if we had chosen or acted badly. Perhaps Québécois society has entered an active phase of choosing it's future path of social evolution.

Background: The beginnings of this crisis are vague, almost imperceptible. For some time the media have carried stories of "reasonable accommodations" made to religious groups. Sikhs wished permission to carry the kirpan (dagger) and turban as signs of their faith in public schools. Orthodox Jews asked that a YMCA replace clear windows with clouded ones so that males students in a nearby religious school would not be exposed to scantily clad women working out. In some cases these requests met with compliance on the part of local authorities and organizations. In others, they did not.

           One tends not to see the forest for the trees in these situations of intercommunity friction. Because of the recent prominence given by the media, most people believe "reasonable accommodations" apply mostly to newly arrived communities like Muslims and Sikhs. Historically, though, most reasonable accommodations have been made with Orthodox Jewish sects. In recent years, such accommodations have assumed a controversial dimension. Growing negative public reactions to such accommodations eventually led to the convening of the Taylor Bouchard Committee which toured the province of Québec seeking public input before delivering its suggestions for improving inter-faith community relations in the province: 

For the full report (it's a biggie!) 

          As usual, one has the impression that this report got shelved as soon as it was published and is collecting dust on government library shelves. However, the commission and all its regional public hearings reinforced the image, the perception, that something was being done or had to be done about a smoldering social problem.

Existential angst and scapegoats Down deep, I believe all of us recognize, to some degree, that our planet is in trouble. We are threatened with overpopulation, climate change, terrorism, resource depletion, environmental degradation, mass starvation, geopolitical instability and God/dess knows what else.

          Failing societies seek scapegoats. Scapegoating allows a temporary relief ("symptomatic relief") from some chronic fear, deprivation or frustration. In pre-modern Europe pogroms and witch hunts followed in the wake of famines. Our current "Age of Anxiety" is rife with genocides from the Shoah to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which killed 800,000. Studies in animal psychology suggest that there is a neuronal - hormonal link between stress (suffering) and scapegoating behavior. A physical attack either on a conspecific or merely upon a symbolic representation (photo, sketch) of another living being can reduce dangerous stress hormone levels. "Blowing off steam" in some form of aggressive behavior provides temporary stress symptom reduction. Unfortunately, since the underlying problems are not addressed, scapegoating must be periodically repeated. Symptom reduction doesn't cure the disease, so the symptoms (stress) returns, requiring yet another round of scapegoating..

           Just as perceived stress levels vary, scapegoating comes in several intensity levels: from verbal slurs and racial jokes at the low end to collective homicide as the most extreme expression, with a broad spectrum of behaviors in between: verbal or physical violence of escalating intensity, discriminatory legislation or social codes, banning, confining..

          The Taylor Bouchard Report, discussed earlier, did little to halt the increasing (but low level) friction between Québécois and francophone Muslim immigrants. Then came The Charter..

The Charter of Québécois Values - a quantum leap in bad intercommunity relations The Parti Québécois (PQ) which has been in power for about 18 months with a minority parliament, felt it was rising in the polls and decided to go for a majority government (footnote 1). Figuring that it's spring budget would not be accepted by the opposing Liberals, they tried to outflank the Liberals and the rising Coalition Avenir Québec by calling an election for Monday, April 7, 2014. In the run up to the election, a Charter of Québécois Values (CQV) was proposed. The Charter was obviously an attempt to address - or exploit - the rising friction between the francophone population and the Muslim immigrant community. In either case it is an appeal to nationalistic or ethnocentric populism, a dangerous slippery slope to be on if their ever was one!

            The CQV begins, innocently enough, by affirming the secular nature of the state and the equality of the sexes. Then, more controversially, it proposes that "ostentatious religious symbols" be banned from public workplaces: schools, hospitals, government offices.. One has the impression that the PQ, in a desperate bid for votes, was appealing to the more conservative hinterland - where fewer immigrants actually live - rather than more "cosmopolitan" cities like (and particularly) Montréal.

            Reality check I find it hard to contemplate kippah wearing Jewish doctors in Montréal taking such a measure lying down!

           Given the fact that the Liberals won the April 7 election, we won't have the chance to see what would have happened. However, kippah wearing Jews promised to take the government to court if it dared pass such a bill. Several cities, including Montréal, announced that they would simply ignore such provisions, if passed! However, immigrant Muslim women wearing hijabs and working in daycare centers would not have the resources of native born Jewish professionals. The asymmetry in resources of the two groups is glaring. The only similarity is that both wear religious headgear for religious reasons..

           Ostensibly, the CQV was designed to affirm Québécois identity in the face of a perceived threat: the "other" who wishes to force unreasonable accommodations - "their ways" - on us. The reality, of course, is perhaps a bit more nuanced than this. For example how many Muslims in Québec are practicing? According to scientific data - what little there is! - only about 10% of muslims in the US and Canada go to mosque regularly. In Québécois terms, that means they are about as religious - or irreligious - as the rest of us! So why the big stink over Muslim practices like the hijab - female head scarf?

