Features Archives

August 11, 2005

Terraforming Earth IV: The Question of Methane

siberian_ice.jpgTerraforming Earth is the effort to use large-scale engineering to affect geophysical processes in a way to avert radical changes to the environment -- that is, to make Earth "Earth-like" again. I touched on the idea first here, expanded on it here, and explored some of the more philosophical questions here. In all of these pieces, however, you'll note that this terraforming work is thought to be an option for some time down the road, after other solutions are exhausted. There's no argument in those three essays that we should start large scale engineering efforts now.

Today's email brought news that should make us think hard about how soon we might want to bring such efforts to bear.

Many of you sent me links to the article in today's Guardian UK newspaper (linking to a New Scientist article) outlining a "tipping point" in the Siberian arctic: the permafrost appears to be melting. This is happening due to a combination of natural arctic temperature cycles, global warming (Siberia is warming faster than any other place on Earth), and a feedback effect from melting snow -- the darker ground absorbs more heat, resulting in faster melting of adjacent permafrost. Siberian permafrost covers a million square kilometers of ground that's largely peat bog; the peat has been producing methane for centuries, but that methane has been trapped under the permafrost. With the permafrost melting, the methane would be released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming by a substantial amount. How quickly the methane would be released remains an open question -- would it take years to release it all? Decades? A century or more? Clearly, this situation demands a great deal more study.

It's important to note that the source of this story is not a peer-reviewed, multiply-confirmed piece of research in Nature, Science or the PNAS. It's an article in New Scientist about a presentation from a group of researchers just back from Siberia. This doesn't mean that the findings are wrong, only that we should be skeptical until they've been confirmed. But that such permafrost melting would result in the release of abundant methane is not a new theory, and New Scientist notes that independent research points to methane "hot spots" already forming in the region.

For the moment, then, let's assume that the article is generally correct: the permafrost melt is getting faster, and the boggy ground beneath is releasing its pent-up methane. There are two important things to know about this situation: the amount of methane that would be released is projected to be in the multi-gigaton range -- one source says 70 billion tons, another says "several hundred" billion tons; and methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In essence, the release of (say) 100 billion tons of methane would be the functional heat-trapping equivalent of 2.1 trillion tons of CO2. To put that number into perspective, the total annual output of greenhouse gases from the US is about 7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

This is a big deal.

Continue reading "Terraforming Earth IV: The Question of Methane" »

October 18, 2005

Safety in Knowledge

When researchers at the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland sequenced the genome of the 1918 influenza strain and posted it on the web, they may well have saved the lives of millions.

For some readers, this may seem like a counter-intuitive proposition. After all, the 1918 flu killed up to 50 million people. And while the bioscience needed to re-engineer the 1918 strain is far more demanding than many might realize, remaking the virus is clearly possible: reseachers at the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta used the viral sequence to do just that.

But those who decry this research and the publication of the genome as a "recipe for destruction" -- such as the erstwhile antagonists, Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy, who put aside their differences to write an editorial in the New York Times making such an argument -- both underestimate the value of widespread knowledge of how this virus works in efforts to combat similar pandemics and overestimate our vulnerability to this particular virus. The most important result of the sequencing of the 1918 flu is the knowledge given the world in its preparations for the next major pandemic flu.

Continue reading "Safety in Knowledge" »

February 3, 2006

Earth Witness

razrearth.jpgThe idea of the emerging participatory panopticon scares a lot of people. That's not surprising; after all, there are numerous ways in which a world in which millions of us carry always-on, mobile networked recorders could lead to invasions of privacy, harassment of the powerless, and an increased coarsening of public discourse. But if we accept the notion that the participatory panopticon is a likely consequence of otherwise desirable improvements to communication and information technologies, it becomes incumbent upon us to think of ways to use it as a tool for good.

I've long admired the Witness project, which provides video cameras to human rights activists around the world in order to document violations and abuses. I was particularly happy to see the recent news that Witness plans to open up a web portal to enable users of digital cameras and cameraphones to send in their recordings over the Internet, rather than just as hand-carried videotape. While thinking about that development, however, it occurred to me that a similar model might work well for a "second superpower" army of networked environmentalists: imagine a web portal collecting recordings and evidence of ecological problems (human-caused or otherwise), environmental crimes, and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be, in essence, an "Earth Witness" project.

Such a project wouldn't need to be limited only to problems. In the best WorldChanging spirit, the "Earth Witness" site (or "Environmental Transparency Project," or "Smart Mobs for Natural Security") could also serve as a collection spot for data about conditions around the planet. The data could be tagged with geographic information and, once uploaded, mashed-up with online maps for easy viewing and analysis.

Continue reading "Earth Witness" »

February 20, 2006

The Open Future

crowduk.jpgThe future is not written in stone, but neither is it unbounded. Our actions, our choices shape the options we'll have in the days and years to come. We can, with all too little difficulty, make decisions that call into being an inescapable chain of events. But if we try, we can also make decisions that expand our opportunities, and push out the boundaries of tomorrow.

