Fresh Ideas: The big fear
November 28, 2012
The photo of the Statue of Liberty under water, with several fish swimming lazily by, the lady’s arm still reaching high, as if she’d like to float up and take a quick breath, her torch barely discernible in the bright shimmering light of the sun as it warms that top layer of water — is a stomach dropping image. The opinion piece that accompanies it by James Atlas is appropriately titled “Is This the End?” And the subheading “Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there is a good chance New York City will sink beneath the sea,” asks us to think of New York City in terms of the perhaps mythical lost city of Atlantis — not exactly comforting, either.Yes, as you might have guessed, this and a factual, graphic article on “Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines” can be found in Sunday’s New York Times. To those on the East Coast, rising seas and climate change have suddenly become very real. To the rest of us, probably not as much. As Atlas points out, if, as Freud says, we can’t imagine our own deaths, “how can we be expected to imagine the death of a city?” Or, I might add, how can we be expected to imagine the death of coral, of fish, of trees, of glaciers, of fresh water, maybe even the end of Earth as we have known it?No, not only is it a case of not being able to imagine it, it’s a case of not wanting to think about it. It’s a case of willfully ignoring it. As my almost 94-year-old aunt says, “No one wants to give up the comforts he has.” She means no one wants to give up air conditioners, automobiles, all the modern conveniences of countries like ours. Nor do those who can still make a profit from the production of coal, oil, or any natural resource that’s still available.I read another article, “Swallowing Rain Forest, Cities Surge in Amazon,” and think who can blame someone like Maria Antonia Santos, age 34, herding her six children and dragging plastic bags full of possessions on a 16 hour train ride to one of the many new towns in the Amazon because she’s been told “this is the best place in Brazil to start on life again”?We don’t expect Maria Santos to worry about the increasing consumption of natural resources such as deforestation which “already ranks among the largest contributors to global greenhouse-gas emissions” as Simon Romero the author of the article reminds us. Arriving at consensus on issues like the “fiscal cliff,” our national debt, and health care are all small potatoes compared to getting the nations of the world to agree on even the simplest measures to cut back on greenhouse gases. We should (as a major contributor to those gases) be in the forefront, but we are not. Instead, of cutting back our extravagant use of natural resources, we’re thinking about manipulating climate. If we can seed clouds in the Sierra to produce snow (sometimes), then why not geoengineer the planet itself?In yet another New York Times article “Geoengineering: Testing the Waters,” by Naomi Klein (Oct. 28) I read that in 2010 the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology recommended more research on geoengineering. And privately, Bill Gates has funneled millions into it, too, in addition to investing in a company called Intellectual Ventures that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “Strato-Shield” (a 19-inch long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sunblocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky), and a tool that would ideally blunt the force of hurricanes. We may well think at this point, “Ah, those fantastic engineers! They can do anything.” But I can’t help think of nuclear power plants that are “perfect” on paper, but not necessarily perfectly located and subject to human error. Yet the resulting catastrophes like Fukushima are again but small potatoes compared to what could happen when man plays around with Mother Nature. We haven’t become gods yet.• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.