            One thing is evident from the evening news. Islamic fanatics exist and at this point in time seem as dangerous as Christian or Jewish fanatics. 

            Obviously, dangerous, violent bigots need containment - unless one decides to nullify their human rights and kill them outright.. Otherwise "containment" means surveillance (hence the argument for legitimate state surveillance both within and without national boundaries).

             Containment of dangerous fanatics by professionals - hired by the State and payed by taxpayers' money - does not, and should not, involve the average citizen, though! No more than I am competent to carry out brain surgery. Think about it.. (would you want a brain job from me or your uncle Joe?)
            The paranoia stirred up by CQV thinking is easy to confound with more legitimate and rational fears of dangerous fanatics. Thus, CQV paranoia takes "legitimate" fear of Muslim (or other) fanatics and turns it against scapegoats who, symbolically, are made to "stand in for" feared (Muslim) terrorists. Now, hijab wearing women - easily identifiable as Muslim - make convenient scapegoats. Since the CVQ debate began, hijab wearers have been verbally abused in the street and occasionally spat upon.

            The CQV debate turned out to be incredibly divisive. I have never seen an issue so divisive and in so many ways:

1- everyone had an opinion (rare in these times of cynical disengagement)

2- the opinions were intense and polarizing

3- Left, Right, Center - doesn't make any difference where you stand on the political spectrum: you can be either for or against the CVQ. Same thing for feminists. Some see the hijab as The Primordial Symbol of Patriarchal Oppression and want it banned (some would ban it on the street, not just in public offices and institutions serving the public). Other feminists see the CVQ as populist grandstanding - playing to the ethnocentric vote - and see hijab wearing women as convenient scapegoats.

          I personally cannot recall any issue which has fractured - pulverized! - the traditional political spectrum as this one has.

But what does it all mean? Hard to say. I have the impression we dodged a bullet April 7. We turned back from the slippery slop of populist nationalism (chauvinism) we had engaged upon. But did we avoid disaster for the right reasons? Or did we simply get distracted by  the confused, bungled PQ campaign and the flurry of side-issues it engendered? I suspect the latter (alas). We stepped back from the abyss, not because of our collective virtue or wisdom but because we have short attention spans and the PQ campaign managers were duffers. The latter observation, at least, is incontestable: the PQ started with a minority government, they felt they were strong enough to go for a majority and ended up with a wipeout and their chief, Madame Pauline Marois, even lost her seat. It also ended her political career (she resigned immediately). Can't do much worse than that!

            As for the CVQ: it was not unpopular. At one time polls showed that at least 50% of the francophone population supported it. What defeated the PQ then?

            A whole slew of missteps on the part of Mde Marois' campaign team. First, Pierre Karl Péladeau (?) - PKP - neoconservative, union bustin' media mogul, announced his candidature for the PQ. He ended his announcement with that (now) infamous fist pumped phrase "I want to make Québec a country!"

             Now, many people in Québec who are not separatists vote for the PQ. Reasons vary: one may  desire a clean government that keeps (some of) its campaign promises. Back in the 1970s when the PQ was young, it had the innocence and idealism of youth. It stood for Scandinavian styled Social Democracy. It elected members who were moved more by an ideal - a free Republic of Québec, than they were by personal gain or fame. Some people vote for the PQ to "send Canada a message: don't mess with Québec!" - that is, treat us with some respect and recognize our valid differences from the rest of anglophone North America. These folk want more autonomy in certain areas like immigration, language legislation, natural resources, social programs.. Such "nationalistes" are often strong Canadian federalists. For them, a PQ vote is like bluff in poker, more a bargaining point than an ultimatum. One might also vote PQ simply to change the air: throw the old bums out and put some new bums in! (The idea, which I subscribe to, is that power corrupts and so power holders must be changed periodically to keep corruption down to manageable levels.)

              After two Sovereignty Referenda in which the Québecois people rejected national independence from Canada, many people no longer took the PQ's sovereignty plank seriously. But PKP's fist pump changed all that.. potential voters got cold feet and changed allegiance. If truth be told, even PKP's candidacy was itself a bit bizarre. PKP's wealth, centralized media control, neoconservatism and union busting certainly do not appeal to the PQ's labor and intellectual Left wing! To add ideological insult to injury, PKP owns the Right leaning - occasionally Québec bashing - Sun Media.

             Throw in a few more gaffes and opponents who make less mistakes and you have a lost election..

