Special Report

Screw Sustainability: The Age of the Tornado Tamers Busting the Bubble of Spaceship Earth

by Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member
Howard Bloom.
 
Speech given at Yale University May 7, 2005.
 
As teachers you’re reminded over and over again that you have a profound power, one that goes far beyond your ability to hand out assignments, to mark papers, and to make out lesson plans. Hidden in your mind is a lens through which the next generation will see. Hidden in your mind is a lens whose curves will determine how that next generation will make its share of history.
 
That lens is your worldview, the worldview with which you construct your own version of reality, the worldview that underlies what you teach, and the worldview with which your students will someday build THEIR reality.
 

How potent is the power of worldviews? Aztec kings 500 years ago climbed to the sacred rooms at the top of their pyramids, slit their arms, and sacrificed their blood to the sun. Aztec priests ordered guards to drag up to 8,000 captives a day to the upper steps of their pyramids. The priests sawed open the chest of each victim with an obsidian knife, reached in between the ribs while the victim was still alive, pulled out the heart, held that frantically-beating pump up to the sun, then rolled the victim down the pyramid’s steps as meat for the feasts of the worshippers down below.
 
Aztec priests and kings didn’t do these things out of cruelty. They did them to save humanity. They did them to guarantee that the sun would rise the next morning. In the Aztec worldview, the sun was skinned alive and went down in blood every single night. You could see that blood in the red that filled the basin of the sky. It would take the blood of human beings to give the sun the strength to rise. For victims and for victors, the Aztec worldview made the difference between death and life. That is the power of worldviews.
 
Then there’s the case of the Tasmanians off the coast of Australia. For roughly 4,000 years, Tasmanian mothers, fathers, and children starved to death every time a famine struck. They starved and died despite the fact that they lived on an island surrounded by seas that were rich in gourmet delicacies, those swimming, diving fillets called fish. So why did the Tasmanians die without a bite to eat? In the Tasmanian worldview, the creatures of the sea were what cockroaches are to you and me. They weren’t food. They weren’t fit to eat. Once again, life and death depended on how you see.
 
Which leads to the title of this talk. Why, of all things, should we screw sustainability? Why should we toss the wisdom we’ve gained in the last 50 years about the fragility of the earth and its eco-system away?
 
Why screw sustainability? Because the word implies merely hanging in there, merely surviving, merely sustaining. It implies a penny-pinching earth, a miserly existence, a nature that punishes change, and a nature that prefers small tribes to large groups of human beings. This sort of attitude has traditionally led to ignorance and to self-inflicted poverty. It pitched Europe into misery from the fall of Rome in 476 AD to the revival of optimism, technology, and entrepreneurialism in 1100 AD. That 600-year-long slump was the famous dark ages of the West.
 
An attitude of self-denial and an urge to return to the past also led to an age of darkness in the Islamic Empire starting in 1566. For the first time, Islam saw its limitations more clearly than it saw its possibilities. How did it respond? it banned every new technology, shunned every new idea, and withdrew into fantasies of a past mistakenly viewed as a paradise. This sustainability-style-thinking was responsible for the impoverishment of North Africa and of the Middle East that goes on to this day. Which gives you an idea of the power of worldviews.
 
Sustainability implies a worldview of a kindly and caring nature, a nature that’s easily raped by technology, industry, capitalism, and modernism. It implies a nature that will automatically protect rainforests, whales, and endangered species if we greedy modern humans rein in our consumerist lusts. If we get rid of our SUVs and of our industrial factories, this worldview tells us that nature will go back to the greenery and the reliability of some mythic good old days.
 
But that view of nature isn’t true. Nature is not the motherly protector. Nature is just the opposite. She tosses us curves and challenges our creativity. The challenge to create is what Mother Nature and her favorite game-evolution-are really all about. Which means we need a major worldview change.
 
Mother Nature does not build everlasting Edens for the eco-conscious. Mother Nature is the mother of catastrophe. She’s tossed her children a major die-off every 26 million years or so, a total of 148 major die-offs that we’ve been able to count. She’s shocked this planet with six far bigger mass extinctions, six enormous holocausts of species.
 
