Billionaires Secretly Terraforming Earth And Other Reasons To Read “Termination Shock”


The world is changing faster than we think with rapid progress in many areas of science and technology. Many concepts envisioned by the greatest minds in science fiction are now closer to reality than ever. One of the most brilliant and visionary minds in science fiction often taught in the literature courses at the many universities worldwide is Neal Stephenson. You might know Neal from such novels as “Snow Crash”, “Fall; or Dodge in Hell: A Novel”, “Quicksilver”, “Cryptomonicon”, “The Diamond Age”, and “Seveneves”  among several other masterpieces. Not only are all of Neal’s publications extremely well-researched, but he also puts in a lot of time and effort to write about things that are relevant to human survival. For example, “Seveneves” presents a post-apocalyptic scenario where humans turn to space for survival and also go deep below ground.

Today we are going to talk about the most fascinating science fiction book of this year, which hits many of today’s hot topics including inequality, billionaires with resources to alter the course of human history, climate change, pandemics, and many more. It is called “Termination Shock”. In “Termination Shock”, Neal provides a detailed account of one of the biggest challenges to human survival: climate change; and presents an idea of how human beings can mitigate the process of climate change to ensure survival for millennia to come.

The techno-thriller book is set in a not-so-distant future and centers around an individual who decides to take matters into his own hands by taking technological steps to intervene in climate change. The story is partly about how this individual does it, but more importantly, it’s about how people react and respond to what this individual does, depending on weather they think the results of technological interference in nature is a good thing or a bad thing.

Climate change is real – both human-induced, human-accelerated, and natural. And according to Neal, its effects are already devastating and will continue to challenge the traditional way of living.

I had the pleasure of having a chat with Neal and we talked about how he came up with the idea of “Termination Shock”, his personal position on climate change, and what he considers would be the best place to survive if you plan for a 150-year life.

During our chat, Neal emphasized that climate change can be disrupted through efficient and proper use of geoengineering, and that technological interventions in climate may actually help save the human species.

Let’s take a look and see what we learn!

Alex Zhavoronkov– Given your vivid imagination, I think we’re likely to see something grand in ‘Termination Shock.’ How did you come up with this idea? And is it just catering to the recent pandemic and the climate change movement? Or is it something different?

Neal Stephenson– Although people have been worrying about pandemics and their possible relationship to climate change for a long time, I started writing the book shortly before the pandemic started. When I first started writing ‘Termination Shock,’ I thought about how strange it seems that when you read science fiction about future space travel, certain topics that seem obvious are never talked about. The book is about people who are very well informed about the causes of climate change and carbon capture but who won’t talk about geoengineering or technological interventions in climate. It seems to be a forbidden topic for a lot of people. I understand why they’re concerned that if we use these interventions to blunt some of the short-term impact, it will cause damage that will create a moral hazard, giving us a license togo on polluting. But it just seemed very strange to me that it wasn’t being talked about. There are a couple of novels that do address this. There’s one by Eliot Peper called ‘Veil,’ and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Futuretakes a very broad and well researched view of all these things. But I specifically was interested in the simplest possible geoengineering scenario, which is to inject sulfur into the stratosphere. This is a natural experiment that has been performed many times throughout history. Whenever a big volcano goes off, most recently Pinatubo in the 1990s, the result is always the same. Some sulfur dioxide goes into the stratosphere and stays there for a couple of years. It combines with available water to make tiny droplets of sulfuric acid.When the light from the sun hits them, some of that light scatters back into space. And so it never enters the troposphere. But we can still see the sun, and we tend to see a lot more brightness in the air like brilliant sunsets, and the global temperature goes down measurably. This has happened many times throughout history. It’s thought to have happened around 535 AD which led to the Justinian plague and contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire. It happened in in the 19th century, and other times as well. Technologically, the simplest possible thing that we could do to cool things down would be to duplicate what these volcanoes do. It’s not very sophisticated. And so the system that this fictional character in the book comes up with is just a big gun that shoots shells full of sulfur. It’s a blunt instrument approach to the problem. But that’s not really what the book is about. The book is really about what would happen then, if somebody did unilaterally take action in that way? What would the physical consequences be to the planet? And what would the social and political consequences be? Now of course, I can’t cover all of that in one novel, but we know that the physical consequences would be that the temperatures would cool down and we’d get pretty sunsets. But it wouldn’t address the basic underlying problem: too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There are certain negative consequences of that that would not be addressed by this approach. The big one is probably the acidification of the oceans. The carbon dioxide in the air dissolves in the upper layer of the sea water and makes it acidic; and that is bad for marine life. There are other problems as well caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere that this geoengineering approach doesn’t even pretend to deal with. The other complicating factor is that this would affect different regions of the earth differently. You don’t get a single change that’s evenly distributed over the whole world, but because the weather is very complicated, you get all kinds of regional and local effects that we can only predict using sophisticated climate models. Just to name one, the physics of the monsoon in India is fascinatingly complicated. It’s caused by interaction of different factors like the albedo of the snow in the Himalayas and other seasonal effects that interlock with each other. Most years they produce a predictable result and the lives of billions of people depend on that happening in a reasonably predictable way. Anything that looks like it could interfere with that process would be a very serious geopolitical issue. So those are some of the angles to that problem that I am trying to touch on in the book. Going really deep into any of them would be a bigger project.

Alex Zhavoronkov– What is your personal position on global warming, climate change, and how much of it is caused by the human factor? And how much of it is caused by nature, in general? Also, what kind of near-term solutions do you think governments worldwide should take and humans in general should adopt in order to ameliorate the current situation?