             Oddly, it was a landslide rejection of the PQ. Why the landslide is something that will have to be explored by all sides in the coming months. Mde Marois had to acknowledge the magnitude of her party's defeat and her role in it (she called the election!). She immediately stepped down as party leader. An Interim party leader has since been chosen: 

            I'm not sure what lesson is to be gained from the 2014 provincial election. For me, it confirmed the irrational, emotional / instinctive roots of racism: the internecine warfare of chimpanzee troops. It made - once again - evident how thin, how fragile is that thin veneer of civility we call "civilization".

internal blog link

 francophone? Article de blogue par Michel C Auger (il est un peu plus optimiste que moi, on dirait..)    
footnote 1: minority versus majority government in Westminster Parliamentary system 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Book Review: Earthmasters - Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton: Earthmasters, the dawn of the age of climate engineering. Yale University Press (new Haven, 2013),  210 pages, extensive chapter notes with voluminous references, Figures and Tables, Index.

Abbreviations used in this review:

CC - Climate Change

CE - Climate Engineering

CO2 - Carbon Dioxide (a notorious Greenhouse Gas)

GHG - Greenhouse Gas (responsible for Global Warming by trapping heat in earth's lower atmosphere

GW - Global Warming

Epigram: "The paleoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the earth's climate system is an ornery beast which over-reacts even to small nudges" W Broecker, Nature 376, page 212-3

          This is one scary book! Global Warming (GW) is scary enough, of course, but Climate Engineering (CE) is possibly even scarier.. Earthmasters - great title by the way! - addresses a needed gap in the current public "debates" over GW and CC. Hamilton does not address the question of whether GW / CC is happening, he emphatically believes it is. Rather he analyzes the philosophical / psychological / political underpinnings of our reactions to the news that the earth is warming.

         Prof Hamilton teaches Public Ethics at Charles Stuart University, Canberra, Australia.

         Background: Since the Industrial Revolution (1820), and the increased combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas..) atmospheric levels of GHG, especially CO2, have risen precipitously, as the following annual record of CO2 levels at the Mauna Loa observatory, Hawaii, clearly shows:

             Today, a general "consensus" of scientists and scholars from various fields - atmospheric physics, climatology, paleoclimatology, paleo-ecology, evolutionary theory, paleo-anthropology, paleogeology, history.. - holds that human emitted GHG trap heat in the earth's lower atmosphere, raising planetary temperature and modifying natural climate cycles.

(other links: use keyword "climate change")

             An emerging consensus in the life sciences and earth sciences holds that CC is probably the major "driver" of biological evolution on earth.

              For example, modern analysis of the fossil record suggests that even asteroid strikes of the size that killed off the dinosaurs are survivable, given a healthy planetary ecosystems. The dinos died because they were already under severe stress from (naturally occurring) CC, associated with planetary cooling, aridification and climate fluctuation. In the words of one extinction expert, Tony Hallam, the asteroid strike was merely the "coup-de-grâce" that finished off a dying ecosystem. The result of course was that mammals and birds replaced dinos and flying reptiles as dominant terrestrial vertebrates. The rest is (paleo)history..

             As for humans, we are in a very bad state today. We have overpopulated our world. We were assisted by modern medical science which has drastically reduced child mortality rates and modern agricultural science which boosted world food production. As European experience has shown, it takes time for societies to adapt to lowered mortality rates and correspondingly reduce their birth rates. Now, during this time of adaptation - the "demographic Transition" - population increases dramatically, doubling in the case of Western Europe. Today GW /CC is causing mountain glaciers to melt in many parts of the world (Asia, S. America..). The annual runoff from these glaciers provides essential water for traditional agricultural practice. The accelerated runoff from these mountain glaciers threatens to disrupt traditional farming life in several ways. Firstly, the increased melt rate, combined with more frequent episodes of heavier rainfall caused by GW, can cause destructive flooding in the wet season. Worse, as population levels rise in the third world, people will require more glacial melt water to sustain agriculture in arid climates. The glaciers would eventually melt anyway but by accelerating their loss, we are depriving future generations of the precious time they would require to reduce their population level. CC and GW deregulate monsoon rainfall patterns - essential for traditional agricultural systems in many parts of the world- putting hundreds of millions at risk of starvation. Sea level rises, caused mostly (to date) by the the thermal expansion of sea water, threatens more hundreds of millions living along crowded sea coasts (New York, London..) Today, the world is facing the prospect of serious, geopolitically destabilizing, food shortages, droughts, heat waves, coastal flooding and destructive extreme weather events (wind, heavy precipitation) as well as disrupted weather patterns. The fact the world is overpopulated doesn't help: unlike the past there are no long places "environmental refugees" can flee to. On an overpopulated earth, they can only displace those already in place. 

              For several decades now our politicians - our "leaders" as we are wont to call them - have promised to do something about CC /GW - when they weren't ignoring it or denying that it even exists. They have promised to reduce GHG levels. This has not happened. The rate of increase of GHG has, in fact, only increased over time!   