Those die-offs haven’t come from smokestack factories, consumerism, and the depredations of capitalism. They’ve come from the natural evolution of the earth that gave us life. And their message has been simple. Ride the waves of change or die.
 
Mother Nature challenges our ability to surf the waves of change when she slings us through a 66-million-year-long orbit around the center of our galaxy, an orbit that takes us through interstellar gas clusters called local fluff, interstellar clusters that strip our planet of its protective heliosphere, interstellar clusters that bombard the earth with cosmic radiation and interstellar clusters that trigger giant climate change. Just one of those changes could wipe our civilization…and even the human race…away.
 
Nature challenges our creativity with a wildly bouncing atmosphere. The CO2 level 1.4 billion years ago was at least ten to 200 times greater than it is today, ten to 200 times greater than it’s projected to be a few decades down the line even if we continue to spew the emissions produced by our hyper-industrial economy. When CO2 levels shoot that high again — and they will someday with us or without us — they’ll melt this planet’s ice, submerge our cities, turn our grain belts into swamps, and might well poison us with the few last breaths we’re able to take. They’ll do all this despite Kyoto Treaties and despite every reduction of human CO2 output we can make.
 
Nature challenges our creativity with an outer atmosphere that gathers nearly 30 million kilograms of space dust a year. She challenges us by sending us through a cloud of interplanetary powder that doubles or even triples this tonnage of cosmic dust every 100,000 years. The darkness and cold this dust produces could make the old nightmare of a nuclear winter look like a sunny day in spring.
 
Nature challenges our adaptability with her taste for far smaller flicks of her weather whip. In the last 120,000 years there were 20 interludes in which the temperature of the planet shot up 10 to 18 degrees within a decade. What’s more, until just 10,000 years ago, the Gulf Stream shifted its route every 1,500 years or so. It stopped heading North to Iceland and instead targeted Europe’s coast, licking the old continent with unaccustomed warmth. Another fickle climate twitch of this sort would melt mega-islands of ice, put out our coastal cities beneath the surface of the sea, and strip our farmlands of the conditions they need to produce the food that feeds us.
 
Then there’s mother nature’s opposite trick — Ice Ages, roughly 80 of them, from the days 2.2 billion years ago when the planet was an snowball to a mere 12,000 years ago, when Nature quieted briefly and gave our species a short breathing space. But that breathing space is very short indeed!!
 
Are there any hints about what Mother Nature demands from us if we want to survive? Yes, many of them. First of all, Mother Nature’s catastrophes and the challenges they’ve tossed us made us what we are today.
 
We were born as one of the most helpless and pathetic species this planet has ever seen. We were furless and couldn’t handle the cold of winter. Furry species like mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and modern dogs and rabbits could take the winter cold in stride. But when we are naked, we simply can’t. What’s worse, we have no fangs and no claws — things eagles and lions take for granted. When we first evolved, we were hungry for meat, but we couldn’t tear prey animals apart with our fingernails. And our running is horribly slow. Even cockroaches and mice can sprint faster than we can. So hunting down meat was something we were born without the tools to do.
 
Yet we made it through 20 Ice Ages. And we did it living on the most challenging place of all — the very edge of the glaciers that were freezing nearly everything in sight. What’s more, we pulled this off while gorging ourselves on meat. How the hell did we manage it? By taking disaster as a challenge, then mastering it. By defying Mother Nature and flinging her capriciousness back in her face.
 
We made new fangs and new claws out of stone. We flaked axes, choppers, blades, scrapers, spear tips, and much later, arrowheads. We made our own fur coats out of the skins of the beasts we hunted down. Our fingers were too weak to dig dens, so we built tents out of mammoth tusks and mammoth ribs then covered them with mammoth skins.
 
We did these things because we refused to shut down in the face of disaster. We did these things because we refused to adopt sustainability’s implied strategy, the strategy of retreat. We took cataclysms as a challenge and as an opportunity.
 
We invented new ways to make tools, new ways to make wealth, and new ways to celebrate. We invented makeup, art, beads, and fishing hooks. We invented handles for stone tools. We invented calendars and carved them into pieces of deer antler to keep track of the seasons. We invented cave art, sculpture, and music. We did all of these things during an unstoppable Ice Age.
 