If there is a common theme across our work at WorldChanging, it is that we are far better served as a global civilization by actions and ideas that increase our ability to respond effectively, knowledgably, and sustainably to challenges that arise. In particular, I've focused on the value of openness as a means of worldchanging transformation: open as in free, transparent and diverse; open as in participatory and collaborative; open as in broadly accessible; and open as in choice and flexibility, as with the kind of future worth building -- the open future.

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February 25, 2006

Earth Phone Speech

Presented at TED 2006.

I want to talk to you today about how the future we will create can be a future that we will be proud of. I think about this every day -- it's my job. I'm co-founder and Senior Columnist at, a website that you've heard a bit about this week. Alex Steffen and I started WorldChanging in late 2003, and since then, we and our growing global team of contributors have documented the ever-expanding variety of solutions that are out there, right now and on the near horizon. In a little over two years, we've written up around 4,000 items: replicable models, technological tools, and emerging ideas, all providing a path to a future that's more sustainable, more equitable, and more desirable.

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February 27, 2006

The Open Future: Spirits in the Material World

When Cameron Sinclair took the stage to receive his TED Prize last Thursday, he devoted a good portion of his talk to the exploration of his idea for an "open source" form of architecture. Cameron's emphasis was on the openness of the designs and architectural innovations most useful to builders in the developing world, but the idea of open source architecture has the potential to go even further than that. It dovetails with the slow emergence of open source hardware, pointing us towards a world of individual power over design that has the potential to be extraordinarily worldchanging.

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March 6, 2006

The Open Future: The Reversibility Principle

Two philosophies dominate the broad debates about the development of potentially-worldchanging technologies. The Precautionary Principle tells us that we should err on the side of caution when it comes to developments with uncertain or potentially negative repercussions, even when those developments have demonstrable benefits, too. The Proactionary Principle, conversely, tells us that we should err on the side of action in those same circumstances, unless the potential for harm can be clearly demonstrated and is clearly worse than the benefits of the action. In recent months, however, I've been thinking about a third approach. Not a middle-of-the-road compromise, but a useful alternative: the Reversibility Principle.

It's very much a work-in-progress, but read on to see what this could entail, and please feel free to add comments and critiques.

Continue reading "The Open Future: The Reversibility Principle" »

March 13, 2006

The Open Future: Ecopunkt

iceberg_melt.jpgThe Earth's environment, particularly its climate, is not a linear, obvious-cause and immediate-effect system. This has a number of implications, but the one that troubles many of us who pay close attention is the resulting potential for "phase change" shifts in the climate system, where seemingly-small perturbations lead to a major change in how the climate behaves (the classic example of this kind of change is a pile of sand with grains dropping down on the peak; some will slide down, some will stack up, but eventually the entire peak will collapse, radically changing the shape of the pile). As we develop the tools and techniques to better understand the overall global climate and ecological system, these "tipping points" should be at the top of our list of processes to identify and, if at all possible, defend.

This concept of particular points of environmental vulnerability bears a striking resemblance to a seemingly very different concern: the vulnerability of economies and societies to attack by those who would intentionally do harm. Analyst John Robb, in his Global Guerillas weblog (which should be required reading for all of us), calls these points of vulnerability systempunkt (we first mentioned this over a year ago); we could, in turn, think of these points of environmental vulnerability as ecopunkt. Robb defines "systempunkt" in this way:

In Blitzkrieg warfare, the point of greatest emphasis is called a schwerpunkt. It is the point, often identified by lower level commanders, where the enemy line may be pierced by an explosive combination of multiple weapon systems. [...] In global guerrilla warfare (a combination of open source innovation, bazaar transactions, and low tech weapons), the point of greatest emphasis is called a systempunkt. It is the point in a system (either an infrastructure or a market), always identified by autonomous groups within the bazaar, where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse in the targeted system.[...] The ultimate objective of this activity, in aggregate, is the collapse of the target state and globalization.

Working with that description, we could define "ecopunkt" as: the point in an ecological system where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse, leading to a chaotic destabilization of the environmental system.

Continue reading "The Open Future: Ecopunkt" »

March 20, 2006

The Open Future: Living in Multiple Worlds

There's a theory in cognitive science that suggests that one of the hallmarks of human consciousness is the ability to model another person's thoughts in one's own brain, and do so with reasonable accuracy. It's not simply being able to read expressions, although that's part of it; humans can imagine how another person's thought processes, which may differ significantly from their own, would play out in reaction to a given situation. If you think about it, this is an amazing capability, especially because we don't always do it consciously. We run sophisticated simulations of other people's minds within our own. This capacity allows us both to imagine how others would feel after we witness their circumstances -- that is, it allows us to experience empathy -- and to imagine how others would respond to our own statements and actions -- that is, it allows us to rehearse our behavior.

We are now in the process of building that same capability into the world in which we live.

Continue reading "The Open Future: Living in Multiple Worlds" »

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