Why did the world fail to reduce GHG when we still had the time

         Circa 1960, when environmentalist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, we still had a good chance to build the terrestrial paradise the Utopian Socialists and, later, Karl Marx believed in. Maybe not that good! - utopia is impossible on earth, but at least better than what we got now and where we are headed to. If the world - back in 1960 - had heeded Carson, if the United Nations had been delegated to study the global environmental and demographic situation and report back to the worlds' leaders in ten years (1970), the world might have been ready to launch a Global Green Energy Transition circa 1975. This would have been a sort of global "Man on the Moon" project to make the transition to a fossil fuel free world by 2050. If - if only if! - we had been so wise.. But we weren't..

        Prof Hamilton's book addresses a conundrum that has puzzled me many years: why, if we possess the technical know how to produce energy without emitting GHG have not done so? The blockage - by default - must be psychological, even spiritual, in nature. Hamilton - thankfully! - addresses these essential, but overlooked, aspects of the GW / CC "debate".

          As it has become evident that business-as-usual politics cannot reduce GHG levels before catastrophe arrives, Climate Engineering (CE) has been proposed as a fix. This position has been bolstered by the fact that the publics of Western and developing countries are not prepared yet to put major pressure on their governments to develop green, carbon-neutral, economies. (The Scandinavian countries, Germany, Scotland.. are ahead of North America on these grounds, it must be admitted.) 

          Engineering our climate? The arguments put forward by CE are powerful:

- it will give us time to develop green, non-polluting energy sources

- it provides the possibility of quick fixing real climatic emergencies (like runaway GW or a perturbed monsoon cycle with mass starvation and geopolitical instability)

- it may be cheapest way of dealing with negative environmental effects of our fossil fuel based economy. This school of thought argues that reducing carbon emission is more expensive than correcting for their negative impacts.

         Prof Hamilton subdivides CE into two broad categories: those which "suck carbon" out of the atmosphere or from the flue-gases of industrial furnaces and a second group which "manages the solar radiation budget" of the planet earth by reflecting sunlight back out into space. The Carbon Sucking group of strategies include:

- Fertilizing the ocean with iron compounds which promotes phytoplankton growth. These microscopic plants suck CO2 out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis. They also provide biomass at the bottom of the aquatic food web. Since iron is often a limiting factor in their growth, adding iron to seawater should, in theory, promote phytoplankton growth. As phytoplankton sink to the seafloor after death the carbon contained in their bodies is effectively removed from the ecosystem - "sequestered" on the sea floor where it harms no one. In reality, the scheme is less promising when one begins to pull it apart. For openers, the sequestered carbon doesn't really stay down forever. Some of the "sequestered" carbon will resurface via ocean current circulation after about 100 years. Worse - most of the phytoplankton bloom created by iron fertilization ends up being eaten by CO2 releasing animals (they breathe!) These small animals - and the larger ones which eat them - increase in numbers as their food supply increases. So most of the carbon theoretically sequestered in phytoplankton rapidly ends up back in the atmosphere again. One does not sequester much carbon, rather one merely speeds up the rate at which it cycles through the surface waters and the atmosphere! And what about the ecological effects? We now know that every action in the environment has unexpected consequences - "blowback".

- Adding lime (calcium oxide) to seawater: At first glance, this really looks tempting! Not only does lime dissolved in water absorb CO2 from the air, it has the added advantage of reducing the acidity of the oceans. Limewater is an aqueous solution of calcium hydroxide, Ca(OH)2

Ca(OH)2(aq) + CO2(g) → CaCO3(s) + H2O(l)
 Limewater absorbs carbon dioxide from CO2 enriched flue-gases. Calcium carbonate (chalk) precipitates out as a harmless, fluffy white deposit

If excess CO2 is added, the following reaction takes place, producing calcium hydrogen carbonate

CaCO3(s) + H2O(l) + CO2(g) → Ca(HCO3)2(aq)


            A personal gripe: Prof Hamilton did not provide chemical formulas in the text, a rather major omission in a text popularizing a scientific controversy!

          At present, human GHG emissions are raising the acidity of the oceans to dangerous levels. As atmospheric CO2 levels soar towards 400 parts per million (PPM) from the pre-industrial lows of 280 PPM, more CO2 is absorbed into the oceans. There are more CO2 molecules on the atmosphere side of the water / air interface so these will tend to migrate into the water till an equilibrium is established at which time the number of CO2 molecules entering / leaving the water is equal to the number of molecules leaving / entering the air. 

         Some of the CO2 absorbed by seawater reacts chemically with to form a weak acid, carbonic acid:

CO2 + H2O --> H2CO3

And some of the carbonic acid dissociates to form hydronium ions (H3O+)

H2CO3 + H2O --> HCO3- + H3O+

where the plus and minus signs in red indicate respectively the absence or presence of an electronic charge. These charges give ions (electrically charged fragments of molecules) their formidable chemical reactivity which, of course, also renders them potentially dangerous to living organisms. The biological reactivity of H30+ is shown by the fact that we have evolved special sensors to detect it in our mouths (the H3O+ tang of beer and soda pop..)

