Futuresonic, Day 1 – Alien Music, Hacking the Earth

Tonight I’m in Manchester for the Social Technology Summit, part of the Futuresonic festival. The opening gala event was a chili-and-chocolate mix of performance and prose.

The chocolaty bit was provided by Tim O’Brien and Mark Pilkington. O’Brien works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope observatory outside Manchester, and Pilkington is a musician. For their performance, Touch the Stars, O’Brien remotely controlled Jodrell Bank’s 7-metre radio telescope through a laptop on stage. 20 miles away, the dish slowly swept its arc along the curve of the milky way, picking up the radio squeals, hiss and murmurings of distant sideral masses. The input was piped to Pilkington’s sound deck, where the musician tweaked, cajoled and played the noise into haunting and alien music.

They were followed on stage by the spice of the evening: the summit’s keynote session by Jamais Cascio, a futurologist at the Institute for the Future. His talk has been summarized in detail by Martin Bryant. Like good chili pepper, it was hot, impossible to ignore and left you with a lingering sense of pain. Cascio’s main points:

  1. We, as a species, are in very grave danger, as climate change effects wreak havoc around the world.
  2. Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake.
  3. Even if we act now, the systems we’ve perturbed (oceans, atmosphere) function on such a vast scale that latent heating effects will still result in widespread damage.
  4. Nature, in a sense, isn’t natural any more – we’ve entered the ‘anthropocene’ epoch, the part of Earth’s history where homo sapiens is a prime determinant of the way the biosphere works.
  5. Conclusion: we should begin a large-scale geoengineering effort to change Earth’s albedo, sequester carbon and give us a breathing space in which we can switch to a low-carbon economy.

The talk was thought-provoking, though marred by extremely impolite heckling from a drunk lady in the fourth row, who had to be forcibly removed. I agree wholeheartedly with the first three points up there. When I studied at McGill in Montreal I did a minor in Environment, and I recognized many of the statistics and principles Cascio was quoting from the courses and seminars I attended.

On a philosophical level, I disagree with point 4 – I don’t see how we as a species can be considered as being outside nature. The structures we build are as natural as coral reefs. The changes we make to the global biosphere aren’t unprecedented. When photosynthesizing plants first appeared in the Late Archaean, 2.9 billion years ago, their oxygen-producing metabolisms obliterated a global anoxic ecosystem.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the damage we’re doing – it’s just that every creature produces wastes, and most creatures harm others in some way in the normal course of their life. It’s natural. We, as a species and as a civilization, are natural.

On the geoengineering point – I concede expertise to Mr. Cascio, as I’m sure that he has studied the science of this in far greater detail than I. But the whole thing makes me deeply, deeply unseasy. Cascio himself said that sucessfully using geoengineering effects to counter global climate change would require a massive, even unprecedented, research and modeling effort. The amount of understanding we’d need to acquire, about an enormously complex, chaotic global system, simply boggles the mind. Sequencing the human genome would stand as an insignificant mote of data next to such an achievement. I’m going to need a lot more convincing that it’s a good idea.

This post will necessarily be brief, as I am a classic journalist by temperament and therefore do almost everything at the last minute. (Reporting the news, by definition, is something you can’t really do in advance. This statement is, in fact, totally untrue, but it remains one of the chief reasons I chose this profession.) I must prepare my presentation for the morning – blog post to follow!

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