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◌  Seawater

31 January 2009

Today I tolerated the overproduction, perfect diction, and unrelenting upper­middlebrowery of CBC Radio 1 (Canada’s NPR) long enough to catch the first two episodes of Climate Wars, and I’m mostly glad. They were more openly terrifying, with unjournalistic speculation about nightmare scenarios, than I’d heard before from a national broadcaster. They were a little tasteless but honest enough, and they kindly touched on a bunch of ideas I’ve been talking about: that global warming is marketed wrong to conservatives, that it’s about famine and war (remember?), that we’re looking at Cold War II over the poles, and so on. Actually, it was annoying because I was pretty happy thinking I sounded a bit crazy saying these things.

It led to thinking about how much of our work this century will involve seawater. My lay understanding is that the ocean, by its dominance in the water, carbon, and thermohaline cycles, is the nexus of the climate system. Whatever happens in the air happens in part because of the ocean. And with the rest of the hydrosphere, it’s the instrument of some of our worst prospective problems: flooding, storm surges, hurricanes, and drought.

By inaction we’ve long since cast our lot with geoengineering. This will likely work best in the ocean because it’s globally circulating, not on personal property, and, especially, full of life – you can pull carbon out of the air, but you can’t feed air-plankton to do it for you. And probably the worst of the problems will be drought, to which there are only two solutions: agricultural sanity and desalination. We’re going to get salty.

(A little envelope-backery on desalination (but check my numbers): the minimum energy of desalination is about 0.77 kW·h/m3; the places that need water most get roughly 5 kW·h/m2/day of solar energy. So the god of thermodynamics could produce about 71 gallons per hour per square meter of panel. Right now good desalination takes 3.2 kW·h/m3 bay-to-tank, and good solar panels are ≈ 0.3 efficient. That’s about 5 gallons per hour per square meter of panel. Nanotech is set to improve both PV and reverse osmosis, so let’s say we eventually get 35ish at reasonable prices. Not bad.)

I was reminded as I listened how there seems to be a motif of change in all this global warming stuff. Or is there? It keeps coming up when I think about it, but I’m not smart enough to follow the thread. One change is in the climate. One of the things it tells us is that monocultures, especially monocultures near carrying capacity, are inflexible. The political colors that most support social volatility and flexibility are the ones most worried about climate change. There’s a school of passivism that says we shouldn’t worry because human ingenuity, taking place in that kind of innovation-friendly volatility, will find a solution in time. Many people who think global warming or its human cause is a hoax think it’s a cover for authoritarianism. Because taking it seriously is a new idea in the mainstream, the idea of global warming is itself a change, and people seem to make it a vessel for all their ideas about the future. And so on. I don’t see a way to fit it together that tells us anything interesting, but I can’t shake the feeling that there might be one there.

I guess the big idea about change and environmentalism for me is that environmentalism is about change. It’s understanding that the life of this planet is not only adapted to it, it’s meta-adapted in ways so subtle that we should assume there are more of them that we’re missing. Our – Earthlings’ – ability to adapt has, over billions of years, given us the ability to adapt our ability to adapt; it’s bred us not only as individuals but as populations, not only that but as species, not only that but as ecosystems, not only that but as a planet. Nature is the freest market, and when we think it’s inefficient it’s because we’re not looking closely enough, or from far enough back. The forests we cut down know, in a figurative but productive sense, how to adapt to the kinds of problems we’re causing by cutting them down. We’re losing useful perspectives encoded in dismal lichens. We’re monoculturing in a time of violent change. Environmentalism is saying that in the long term things other than ourselves, out of our control, matter to us.