The great architect and city planner Daniel Burnham learned his craft in the embers of the Great Chicago Fire, and he clearly developed a worldview that Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton would describe as “Promethean”.
“Make no little plans,” Burnham is famously quoted as saying. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
Hamilton opens his new book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, in a similar vein: “For sheer audacity, no plan by humans exceeds the one now being hatched to take control of the Earth’s climate,” he writes.
But in this case, it’s not so much a call to higher glory as it is a grudging acceptance of the desperate situation our civilization now faces. “It is audacity born of failure,” he continues, “a collective refusal to do what must be done to protect the Earth and ourselves from a future that promises to be nasty, brutish and hot.”
It’s a tone he maintains throughout this incredibly readable chronicle of our society’s failure to acknowledge, let alone confront, the challenge of a changing climate. He delves into the science and offers a whirlwind summary of the technology that could – in theory, at least – enable us to use oceans as carbon sinks, inject carbon into the ground, or squirt sulfur solutions into the atmosphere to shield us from solar radiation.
It’s an unsettling chronicle, because none of these technologies is really well-developed. All have downsides, and most seem patently unworkable on the scale needed. Yet, he argues, we must consider them.
If you’re disturbed by the prospect that man may soon be consciously fiddling with our planet’s life support system, then, he says, you are a Soterian. If you feel a surge of excitement, then you are a Promethean. Here is how Hamilton differentiates the two:
“If Prometheus is the god of technological mastery, who is the Greek divinity of caution?” he asks. “Perhaps the closest is Soteria, the goddess of safety, preservation and deliverance from harm. I will suggest that climate engineering is the last battle in a titanic struggle between Prometheans and Soterians, with the prize nothing less than the survival of the world we know now.”
Though clearly in the Soterian school himself, Hamilton argues that we must all adopt a bit of Promethean thinking if we’re to survive. Indeed, if we don’t, then we cede control to those who are Promethean to the core, and many of these are the same right-wing organizations that have long denied the realities of climate science.
“We have seen that conservative think tanks are joining the fray, with the climate-denying Heartland Institute and American Enterprise Institute supporting climate engineering,” he writes. “Former Republican presidential candidate and House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared: ‘Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year. Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention … Bring on the American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.’”
The later chapters offer a swirling dialogue on the strategic and ethical issues that we now confront: will corporations take over the atmosphere? Will governments? And if so, which ones? It’s a fascinating read, alternately troubling and inspirational.
The final chapter revisits all of the issues he addressed, but with an eye on the big picture.
“Now, the Holocene has come to an end,” he writes. “Humans have flourished so successfully in the sympathetic environment of the last 10,000 years that they have shifted Earth’s geological arc. The impact of burning fossil fuels on the Earth’s atmosphere has been so far-reaching that it is the principal factor, along with population growth (up from 800 million in 1750 to 7 billion today), that has persuaded Earth system scientists to declare that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. The post-Holocene epoch is defined by the fact that the ‘human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.’”
To navigate this period, he says, we must first learn to navigate our own nature – for it’s apparent that some shortfall in the human psyche has gotten us into this mess. Only by identifying and moving beyond that shortfall can we hope to handle the tremendous responsibility we now find ourselves stuck with.
“There is something increasingly desperate about placing more faith in technological cleverness when it is the unrelenting desire to command the natural world that has brought us to this point,” he writes. “Unless we understand why a certain kind of rationality seems to have failed, appeals to more reason are quixotic.”
He calls for a shift in human thinking – one that brings us beyond the Enlightenment separation of man and nature, and into a more holistic way of viewing the world. We need, in other words, ideas with magic to stir men’s blood. We need to think big.