          Increasing atmospheric CO2 thus increases the  number of H3O+ ions and seawater becomes more acidic. This is bad because it dissolves the shells of animals (scallops, coral, shellfish and crustacea in general..) and the shells of essential photosynthetic phytoplankton. Ocean acidification, by killing phytoplankton - the base of the oceanic food web, could provoke a collapse of ocean ecosystems. This would rob humanity - overpopulated already and growing - of an essential source of protein. This is not good. Something has to be done..

         Unfortunately, "the devil is in the details". Once again, the scheme looks good on paper - until you begin to pull it apart. Will ocean liming really work? Putting aside possible (or probable) ecological blowback from adding zillions of tons of chemically and biologically active lime to the oceans, there are the problems posed by producing all that lime in the first place. Lime, alas, is not free in nature. One has first to heat limestone to a high temperature. This requires a lot of energy, think: cement and concrete industry. In the present stat of affairs, this energy would mostly come from fossil fuels and we are back to square 1 it would seem! To get lime which absorbs CO2 you have to burn a lot of carbon fuel which releases CO2. Proponents argue that the CO2 from lime furnaces could be sequestered in underground sites (a questionable proposition).

         Prof Hamilton deftly unwraps this hare-brained scheme. If we had a well-developed and economic technology for capturing and sequestering CO2, why would we not simply use it to capture emissions directly from coal-fired electricity generating plants, instead of using it to reduce the emissions of a large new industry (lime production) whose primary function is to sequester CO2?

 - Enhanced rock weathering. Rocks are naturally "weathered" down by dissolution and disaggregation in the weakly acid carbon acid solution falling as precipitation: precipitation absorbs CO2 as it falls. This weathering process itself absorbs CO2 and produces alkali ("anti-acidic") mineral carbonates. Proponents would pulverize rock, add water to produce a muddy "slurry" and bubble flue-gases (enhanced in CO2) through the slurry. The rock slurry absorbs CO2 and can be used to de-acidify the oceans. Once again, a potential win-win situation for all parties: the business community, the consumer and nation states (who would gain a more peaceful, stable world), the environment, the biosphere.. And once again, Prof Hamilton demolishes the "crack pot realism" behind this scheme of questionable ecological and economic validity.

         Among the foreseeable problems (the known unknowns..) It takes two tones of crushed rock for each tone of CO2 sequestered! Such a scheme requires enormous amounts of industrial infrastructure, money and energy. Where all these resources will come from is not so obvious: the world economy is faltering, on life-support as it is. Normal operation would produce enormous amounts of waste likely poisoning coastal waters (International laws prohibit chemical dumping in international waters..) This looks like a sure formula for ecological disaster. The ocean fisheries, necessary to fill humanity's protein requirements on an overpopulated planet, are already in trouble!

Growing trees and other plants Again, the ideas look great on paper but what are the practical consequences? An overpopulated earth requires more and more land devoted to agriculture. Therefore reforestation literally takes food from the mouths of babes! Unless, as Permaculture advocates suggest, we learn to use tree food crops - but that would require radical changes in life-styles and "world view", not some new fangled technology. Are we collectively ready to make such major changes? Or are we really committed to "business-as-usual" (maybe with a few green tweaks here and there to comfort out guilty consciousness and pacify our gnawing - if unavowed - fear that we are on the slippery slope to disaster and gaining speed)..

           Some schemes of carbon sequestration using plants have merit, especially as climate conditions promise to worsen and governments are finally forced to admit that we have a real problem that requires action. For example: planting trees to produce "green belts" in subsaharan Africa.

                                   Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmental activist

           Green belts raise soil organic content (humus) and moisture, possibly modifying local climate in favorable directions (less wind erosion, for example). Within a generation or two the regenerated soil cover could sustain subsistence agriculture. Such schemes, though, generally have greater impact on regional ecologies / economies / populations than on planetary climate. They should be actively pursued much more than they are at present. For some societies they may mean the difference between survival or failure, life or death, later on in this century..

            Algal cultures can convert flue gas CO2 into biomass (protein) and biofuels. In theory the biofuel would be burned and it's CO2 recycled as biomass.. The process is thus circular and mimics the way the earth's ecosystems function: CO2 is sucked down by plants during photosynthesis and converted into energy rich hydrocarbons (sugars, starches, oils..) These are then burned by animals and the plants themselves, releasing CO2 back to the atmosphere in a closed loop - CO2 does not accumulate in the loop, it simply circulates. The algal biofuel cycle is merely the industrialization of microbial photosynthesis to serve human ends. Unfortunately, such schemes require much water which will be in short supply on a warmed earth. They are still at the experimental stage of development. Some of these proposals may provide useful biofuels on a limited scale in the near future but their overall impact remains, at present, highly speculative. Finally, since the CO2 only circulates without sequestration, such proposals cannot reduce by much the excessive amounts of CO2 already in the air: they just prevent more from being added.

