The frightening elegance of 'The Carbonist Manifesto'

Humans were put on Earth for the primary purpose of returning carbon to the atmosphere in order to warm the planet, at which point our services will be done, our world will become inhospitable, and we will depart, having helped restore planetary equilibrium along the way.

No, this is not a Mayan prophesy. More like a Gaian prophesy.

This is the premise of a fantastical and fascinating essay written 20 years ago by a self-described “extremely nerdy” computer programmer with a longtime interest in both environmentalism and alternative energy, though he hasn’t worked professionally in either.

Earlier this year, I came across the six-page essay, which could easily be mistaken for a scientific treatise but for the author’s précis stating that, while “loosely grounded in recent research in ecology and paleoclimatology,” the paper was “distinctly tongue in cheek.”

The paper, titled “The Consequences of Gaia, or The Carbonist Manifesto” (download here) was written in 1992 by a then 35-year-old computer programmer named Jeff Berkowitz. It is rooted in the Gaia hypothesis (also referred to as the Gaia theory or principle), the notion that Earth's biosphere is a dynamic, self-regulating system, first formulated in the 1970s by scientist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Their hypothesis states that the Earth is not just an amalgam of rocks and trees and water but a giant cell capable of adjusting to both small and large changes in an intelligent and holistic manner.

According to "The Carbonist Manifesto," we humans are one of those adjustments.

Berkowitz begins his essay by explaining how the temperature of the biosphere is largely controlled by the quantities of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the atmosphere. Seeking equilibrium, various geophysical and biological processes cooperate to lower the level of CO2 when the biosphere warms and release CO2 when it cools. But over the past 500 million years, the amount of available carbon in the biosphere has slowly decreased, as carbon was captured in hydrocarbon deposits, such as coal, oil, and seafloor sediments. That is to say, for millions of years, Earth gradually cooled as CO2 was sequestered.

Here, I’ll let Berkowitz take over the story:

The last 100,000 years have seen some of the coldest times in the 500 million years that have elapsed since the Ordovician period. These 100,000 years form less than 1/1000th of the intervening 500 million years. Oddly, they're the same 100,000 years that Homo Sapiens Sapiens have existed on Earth. Clearly, the biosphere has reached a point of crisis. The relatively stable processes of self-regulation that have worked for the past hundreds of millions of years have reached the limit of their ability to correct.

In response to the impending crisis, Gaia evolved a solution. At the edges of the ice sheets that flowed down over the northern hemisphere during the last ice age, Gaia brought it to fruition: a short-term corrective process designed to restore the natural balance of free carbon dioxide in the biosphere.

Man.

Yes, Man. Not the destroyer, the pillager, the environmental rapist of the popular lore; an utterly different view of Man the restorer, the savior, the solution to an environmental crisis more dangerous to the biosphere than even the giant stone that ended the age of dinosaurs. Man, whose only purpose in the Gaian system is to extract carbon from the rocks and put it back in the atmosphere where it belongs.

Whatever you think of all this, it’s hard to refute that, while frightening to ponder, it is an elegant and somewhat poetic theory: that our primary role on Earth is to liberate the carbon on behalf of a larger geological and biological purpose. And that we’re damn good at what we do — we’re succeeding mightily at fulfilling our mission. So much so that we'll eventually work ourselves out of existence.

Recently, I tracked down Berkowitz, now 55, married, and living near Portland, Oregon, where he works as a principal software engineer for the computer company Oracle. I began our conversation by asking how "The Carbonist Manifesto" came to be.

“It was just one of those amusing, contrary things that came to me,” he responded. "I've read a lot of science fiction all my life, and at the time I was particularly taken with the Gaia hypothesis. So it just came together in my head.” Berkowitz grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was a teenager in 1969 during the massive oil spill there — the largest in the United States at the time. It was one of several catalysts for the first Earth Day, in 1970, which began the modern environmental movement.

“That's always been a part of my thinking about the world,” he explained. “In addition, my dad was a big technology guy. After the Arab oil embargo in 1973, a lot of money became available to study alternative energy. So I had a bunch of these sort of environmental concepts and alternative-energy concepts floating around in my head, even as a kid.”

I asked Berkowitz how much he actually believed in what he wrote. “Rather than directly answer your question,” he said, “I'll just say this: The essay sounds like nonsense. And I rarely if ever believe in nonsense. But I can't prove that it's nonsense, and neither can you or anyone else. That's the beauty of it.”

Berkowitz describes himself as an extreme skeptic, quick to question conventional wisdom. For example, he doesn’t view the possibility that a lot of species could be wiped out by climate change as a tragedy. He acknowledges that this could make him sound “at worst insane or at best incredibly callous.”

“I don't believe I'm either insane or callous,” he says. “I admit no metaphysics in my world view. I think the history of the universe is a set of random events followed by other random events. For those of us who really think this way, the idea of putting value judgments on random events is kind of silly. Of course, I'd hate to be hit by a meteor — or, more likely here in Cascadia, crushed in a 9.2 quake.

“But the ‘I'd hate that’ part is about me; it's not about the event. Events are neutral. Goodness and badness happen inside the observer and are based on the observer's narrow perspective. The dinosaur killer was terrible if you were there, but maybe without it there would never have been any higher primates. So is that good or bad? I could ask the equally meaningless question: Is the existence of higher primates a good thing or a bad thing? Questions like this are just silly.”

According to Berkowitz, it’s equally silly to label consumers immoral for wanting certain products at the best price, or to label their suppliers immoral for supplying them. His point is that the sum total of human interactions is as “natural” a disaster as an asteroid hitting the planet leading to mass extinction.

“We're a species, naturally evolved, that at some point began passing cultural knowledge about modifying our environment to a much greater extent than any species before us,” he said. “That's all. It happened in the natural course of events. The common use of the word ‘unnatural’ to describe some of our more advanced technologies is perhaps the most dangerous of all our fallacies about the world. It implies that somehow we are separate from nature, or that the consequences of our actions can somehow lie above or outside of nature. That's a fundamentally broken way to think about the world and I believe it underlies some of our most serious problems.”

Berkowitz recognizes that his view is at odds with most people who call themselves environmentalists. And he’s concerned that it sounds negative and fatalistic. “My arguments about the neutrality of events in no way prevent us from using our free will to choose and guide certain outcomes at the expense of others for whatever reasons we may prefer. I bet I love polar bears as much as you or anyone else, and I'm willing to modify my economic behavior, within limits, to try and ensure that they survive.” But if we fail to do that sufficiently or in time — well, that's just nature taking its course.

One of the things I found remarkable about Berkowitz’s 20-year-old paper is that it could have been written today. Indeed, it’s that much more salient given that it was penned well before climate change and global warming were well understood. And the questions he raises are as relevant as ever. Whether and how we successfully address climate change will depend on the collective actions of humanity.

“In order to prevent the widespread consequences of global warming, we need to make pragmatic choices about actions that will work,” says Berkowitz. “Making those choices starts with a hard-headed worldview that's not cluttered up with unexamined notions about natural versus unnatural, good versus evil, or some grand plan of a big guy upstairs.”

He concludes: “Getting people to think about these questions is perhaps the point of the essay.”

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