“Given wit and imagination, the Earth can be made vastly more hospitable for its dominant species and congenial life forms.” Small is beautiful but big isn’t all that bad either.” — “Terraforming the Earth” by Ralph Hamil, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, July, 1978, p. 65.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was a science fiction geek. In my mind, tomorrow was a technologically and socially Brave New World in a very positive, non-Huxleyan sense. For a time I subscribed to Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine. I look back at those magazines now and then. I see early publications by unknown authors such as George R. R. Martin and Orson Scott Card. And, I see the exciting predictions in the “Science Fact” department. An article that has troubled me for a while now is Ralph Hamil’s “Terraforming the Earth”, from July 1978, a few months before my seventeenth birthday — and a few months after I saw the future Captain of the Starship Enterprise on the Stratford stage playing the King of the Faeries.
I look back at “Terraforming the Earth, and I realize that as bad as the current joint environmental catastrophe of climate change and species extinction is, it might have been worse. Thirty-six years ago, Hamil offered a generation of future scientists and engineers an inspiring collection of Gee Whiz! geoengineering ideas. Hamil laid out inspiring plans by which “the Earth can be made vastly more hospitable for its dominant species and congenial life forms” (p. 65). “Hospitable” in this context seems to mean “lots of electrical power, lots of high-speed rail, and lots of irrigation water in places it doesn’t belong.”
Hamil begins with praise of damming rivers: “Hydroelectricity is clean energy” but admits that “damming rivers sometimes leads to backwater sedimentation, rapid silting, and disruption of marine life and scenic quality. It frequently requires relocation of homes on about-to-be flooded land” (p. 48). I can’t help but think of China’s Three Gorges Dam, British Columbia’s proposed Site C Dam and the displacement and destruction caused by countless hydroelectric projects around the world. I wonder: is Hydroelectricity truly “clean energy”?
When I consider the proposals Hamil raises with some degree of seriousness in this article I can’t help but feel we dodged a bullet by somehow avoiding most of them. Just imagine if the massive diversion projects of the Soviets had gone ahead:
“The scheme [to divert Russian rivers from the Arctic Ocean to central Asia] is faulted by those who fear that with a lessened flow of fresh water, the Arctic ice pack may shrink, with deleterious effects on the world’s climate. Some experts worry that the cool air above giant reservoirs would injure crops to the south while the added weight of the waters may stimulate earthquakes” (pp. 49-50).
And it wasn’t just Soviet scheming. Hamil also references Newsweek’s praise of the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) which would have diverted a number of arctic rivers, including the Mackenzie and the Peace (currently the centre of controversy over the abive mentioned Site C Dam proposal), south through the Rockies to the Fraser, Kootenay and Columbia and through extensions to the Rio Grande and East across the prairies to the Missouri and the Great Lakes. One third of the power generated by this scheme would have gone to pumping the water to unnatural places. But the U.S. Southwest would have irrigation water , For a time. What could possibly stand in the way of such a wonderful proposal? Well, next to cost, the biggest obstacle Hamil suggests is “Canadian reluctance to export its waters” (p. 49). Those shortsighted Canadians.
What else would make Earth more hospitable?
How about flooding 140,000 square miles of Brazilian rainforest?
or damming the Strait of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles to generate electricity from inflow into an evaporating Mediterranean?
or the more modest proposal of damming the Red Sea for the same purpose?
Dam the Congo River and flood 350,000 square miles of Equatorial African Rainforest? Dam the rivers of the Indian subcontinent, including the Sacred Ganges?
Dam the Bering Strait for goodness sake!
On p. 52 Hamil suggests that “Mideast peace might someday join Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and, perhaps, an independent Palestine in a Jordan Valley Authority for power generation and irrigation purposes.” The political foresight is as accurate as the environmental.
Hamil lists all sorts of plans to make new salt lakes in below-sea-level areas of land and tells us, the Soviets “have rejected a plan to drain the Aral Sea.” p. 53 Look again!