We did all of these things in spite of Mother Nature. We did all of these things because we chose light over Nature’s darkness. We chose enthusiasm over gloom. We chose to make an exuberant new future rather than to hide in a puritanical past. Thanks to our audacious acts of defiance, Mother Nature’s cruelty and her disasters made us human!
 
Every talk like this needs a take-home message. Before I go any further, let me sum up the most important take home message oozing from the facts I’m telling you. Mother Nature is a vicious bitch. Catastrophe is her stock in trade. And with our help or without it, Mother Nature will sooner or later yank everything we take for granted away. Unless we lay the foundations for a technology and for a civilization able to harness the energies and surmount the floods and freezes of change.
 
If we want to make nature proud, it’s time to ride the whirlwind. It’s time to tame the forces that twist tornadoes and that swirl hurricanes. It’s time to harness their energies. It’s also time to milk energy from the massive pressures of tectonic plates. It’s time to take our sewage and turn it into fuel. It’s time to take the excrement of pigs raised by industrial agriculturists and turn it into a power source. It’s time to see pollution and cosmic rays as a source of something wonderful and new.
 
Our trick is not the old sustainability. It’s not to bow and grovel hoping Mother Nature will freeze in place. Our challenge is to outrun nature by inventing radically new ways to deal with change. We have to be able to raise food in drought. We have to be able to grow food in flood or in a new ice age. If necessary, we have to farm the bacteria that love the deep freeze of the Antarctic, the bacteria that live in rock and clouds, and the bacteria that thrive in radioactivity.
 
Who has given us this mandate, this commandment, this imperative? Nature has!!
 
Surely that statement is just BS. It’s flashy but empty rhetoric. Nature doesn’t really give us any hints about what she and her evolutionary process demand of us. Or does she? The answer is, she does. Stop and think for a minute. If this were a random universe, there would be a thousand different biochemical systems competing with each other on this planet, a thousand different families of life. But there aren’t. The only biochemical family on this planet is the clan of DNA, the clan of biomass. And you and I are part of that biomass family. We are part of that biomass team.
 
Bacteria were our foremothers 3.85 billion years ago. They, like us are based on DNA. Which means we are related to the bacteria in our gut, the bacteria on our teeth, the bacteria that makes our poop stink, the bacteria that rot our bodies and our meat, and the bacteria that infect us when we come down with pneumonia or with food poisoning.
 
Insects, lizards, and lobsters are our cousins. They, too, are the children of DNA. They use the same sort of cells that combine to make your body and mine. Their brains operate with many of the same neurochemicals that keep us thinking, worrying, and dreaming. Thanks to DNA, we are also related to pond scum, to tapeworms, to fleas, to snakes, to weeds, to trees, and even to the food we eat, even if we’re vegetarians.
 
What’s more, we are all part of a single public project, a single grand ambition. There’s a basic imperative that drives our family, the clan of biomass, the family of DNA. What is it? To reproduce! To recruit every atom on this planet into the DNA system. And to do it so frantically that the DNA family makes it through the next mass extinction, no matter what kind of dirty punches Mother Nature throws our way.
 
This is where the old sustainability folks, the post-Club-of-Rome folks, the proponents of a planet with limited resources, the ones who say that we’re plundering a fragile earth, get it wrong. Very wrong indeed. We are using less than a quadrillionth of the resources of this planet. There is 1.097 sextillion cubic meters of rock, magma, and iron beneath our feet. That’s a one-with-twenty-one-zeroes-after-it stock of raw materials we haven’t yet learned to use. We haven’t yet learned to turn that sextillion-square-meter stockpile into fuel, food, or energy. We haven’t yet recruited it into the clan of biomass, into the clan DNA.
 
But that’s the imperative of biomass, to take these inanimate molecules and bring them into the system of life. Does this sound like mere fantasy? It’s not! Bacteria called lithoautotrophs are already doing it. Lithoautotrophs are eating the rock two miles beneath our feet and three miles beneath the sea, turning granite into food, turning raw stone into biomass, recruiting new atoms into the imperialistic project of DNA.
 
