Playing God As Scientists Focus On The Environment

Business - December 4th, 2009

Sustainable Business

by Darrell Nelson

Recently the boundaries of science have been pushed further than ever in a bid to slow down climate change and persuade mother nature to cool down a little. The latest ideas come straight out of a sci-fi book as scientists have been looking at planet-scale engineering projects to slow the pace of climate change. Called ‘geoengineering,’ these ideas to alter the earth’s environment on a large scale are increasingly being articulated and seriously evaluated despite delving into areas that are very likely to be seen as particularly controversial as a forced manipulation of nature. The National Academy of Sciences defined geoengineering as “options that would involve large-scale engineering of our environment in order to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry.” Despite no global-scale geoengineering projects undertaken up until now, smaller projects have been undertaken, and it has been rumored that planet-wide action may well be on the not too distant horizon.

Planktos and Climos are two companies currently looking into ‘seeding’ the ocean with iron to stimulate the growth of plankton. The idea behind these ocean fertilization companies, which have already been sharply criticized, is that plankton growth can sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide in the ocean as during a plankton ‘bloom,’ or large-scale growth, as plankton metabolize carbon dioxide. At the same time, supporters claim that ocean fertilizing is able to provide extra nutrients in order to replenish fish stocks. As we have been fertilizing and manipulating the land for generations, it seems a logical step for us to now begin looking at how we can increase the productivity of our oceans, however if we have learned anything from modern problems, it is that man trying unnaturally to grow more for less can have some pretty hefty consequences and side effects.

Another example of science stepping in to the environmental field comes from Dr. Schrag, a Harvard University professor working as a geochemist who studies climate changes over the Earth’s history. Schrag is already well known for carbon sequestration ideas that have been gaining a lot of attention: namely releasing sulfur into the atmosphere in an attempt to mimic large volcanic eruptions. When sulfate aerosols are released into the atmosphere, they cool the climate. In fact, it was recorded that when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted it had a measurable downward effect on temperatures. Sulfur could act as a ‘crude’ substitute for sulfate aerosols, Schrag said.

In a rather more comic book scenario, China stepped into the geoengineering fray with an ‘out of this world’ answer to one of the environmental problems. While most governments are reacting to the global food shortage by growing more food, the Chinese have decided to grow the same amount of fruits and vegetables—only really, really big. And how do they grow these foods so huge? Simple, they’ve been sent to outer space! The seeds get blasted to the stars, and after they return, transform into enormous eatables—but no one knows why. The scientists were over the moon (excuse the pun) with the results, as the trials have yielded ridiculously large pumpkins, two-foot long cucumbers, fourteen-pound eggplants, and chili plants that resemble small trees!

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