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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

It's everybody-write-about-one-subject-day on the internet today (Blog Action Day, is it ironic the acronym is BAD?). And, just for a change, the subject is "the environment". Wow, novel. Being the follower of trends like "movember", and talk-like-a-pirate-day I'm obliged to write about the environment today.

Here goes.

The environment, it's anybody's guess.

Some of the best advice I've heard all year, I think via edge.org, if we're concerned about the environment, and looking to colonize other worlds to save mankind, why don't we try to colonize the Gobi desert first? It's one of the most inhospitable places on earth, but it’s a hundred times more luxurious than anything any observed planet could offer. If somebody could get a sizable chunk of self-sustained population in the Gobi I'd start to be optimistic about our ability to do anything significant with the environment. Until such time that something like this is achieved, we're just along for the ride.

Question: If the perma-frost in Siberia is about to open a magic gate and become a bog, allowing mega-tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, and if this is significant to the rate of climate change, what sort of membrane could be fabricated to capture the methane?

Answer: (I came up with this on my way to the train this morning) The only (net-positive energy) membrane that might scale to the epic tundra-size surface is algae. It's a big if, but if we could engineer a durable surface dwelling methane-eating algae we could attempt to cultivate it across large tracts of land, and harvest whatever gas is captured under the blanket. The bioengineering option is basically the only option that ever scales to planet sized proportions. I think that's a hint. The hint is that there are already a living series of checks and balances in place that have kept the climate more-or-less homeostatic for a long long time. Chances are, if we do nothing to respond to climate change, something else will. And it'll do it better than we ever could. Can I guarantee that millions, possibly billions of people won't die? No. But what are the chances that everybody who's alive today will die some day?

This is not a "skip action, go directly to despair" argument. I don't think there's much use in anthropomorphizing arguments involving the interface of climate and civilization. Only at the very smallest scale are either the climate or civilization involved with people's feelings. The truth is that both climate and civilization are amoral structures that have been equally responsible for sustaining and grinding people to dust for all of history. Save the despair for the individual stories of individual families. There is plenty to despair about. The weather isn't one of those things. The best I can do to relate climate to despair is to say that if there were less inhumanity to man we'd be better able to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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