Then there are the extremophiles you read about if you follow the science headlines. Extremophiles are bacteria that feast on sulphur, bacteria that live in water hotter than the water boiling in your cooking pot, and bacteria that some researchers suspect live in clouds two miles above our heads, bacteria that the New Scientist magazine speculates may work to change the weather to create precisely the sort of sauna in the sky that they like best, their own sky-riding paradise. Those bacteria are doing what nature commands them to do. To reproduce they are defying nature’s rules. They are changing what’s old into something new. They are resculpting cloud formations. And in the process, they are giving nature entirely new tools.
 

It is time to learn lessons from bacteria, our more successful ancestors.

Mere bacteria are outpacing us at research and development. They’re outpacing us at opening new frontiers to the public project of biomass. They are teaching us many a lesson.
 
Lesson number one is that the resources of this planet are almost endless. Bacteria are teaching us that there are new frontiers, new riches, and new feasts for those species that dare to defy nature and that dare to innovate.
 
Lesson number two is this. Nature does not shun megasocieties. She does not favor small tribes. She favors humongous social groups that network their information so well that they form a high-powered collective intelligence, a group brain. A bacterial colony the size of your palm is the norm in the microworld. And that small colony, that bacterial city, has roughly seven trillion citizens — more than all of the humans who have ever lived.
 
Eshel Ben-Jacob is the holder of the Maguy Glass Chair of Physics at the University of Tel Aviv. His bacterial research has landed him on the cover of Scientific American. And fortunately Eshel is one of my closest friends.
 
Eshel will tell you that a bacterial colony is a giant parallel processing machine, an intelligent machine that does what no computer can do. A bacterial colony perceives a problem, looks for a solution, then comes up with a creative way out of its bind. A bacterial colony does something astonishing. It reengineers its genome to make hay out of new forms of emptiness or devastation. That’s why bacteria are defying mere sustainability and outpacing us, out-racing us. That’s why bacteria have been the longest-running players in the evolutionary game.
 
One the many lessons bacteria teach with their colonies of trillions is this. When it comes to groups, Nature does not favor tribes, she favors size.
 
Bacterial lesson number three is one I’ve implied half a dozen times. It’s a very strange lesson to absorb. Nature rewards those who oppose her most. Let me repeat that: nature rewards those who oppose her most.
 
Nature rewards those who invent new ways to circumvent her, new ways to get around her old limitations, new ways to make something radically beyond the previous boundaries, and new ways to break her rules. In the end she punishes those who merely ride her periods of stability. She wipes them out utterly. She rewards those who are so inventive that they can surf the waves of unpredictability. Nature rewards those who extend her powers, something lithoautotrophs have done by finding new ways to defy the norms of yesterday and to transform the molecules of rock into molecules of life.
 
This bacterial lesson hints that we humans are at our best when we do what bacteria do, when we add to Mother Nature’s capabilities. We are at our best when we invent new technologies, when we invent new strategies, when we grow the web of social interaction in new and larger ways, when we invent new tools, new gadgets, new ways of combining and upgrading genes, new ways of cloning, new ways to use the principles of biology, and ironically, new ways to show off and to strut our stuff. In other words, we add the most to nature’s bag of tricks when we do what some see as “violating” her.
 
How do bacteria prove that the lessons I’m outlining to you are correct? Bacteria are the only species that’s been here since the very beginning of life and are still here today. Other species have only managed to hang in there for anywhere from 1.6 million years to 160 million. We humans are one of the shortest-lived natural experiments around. We’ve been here in one form or another for a paltry two and a half million years. More important, in our current form, as true Homo sapiens, we’ve only been around for a mere 38.5 thousandth of bacteria’s time on this planet. We’ve been here for a pitiful 100,000 years. Compared to us, bacteria outlast diamonds. Bacteria are forever.
 
Here’s another indication that bacteria have gotten Mother Nature’s lessons right — another bit of proof that bacteria can show us nature’s hidden ways. 3.5 billion years ago when life was spanking new there were apparently only eleven species of bacteria. Today we’ve counted over eleven million. And we’ve just realized that our count may be much, much too low.
 
That’s a triumph!! Every bacterial species is a new victory, a carver of a new environmental niche, a creator of a new way of turning garbage into gold. Every bacterial species is a testament to the power of invention, to the ability to break mother nature’s mold.
 
