Coming to Grips with Future Time Robert Socolow

Environmental Humanities in a Changing World Princeton Environmental Institute Princeton University March 8, 2103

to Ken Hiltner, for being the most proactive visiting professor that I can recall to Steve Pacala, for making PEI spectacularly interdisciplinary, problem focused, and welcoming to Tom Barron, whose commitment to the interplay of the humanities and the environment is driving educational innovation at Princeton.

Princeton Energy and Climate Scholars (PECS)
• 17 current PECS student members • 14 faculty members • Diverse departmental backgrounds • Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences • Chemical and Biological Engineering • Civil and Environmental Engineering • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology • Economics • Electrical Engineering • Geosciences • Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering • Operations Research and Financial Engineering • Princeton Environmental Institute • Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

A Tour of Images
drawn from my teaching and lecturing

Substituting IT for travel

From The New Yorker, April 21, 2008

Legacy: National Highway System

Legacy: U.S. Power Plants

Source: Benchmarking Air Emissions, April 2006. The report was co-sponsored by CERES, NRDC and PSEG.

Technology and Context

Graphics courtesy of DOE Photovoltaics Program

The Fire You Can’t Quench
8 Percent of full power

6 4 1 day 2 1%

Fukushima Daiichi, before the accident


107 1 103 105 Time after shutdown (seconds), log scale

Source: Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, 2011. After the Deluge: Short and Medium-term Impacts of the Reactor Damage Caused by the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Source: A. Nero. Jr., The Guidebook to Nuclear Reactors, p. 54

The future coal power plant

Wind Electricity

Are they ugly or beautiful?

Source: Hal Harvey, TPG talk, Aspen, CO, July 2007

Patient Earth
“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.” Hippocrates

* Modern version of the Hippocratic oath, Louis Lasagna, 1964,

Will we geo-engineer the planet?

Earth enhancement
Geoengineering will allow us to enhance the planet, much as genetic engineering provides ways to enhance the human species. Genetic engineering now allows enhancement of the human species (prettier, taller, smarter,…)

Geoengineering will allow enhancement of the planet – notably, the moderation of extreme events:
warmer winters where people want them cooler summers where people want them less severe storms and droughts Is anything lost? sweet spots

Enhancement is problematic
Michael Sandel sets up a dichotomy to explore modern medicine: Cure or restore vs. enhance or perfect. Fertility and sex selection Eugenics Steroids and sports Cosmetic surgery Hyper-parenting He argues that enhancement can be pursued to excess. He sees a loss of the ability to savor the life we have been “gifted.” He sees value in randomness, the “unbidden.”

“When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease.”

Does Climate Change put Democracy at Risk?
Students wrote, last month:

At what point is it necessary just to implement policy irrespective of what the general public thinks? [1]
When do we say, “enough is enough,” and decide that all mitigation techniques have failed, leaving us with no choice but to try geoengineering technologies even if the risks are unknown.” [5]

How much time do we have left?” [10]

Please, work with us, at least sometimes.
Awe and knowledge Privilege science over myth, hard as that is.
A compulsion to control. “What is needed is courage to live in the midst of the ambiguities of this moment without drawing back into fear and a compulsion to control.”* Zoos and wildness. The moving finger. Fateful choices. Path dependency. Responsibility and uncertainty. Humility. Hippocrates. Destiny. Future time and the collective future of the species. What is lost if the human experiment comes to an end? Selfconsciousness and the multi-generational project.
*Journey of the Universe, Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Yale, 2011), p. 117

In order to know the truth, it is necessary to imagine a thousand falsehoods.

Sidney Coleman, ca. 1964, perhaps a quote from H.G. Wells

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful