Monday, May 20, 2024

#141 / Can We Engineer Our Way Out?


An article by David Gelles, which appeared in the March 31, 2024, edition of The New York Times, asked the following question, which I have partially reproduced in the title I have applied to my blog posting for today: 

I am tempted, with no further explanation, to save everyone's time, and to provide a very quick answer to the question posed by The Times' headline. Here is my answer: "NO!"

It appears that Gelles' article is going to be the first in a series. A little subtitle in the hardcopy text outlines the focus of the article published on March 31st: "Buying Time - The Risks of Manipulating Nature." 

That little subtitle gives a hint as to why the correct answer to The Times' basic question is, "NO!"

Anytime it is suggested that we can "manipulate nature," or "engineer" nature, to allow us to carry on with our current practices, we run up against the fundamental realities of our human existence. I usually characterize these fundamental realities as the "Two Worlds Hypothesis." 

We actually do live, as I often point out, in "Two Worlds," simultaneously. Most immediately, we inhabit what I call the "Human World," or the "Political World," which is a world that is the product of human decision and human action. Within our "Human World," engineering efforts to achieve human objectives make sense, and we do live, mostly, in that "Human World." 

Ultimately, though - in other words, in "the final analysis" - we do not live in a world that we construct ourselves. In fact, it is obvious, if we think about it, that the world that we most immediately inhabit is totally and absolutely dependent on the "World of Nature," which is not a human creation. I sometimes call the world upon which we ultimately depend "The World God Made." 

Understanding, and then accepting, that we do live in these "Two Worlds," simultaneously, is to put a cap on human pride. We are pretty amazing, and we have done amazing things, and we retain the ability to do lots more amazing things, too. However, we ultimately depend upon the "World of Nature," and "engineering" solutions are applicable only in the "Human World." 

If we consider that the "World of Nature" is the "world" upon which we ultimately depend, then we come quickly to understand that we need to live within its rules and limits. Foolish billionaires may claim that they can go live on Mars, or that some kind of "Artificial Intelligence" will lead the human race to a breakthrough in which all of our problems will be solved, but all you really need to do is to picture how Earth looks from space, and how space itself unveils its reality before our eyes, and opens itself to our probing instruments, to realize that we are creatures of the Earth, and of the "World of Nature." It is a foolish arrogance to hypothesize that we don't need to conform our activities to what the "World of Nature" demands. 

The "World of Nature" provides us with energy (coming from the sun), and living within the "World of Nature," upon which we ultimately depend, means that we must live within the limits of the energy that flows to us, each day. But.... we have not been willing to do that. We have accessed "fossil" fuels, the product of millions of years of life on Earth, and have come to base our human arrangements on the continued use of "past" energy, rejecting the idea that we need to respect the limits of the "World of Nature." Our "Climate Crisis" has been the result.

Unfortunately, proposed efforts to "engineer" solutions to the "Climate Crisis," are efforts to maintain a human civilization that has repudiated the fundamental idea that there are "natural" limits, and that we should live within them. Energy use, of course, is only one example. We have "mined" groundwater in California's great Central Valley, to pick another example. By mining groundwater, we have given ourselves the illusion that we don't have to live within any limits there. Past and upcoming failures of groundwater supplies in the Central Valley are likely to destroy the lives of all the individual farmers who are dependent on supplies of water that are failing. How greatly we have gone beyond the natural limits that we should have respected is visible in the following photograph, that shows ground subsidence in the Central Valley that is the product of our continually overdrafted limited water supplies: 

I have no doubt that we will deploy "engineering" solutions to the "Climate Crisis," and will address the Central Valley groundwater crisis in the same way. But these are stopgap and short-term "solutions" that can't, actually, "solve" the problem, since the problem is that we have been unwilling to respect and live within the limits of the "World of Nature." 

More "engineering" could buy us a little time, but what is really needed is what amounts to a fundamental revision of what we decide is our human destiny upon this Earth. Will we bless the fact that we are alive, here - and all of us, together - or will we continue to assert that human beings don't, in fact, have to respect the ultimate limits set by the "World of Nature"?

If enough of us can understand the real question put before us, and decide that we will spend our lives redesigning how human beings determine to live in this "World That God Made," we have a chance to survive. 

But can human "engineering" provide a "way out" of our climate crisis?

I have already given you the answer to that question. 


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