It’s just human nature…

As you may know, I’m writing a book. It’s on the Anthropocene. As befits any book project, I’m staking out a website. Stay tuned!

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The Art of Life in the Anthropocene

THE RED VEINS of a certain pink petunia flower come courtesy of human DNA — the A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s that teach a cell how to build itself. With the help of a virus, Brazilian-born Eduardo Kac was able to stitch human DNA — his own — into a petunia, veining the flower’s petals in red by generating an antibody with a snippet of his genetic code. This so-called “Edunia” is neither the product of genetic research, per se, nor botanical gamesmanship. Kac is simply an artist, and the Edunia (along with limited edition seed packs) has been exhibited from Minneapolis to Barcelona, a show he calls “Natural History of the Enigma.”

Or, as Kac puts it:

The petal pink background, against which the red veins are seen, is evocative of my own pinkish white skin tone. The result of this molecular manipulation is a bloom that creates the living image of human blood rushing through the veins of a flower.

Such is art in the Anthropocene, this new era of man necessitated by our ever-expanding impacts on the planet as a whole, from geology to biology. Kac’s work is hardly alone. Bio-art in the Anthropocene ranges from a book stored entirely in DNA to a poem “written” by a microbe, a living poem known as “The Xenotext” to its progenitor (not exactly author) Christian Bök of the University of Calgary.

Head over to the L.A. Review of Books to read the rest.

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Welcome to the Anthropocene: Earth Island Edition

earth-island-journal-cover“As in all things, the bacteria got there first. One tiny cell built inside of itself a new pigment, a brilliant green thanks to its ability to absorb only certain colors in the light of a younger, weaker Sun. The pigment – dubbed chlorophyll by animals that rely on this one cell’s innumerable descendants to power name-giving brains – channeled the energy in sunshine to split the waters of Earth’s early oceans. The cell took in carbon dioxide, paired it with once watery hydrogen, and made food. In the process out bubbled a flammable gas that made life as we know it possible: oxygen.

These bacteria were the first geoengineers – large-scale manipulators of the planetary environment…” And we will be the second. Read the rest over at Earth Island Journal.

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Finding Character

george-church

Rick Friedman/ DER SPIEGEL

So now that I’ve settled on the classic “journey” structure (for the moment), I’m turning my attention to characters. Who’s going to populate this book of mine? And who’s going to keep readers turning pages?

I’ve got folks who could certainly serve: from a buttoned-down astronaut who now spends his time studying how to deploy renewable energy most effectively to a mustachioed oceanographer raised in the Himalayas who would like to use marine life to rejigger the skies. There’s even the man Stephen Colbert asked: “Are you trying to play God, sir? Because you certainly have the beard for it.” (That’d be George Church, who’s also been in the news lately for saying the resurrection of Neanderthals is imminently feasible and possibly desirable.)

The problem is I have no single character who can carry the entire saga of the Anthropocene. My only hope is that I can somehow weave these characters in and out of some over-arching narrative but I’m worried that what will actually happen is that I’ll just write a couple of scenes or set-pieces and then that’s the end of that character for the rest of the book. (Call it seven to 10 articles masquerading as a book, or “journalist’s syndrome.”)

I guess the only way to find out is to start writing…

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The Enduring Mystery of “Structure”

earth

Our one (and only) spaceship

As I set out on this book writing project, the first (and by no means smallest) challenge to surmount is how in the world I’m going to structure a book about a bunch of misfits having a scientific argument. I guess when I put it like that it doesn’t sound so terrible but the danger is that I end up with eight, loosely connected profiles that don’t add up to much. And my ambitions are much larger than that.

So I think I’m going to be imposing an artificial superstructure, like a narrative overlay that can then pull the reader through the book. The idea, at present, is to tell the story of the Anthropocene from the bottom of the sea on up to the far reaches of space, with stops on land (naturally) in between. Organizing the information this way may let the reader feel the pull of what’s to come.

Or not.

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The End of the World As We Know It, or I Got an Anthropocene Book Deal

Humanity is now writing a new chapter in Earth’s history. The choices we make now will help set the thermostat of the entire planet for at least tens of thousands of years. If people, plants and animals don’t like the climate of 2100, 2500 or even 25000, they will have us to blame. And if human civilization is to persist to see that climate, we have our work cut out for us.

Which is why I’m writing a book. We are the first life to transform this planet with the possibility of consciousness about it, terraforming terra herself as a result of our actions (albeit mostly unwittingly to date). If we want to ensure that the Anthropocene is more than a blip in the history of the planet, it will take all of our smarts and our technology to begin to master formerly natural systems, such as short-circuiting the millennia it takes to recycle water or the eons nature requires to turn tons of old, dead plants into fossil fuels.

This is not about preserving Nature with a capital N or bringing stasis to what is (and always has been) the dynamic flux of life, chemistry and plate tectonics. This is about managing change, adapting and ensuring the resilience of our civilization, our fellow life and even our planet.

I’ll be chronicling my efforts to craft a narrative history out of that topic here. So set out on this journey of disillusionment with me? Any and all help, insights, pro tips or just words of encouragement truly welcome. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

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So it goes…

As interested in readers appear to be in the Anthropocene thus far, at least, publishers… not so much. Either I’m not expressing the idea well or wittily or it’s just too darn depresssing. Onwards!

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Anthropocene: It’s a Steampunk Thing

“The Holocene may have ended when James Watt invented his steam engine.” Read some idiot musing on the Anthropocene.

