2021: A World Renewed

Science & Technology

To Edit a Planet

Introductory Questions

    • What would a perfect Earth look like?
    • What is the ideal climate for the Earth?
    • Do we have a responsibility to restore the Earth to what it was like before humans began to change it?
    • Many philosophers have distinguished between the natural and the good. When it comes to the Earth, should we make such a distinction?
    • When, if ever, is it okay for humans to change the weather?
    • When, if ever, is it okay for humans to change the physical landscape?
    • If technology is used to preserve something natural, is it still natural?
    • Do we owe future generations an Earth similar to the one we live in today? Or does every generation need to make the best of the planet it inherits?
    • Is changing the climate equally bad if it is done by accident or on purpose? Is it necessarily bad in the first place?
    • If we discover a planet just like the Earth but with no people on it, would it be all right to colonize it?
    • If we discover a planet that is not Earth-like but we can use technology to terraform it so that we can live there, would it be all right to do so?
    • Do your answers to the above questions depend on whether these planets have life on them? If so, does it matter whether that life is intelligent?
    • Suppose we were to discover a vast new empty island on the Earth. Would your answers be the same for the island as they were for another planet?
    • Would the world be better with more technology or with less?

If It's Broke, Fix It: Geoengineering

    • The Earth is warming rapidly; human activity is responsible. Consequences will include rising sea levels, extreme weather phenomena, and mass extinctions.
    • As it becomes clear that we can't stop global climate change in time to prevent all of these consequences–at best we can slow it down–the idea that we need to take active measures to mitigate (or even reverse) climate change has grown more mainstream
      • This podcast is a good introduction to the scientific principles and controversies related to this new field of geoengineering. There are many other sources available to research online, though nearly all reflect significant bias for or against geoengineering, in part or in full. Discuss with your team: do scientists have a responsibility to remain unbiased? How about policymakers?

    • One main branch of geoengineering focuses on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Consider this overview of different CO2-removal strategies in the context of who will “govern” their implementation. Discuss with your team: who should be in charge of such geoengineering efforts? If a country independently begins building facilities to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, should it be stopped—and, if so, by whom?
    • Be sure to research the following terms and concepts related to carbon dioxide removal:
      • carbon sequestration | land use management | biochar | biomass
      • enhanced weathering | carbon dioxide capture | ocean fertilization
      • ocean upwelling | removal of other GHGs
    • If the less controversial approach to geoengineering focuses on removing carbon from the atmosphere, the other focuses on reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth. Explore these six geoengineering strategies for reducing the warming impact of solar radiation. Discuss with your team: if you had to invest in one of them, which would you select?
    • Be sure to research the following terms and concepts related to sunlight management:
      • solar radiation | albedo | ice-albedo feedback | radiative forcing
      • marine cloud brightening | desert reflectors | cool roof | sunshield
      • stratospheric aerosols | Mt. Pinatubo | Arctic methane release
    • When exploring methods of geoengineering, be sure to consider:
      • effectiveness | time scale | externalities | costs
      • trade-offs | termination effect | reversibility | encapsulation
    • One common criticism of geoengineering is that, if people believe new technologies could “solve” climate change, they will lose the political will to reduce carbon emissions and take other preventative measures. Some refer to this problem as “moral hazard”. Discuss with your team: do you think people would react in this way? If so, should we stop research into geoengineering, or would the solution be for governments to implement it secretly?
    • Suppose a geoengineer came to you with the perfect technology for adjusting the climate of the Earth: it could create any climate desired with zero side effects. Discuss with your team: what would you do with this power? Would you look to restore the climate from a certain point in the past—and, if so, what point?
    • Will Antarctica become habitable in the near future? If so, who should decide who lives there? Discuss with your team: should nations threatened by rising sea levels be given Antarctic territory for relocation?
    • While geoengineering aims to tackle issues that impact the world on a large scale, there are other technologies that also aim to affect the environment, but on a smaller level. If you had the power to change one thing about the climate of your city, what would you change to make it more comfortable or habitable? Are there changes you would make to the landscape?
    • Explore the following techniques used to manipulate, take advantage of, or otherwise utilize elements of the environment in a “non-natural” way. How well do these methods work? What are the arguments against using them more often?
      • cloud seeding (glaciogenic and hygroscopic) | fog harps
      • bioprecipitation | cloudbuster | hail cannon
    • The ability to modify the weather isn’t just coveted by climatologists and policy-makers—it has also found military applications. Look into the tenets of the UN’s Environmental Modification Convention and discuss with your team: why was this treaty written in the first place? What risk (if any) is posed by countries not signing it?