Underground carbon sequestration These schemes propose pumping CO2 into underground caverns like natural oil reservoirs or under the sea bed. (One wacko has suggested pumping it into deep ocean water - a neat way to acidify the already acidifying oceans if ever I heard one! One begins to sense the world's growing desperation from the inanity of the proposals being put forward..) Pumping CO2 into depleting oil reservoirs has the added "advantage" that CO2 displaces oil, making it pumpable. This extends the life of oil reservoirs thus aggravating the CO2 emission problem carbon sequestration was supposed to solve! These schemes were much  touted by the fossil fuel lobby a few years ago. They are less popular now as people began to calculate the price of the required infrastructure: adequate geological structures are not common. One would have to pipe the stuff all over hell's half acre to usable sites, a very expensive proposition. And, then, no one knows how well sequestering would really work. What about blowback - unintended consequences like earthquakes. Or seepage? Catastrophic failure could asphyxiate nearby populations since CO2, being heavy, displaces air. There are many known unknowns and probably many unknown - and unsuspected - unknowns with this one. One wonders: what goes up must come down / what goes down must come up..

         The second group of CE proposals involve schemes to reflect sunlight back into space by adding stuff to the upper atmosphere or placing stuff in low earth orbit. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of these schemes for combating GW / CC seem less rife with potentially nasty surprises than most of the first group (Carbon Sucking Strategies). In a pinch - with the climate globally falling apart and regional famines, even sceptics of CE might consider some of these as last resort measures.

         With Solar Radiation Budget Management Strategies - what a mouthful! - one attempts to compensate for the effects of GHG rather than reduce GHG levels. The general idea is to reflect sunlight (hence energy and heat) back into space before it can heat the earth. A major drawback: these schemes do nothing to reduce ocean acidity. Worse - by cooling the earth, they discourage conversion to alternative energies which do not release carbon. Result: ocean ecosystems collapse and masses of people die. We might do better by spending our scarce money and resources (time, human ingenuity, non-renewable resources like metals and fossil fuels..) to develop green energy technologies. Tying to compensate or eliminate the ravages of our current non-sustainable fossil fuel based technologies is a bit like closing and locking the stable door after the horses have fled. Better to get things right the first time round, I say.

           The folly of the current, dominant "business-as-usual" policy, promoted by fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies and their media mouth pieces (Fox, CNN, Sun News, Murdoch chain..) is especially clear in case of third world countries. It is mad, as they have been encouraged to do, to develop fossil fuel fired industrial infrastructure since fossil fuels are rapidly depleting resources. When fossil fuels become prohibitively expensive where will the financial resources be found to re-convert to green energy infrastructure? Is it not saner to get one's development right the first time around and thus avoid all those horrendous long term costs and risks caused by fossil fuel use: climatic, ecological, geopolitical..?

Cloud brightening One proposal for reducing solar energy input would employ fleets of robotic vessels to spray fine droplets of sea water into the air above strategic points in the oceans. The resultant salt particles would serve as "nuclei" for water droplet condensation in clouds. Fine salt particles produce clouds with smaller but more numerous droplets. Such clouds are whiter and reflect more sunlight back into space. They act as a sun-screen blocking solar radiation before it hits - and heats - the surface of the earth and seas. The unknowns: effects on major atmospheric circulation patterns which depend upon the distribution of solar energy flows around the planet. Such schemes could upset circulation patterns like the Monsoon, essential to traditional farming cultures around the world. Cloud brightening could end up doing more damage than good. At present, the impacts remain speculative and unclear..

Cirrus zapping Cloud brightening aims to increase the reflectivity of low clouds to block incoming sunlight. High, thin, wispy cirrus clouds behave differently than low altitude clouds. Their primary effect is to let sunlight in and then trap the outgoing heat (infrared radiation). They are like an insulating blanket thrown around the earth. 

            If you want to cool the earth, you remove blanket, you eliminate cirrus clouds. This can be done by spraying innocuous chemicals into the air: one could release these by injecting them into the hot exhausts of jet airliners. The scheme is interesting but like all CE it attempts to treat the symptoms - CC / GW - rather than the disease (overpopulation / non-renewable energy based economies, hyperconsumerism..) The potential blowback is, at present, an "unknown unknown". Unlike some of the hairier carbon sequestration schemes, cirrus zapping does not create vast reservoirs of potentially Deadly Stuff to worry about. It requires the regular release of small quantities of biologically neutral substances. If one discovered negative consequences, one could easily switch off the program and - one hopes! - things would rapidly return to "normal" (but they really wouldn't be normal "normal" since one would not be using CE in the first place if the climate was healthy - would one? - more about that a bit later..)

