516: Geoengineering: Prologue or Epilogue for Humanity?

October 4, 2021 by Joshua
in Podcast

Here are the notes I read from, responding to this op-ed piece and this review for a book I’ve talked to the author about but haven’t read.

Geoengineering Prologue or Epilogue for Humanity?

Introduction, context

  • Geoengineering is becoming a more common topic as people feel more desperate. The common theme is that when things get serious, we have to put everything on the table, even things that may not work. The problem isn’t if they’ll work on their intended goal, but everything else. Over and over again in history, the unintended side-effects dwarf the intended ones. In fact, the story of oil, plastics, and most of our environmental problems today, since nobody chose to pollute but did try to improve people’s lives despite side-effects they hoped would be small, geoengineering continues that story. Each time people thought they would solve. Each time it exacerbated and here we are.
  • What got us into this mess won’t get us out. It will get us deeper.
  • Two recent pieces on geoengineering: Gernot Wagner book and David Keith NY Times editorial. Both results of months of just writing based on years of research and dedicated practice. I’ve met Gernot in person. Haven’t read book but got some of it vocally. Don’t know Keith but mutual friends.
  • David Keith invited to engage by Twitter, which I think is disaster and one of our main problems today. People trying to checkmate each other in 160 characters, as he did in saying, please provide data.
  • I will provide data, but not the kind he thinks. As you’ll see, I believe history proves his approach disastrous.
  • Both present unassailable perspective: we have to study, not dismiss out of hand, though I think they miss many have studied and out of thoughtful consideration and with difficulty but confidence reject.
  • With 7.9 billion people, no objection to some studying. Plenty of resources.
  • I don’t say don’t read the article or book. Besides that I haven’t read the book, they mean well and want to save humanity from ecological catastrophe. Both value stopping emissions as primary.
  • I’m not saying don’t read them, but I recommend other works first. I’d start
  • I may be misinterpreting, but I see them as approaching in two ways: at science and engineering level, understanding the situation, both the state of nature and the state of our technology, and innovating solutions. At the decision-making level, figuring out what we should do.
  • I have a PhD in physics, I helped launch satellites with NASA and ESA to observe atmospheres, I’ve invented and patented several inventions, brought them working to the world, raising millions to do it. I also ran businesses, got an MBA, and coach executives at some of the world’s largest and most prominent organizations, so I’m not a babe in the woods in these areas.

How to look at it

  • What data do I suggest and what do I suggest reading first, before their works?
  • While tempting to look at it as engineering issue, I see it as high-stakes decision-making where we don’t have the luxury of not responding somehow, can’t possibly have all the information we want, and sections of global economy including millions to billions of lives affected, even human extinction in play.
  • There is precedent, which is the data and history to learn from.
  • Caveat: nothing is perfectly relevant. We are in uncharted territory. In all comparisons, more differences than similarities. But we have no alternate universes to practice on, only history of huge decisions. I don’t like situation either, but agree on research.
  • Each comparable itself could be studied forever in infinite detail. None had control groups or alternative realities. But like Gernot and Keith, I believe more study. At end I’ll get to where lines of research I prefer could lead.

Comparables and resources

  • Vietnam
    • McNamara and best and brightest from Harvard, etc.
    • Data was last war. Sought numbers in kill ratio, etc.
    • But underlying model was Domino Theory, we’re huge and they’re third-world, we beat Hitler
    • Johnson focused on domestic agenda, where he was master, and just wanted this to go away. Didn’t face it.
    • Military said we have solutions. Believed they could overpower, had to overpower because of Domino Theory.
    • Domino Theory was wrong, without basis. Numbers distracted from hearts and minds.
    • Simple, enjoyable resource on decision-making: Path to War, “Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2016 book named Path to War as the 6th greatest American TV-movie of all time”
    • Also Fog of War about McNamara’s reflections looking back
  • Space shuttle
    • Some data but not relevant so had to extrapolate. People felt desperate and scared not to act.
    • Lots of ways to interpret. There always will be. In this case they made the wrong choice. They knew if they chose otherwise, people could always second guess and say they were wrong.
    • Resource: One of Harvard’s case studies of conflicting interests. As physicist, Richard Feynman’s stories of decision-making morass.
  • Building highways into cities, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs
    • Robert Moses always had the data and always got the funding. But data and projections were based on a model as flawed and unfounded as the Domino Theory, that traffic implied demand and more roads would lower congestion. Opposite happened most of the time. We have to live with results for centuries, including today’s climate and pollution.
    • By contrast, look at Amsterdam, especially channel called Not Just Bikes. Amsterdam could have looked like Houston does today. Imagine Houston looked like Amsterdam and was as livable.
    • Resources: The Power Broker and Death and Life of Great American Cities.
  • D-Day and Eisenhower
    • To launch or not launch invasion where weather is difficult to predict, can make all the difference, and if you don’t go one day, moon and tides mean next time might be a month or never. Hundreds of thousands of men’s lives at stake, or all of Europe and free world.
    • Resource: Ike: Countdown to D-Day starring Tom Selleck for focusing on the decision-making and teamwork amid civilization-in-the-balance stress.
  • Green Revolution and Norman Borlaug
    • Faced with people dying immediately, he did what he could to save them. Mid-career he saw the consequences. He enabled more population growth. He used the term “population monster”. If anyone knew population, the consequences of its growth, and balancing saving people now and risking bigger problems later and facing the systemic problems now, he did.
    • He spent the latter half of his career talking about the population monster, helping the Population Media Center, for example.
    • Resource, his own quote: The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.
    • Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”. . . Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…
    • We haven’t acted, his prediction is happening, and geoengineering will at least repeat the problem, more likely augment it. At least it seems a close comparison.
    • Also, recent PBS American Experience on him.
  • Cuban Missile Crisis
    • Joint Chiefs of Staff said situation was serious and we had to act before missiles were armed.
    • Even JFK thought negotiation wouldn’t work. It did. We didn’t invade.
    • We learned decades later that the warheads were armed, Castro had approval. If he expected to be killed, he could have launched missiles to kill tens of millions and start WWIII.
    • Data suggested invading was best option.
    • Resource: Movie 13 Days. I haven’t yet read the book.
  • CVS Drugs -> Health
    • All advice was to keep selling their top profit line. If they didn’t, anyone could walk a few steps to another store.
    • Within twelve months they reached former profit levels.
  • Big case: the abolitionists pushing to end slavery in the British Empire. 1807.