Neal Stephenson– It’s totally caused by humans. If you look at the plot of CO2 concentration over time, in the last 150 – 200 years, it’s gone from something in the 200 parts per million range to above 400 and still climbing very rapidly. There’s no way to explain that without human activity. It hasn’t been as high as it is now for millions of years. The last time it was as high as it is now, the earth was a very, very different place climatically. People who are environmentally conscious and paying attention still don’t really understand the severity of the problem and how hard it’s going to be. People talk about how we’re going to try to be a net zero carbon emitter by 2050 or 2060. But if the parts per million of CO2 in 2050 or 2060 is 450, let’s say, then merely going to a net zero economy means staying at 450 for practically forever. It’s not enough to spend a few decades getting to net zero carbon emissions. It’s not wrong to do that, but to think that that’s solving the problem is extremely naive. I worry that a lot of people don’t understand that fact.

Alex Zhavoronkov– What are some of the possible solutions? It looks like the most common solution to this problem is cutting carbon emissions, but it doesn’t seem like people are trying to look outside the box and think about what we can do to adapt to this change. Your book partly patches on that from the global warming perspective. However, if we talk about deforestation or the effects on marine life and many other species, we are within our technological capabilities to redesign life and adapt to this change. What do you think about that potential approach?

Neal Stephenson– It depends on the details of how it’s done. The precautionary principle, which has become conventional wisdom, tells us not to meddle with nature. I think that way of thinking emerged in the sixties and seventies, when we made serious mistakes by introducing certain technologies like primitive nuclear reactors and DDT and so on, without appreciating their impact. We’re in a situation now where we really don’t have a choice. I doubt the Western democracies will ever bring themselves to do these things. I wish they would, but it’s the political difficulties of getting democracies to agree to such changes seems insurmountable right now. That’s not me arguing against democracy; it’s just the fact of how it is. I don’t know where it’s going but I think we’ll see unilateral interventions, like the one that’s described in ‘Termination Shock.’ From individuals who decide to take action or by countries that don’t have to worry about democratic processes. 

Alex Zhavoronkov– China is cutting down on pollution pretty dramatically. That’s one reason why we’ve got power outages in many places here, because they cut down on coal. There are electric vehicles everywhere too. They are readopting to this new change. It may not be enough because, as you describe in ‘Termination Shock,’ there needs to be other ways to intervene and we need to be prepared for additional interventions like genetic engineering and changing the environment to our liking, so to speak.

Neal Stephenson– I would say that as time goes on, people, countries and companies will increasingly see strong incentives to intervene. Sooner or later, some of them will follow those where those incentives lead them, whether we like it or not. We need to be aware of that and be prepared to live in a world where those kinds of interventions might begin happening.

Alex Zhavoronkov– What are some things that the broader audience will learn from the novel?

Neal Stephenson– Hopefully they would read an enjoyable, fun story with interesting characters. I think a lot of people have heard of climate change and why it’s important. There’s been a lot less coverage of geoengineering because it’s sort of a forbidden topic in some ways. Some of the readers might learn something about one specific type of geoengineering. Beyond that, there’s some detail about how climate change is affecting certain areas more than others and how geoengineering might do likewise. We have a subplot, for example, in Venice, which is among the most vulnerable places on earth due to rising sea levels. It’s hard to see how a city like Venice could continue to exist 50 years from now if sea levels keep rising. There are special places like that where even if we just focus specifically on sea level rise, we don’t think about global warming per se; we don’t think about mass extinctions or refugee movements. Just the sea level going up will have a huge impact. That’s obvious to us when we look at a nice city like Venice, which is part of the European heritage. But then you have to think about all the people in Bangladesh or the Marshall Islands and other parts of the world where they’re equally vulnerable to sea level rise, we maybe don’t give them the same attention and sympathy that we might give to the Venetian.

Alex Zhavoronkov– On a final note, what do you think is the best place to survive, if you were to plan for a 150-year life? where would you live?

Neal Stephenson– You have to take into account political stability as well as climate vulnerability. Probably not in the United States, sad to say. I don’t see the United States uniformly coast to coast, all becoming one thing. It’s just going to split apart and differentiate. The cities of the west coast probably don’t change much politically but certainly just north across the border Vancouver, Victoria, British Columbia, those are the places that I think are more politically stable and they rise abruptly out of the water sort of like Hong Kong does. So, no matter how high sea level goes, unless you’re right along the beach, you’re probably going to be fine. The other big, bad, scary thing that we have to worry about with climate change is these so-called wet bulb incidents, where the wet bulb temperature becomes very high, meaning that not only is the temperature high, but humidity is very high as well. So the body can’t cool itself by sweating. And if that becomes bad enough, then it becomes physically impossible for humans to stay alive outdoors and so one of the really worrisome trends that we may see in the next decade is incidents where in a certain part of the world, a certain city or whatever, the wet bulb temperature becomes high enough to be incompatible with survival and many, many people who don’t have shelter and air conditioning, may suddenly die from that. We saw kind of a hint of it in Seattle last summer with a sudden heat bubble that caused a number of deaths. It wasn’t a humid thing, but it was 110 degrees and people here don’t have air conditioning frequently. So, we may begin to see events like that on a really large scale. And so, that would argue for trying to live someplace far away from the equator, far away from the tropics and far away from the ocean.

Alex Zhavoronkov– Got it. Vancouver is probably not the ideal scenario then.

Neal Stephenson– When I say close to the ocean, I mean in terms of sea level. But there’s plenty of real estate in Vancouver and Victoria that’s far, far above. I mean, there are ski areas right outside of Vancouver for God’s sake.

Looking for a great book for the holiday break? You can not go wrong with “Termination Shock”.



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