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William Latham is a computer artist and professor of computing at Goldsmiths College, London
A breath of fresh air We desperately need to overhaul our approach to climate change, finds Simon Ings The Planet Remade: How geoengineering could change the world by Oliver Morton, Granta, £20
not want to control the climate, and indeed could not, even if they tried. Instead, they want to offer a stopgap technology that will keep global temperatures stable while the gargantuan work of unpicking the carbon economy goes on. The global consensus on climate change treats carbon as a contaminant. The hope is that enough political will can be mustered to get rid of excess atmospheric carbon, in much the way the world abandoned the chlorofluorocarbons responsible for damaging the ozone layer.
WHO’S afraid of big engineering? Apparently, there exists a global network of activists convinced that aircraft vapour trails are substances sprayed into the air as part of a government programme for – take your pick – mind control, sterilisation or climate management. “Even the losers in Morton’s All those in this network, and detailed scenarios would many outside, fear Promethean fare better than if we heat science. And geoengineering – Earth by more than 2 °C” the idea that we should alter the climate to our advantage while This is an approach that has there’s still food in the shops and been shown to work, but in The our coastal cities are above sea Planet Remade, Oliver Morton is level – is certainly Promethean. here to show that it is hopeless: It is, however, anything but the “Any plausible cuts in carbon darling of the military-industrial complex. Its researchers are poorly dioxide emissions made today would have more or less no effect funded enthusiasts, many of them close to retirement. They do until the mid-century. By that time the costs of inaction might Could geoengineering help buy be horribly plain – but there will us time to kick the carbon habit? be no time machine with which to
robotics, where the goal is, apparently, to create a robot that will create art for its own aesthetic enjoyment, emulating the human creative process. Gamwell must have had her work cut out deciding what to include and exclude in what aims to be a comprehensive tome. There are casualties. In the computation section, for example, it was right to make much of fractal mathematics, Alan Turing, John Conway’s Game of Life and computer artworks by Roman Verostko, Manfred Mohr and Yoichiro Kawaguchi. But some classic computer graphic algorithms are missing, such as Ken Perlin’s noise texture algorithm or the Blinn-Phong reflection model, which have had a major impact across the arts and in film. And we really do need more than a brief reference to artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and the Experiments in Art and Technology group’s show in 1966 at The Armory in New York. The group was set up to foster collaborations between artists and engineers through direct personal contact rather than through any kind of formal process. The creative talents that came together then helped define the work of a generation – and generations to come. Overall this is a comprehensive, valuable and detailed book. It is written in an accessible style, with enough mathematics to interest the technical reader without overwhelming one with an arts background. It doesn’t quite rival Douglas Hofstadter’s hugely influential Gödel, Escher, Bach from 1979, but its rich anthology is particularly relevant today, given the explosion of interest in the digital arts and the need for digital artists to use maths creatively. I will definitely be keeping it close at hand. n
come back and set the necessary cuts in motion on the basis of that future knowledge.” Something as complex as the relationship of industrial civilisation to Earth “isn’t the sort of thing that is simply solved, once and for all, and it’s a snare to think that it is”. Veiling the atmosphere with sulphur could stabilise global temperatures indefinitely for little cost, he believes. It would be another form of climate change and Earth would be a little drier. There might be losers as well as winners. But even the losers in Morton’s meticulously detailed and exhaustively referenced scenarios would fare better than if we heat Earth by more than 2 oC. The task would then be to replace the carbon economy. Naysayers believe that if we were to stabilise global temperatures, we would somehow forget about the carbon problem. But given the fast-declining alkalinity of the oceans, this hardly seems likely. Morton believes the climatechange debate is hobbled by a bleak view of humanity. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that we will not recognise runaway industrial growth as folly until it has done all the damage it can – and that full recognition of that folly is the only route to avoiding further destruction. “I can’t say that there is no wisdom in that stance,” writes Morton. “I can only say I do not share it. I refuse to accept a world in which nothing can be protected and only pain and loss instruct.” Over nearly 400 pages, Morton constructs his argument with the intensity of an essayist. It is a dizzying, exhausting, exhilarating read. And let me nail my colours to the mast: he’s right. n 12 December 2015 | NewScientist | 47