At the time Neal Stephenson was writing his new novel Termination shockHumans have begun to adapt to climate change already, as if it were a new beginning. Stephenson predicted that our near-future world would become hotter and, at times, more dangerous. People, with their endless idiosyncratic ways of dealing, seem to have figured it out.
Some adaptations can be obvious. In Texas where most of the action takes place, roads are raised and homes are retrofitted or built to stand on stilts to prevent flooding. These adaptations can be unexpected, and sometimes not welcome. For example, large numbers of residents were left without cooling air due to fire ants attracted by the ozone created by the relays of air conditioners. This was mostly because of supply chain problems from a Chinese monopolist. The result was a mass of “relayfugees”, which were made up of large SUVs and recreational vehicles.
Some adaptations may be more interesting than others: These include drones that can provide information to quasicyborg state agents and large truck stop/gas station complexes which serve as mobile service hubs. For those who are not wealthy or have to wear them, they can use powered modular suits that keep their cool. Even at constant wet-bulb temperatureIt could cause death very quickly. This would work if it did. DuneTexas can use it.
Each of these solutions solves a problem that is small or manageable. It could be local flooding or pest invasions or supply chain problems, or working outside in the extreme heat. They aren’t meant to solve the global warming problem or change the political system. It’s just a way to deal with the small irritations and big challenges of global warming. That, of course, has its peculiarities. Is the solution—or at least the very best we can do. Termination shockIt is an innovative novel that demonstrates how many small improvements can create a better world.
If there’s a single big idea behind Stephenson’s new novel, that’s it: Global warming—climate change, the vast complexity of the modern fossil fuel economy, the geopolitics of emissions reductions, and so on and so forth—can’t really be solved, or at least not in the sense that people often talk about solving it. It is far too complicated, large and involves many individuals, many governments, many stakeholders. It’s hard to comprehend. It is impossible to comprehend.
You can instead break down the problem and find a solution, using engineering, mutually beneficial cooperation, and not politics.
Stephenson uses this notion explicitly in the first chapter of his book. With his patriotic father, a Dutch royal functionary discusses the danger that rising sea levels present. His father replies that he takes sea-level rise threat seriously and asks the functionary if he is concerned.
Continue the conversation (I have deleted some narrations and descriptions).
It is the “What are we going do about it” question.
“We, as a civilization? What is global climate change?
“I know, right? Too vague! Too much decentralization of responsibility. The functionary said that there was too much politics. The functionary proposes an alternate way to look at the matter to his father.
“Instead, ask what the Dutch people are going to do specific about.” Sea level rising It suddenly seems simpler and more clear, isn’t it? Instead of the whole world—the United Nations and all that—it’s just the Netherlands. We are not referring to the many ramifications that climate change has on greenhouse gases, but only one: rising sea-level.
Termination shock This novelistic approach to addressing climate change’s challenges and tackling them concretely is a more effective way of approaching the problem than trying to solve a bunch of intractable civilizational mega-problems.
But that doesn’t mean everyone can do big things. The story begins when a Texas billionaire, albeit a genial and somewhat cantankerous, decides to make matters worse by acquiring a large number of high-tech truck stop chains. Instead of advocating for international emissions treaties and climate activism or building a huge subterranean launcher, he begins to fire sulfur into the atmosphere. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t give him permission. He does not set up any governing authority nor get buy-in from stakeholder. He collects sulfur, creates a large machine and then takes action.
Since the 1970s, scientists have been speculating that sulfur released into the upper atmosphere may help the planet cool down by reflecting the sunlight and allowing the temperatures to drop. In fact, scientists have known for years that this was exactly what happened when Mount Pinatubo burst in the Philippines in 1991. This caused large quantities of sulfur to be released into the atmosphere, which in turn led to several years of cooling global temperatures.
This would mean to do it intentionally. Geoengineering is a form of climate engineering that is often ignored or disregarded as part of the climate response toolkit. Stephenson’s novel is a great example of a thought experiment. Instead of signing agreements and going to summits, Stephenson suggests a way for a motivated, feisty individual to do the same.It was easy!? One example is the genial and cantankerous Texas billionaire Pina2bo.
It might seem like an enormous solution. Stephenson presents the project as a simple engineering task that solves an individual problem. For example, it is too hot in Texas and causes various problems for billionaires who own properties there. The problem is local heat. This problem can be mitigated by adding sulfur to the atmosphere. That’s it.
However, this is only the beginning. The Texas experiment creates complications—namely that shooting sulfur into the atmosphere won’t help every place equally, and in fact might make weather conditions in some places, like India, much worse. The Texas solution to sulfur causes competition, with powerful European families and a variety of nation-states from China to the Middle East, who all suddenly start trying to resolve their often interrelated climate, weather and political issues.
It’s a messy business, and sometimes it goes wrong. Unsuspecting surfers are killed by a strange foamy ocean event. A few small-scale, quasi-wars are erupted amongst shadowy organizations of private fighters in areas where there is weak governance. China and India fight a bizarre sort of social media–age reality TV border war using sticks, rocks, and regional martial arts techniques, with heroic fighters vying for nationalistic glory not-so-secretly backed by their governments. Feral hogs continue to prove huge and huge headaches.
One of the most important sequences in the novel is The MaeslantkeringThe Dutch storm surge barrier is one of the most powerful moving objects on the planet. However, it is being overpowered by an enormous wave which may have been engineered in a different country. Termination shock It is assumed that any ad-hoc geoengineering scheme will eventually lead to global conflicts.