 Sulfur injection Another - superficially scarier - proposal would inject sulfuric acid mists into the upper atmosphere. The droplets provide nuclei for condensation producing a "vaporous veil" in the stratosphere which reflects sunlight back into space, cooling the earth. The technology is known to "work" in the sense that global cooling has been observed following massive volcanic eruptions which inject sulfur oxides into the stratosphere.

                                Mount Pinatubo eruption, Philippines, june 1991. Eruption
                                aerosols of sulfuric acid cooled the earth during 1992

               Although sulfuric acid is a major component of acid rain, a well designed aerosol cooling project might be tolerable, requiring one tenth or less of the sulfur emissions of 2005. Sulfur injection has other advantages: it is cheap, no technological breakthroughs are required, the processes are fairly well understood. Like Cirrus zapping, sulfur injection does not create a massive stock of Dangerous Stuff to sequester and manage. Rather, it is a "flow" - not a "stock" or "reserve" - process: once you shut off the tap, the process stops. In a climate emergency, this might be one of the most ready "off the shelf" CE fixes we possess. And therein lies it's danger! Some business-as-usual economists have argued that sulfur injection cooling is cheaper than CO2 emission reduction. They argue, in effect, that it is OK to screw up the ecology and climate of the planet as long as we possess a technological fix. Hamilton considers this an example of flagrant technological hubris. This is comparable to the crackpot logic of smokers who, when it was being demonstrated that smoking caused cancer, justified continued smoking on the grounds that modern medicine could detect and treat early cancers! Today, most people would consider such "logic" absurd - but not so when it comes our children's future it seems..

               Sulfur injection technology - using balloons, rockets, jets or cannon - is so cheap that a good sized developing country like India or even an individual plutocrat like Bill Gates might consider deploying it in a time of climatic degradation affecting harvests (and social stability). 

            There are, of course - as in any large scale endeavor affecting the entire planet - both positive and negative effects, benefits and risks, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, winners and losers..

               The question of winners and losers is probably the Achilles heel of sulfur injection. The technology might, in practice, do little to reduce the negative geopolitical impacts of GW / CC. Consider: if we cool the earth we modify the flow and distribution of energy moving through the climate "machine" (this is especially so since sulfur injection does not produce uniform effects over the surface of the globe.) Precipitation patterns are modified by redistributing energy flows since these flows determine air / ocean circulation patterns. Some nations will benefit from CE, some will not. But what happens if those who are negatively affected possess the atomic bomb..

            Yet, despite all the unknowns, some CE boosters are blithely advocating restoring the arctic ice cap with technological fixes. "Man imitates god" notes prof Hamilton dryly.. 

            As Earthmasters demonstrates so eloquently, the logic of CE is twisted, hubristic, narcissistic and megalomaniac - like the culture that created both CE and the problems it was intended to solve (footnote 1). As wild as CE schemes seem to reasonable people, it is likely the case that CE doesn't think far enough outside the box. In reality CE is the offspring of the business-as-usual psychology that created CC / GW in the first place!

putting CE, son of Business-as-usual, in charge of the climate is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse

            One notes the pronounced tone of "crack pot realism" in gargantuan CE projects. The megalomaniac, reality-disconnect is clearly seen in the following quote:

"The engineers are alert to the fact that installing a planetary thermal control system is not merely a technical problem. They are concerned that unspecified "socio-political system failures" - perhaps climate wars, terrorist attacks, changes of government in the US and social unrest in China - may lead to "unintentional disengagement" giving rise to "transient oscillations in the climate system". Transient oscillations in the climate system may refer to monsoon failure, but the climate engineers are not too worried because "disruptions of varying character and scale are common in comparably large and complex technical and  socio-political systems" What were they thinking of when referring to disruptions to comparably large and complex socio-political systems - the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the Black Death? Who knows? Even so, any control-system blueprint, they advise, should keep these possibilities firmly in mind." (page 113)

               The intellectually stultifying abstraction of paranoid dementia is clearly evident (I am NOT attempting a clinical "diagnosis" but merely observing a mode of expression typically found in the paranoid). In reality, "transient oscillations" mean utter hell on earth, to those forced to live through them in body and soul. Consecutive monsoon failures on the Indian subcontinent could lead to famine, social breakdown, political instability and regional nuclear war. North America would receive radioactive fallout. The climate engineers are so tightly locked into their alternative reality bubble that they fail to observe something very important in the real world. Overconnected systems become unstable and break down. Why? Because catastrophic breakdowns propagate without attenuation. Think of a pile of coins. We gently drop one coin after another onto the pile. Gradually, the pile grows bigger, becoming unstable until an avalanche finally reduces the height. Or a great war like WW II which sucked one nation after another into a maelstrom that killed tens of millions of people (and Hitler didn't even have the atom bomb!) Such unstable systems lack essential features of stable natural systems (organisms, ecosystems..) The overconnected system lacks protective firewalls to contain catastrophic breakdown at the level of local (expendable) "modules". They also lack protective redundancy - "back up units": in case of failure a back up unit takes over. The climate engineers in their magnificent, reality-disconnected hubris, merely note the chronic - and growing -  instability of the world they have inherited but they can not see that observation as a critique of that world.