Fortunately the old roll-back-the-clock sustainability is being discarded even as we speak. And a very new point of view is taking its place. The new sustainability has dropped the visions of gloom and of limitation. It has replaced those cramped visions with innovation. Like bacteria, the new sustainability triumphs in finding new uses for waste.
 

The Thermal Conversion Process, or TCP, mimics the earth’s natural geothermal process by using water, heat and pressure to chemically reform organic and inorganic wastes into specialty chemicals, gases, carbons and fertilizers. Even heavy metals are transformed into harmless oxides.

A company called Changing World Technologies in West Hempstead, New York, has developed something it calls the Thermal Conversion Process. It claims that this process uses “water, heat and pressure to reform industrial and agricultural by-products into oils, gases, specialty chemicals, carbons and fertilizer.” In other words, Changing World Technologies claims to have invented a process that performs the bacterial trick, that makes garbage into gold.
 
Changing World Technologies claims that it can remake the molecules of industrial waste and city sewage — two major sources of pollution — into the fatty acids used to make “detergents, soaps, cleaners, stabilizers, industrial surfactants and pharmaceuticals, personal care products, lubricants and rubber products.” It claims that its plants produce natural gas — methane, propane, and butane — the fuels that drive power plants, the fuels that produce electricity, the fuels that heat homes, and the fuels that are used in buses on the streets of major population centers like Los Angeles and Long Island today. It does all this from garbage and from sewage. It does all this from waste.
 
Changing World Technologies claims that its Thermal Conversion Process also produces the cyclohexane used to make nylon, the benzene used to produce rubber, the toluene added to aviation fuel to increase its octane rating, the activated carbon used to filter waste water, and mineral-rich solids that can prove invaluable as fertilizers, returning essential micronutrients to the soil. All of this from garbage. All of this from, frankly, s—-.
 
Changing World Technologies’ thermal process also produces, guess what? An oil that the company says is competitive with petroleum in price and quality. With that oil, the company says, it can make a plant on the site of a major waste producer as profitable as the oil strike of a small wildcatting company. And Changing World Technologies has shown signs that many of its claims are true in the first steps of a worldwide deal with one of America’s biggest food-processing monoliths, ConAgra Foods, a deal in which it’s built a plant near a Butterball Turkey factory in Carthage, Missouri, a plant that turns that factory’s throwaways into products that you and I need. It has also leant weight to its case with a pilot plant in Philadelphia’s Naval Yard that turns city sewage — the stuff you and I defecate every day — into a river of riches.
 
For every fifteen BTUs of energy put in to the Thermal Conversion Process, Changing World Technologies claims it gets 100 BTUs back. That’s a hefty return on an investment in what’s called “solid waste”, a big payback on an investment in pollutants and excrement.
 
Someday in the not-too-distant future, Changing World Technologies is hoping to mass-produce a small thermal process plant, a plant that I suspect you and I will be able to use in our homes to turn our garbage into fuel and into materials that will help us earn trickles of cash from our feces and our other throwaways.
 
Changing World Technologies is now on the prowl for other plants it can construct in partnership with companies that are super-polluters, companies whose streams of waste can be turned into new sources of revenue and new sources of security for those of us who use fuels, nylon, and food, but can’t afford to see their prices skyrocket.
 
That’s opening new horizons, not tightening your belt, not abandoning the pursuit of your wildest dreams, and not shutting down. It’s not merely hunkering in place and sustaining, it’s soaring.
 
I call this sort of new environmentalism echo-techno-pioneering, or echo-tech for short. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times calls it “the geo-green strategy”. And Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in El Cerrito, California, calls it simply “post-environmentalism”. But whatever you call it, it’s a small step toward following the imperative of biomass, toward fulfilling the demands of the family of DNA, and toward listening to the lessons of bacteria. It’s a step toward seeing every cataclysm as an opportunity awaiting the technology that will harness it.
 
Another organization in the front lines of eco-techno-pioneering, Energy Independence Now, claims to be spearheading research in turning garbage into hydrogen, the fuel for a future hydrogen economy. The organization, based in Santa Barbara, California, doesn’t see shut down and self-denial-just sustaining — as its mission. It views itself as a vital part of California’s quest for “competitiveness and job growth.”
 
