The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. – Francis Wayland Thurston, 1926 – 1927*
So intent was the younger man on his pitch that he had neglected to check his computer’s camera settings before starting the call, so that all the scientist saw of the youth throughout the video conference was his nose, his eyes, and the top of his already-balding head. Of this, the scientist said nothing, for though he had himself finished breakfast a mere hour before, for his caller it was well after dinnertime, and yes, graduate students are famous for keeping long, late hours, but there are limits. As, the scientist reminded himself with a wry inward grin, he had himself reason to know; reason to think that, a few short decades ago, the youngster at the other end of the internet could have been himself. So, he listened with compassion, and waited for the ask.
It soon came. The young man, founder and CEO of his new company, had worked out how to make a microorganism suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and trap it so that it could not get back in to the atmosphere, thus (it says right here on the prospectus) stopping, and eventually reversing, the buildup of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning that was threatening Life As We Know It. The trouble was, he and his company could grow a little of this magic microorganism in the laboratory, but in order to make this work, he and his company would have to grow a lot of it, and they didn’t know how. Could the scientist and his company help?
The scientist thought briefly, and with considerable apprehension, about what the Venerable Gentleman would have to say about this. He decided to see if he could get the younger man to give up on the idea without having to be told “No” in so many words.
“It sounds like you have a good idea”, the older man gambited, “there are aspects of your plan that I haven’t had proposed to me before, and haven’t appeared in the papers I’ve read. But I see many obstacles, and a long development time for your project. And do we have that time? From all I’ve seen and read, it looks to me like the only way we’re going to get this carbon dioxide thing under control with anything like the urgency required is to reduce the human population to the levels of the 18th century, and reduce the living standards of the survivors to those current before the Industrial Revolution, also 18th century, all before the end of the decade.”
The response that the scientist expected from this provocation was a huffy, and long, defense of climate change research and entrepreneurship. That response was not what he got. What he did get was this, delivered straight ahead, without any hint of condescension or defensiveness.
“I agree with you.”
After a beat (the scientist thought he kept the shocked surprise off his face, but couldn’t be sure), the young CEO continued. “You clearly see the obvious. The COVID pandemic bought us one year of the kind of global reduction in carbon dioxide that, the physicists and atmospheric scientists tell us, we have to continue reducing, by the same percentage every year, for the rest of the century. The human cost of that one year was horrific, which only massive government spending, on a scale that can’t be repeated, prevented from becoming catastrophe. The social scientists, and the economists, tell us that the cost is politically and economically unsustainable, even for dictatorial regimes. Already the airliners are back in the sky, and the seats are full.
“We feign, following the IT experts, that computers will limit travel and help us save energy, but the ecologists scream that the power needed to keep those computers running has the same carbon footprint as the airlines, and is growing apace, with the massive growth of blockchain-dependent functions such as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens the major contributors to that growth. And this does not take into account the growing scarcity of the raw materials needed to build computers, or other supposedly ‘green’ technologies such as solar panels, or the huge energy, and carbon, costs of extracting from the ground what’s left of those materials.
“I do not need to insult your intelligence by spelling out, as the agricultural scientists have, the disastrous human consequences of denying fossil-fuel energy to the original green revolution, and to the transportation networks upon which distribution of the agricultural goods made possible by that fossil-fuel energy absolutely depend. And we could solve these problems only to find out from the mineralogists that the planet has run out of fertilizer for the crops.
“Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”, the man from across the pond concluded. “Every move we make, on the advice of some expert, merely uncovers some more formidable obstacle revealed by some other expert. Not to mention formidable citizen opposition to any of the moves that have already been attempted. We know all this. It is sometimes hard to see any way forward except the draconian measures that you propose.”
“And yet”, the scientist responded, “you and your fellow ‘blue economy’ entrepreneurs persist.”
“We may as well do something“, came the rejoinder.
“It does not. And that is a most unkind thing to say about Mr Johnson‘s premiership”, the younger man scolded.
“Those who govern do so only by consent of the governed”, the scientist reminded. “Which is why we on this side of the pond still have the Cheeto Mussolini on our hands. And our consciences.”
“My condolences”, the student CEO commiserated. “And I agree, the reluctance, even, I may say, the counterrevolutionary reluctance, of our fellow citizens to contemplate any major change in lifestyles, short of what your generation used to call ‘acts of God’, I believe, is a major obstacle. But we can but try. And this is science. By definition, we don’t know what we’re doing. Which means we don’t know what might work in the end, and we do both ourselves and our society a disservice, to say no more, to claim otherwise.”
“You certainly do yourselves a disservice by turning down chances to profit by society’s distress”, the elder man challenged.
“That too”, the younger one admitted. “Same as you. And if either of us were truly interested in profit, wouldn’t we be doing pornography?”
“Not if the internet gutted that industry’s profitability like I hear it has”, came the retort. “I thought that the game, these days, was to join Reddit investor groups and buy stock in obscure, failing companies.”
“Like … ours?”
“What goes up must come down. Hard. I don’t recommend it. What I do recommend is that I take your proposal under advisement, and if I like what I read and my bosses approve, see what we can do about growing your bug at scales that will make a difference.”
“Thank you,” came the conclusion from across the pond. “And, good luck!”
* Lovecraft HP. 1928. “The Call of Cthulhu”, opening paragraph. Weird Tales, February 1928.