Stephenson is not immune to some of the above. Large engineered structures, decentralized problem solving and longstanding interest in them have been a fascination for me.. Stephenson writes a lot of stories that read like a list of things, people, hobbies, and other objects. The book includes sections on falconry as well as obscure stick-fighting methods and drone-assisted hog hunts. Private train travel is high-end and there’s a Texas obsession with brisket. It’s weird and often quite comic—and also sometimes terrifying and awe-inspiring, because that’s how Stephenson sees human civilization and technological progress. It is complex and zany at times, but also terrifying, beautiful, and a little bit frightening all at the same time.
The novel opens with one character driving the other’s car. Bonnet Carré SpillwayNew Orleans is home to an enormous flood control system. This was created in the 1920s after a catastrophic flood left many people homeless and hundreds dead. Stephenson explains the spillway’s many engineering features, how it is designed, the legacy of the system in popular culture and its changing usage over time as the weather changed. The spillway has a unique design. It is currently being used partially as a huge public recreation center. Environment has presented many challenges over the years, and sometimes they have been deadly. However, people are able to find solutions and integrate them into their daily lives.
Climate change in the vision of the novel is real. It’s a serious issue for citizens today. However, it is not necessarily an extinction crisis. Humans will adapt. Some better than others. They’ll use their preferred methods and means to do so because it is what they do. Somehow, humans muddle through—and as often as not, it’s both absurdly funny and incredibly cool.
The difference between legislation and. Innovation
Stephenson isn’t, however, the only science fiction author who has attempted to combat global warming. A whole genre, called “clifi,” is dedicated to extrapolating how climate changes will affect our world. Kim Stanley Robinson (the justly famous author of The…”) is probably the best-known practitioner in this category. Mars trilogy. The most recent book he wrote, Ministry for the FutureThe book, focuses on many of the same topics as Termination shockThe two books read so well that they almost resembled companion novels. However, the views on how to deal with climate change are completely different.
Ministry for the FutureThe smallest international agency, the CIA, attempts to fight climate change through legal and bureaucratic means. There are many large-scale geoengineering projects, such as a smart system to refreeze glaciers. However, individual actors can take matters into their hands. Some of these include terrorist groups motivated by climate violence.
Robinson believes that the best way to address climate change is to amend laws. Robinson also suggests using legal pressures to overthrow existing economic structures. So it goes. Ministry for the FutureIt is an example of the kind of novel that can sometimes drop into direct-to reader lectures on monetary policy, inequality’s origins, and “defining characteristics” of Neoliberalism. The novel includes sections on “Paris Agreement standards” and certification teams. An early chapter begins with a description of the legal authority that created the United Nations subagency, from which it takes its name. It is based on the assumption that the central bankers will be and continue to rule the modern world.
By the novel’s end, the entire global economic order has been transformed, top to bottom—not only via a new globally managed cryptocurrency designed in part to track all economic activity so as to prevent actions deemed destructive to the climate, but also via a universal basic income, a reduced population and slower growth, a shift in the cultural power status of women, and what amounts to central management of the world economy by “Red Plenty algorithms” that somehow were programmed to avoid “the old bad inefficiencies, while keeping the good inefficiencies that were important for resilience and justice.” You’re welcome.
It’s a captivating novel that is both engaging and effective, even though it has all these shortcomings. Robinson is a skilled and thoughtful writer. His powerful understanding of human interaction with other systems as well as fascinating ideas on how humans can manipulate their surroundings makes him a deft, elegiac writer. Robinson isn’t the same madcap storyteller as Stephenson. However, he is honest and melancholy. His writing is rich in feeling and precise detail and is available in many voices. Even though I believe he’s wrong about how the future should unfold and his predictions, he is still worth reading.
Robinson dedicated the book to a Marxist political theorist and has said he was influenced by “eco-Marxism,” and so it is not surprising to find that ultimately he imagines a vast economic revolution, driven primarily by bureaucratic controls and the force of law—and also, perhaps, some necessary violence.
The novel shows that there is a black-ops unit within the ministry which is responsible for at least some terrorist acts. Although the novel does not reveal the exact extent of the secret violence campaigns, there are indications that the campaign may have included property destruction and targeted killings. While the novel does not condone this violence in any way, violence is seen as necessary to a social, political and economically positive revolution.
So it goes. Ministry for the FuturIt makes an amazingly useful contrast to Termination shock, for it assumes that the most effective way to respond to global warming is through top-down political control and near-totalizing social change—with stringent laws and, if necessary, unaccountable, opaque armed force.
Stephenson, however, sees a network of diversely motivated people and groups working together to achieve their goals. Sometimes they are in conflict with each other.
Stephenson’s vision for climate change response is messy and imperfect. In fact, it barely represents a plan. This is not an all-encompassing solution. It’s just a few people doing things, then others doing something in response. Certain things are successful. Other things may not work. It works most of the time, but it doesn’t always. The story is one of undirected and haphazard progress, built on the notion that incremental innovation will solve our problems, not legislation.
This pair of novels, read together, raises questions about which of the following: Which vision is more probable, realistic, achievable, more likely to be achieved, humane and desirable?
Both stories are based on the assumption that humans can be vastly different and unique and will pursue personal pleasures and profit at all costs. Robinson sees this as the solution to his problem. For Stephenson, it’s the solution—or as close as we’ll ever get.