Yet another organization in the post-sustainability movement, the echo-techno-pioneering movement, is the Apollo Alliance, an alliance of 23 labor unions, of the AFL-CIO, and of more than 50% of America’s environmental groups. The Apollo Alliance is pushing for the rapid development of new technologies like hydrogen cars, “high performance buildings”, solar power, biomass power, wind-produced power, and magnetic levitation trains to make America energy independent, to restore economic competitiveness, and to create three million new American jobs. The Apollo Alliance, too isn’t pushing for self-denial, it’s pushing for new frontiers. In fact, it’s named itself after the crash program that put men on the moon.
 
Ted Nordhaus, vice president of an opinion research firm called Evans/McDonough has released a white paper that says that environmentalism is dead. The movement that’s grown since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her book on the devastating effects of DDT in 1962, is a walking corpse.
 
According to the Evans/McDonough white paper, polls show that the mass of North Americans love the notion of saving the earth but distrust the planet’s self-appointed saviors, environmentalists. 41 percent of the public sees environmentalists as “extremists”. That’s one of the reasons this white paper is called “The Death of Environmentalism”. But environmentalism is not dying. It is being reborn. It is switching from a vision of gloom to a vision of light. It is switching from techno-fear to techno-lust.
 
Even John McConnell, founder of Earth Day, has turned from talk of shucking technology to visions of opening new frontiers through eco-techno-pioneering. “It is my dream,” he said in a mass email sent out April 23, 2005, “that the Battle for Earth will bring a rapid transition from polluting fuel to clean energy…[and] new villages where interactive communication by computer enables people to work in their homes or neighborhood for offices in other cities.” McConnell has switched from visions of a society that radically reins in its energy needs to one that revels in the powers of electricity and that puts a computer in every home and on every desk.
 
Now it’s time to wake up people like McConnell, the folks at The Apollo Alliance, Energy Independence Now, the Breakthrough Institute, Changing World Technologies, your students, your fellow educators, my colleagues, and, most important, the media and the general public to the real nature of mother nature. It’s time to change their perceptual lens, their worldview.
 
It is time to show them that we need to do far more than milk energy from garbage. We need to anticipate and harness the powers of nature’s favorite test-mechanisms, massive climate changes and catastrophe. We need to make moveable farms, something we could do with hydroponics. And, more important, we need to make something impossible — moveable cities. The Mongols had a moveable city and moveable towns in 1332 AD.
 
They went mobile by building their yurts, their felt tents complete with grilled windows, on wagons. Today we have the makings of floating cities in our offshore oil platforms, which can be built in clusters, can house over 300 people each, can keep their inhabitants safe from flood and storm, and can give them movie theaters and sports facilities.
 
Meanwhile, an engineer-turned entrepreneur named Norman Nixon is promoting a plan for Freedom Ship, a floating metropolis for 50,000 ultra-rich inhabitants who will live, work, and travel on a mega-cruise ship, a ship that’s nearly a mile long, 35 stories high, and has 100 diesel engines. This sea-roving center of financial might will be linked to the world by satellite phones and by the Internet. And Eugene Tsui, a Chinese/American architect who has caught the eye of NASA, has even bigger dreams. He’s sketched plans for “Nexus”, a floating city of 100,000.
 
But no matter how we make our urban populations mobile, we need to realize that 60% of the humans on this planet live in coastal areas, and that no matter how many Kyoto Treaties we sign, those coastal cities will someday be at the bottom of the sea.
 
As I said in the beginning, we have to learn to raise food in drought. We have to learn how to grow food in flood or in a new ice age. If necessary, we have to farm the bacteria that love the deep freeze of the Antarctic. We have to suck energy from tornadoes, hurricanes, and climate shifts and use that energy in our homes. We have to recruit every atom that we possibly can into the scheme of DNA, into the clan of biomass, and into the family of life.
 
We have to have a trick up our sleeve for every curve that nature throws us…because tossing us curves and challenging our creativity is what Mother Nature is all about.
 
This is not an easy challenge. But you and I have to become the ultimate players of Mother Nature’s game. And you and I have to be the ultimate educators in the skills of riding nature’s challenges, her catastrophic waves of change.
 

We must survive nature’s challenges.