House Hunters 3000: A User's Guide to Settling the Stars

    • You can’t get there from here. One argument against colonizing other planets is that it would be very difficult for humans to reach them. Look into the following forms of faster-than-light (FTL) travel found in science fiction. Are any of them at all plausible in the real world?
      • hyperspace | warp speed | wormholes

    • Given that faster-than-light travel is more likely to be science fantasy than science fiction, colonization of other solar systems would likely require traveling to them very slowly. It might take decades or centuries. Look into the idea of generation ships, in which those setting off to the stars would do so knowing they’d never reach their destinations. The hope would be for their children or grandchildren to complete the journey. Discuss with your team: would you sign up for such a mission? Would it be fair to the children of the original travelers to find themselves born in space?
    • In lieu of generation ships, one could imagine people on missions to other planets somehow frozen or suspended for a period of time, then revived at the end—spending the actual travel time in a condition NASA calls “human stasis”. Discuss with your team: if human stasis were possible, should we also implement it on Earth to reduce resource usage?
    • Sunlight can be used to propel objects; solar energy can be harnessed and converted into kinetic energy. Are solar sails the solution to interstellar travel?
    • Even if we could travel through space, where would we go? Look into the efforts to find Earth-like planets around other stars, and be sure to explore the following terms:
      • Goldilocks zone | exoplanets | exomoons
      • Kepler-186f | super-habitable & super-Earth
    • Just because we’re a bit short on being even a Type I civilization on the Kardashev scale doesn’t mean we can’t look into off-Earth living arrangements. Consider this strategy for terraforming the moon. Assuming we could maneuver comets into action as described, would there be any strong arguments against it? Do we prefer the moon to be in its natural state, even if that means it is inhospitable to life?
    • Comets are not the only way to radically alter a planet or moon. How likely is it that the following proposed approaches could be used in our own lifetimes, and what sorts of celestial bodies would be best suited for each?
      • interplanetary contamination | space mirrors | shell worlds
      • artificial magnetospheres | atmosphere thickening/removal
      • nitrogen importation | extremophiles & modified bacteria
    • Consider these finalists in a competition to design 3D-printed habitats for Mars. Learn the fundamental engineering principles behind each of them. Then, discuss with your team: would you want to live in such a habitat? Does the American origin of all these designs hint at a future in which certain countries try to dominate outer space?
    • Space colonization and transformation: Additional terms to explore
      • Outer Space Treaty | MarsOne | Lagrange point | biocentrism
      • planetary protection | Artemis Project | space tourism | Dyson sphere

What Would Noah Do? Coping Mechanisms as the Waters Rise

    • Over the next century, rising sea levels will gradually flood coastal communities around the world, displacing millions of people and posing an existential danger for many island nations. Consider this forecast and others like it. Discuss with your team: should policymakers be doing more to spread awareness of this looming crisis, or is it too early to panic?
    • The Netherlands is investing in a dike meant to help protect its people from the rising ocean. What approaches are Dutch engineers taking to make it an effective long-term solution? Should Venice and other low-lying cities—including the Alaskan village of Kivalina—be following their lead, or are they merely staving off the inevitable?
    • Over the last century and longer, many cities have radically transformed the environment around them in order to survive and grow. Check out these images of how American cities have evolved even in just the last ten years. Discuss with your team: are these cities, and more famous examples—such as Singapore and more recently Penang—already terraforming the Earth?
    • Does the world need to invest in wildlife connectivity corridors to allow species to migrate in the face of climate change—or do we need to take more drastic measures to preserve biodiversity?
    • Consider Dubai’s efforts to become a “green” city. Discuss with your team: are they effective models for the rest of the world, or do they require levels of investment unrealistic in most nations?
    • Is the solution underwater cities? Interest in such settlements has sunk over the last several decades, even as the seas themselves have risen; can you identify reasons why? Discuss with your team: would you rather live underwater or on another planet—or underwater on another planet?
    • Rising sea levels are a slow-moving crisis; though some scientists speculate that there could be possible tipping points leading to abrupt accelerations, by and large they are expected to increase slowly but steadily. Discuss with your team: would it be better if this crisis were unfolding more quickly?

Concluding Questions

    • It never rains on Vulcan. Endor contains only forests and fan service. In science fiction, planets often have very uniform climates; an entire planet is a desert, or a jungle, or a frozen wasteland. If the entire Earth had to be a single biome, what would you want that biome to be?
    • If you were designing a new planet from scratch, what kind of climate would you want it to have? How varied would it be from place to place, and would all parts of this planet be equally comfortable for habitation? If not, how would you decide who lives where?
    • How many people do you think should live on the Earth, in an ideal world? And would this number be the same as its “carrying capacity”? If you think population should be reduced or further growth limited, how would your team go about controlling the population? Would any of these methods be ethical and/or feasible enough to implement in real life today?
    • Harvard professor E.O. Wilson has said “the constraints of the biosphere are fixed”. Are they? Will we be able to renew our supply of resources on Earth by mining asteroids? In what other ways might we be able to expand the constraints of the biosphere, and are any of them realistic?
    • Consider the manifesto of the eco-modernist movement, whose leaders believe economic growth, technological progress, and environmental preservation can all coexist. Are these writers too optimistic?
    • Discuss with your team: would you agree to build an emissions-generating power plant in an impoverished community, if the alternative is lack of access for that population to reliable electricity?
    • Read about the Kim Stanley Robinson novel New York 2140. Does the author’s description of how he went about “flooding” New York City offer any insights into how people in general should think about the impacts of climate change on future living situations?
    • Consider this author's eloquent declaration of "The Concession to Climate Change [He] Won't Make." Discuss with your team: in a time when the Earth seems burdened by every person on it and every choice they make—including the choice to make more people—should children be protected from learning about the climate change crisis until they are older? Should new children’s literature be written to protect them from the truth—or to motivate the next generation to action?
    • As a radical solution to a warming climate, some futurists have suggested moving the Earth to a new orbit further away from the sun. Discuss with your team: is it worth even imagining such dramatic measures? What extreme solutions would you propose if you had the power to ignore the laws of physics?

Last updated: January 10