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Geo-engineering or Cosmic Protectionism?

by Herman Daly

“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard Keynes, 1933

Herman DalyFrederic Bastiat’s classic satire, “Petition of the Candlemakers Against the Sun“, has been given new relevance. Written in 1845 in defense of free trade and against national protectionism in France, it can now be applied quite literally to the cosmic protectionists who want to protect the global fossil fuel-based growth economy against “unfair” competition from sunlight — a free good. The free flow of solar radiation that powers life on earth should be diminished, suggest some, including American Enterprise Institute’s S. Thernstrom (Washington Post 6/13/09, p. A15), because it threatens the growth of our candle-making economy that requires filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses. The protectionist “solution” of partially turning off the sun (by albedo-increasing particulate pollution of the atmosphere) will indeed make thermal room for more carbon-burning candles. Although this will likely increase GDP and employment, it is attended by the inconvenient fact that all life is pre-adapted by millions of years of evolution to the existing flow of solar energy. Reducing that flow cancels these adaptations wholesale — just as global warming cancels myriad existing adaptations to temperature. Artificially reducing our most basic and abundant source of low entropy (the solar flux) in order to more rapidly burn up our scarcer terrestrial source (fossil fuels), is contrary to the interests both of our species and of life in general. Add to that the fact that “candles”, and many other components of GDP, are at the margin increasingly unneeded and expensive, requiring aggressive advertising and Ponzi-style debt financing in order to be sold, and one must conclude that “geo-engineering” the world for more candles and less sunlight is an even worse idea than credit default swaps.

Why then do some important and intelligent people advocate geo-engineering? As the lesser evil compared to absolutely catastrophic and imminent climate disaster, they say. If the American Enterprise Institute has now stopped offering scientists money to write papers disputing global warming, and in fact has come around to the view that climate change is bad, then why have they not advocated carbon taxes or cap-auction-trade limits? Because they think the technical geo-fix is cheap and will allow us to buy time and growth to better solve the problem in the future. One more double whiskey to help us get our courage up enough to really face our growth addiction! Probably we are irrevocably committed to serious climate change and will have to bear the costs, adapt, and hasten our transition to a steady state economy at a sustainable (smaller) scale. Panicky protectionist interventions by arrogant geo-engineers to save growth for one more round will just make things worse.

At the earthly level I am no free trader, and neither was Keynes, but “shutting off the sun and the stars” to protect the fossil fuel economy is carrying protectionism to cosmic extremes. Reality has overtaken satire.

A Smarter Planet?

Herman Daly“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard Keynes, 1933

Let’s build a smarter planet.” This is IBM’s inspirational slogan, intoned as a benediction at the end of their 2010 advertisements. They do not say, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to our planet Earth, out of which we were created and by which we are sustained.” It is the planet that is insufficiently smart, not its evolutionary prize-winning, big-brained, star tenant.

What makes IBM think that the planet is dumb? Well, obviously the mentally challenged Earth does not know how to keep on accommodating our continual economic growth, so we must redesign it with that remedial instruction in mind. For example, our growth requires fossil fuels, but when we burn a lot of them the resulting atmospheric CO2 slows down the radiation of heat back to outer space, heating up the stupid planet and causing dumb climate change. It would be easier to radiate heat energy out and make more thermal room for necessary fossil fuel burning if only we had less solar energy coming in. So a smarter planet would have a higher albedo to reflect more of that troublesome incoming solar radiation. Blasting light-reflecting particles of sulfur into the stratosphere or troposphere should raise the planet’s IQ a great deal.

This sophisticated planet-smartening pedagogy is known as geo-engineering. It will cheaply re-engineer the planet to allow BP to feed the sacred flame of economic growth by drilling deeper holes in more precarious places to pump more oil. That in turn will supply NASA with the resources to build more rockets, thereby to fulfill our cosmic destiny to escape this terminally dumb planet and build a really smart one from scratch in a better location. Scientists have long realized that geo-engineering and other retrofitting measures, while necessary to buy time for building up evacuation capacity, cannot be the final solution for a congenitally moronic planet. And if meanwhile an occasional oil spill reduces the photosynthetic capacity of life in the Gulf of Mexico — well, we have just seen that our silly planet already allows in too much solar energy, so if we reduce that inflow we will not have to trouble ourselves with converting it into food energy. Furthermore when NASA, BP, and IBM finish building our new smart planet, it will contain a new and smarter Gulf of Mexico.

To sum up, by serving only the interests of the growing economy, global corporations like IBM are providentially led, as if by an invisible hand, to also build a smarter planet! Of course, unlike Adam Smith, they do not really believe in any deistic providence with its invisible hand that converts private greed into public good. They know from modern science that random mutation plus natural selection explains everything, and that free will and purpose are illusions. But some of these illusions have survival value and must be persuasively advertised to secure support from the tax-paying masses (science is expensive) — at least until IBM, BP, and NASA have finished building a planet so smart that its inhabitants can safely be dumb robots.