An American academic gave an entertaining and mind-boggling lecture at the Imperial War Museum last night. Professor Jim Fleming, historian of science and technology and author of “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control” (Columbia University Press, 2010) gave a presentation about the history of attempts to control the weather for military gain, and offered thoughts on how the same mindsets are now looking at “geo-engineering” (various proposals to stop the planet from overheating by doing everything except, um, reducing carbon dioxide emissions). Manchester Climate Fortnightly, as we then were, gave a kicking to a Sustainable Consumption Institute lecture advocating geo-engineering, back in 2010.)
Fleming sprinkled his presentation with anecdotes and wry understatement from a vast archive of material that he appears to have gathered. He pointed out that engineers and technologists take hold of “understanding, prediction , control”, but often move straight from “understanding” to control, in the rush to “operationalise” their theories.
He showed a lovely old image of “hail archers” – sent out to provoke hailstorms on their enemies – and linked it later to a new proposal to “harvest” an asteroid, bring it to the L point between the Earth and the Sun (where gravity will keep it in one spot) and then vaporise it, and so coo… no, I can’t type it, I’m laughing too hard.
The presentation was part of a conference about the Cold War (thus the venue), and Fleming dwelt on a few years either side of 1955, (“by 1960 both Americans and Russians were pretty giddy.”) One of the biggest laughs came from the aborted press release after a hurricane that the scientists were sure they could divert performed a U-turn in the opposite direction. Boastful press conference hastily cancelled…
In his concluding remarks, he pointed out that today’s crop of geo-engineers is constantly surprised to be told by an historian that they are not, after all, the first generation to think of this, and that military metaphors (“the war on climate change”) create a framework under which some “solutions” are credible and others are not.
“They’re always projecting one hundred years into the future, imagining the continuity of our current institutions. But if you go back 100 years you see World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Cold War etc. We need a bit more humility.”
“We need more international, intergenerational and interdisciplinary discussion, or else the technocrats, with their military metaphors, will dominate.”
Stuff to look up
FIDO – the Allies Fog-Clearing technology (cooking the mist away so that planes coming back from Germany didn’t crash and burn at the last hurdle)
Can we survive technology (1955) by unpleasant genius fruitcake Johnnie von Neumann (as played by John Malkovich in the under-rated “Mulholland Falls,” but that’s another story).
Dr Who and the Moonbase (1967). It’s the year 2070. There is a base on the moon from which the human race is able to control the Earth’s weather. Then the Cybermen turn up in order to use the weather as a weapon. [And the saddest thing? I didn't have to use wikipedia to write any of that. All from my memory...]
The Day of the Triffids – the pet plants escape, and in a panic the space-based retina-burning weapons are set off. Trouble ensues.