Iceberg dams for the Northwest Passage. Diverting the Gulf Stream to the Maritimes. Draining Lake Erie. The list goes on, blithely unaware of zebra mussels and Asian carp.
Hamil’s brief discussion of tidal and wind power is much more rational, although there is no suggestion of any possible negatives here, especially after those superconducting power lines make a world-wide power grid (p. 57 ff.)
Despite in the end explicitly denying an Asimovian dystopian vision, Hamil depicts a Trantor-like “Ecumenopolis” of 20 billion urban dwelling people connected by highspeed railways linking continents through trans-oceanic tunnels (many of which tunnels would be unnecessary if all the trans-oceanic dams got built). Whence the food to feed the urban billions? From all that newly irrigated desert and rainforest, one presumes. And there must be some nature reserves scattered about for those “congenial species” we’ve kept around.
And then . . .
Oh boy! Gosh! As though channelling Hugo Gernsback (whom he references):
“By the first half of the 21st century . . .” atomic powered locomotives!!!!
And the canals! Panama’s is child’s play! Hamil draws lines across every continent, joining the river basins of India, diverting the Danube to the Sea of Azov, trenching Central America repeatedly. Sadly, “Opponents of the new interoceanic canals warn that mixing the wildlife of two dissimilar zoological regions can result in serious ecological disruption.”
But on a positive note:
“Several of these stalled canal schemes might become feasible if nuclear devices could be used for excavation purposes” although, “The missing element of general world sanity may long inhibit such uses [of nuclear devices]” (p. 62). Because, I guess, the definition of “world sanity” is “using nuclear devices to blast canals through continents”.
But Hamil’s not finished. With perhaps his best bit of prophecy he tells us that if we are truly going to make Earth hospitable, we have to do something about the climate:
“If humankind is ever to get a handle on both short and long range climatic trends, it will have to utilize tools to alter productive forces in both these weather factories [the oceans and the icecaps] (p.62).
Industrial complexes in the oceans!!!
Cities on the ice of Antarctica and Greenland!!!!
Towing icebergs to desert regions!!!!!
“By the next century” !!!!!!
Let’s get that Global Planning Commission going!
But, remember: “The entire planning process must be permeated with concern for the ecological well-being of the planet” (p. 64) Hamil suggests that computers and their sophisticated programming will make modelling simple and keep everything shipshape and Bristol fashion. Oh, and human rights. Hamil suggests the importance of considering the rights of humans living in the area of terraforming projects, for example, by making Third World construction projects labour intensive, thereby providing jobs for the local underclasses. Give them a hand up through hard manual labour rather than by educating and training them to be skilled labour. I notice Quebec’s “James Bay Scheme” on Hamil’s chart of “Examples of planetary engineering: proposed hydroelectric projects” (p.61). I wonder how that clean energy project worked out. The first phase was constructed without any serious attempt at environmental assessment or consideration of the human rights of the Cree in the area. The environmental and human damage was incalculable. Hydro Quebec tried to proceed with phase two, the Great Whale Project, but the Cree used the Canadian Courts to hold the developers’ feet to the fire. In the end the damage Great Whale would do was so great and so obvious that the Quebec Government “put the project on hold indefinitely”, effectively pulling the plug. In hindsight, it is clear that the only way these “terraforming” mega-projects ever went ahead is when “ecological well-being of the planet” and human rights do not in any way permeate the planning process
The strangely distorted and rose-coloured vision throughout the article is stunning. But at the end, there is a brief moment of clarity, obscured immediately by a “but”:
“Sheer magnificence of imagination ought not to hypnotize us. But an emerging world civilization out to be capable of far more enduring works than its tribal predecessors with their meagre resources” (p. 65).
Well, Mr. Hamil, it’s looking more and more like our emerging world civilization has indeed constructed those enduring works by means of our “terraforming” ambitions and their unintended consequences : climate change and extinctions. But somehow we haven’t made the Earth more hospitable for any species, “congenial” or otherwise.
I suppose we lacked the wit and imagination.
In 1978 as much as we do today.