           Common sense dictates a more cautious logic: would not money and effort spent on renewable energy provide a greater return on investment in the long run?  CE assumes that it is cheaper to pollute and then clean up. Reality suggests otherwise! Even the "risk evaluations" of CE proponents - like those of other "business-as-usual" types - are highly suspect. The United Nations recently concluded, for example, that 7 to 8 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution:

            What value do we give to a human life? (not to mention the quality of that life while lived?) Let us assume that each life lost to air pollution should - in fairness - be compensated by, say, $100,000 (US). Is this unreasonable? After all, people who kill through negligence in automobile accidents are held responsible. If me accept my figure, this means that air pollution is already costing the world $750 Billion each year in lost human life (alone). In a sense, CE is an admission that our way of doing things just doesn't work. Why develop a Plan B - CE - if Plan A - Business-as-usual - is working..

          Prof Hamilton, whose field of study is Ethics in the Public Place, goes so far as to discern a demented "Promethean Psychology" behind CE, page 98-99:

"The apparent paradox of denialist think tanks supporting geoengineering solutions to the global warming problem that does not exist can be understood as a reassertion of technological-production science over environmental impact science. Thus the Exxon-funded Heartland Institute - the leading denialist organization that has hosted a series of conferences at which climate science is denounced as a hoax and a communist conspiracy - has enthusiastically endorsed geoengineering as the answer to the problem that does not exist."

            In fact, the more enthusiastic "Prometheans" let the cat out of the bag by calling not for climate remediation but - !sic! - Permanent Weather Control. This is truly technological hubris gone mad!

             Hamilton links the Promethean Psychology of CE to traditional Judeo-Christian / Western ideals and thought patterns. "Man" is seen "divorced from nature", "above nature", "apart from nature". Then, too, there is the Myth of Progress. Such ideas may be active parts of our culture but are they really the causes of our current impasse or merely rationalization to explain or justify it?

            Some critics - myself! - argue that humans are not doing anything one would not expect from a large brained, tool making, hunter-gatherer possessing our current degree of tool making proficiency. In short, we are merely doing what 3.5 Billion years of Darwinian evolution has programmed us to do. For example, the Chinese like to refer to themselves as a "people of the earth" and associate themselves that "element". Yet, this "people of the earth" managed to overpopulate their land, destroying many species and ecosystems, long before contact with Europeans. Likewise archaic hunters are blamed for the extinction of the mammalian megafauna around the world at the end of the last ice age (this proposition is controversial but, at least, it has enough supporting evidence to fuel a credible controversy). The megafauna managed to survive the end of previous ice ages well enough. What was special about the end of the last one? Maybe it was that human numbers and technology had progressed to the point that they unintentionally killed off their prey? No one knows for sure but the case can be made. It is likewise arguable that the "noble savages" - the Hopi Indians (USA), the Inuit (Eskimos) and the Kalahari Bushmen (Africa) - respect nature because the environments they live in are unforgiving and command respect. The others - the "ignoble savages" - then would be no better, no worse, than we "civilized": they scrapped their environment by overhunting and sooner or later, as we are now in the process of doing, they went extinct. The sickness in our soul may run deeper than the arrogant creation myth of Genesis where God gave Adam "dominion over the earth and all that live upon it". CE may be no more than a particular local expression of Mind-created-by-3.5 billion-years-of-Darwinian-Evolution. Perhaps, all technological civilizations, being the product of billions of years of Darwinian Evolution - are unviable. Perhaps, all will succeed in fouling their nests to the point they render their home planets unlivable for anything but microbes and other "lower" forms of life. I don't accept such a pessimistic proposition. I believe humans can "surmount" 3.5 Billion years of Darwinian Evolution. From Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog" in the battle against creationism:

“Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community... Let us understand, once and for all that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” (Evolution and Ethics)

               The transition to a Post-Darwinian Evolution - where life no longer is merely subjected to the evolutionary process but becomes an active agent in guiding the evolutionary process will be a painful, protracted labor of birth, bearing enormous risks and dangers..

               In conclusion, an admirably lucid, well written text. One gets the impression that the author strove for clarity: I usually catch (at least!) several typos or lousy sentences in every book I read. I can't recall any here. Although the work is fairly technical, I found it something of a page turner. The author knows how to draw his reader into quite abstract and technical writing, wanting to turn the page to see what comes next. This is something of a gift in the writer on technical subjects! The chapter notes -relegated to the back of the book - are impressive in their clarity, thoroughness and the plethora of excellent references and links they give - much appreciated! Ecological activists take note: this is required reading (or close to it). I give it a 9 on 10.


1- in discussing Late Corporate Capitalism it is difficult not to invoke the language of psychopathology! 

definition: hubris
definition: megalomania