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Welcome to the Anthropocene

I LIVE IN A SUPERFUND site. So do you, no matter where you live. Despite environmental laws older than I am and the migration of U.S. heavy industry overseas, the toxic impacts of modern human life touch every inch of the U.S. And it’s not just the U.S., it’s North America, it’s Asia, it’s Antarctica, every inch of everywhere really — even the organic detoxification spas across California. Welcome to the Anthropocene, or “age of man.”

We move more earth and stone than all the world’s rivers. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere all life breathes. We are on pace to eat to death half of the other life currently sharing the planet with us. There is nothing on Earth untouched by man — whether it be the soot from fossil fuels darkening polar snows or the very molecules incorporated into a tree trunk. Humanity has become a global force whose exploits will be written in rock for millennia.

We can think of our Anthropocene… Read the rest over at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Can the U.S. build a clean, green economic machine?

Can cleaner sources of energy not only power our economy but also drive a recovery from the Great Recession? That’s the question confronted by policymakers across the U.S.—and by debaters in the Intelligence Squared series hosted March 8 by New York University.

The list of political proponents of a clean, green energy economy is long, ranging from President Obama down to John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. And the anecdotal evidence thus far seems strong: 2,600 manufacturing jobs in Colorado as a result of Danish wind turbine-maker Vestas—plus the farmers in that state who reap profits from the wind blowing over their fields while continuing to grow crops like wheat. Or the green jobs growth in China, Germany or California.

“Green jobs are the largest source of growth in California [with] job growth 10 times higher than in any other sector,” former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told the second annual Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy summit on March 1. “China has made the decision, backed by billions of dollars, that green is where the economic action is going to be. China is an ancient culture with new ideas. We cannot let America be a young culture with old ideas.”

But the list of economic counter-examples is also long, including the offshoring of the steel industry that laid Braddock—and all of the Pittsburgh area—low, jobs-wise. In fact, the Rust Belt might also be called one of the downsides of cleaner air: If you want to avoid local air pollution, a simple solution is to shift the coal burning responsible for it far away—as outlined in an infamous memo from Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank. And, faced with diminished economic prospects, clean energy companies—EvergreenSolyndraRange Fuels—have recently begun laying off American workers.

There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate: what is clean energy exactly? And what creates jobs?

The answer to the former depends on who you ask, but it certainly encompasses renewable energy sources such as dams, hot rocks, solar and wind, and may include sources like nuclear or cleaner-burning natural gas. Or even “clean coal.”

Clean coal is an oxymoron akin to family vacation or jumbo shrimp,” argued pundit Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green Energy’ and the Real Fuels of the Future at the debate on March 8. “If everything is clean energy, then nothing is.”

Setting aside that question for the moment, consider the question of jobs. Not only is there the issue of the quantity of jobs created by any given industry but also the quality. So perhaps there are more jobs in installing or cleaning solar panels than in making them in the first place, a process that tends to be automated. But are those good, high-paying jobs? The kind of jobs to replace the often unionized, say, autoworker jobs that vaulted immigrants and Americans alike into the ranks of the middle class in the 20th century?

At present, there are three engines pumping out American jobs: construction, innovation and services. Rebuilding the American energy infrastructure would ultimately drive job growth in all three, from building new nuclear power plants to retraining auto mechanics to work on electric cars. And there’s the export market to think about: most of the growth in energy infrastructure will take place in the rest of the world, noted private equity investor Kassia Yanosek of Hudson Clean Energy Partners. “Clean energy will drive exports, which are critical to future growth.”

And that growth depends on manufacturing—because any energy revolution would require a lot of hardware. But if ET (energy technology) follows IT (information technology), most of that manufacturing may be done elsewhere, like China, just as Apple’s iPhone is conceptualized in Cupertino but assembled in China. And if we lose manufacturing, we might, in the end, lose innovation.

“If pilot scale manufacturing goes away, which is closely related to [research and development], R&D will suffer,” says ARPA–e director (and mechanical engineer) Arun Majumdar. “That is a big danger and we should do all we can to keep at least that manufacturing—if not more—here in the U.S.”

That said, large equipment like a wind turbine tends to be manufactured close to where it will be used, simply because it’s difficult and expensive to transport large, heavy pieces (think of all those wind turbines not fitting under highway overpasses). And that uncovers another facet of the clean energy debate: any energy source starts to look dirtier and dirtier the bigger it gets.

So there’s the mounting opposition to wind farms from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to the Columbia River valley in Oregon. There are the ongoing lawsuits about the endangered desert tortoise holding up solar thermal power plant development in the Mojave Desert. There’s the furor over Big Corn, which has received at least 40¢ per gallon in subsidies since 1978 to ferment the 200-proof “corn whiskey” that now amounts to some 10 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, 13 billion gallons of ethanol in all. And there’s the fact that burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, which is still a lot of CO2 as far as the atmosphere is concerned.

“If the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions to 1 billion tons by 2050, today, right now, CO2 from natural gas use is 1.2 billion tons,” said Steven Hayward, think-tanker at the American Enterprise Institute at the Tuesday evening debate. “It’s above the target for every source.”

No energy source is without its flaws, but there are economic, environmental and military reasons to avoid spending $1 billion a day on imported oil, among other spurs for an alternative energy revolution. “National security is very dependent on energy security,” noted Steven Chu at an address to the ARPA–e summit on March 1. “Energy we create at home is wealth creation at home.”

And America needs all the wealth creation it can get. “Americans are not a people who sit out a revolution,” former Colorado governor Bill Ritter noted in the debate at NYU. “There is a revolution upon us now, a clean energy revolution and it’s global. Will we lead or will we follow?”

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