Foreign fighters among the Taliban with Birmingham (U.K.) accents? NASA planning massive space explosions in search of water on the moon? Unrelated incidents to be sure, but what, exactly, is going on?
These sort of bizarre happenings in parallel occur all the time, of course, and they have become a part of living in our present day – as curious as horseless carriages must have once seemed. Unpacking them at all, they may become even more Byzantine as curiosities. The Aston Villa tattoos on the recently-killed Taliban fighter are as crazy/easy to explain as would have been the case had their accents been from Birmingham, Alabama. Okay, maybe not. That would have been crazy. But no more so than scientists preparing to fly a rocket booster into the moon in order to trigger a six-mile-high explosion.
The four-month mission of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which will be directed from NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, is to discover whether water is frozen in the perpetual darkness of craters near the moon’s south pole. As a potential source of oxygen for life support and hydrogen for rocket fuel, that water would be a tremendous boost to NASA’s plans to restart human exploration of the moon.
It is in this climate, where we have become nearly unable to differentiate the fabulous from the actual, where the words ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ have been displaced of their original meanings, where extraordinary measures of all sorts limbo beneath the radar, causing not the slightest flinch. Maybe it’s always been like this; or perhaps the volume of information bombardment itself is causing the greatest psychological displacement, such that we begin to allow for the unallowable. How else to explain this:
Using iron “seeding” to set off massive plankton growth in the ocean to slow climate change; creating artificial volcanic eruptions to release cooling sulfur into the atmosphere; increasing the solar reflectivity of clouds by adding sea-salt particles; building a giant space mirror to stop ice from melting in Greenland. These may sound like concepts straight out of a George Lucas film, but they are real ideas being proposed by scientists as part of the “geoengineering” movement — a school of thought based upon the idea that humans can engineer ourselves out of global warming on a massive scale.
How many people listened to this report on NPR driving home on Tuesday, looked around at the traffic and nodded their heads? Did they say to themselves, ‘that sounds like a good idea,’ or “I’m glad people are thinking about this’? Even the report hedged itself with a kind of reality check.
And experiments could create disasters. Alan Robock of Rutgers University cataloged a long list of risks. Particles in the stratosphere that block sunlight could also damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harsh ultraviolet light. Or altering the stratosphere could reduce precipitation in Asia, where it waters the crops that feed 2 billion people.
Should we be outraged* by these kinds of suggestions? We seem to be caught in an information spiral, where we’ve down-graded the importance of expertise in favor of a balance between opposing viewpoints. We lend credence to both and preserve the power to play Solomon, though we are greatly ill-educated and prone to believing in both our better impulses and the existence of an easy way out. Sitting in that car in traffic, we may need to first begin to agitate among ourselves, to regain control of what’s happening inside the car, first. Why shouldn’t we be able to counter the effects of climate change without driving less, wasting less, living differently? Do we even know?
* this can be a rather complex proposition in itself, e.g., toward what would the outrage be directed?