There’s No Emergency Room for a Planet

The metaphors in that statement really hit home for me: most of us living in wealthy nations know, somewhere deep-down, that if something bad happens to us that there’ll be something and/or someone to take care of us—not just a long-term safety net, though there’s that to a greater or lesser extent in various nations, but a short-term safety net. An emergency room is the most fundamental of these. (The title is a quote from Rep. Ed Markey, who I’d never heard of before, speaking today about the need for political action on climate change.)

I of course have my preferred policy (the clean energy dividend), but almost any action is good at this point. But what action, and by whom? Large-scale political action is ultimately needed, but there’s a certain paralysis that’s taken over as a result of national and international dysfunction on climate action.

So that brings me back to what I remember reading about as a kid in the 1980s—how someday soon we’d have space expeditions to visit and then to terraform Mars and other planets for human settlement. Not knowing better, I thought it’d happen, but it seems pretty unlikely at this point.

But the thing I’ve never understood is why there hasn’t been a similar sentiment about terraforming Earth. Maybe it’s that it’s literally too grounded and prosaic. It’s not one big dream for humankind. It’s a thousand thousand thousand little dreams for individual humans and the animals and plants and fungi that surround them.

terraform |ˈterəˌfôrm| verb [ trans. ]
(esp. in science fiction) transform (a planet) so as to resemble the earth, esp. so that it can support human life.

Wouldn’t it be strange if now that we live on Eaarth, as Bill McKibben aptly puts it, we need to terraform our new planet so as to resemble Earth?

My dream is for each of us, and our friends and family and local communities, to restore some little patch of Earth that is dear to us, and if not dear to us, then at least near to us. That restoration might look like trying to help return it to the state it was in before it was razed for paving or construction or mining a (few) hundred years ago. But since it’s hard to know what it was like once, and since we have to accept that at this point we’re changing the planet in massive ways, improving the biodiversity and true sustainability of the local ecosystem is more important in my mind than returning it to some past state that can’t ever be recovered.

What such restoration will look like will vary depending on the local climate, the local ecosystem, the local community, and of course the people doing the restoration. I’m not even sure restoration is the right term for it. But what I do know is that not only is it gratifying work, but also that it provides an opportunity to build a connection with the land where one lives.

Recently I’ve been trying to do this in small ways. There’s quite a bit of dead, compact soil filled with construction debris and trash between the sidewalk and the curb next to the apartment where I live. Getting a shovel to go into it more than a centimeter required chiseling at it like it was rock. So my first goal was to restore the soil, and to do that I dug several small holes and planted comfrey (roots) in them a few months ago. Along with the comfrey I scattered local wildflower seeds and clover seeds (to eventually help fix nitrogen). It’s been a bit of a challenge getting the seeds to grow, though they are now, but the comfrey really took to it and has been doing well. The next step, probably in the Spring, will be to plant oak saplings I’m going to be growing over the Winter. And maybe some fruit trees as well, though I’m not sure which yet.

What’s the difference between massive geoengineering efforts, such as the recent effort to seed the ocean in an attempt to trigger a plankton bloom and sequester carbon, and smaller-scale efforts? And what’s the right thing to do when restoring our little patches of Earth? Should only natives be planted? Food-bearing trees? Some mix? Should more diversity of plants be introduced than naturally exist in the region? I’m not sure that there’s a good answer to these questions, but that’s no barrier to doing something anyway.

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Responses to “There’s No Emergency Room for a Planet”

  1. A few thoughts:
    Somewhat in the spirit of restoration is permaculture, which works with the local ecosystem rather than against it.

    I know of a few efforts that would probably fit the definition of terraforming: a project to reclaim a desert area in the mideast, and a reforestation project in southern Asia. (I might be able to dig up links for these.)

    Since you’re in LA, you might visit the Theodore Payne Foundation, where you could get some good advice and appropriate plants for your sidewalk project.

  2. Don – Definitely – my thinking has really been influenced by many permaculture writers and activists. I’ve seen “greening the desert”, which is one of the classics (restoring part of the Jordan desert I believe), and I read about a man in India who singlehandedly planted dozens (hundreds?) of acres of trees himself over the last few decades.

    So I’m actually in Northern CA, but I’ll check out info on that foundation anyway – thanks!

  3. Hey Barath -

    I love this proposal, but it seems to me that we need to come up with a principled answer to exactly the question you raise at the end: what’s the difference between terraforming and geoengineering? Without one, the geoengineers own this conversation. So far as I can tell, they’re the only ones making hay out of the fact that we’ve already taken control of the planet. They conclude, with a rhetorical air of responsible adulthood, that we ought to seed the skies with sulfur or whatever, and then paint their opponents as squeamish kids, unable to make the hard but necessary decisions.

    But if we can concede the premise, but argue for a different conclusion—terraforming—then it can be put forward as a serious alternative. I think it’s a brilliant bit of framing, but it relies on us having an answer to the question. My first inclination is to say that terraforming is intervention to increase ecological resilience at local scales (as opposed to geoengineering, which intervenes very far upstream and affects local reslience only indirectly). But I’m sure I’m naive; this looks like a job for philosophers and ecologists to collaborate on.

  4. I agree – the fact that I can’t quite articulate the difference between the two has really been bugging me since I wrote this (really, well before I wrote this). I really like your suggestion that it has to do with what ecological level the intervention takes place at.

    Maybe two axes that we could consider are 1) the duration of the action and 2) the human-derived energy flow to make that happen? It seems this sort of permaculture-based terraforming is about kickstarting natural cycles and systems that, once started, can continue on their own, so for 1) the duration is long and for 2) the energy flow is hopefully one-time. Whereas geoengineering schemes, from what I’ve seen, tend to be the other way around: 1) the duration is short (e.g. dump iron in one spot in the ocean, potentially sequester carbon, and that’s it) and 2) it’s all human energy required to make it go. I’m not sure at the moment how to make this distinction more succinct.

  5. I read large amounts of SF when I was young. I have a couple of slides about “my science fiction childhood” and all the (now) weird fantasies of generation spaceships, colonizing and terraforming other planets etc.
    My favorite example is a popular science book though, “between dream and reality” that wrote about future technologies for recording and watching our own dreams on TV. I 100% assumed it would be around when I was adult and already then (at, say, 12) thought a lot about whether I would (always) look at those (wet?) dreams of mine in private or whether I would share them/sound. I lived on Earth, but my mind was at least partly living elsewhere, on Planet Future!