Beware the Rainmakers

In 1838, James Pollard Espy, the first meteorologist to be employed by the US government, made an odd request to the Senate: He proposed they pay him for burning huge swaths of the nation’s forests. The idea was to make it rain. For years, scientists had been proposing that adding particulate matter such as smoke to the atmosphere would induce clouds to release rain. Espy was convinced they were right, so he proposed to test the theory, even suggesting he be paid only if the experiment worked. Congress balked, but a few years later Espy was back touting an even grander scheme: building weekly 40-acre timber fires every 20 miles along a 700-mile stretch of the Rocky Mountains.

slice of cover graphic depicting a footprint

Espy’s was not the first, the last, or even the most grandiose of human plans to take charge of the climate. Weather modification schemes came thick and fast on the heels of the industrial revolution. I’ve recently been looking into this history, and one of the most startling revelations is how often plans to control the weather involved creating the very same climate changes we now see as maladies. Melting the polar ice caps, raising Earth’s temperature, creating bigger storms, flooding dry areas, softening the permafrost: All were floated as desirable outcomes, beneficial things we humans could enact in our final triumph over an indifferent Earth.

Now, faced with “the end of nature,” we look at such outcomes with horror. But it’s odd that we’re talking about the same results. The change in worldview illustrates this fact: The notion of the Anthropocene is just the flip side of a pretty penny dreamed up by all the nature-tamers of yore – a world in which humans are running the show.

I don’t mean to say that humans have had no effect on the planet, or that our effect has not increased in the last century and a half. Far from it. It has always been the Anthropocene, if by that we mean that we have a disproportionately large effect on the planet. But it’s never the Anthropocene, if by that we mean that human beings have somehow grabbed the helm of spaceship Earth and steered it in some new direction.

There is no direction. We humans come and go, we build and we destroy, and the planet is neither oblivious nor impervious, neither grateful nor long-suffering, because we are simply part of its unfurling story. There is no perfect balance we have thrown out of whack. To say we have ruined Gaia is to give ourselves, once again, way too much power. So we need a better narrative.

Geologic periods are not descriptive concepts; they are human-made tools for thinking about something. If they don’t help us think more clearly, they should be dropped. The idea of the Anthropocene, it can be argued, is a useful tool for drawing our attention to the dramatic effect we have on Earth. If it were used that way, I’d be all for it. But my fear is that it won’t be. It plays too slickly into the hands of the techno-utopians who will argue that since we’re at the helm, we might as well put our hands on the rudder and steer. The very word “Anthropocene” makes too little accommodation for anything else besides us. It’s not going to help us live with more grace in a world full of things we can’t control, things we don’t know, things we might never know.

Read more in our special issue exploring the consequences of a new geologic epoch: the Anthropocene.

Espy, it turns out, wasn’t entirely off base with his idea of using fire to bring down rain. You can, in fact, induce clouds to precipitate by seeding them with some kind of nucleating agent. Particles from a fire work to some extent, but dry ice and silver iodide work better. In the 1940s, scientists at General Electric cracked the code for artificial nucleation, and a new era of weather control was proclaimed. Princeton mathematician John von Neumann was constructing a supercomputer that the rainmakers declared would allow humans to program the climate.

It didn’t work as hoped for. As it turns out, the weather is incredibly complex and chaotic, and even the largest supercomputers today can only forecast it in a limited way, let alone change it. And this is why weather is instructive for any discussion of the Anthropocene. Like so many things, we, too, are complex and chaotic events. The only thing we can know for sure is that we are transient phenomena in a world filled with many such things. We need concepts that help us recognize that transience and our provisional place on this planet. What we don’t need is another word that feeds our idea of the all-powerful controllers we dream – or fear – we are.

Ginger Strand is the author of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate and Inventing Niagara.

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