PRINT November 2008


AS THE EARTH HEATS UP, it is inevitable that solutions will be sought in the application of engineering at a scale commensurate with the scope of the problem—a planetary rappel à l’ordre to be achieved by the mechanization of the geobiosphere. The popular press teems with reports of geoengineering proposals aimed at combating global warming. NASA is studying the feasibility of retuning the thermodynamic properties of the atmosphere by seeding its upper reaches with nanoscale particles. Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts propose flooding the oceans with iron to force algae blooms that will suck up excess carbon dioxide like cheap paper towels. The Bush administration is urging researchers to design a flotilla of mirrored satellites to reflect now-inconvenient solar radiation back into space, while engineers at Columbia University envision vast forests of artificial trees filtering out greenhouse gases. These schemes all share the noble goal of leaving mankind free to pursue Armageddon in the traditional manner, using high-energy physics and organic chemistry.

Such frantic activity has a Fullerean quality to it. After all, R. Buckminster Fuller, at least in the popular imagination, is the utopian engineer in extremis, the man who proposed an island-wide weather-altering dome to save Manhattanites the trouble of having to carry umbrellas to work. Certainly Fuller would have been comfortable with the magnitude of ambition on display; he was never one to allow mere issues of scale to obscure a vision of the possible. But, I think, to see Fuller as an avatar of the mechanistic paradigm that, it must be admitted, created the problem in question in the first place sells his vision short.

Geoengineering suffers from a tendency to see the world in Newtonian terms, as an accretion of linear causalities that admit time but not the irreversibility of history. In other words, it fails to acknowledge the degree to which entropy orders the universe, meaning that the transformation of energy is a process that cannot be reversed. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that terrestrial systems cannot be reset like a clock running a few minutes fast; once the time reads two minutes to midnight, the relative security of quarter ’til is gone forever.

Fuller was an early adopter of an alternate epistemology, one that sees the process of design as an encounter with systemic complexity. He was obsessed with mapping the dynamic processes of becoming and entropic dissipation that underpin our material culture. His World Game, created in the 1960s, was modeled on NORAD war-gaming methodologies but deployed these techniques in the service of creating information about interdependencies resulting from planetary resource use and distribution. His geodesic maps of the earth seek to depict the world without the distorting lens of cultural demarcation, generating new topologies unmarked by scuffles between political hierarchies and ripe for investigation instead of inscription. Fuller was not an inventor, in the mode of Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, but rather an explorer in a universe bounded by mathematics. He has more in common with Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, the founder of modern thermodynamics and the first to recognize the necessity of entropy, than he does with Gustave Eiffel, who only extrapolated the commonplace in the service of monumentality. Thus Fuller was less interested in finding solutions to particular problems than in finding ways to reorder material and energetic processes. The lesson of the geodesic dome is not that one can take a pile of sticks and make a sphere, but rather that one can organize dynamic processes—the transfer of energies through rigid structures—to achieve a temporary equipoise.

Inherent in such a worldview is a sense of history and humility that the geoengineers sorely lack. Panic, not necessity, is usually the midwife of this kind of invention. The intricacy of planetary-scale thermodynamics is staggering. These are complex, not complicated, systems, meaning that they have all the mathematical characteristics of systems that emphatically do not behave in a predictable, linear fashion. The Japanese are using one of the largest supercomputers in the world to model climate right now—it’s the World Game in another guise—and they can resolve only to a sixty kilometers-by-sixty kilometers square, an area the size of Long Island. To do even that, they have to comprehensively simplify material and energetic exchanges among the earth, the atmosphere, and the oceans. The very opacity of the situation demands radical systemic investigation rather than episodic reactionary activity. The problem is epistemological as well as technological. If you seed the ocean with iron to encourage phytoplankton growth with the goal of absorbing carbon dioxide, you must realize that you’re modifying the single largest sunlight-to-usable-energy conversion system on the planet, one that forms the basis of the majority of the food chains that support both marine and terrestrial life. The whole concept makes risky betting on mortgage-backed securities look like a Saturday night poker game at the Elks lodge.

This is not to suggest that bold actions are not called for. The current anxiety about the fate of our method of inhabiting this planet is probably underdeveloped, given recent data that suggests temperatures and emissions are rising at rates in excess of those predicted by worst-case-scenario climate models a few short years ago. The reality is simply that we lack a complete technology to inform a cognitive model of the unfolding processes that are causing the problem; without this model, we have no hope of seeing our way through. The necessary paradigm shift always begins with a novel marriage of existing techniques that engenders a perceptual model of the world fundamentally different from the one that preceded it. The day that Robert Hooke, steeped in the emerging body of thought that gave rise to the scientific method, used the newly invented microscope to examine living tissues and saw that life emerges from the hierarchical assembly of imperceptible building blocks—cells—the idea that disease is caused by “malodorous exhalations” began to die. Fuller fused the mathematics of topology with an understanding of structure as dynamic energetic process and, almost by accident, perceived a way to enclose the world. That we would consider doing so elides his operative insight, which is that the works of man and nature are islands of transient stability brought about by subtle intervention in the constant flow of transforming energies. In the end, Fuller’s optimism was rooted in a belief that progress toward seeing the world as it really exists, in both time and space, and toward learning to act accordingly, is an inevitable consequence of human development. Gambling his beloved Spaceship Earth on a single roll of loaded dice, without fully understanding the game we are playing, would probably break his heart.

Kevin Pratt is an assistant professor in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and a cofounder, with Dana Cupkova, of EPIPHYTE Lab.