Their model and mine

  • I think they see situation like we’re heading to a cliff and have to stop the car. They say best solution is to take foot off gas, which is pollution and greenhouse gases, but that doesn’t stop the car. Their solutions are more like putting chemical in gas tank to stop engine.
  • I’ll grant that view, but only looking at climate misses full situation. Our environmental problems are more than just temperature. If they see the cliff in front and rapidly approaching, I think they see it like the end of Thelma and Louise, broad, flat, lots of space. Not cops behind.
  • But more than climate. It’s more like we’re on a thin promontory or like thin pier over since there are many other dangers. To the right might be biodiversity loss, which could doom us too. To the left, pollution. About 10 million people a year die from breathing air. But we need more dimensions we could fall off so maybe there are land mines, which represent deforestation, and huge storms representing ocean acidification, and we have to construct more things to represent overpopulation, overfishing, running out of minerals, depleting aquifers, depleting topsoil, and you’ve seen the headlines and know many more, few of which geoengineering would help and most of which it would exacerbate, not buy us time.
  • So geoengineering is more like we’re headed toward a cliff, already with cliffs immediately to our left and right, and more, and geoengineering is like slashing the tires or causing the engine to seize violently, which might possibly keep us from the cliff in front, but first causing us to lose control. Here the analogy is too small because it could cause us to fall off both the left, right, and other dimensions, hit a land mine, get hit by lightning, roll over and crash, and so on.
  • But their version of the Domino Theory and self-confidence blinds them from seeing anything other than one problem and all the other side-effects and the line of thinking that got us here.


  • Acting out of desperation, helplessness, and hopelessness, even when desperate, produces poor decisions.
  • Don’t have to ignore long-term to act on short-term. We can regret wrong decisions
  • Study leadership and decision-making. Rarely do technical solutions to social problems solve them.
  • Look for social solutions to social problems. Look at Mechai Viravaidya in Thailand, Population Media Center.
  • Expect unintended side-effects to be greater than effects, as Norman Borlaug eventually realized.
  • Then there’s how to learn any performance-based skill: practice. Want to get to Carnegie Hall, Wimbledon, or NBA finals? Practice. If you haven’t practiced, you haven’t developed the skills. Want to live sustainably? Try! If you pollute more than the average, you probably don’t know many solutions that work. Just spoke with James Rebank, a bestselling author, a farmer who started path to industrial. When he tried regenerative things he couldn’t have imagined worked.
  • Watch Fog of War to see how McNamara saw how flawed their process was. For that matter, the term fog of war comes from Von Clausewitz. I’m in the middle of reading his work, but listen to my episode with Marine Corps General Von Riper, who cleaned up the floor with the US military in the millennium challenge, playing a woefully under-resourced red team.


  • My goal here is not to be comprehensive, just some quick thoughts since I don’t want to take too long to respond to David Keith’s tweets.
  • There is a solution that works. Not full solution but major part: live sustainably, as humans have for about 300,000 years. The knee-jerk response is, “but we live differently today.” Yes, how we live is what we have to change. The longer we wait, the harder.
  • I just recorded a conversation with a guy who lost his legs to flesh-eating disease. Would you rather live sustainably or lose both legs? Because if you prefer living sustainably, well he was minutes from death, but just returned from Tokyo with a silver medal and shared how lucky his life and great he’s made it. He points out everyone suffers and we all face challenges often we didn’t ask for. If he can with the choice you don’t want, we can do so with the preferable choice. Only we’ll eat more vegetables and live closer to family. Mostly life improvements.
  • They downplay the possibility. Listeners to this podcast know I lived like the average American, probably polluting more, but dropped 90 percent. It was as hard for me as everyone, but once committed, doable. Once done, fun, freedom, joy, and better, because living by universal values. Actually, still going as skills develop.
  • Engaging people we disagree with, who think there’s no problem, who see population as impossible to change
  • Pope and evangelicals
  • Following domination to stewardship transformation (and Earth not center), grains of sand prophecy interpretation.
  • Contraception: I haven’t had vasectomy, but if you can imagine colonizing Mars, I can imagine an implant that can stop and start flow of sperm. Nearly half of pregnancies accidental. Nearly 300,000 years of human history was replacement level and endured. I can imagine a similar device for women. I can even imagine Popes endorsing.
  • When we change our values we innovate just as much, but in direction of new values, which I propose to be stewardship and increasing Earth’s ability to sustain life.
  • We can come up with more solutions if we try. Few people are innovating by those values, certainly not in Silicon Valley, Washington DC, or academia.

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