The Chalk Skies of Bill Gates (and Other Doomed Experiments)



A giant balloon, released in the Arctic, spewing chalk dust to dim the sun. It sounds the stuff of a late-night horror flick, but the project had the imprimatur of Bill Gates and researchers at Harvard University—not to mention $30 million in private funding. The ultimate tinkering, it sounds like something a kid dreams up with a chemistry set to solve one of Mom’s housekeeping problems.

I understand that calcium carbonate might reflect solar radiation away from our poor scorched planet. And that we are a hot mess and in need of emergency fixes. But God, I am weary of flashy Band-Aids. This “solar bioengineering” is genetically-engineered agriculture all over again: a dramatic sleight of human hands that could have all sorts of unforeseen, long-term effects. Again, the experiment is launched before we can predict and plan for possible ramifications or seriously consider, in a way that is public and not driven by private money, less drastic alternatives. Chalk dust could shock the climate into all manner of weird reactions, and at best it would be a temporary solution, nothing like eradicating carbon emissions, which is far less sexy and, Gates agrees, the real goal.

There has been enough outcry to stop (more likely, delay; the team is already hard at work trying to change their critics’ minds) The Controlled Stratospheric Disturbance Experiment. Environmentalists protested, as did indigenous peoples, with a council leader from Sweden’s Saami reindeer herders writing that this scheme was “completely against what we need to do now—transform to zero-carbon societies in harmony with nature.”

My usual instincts would be to applaud a bold entrepreneur and to respect scientific research at a top-flight university. But I am jaded, these days, and more inclined to side with the reindeer herders. It is wearying, the way we always try to control, rather than heal; to manipulate the environment rather than change our own behavior.

Turning away from the poetic artifice of chalk skies, I read, between sneezes, an intriguing little article revealing that “botanical sexism” is to blame for flaring allergies. I thought it was only in my imagination that the wheezing and gagging were worse every year, but it turns out to be a problem of the patriarchy. “Male trees are one of the most significant reasons why allergies have gotten so bad for citydwellers,” the article notes. And why? That old Biblical problem of spilling seed any old place. Male trees are designed to spread their gametes as far as possible. The idea is for a female tree to trap some of that pollen and uses it to fertilize her seeds. But we did not plant female trees in cities, so the stuff just flies everywhere, coating park benches and glomming onto the moist, sticky lining of our nostrils.

Why plant only male trees? Because female trees are messy. They drop heavy, overripe fruit on our sparkly white sidewalks and throw off annoying seed pods that must be swept up. The male trees only scattered bright yellow pollen dust, which must have seemed less intrusive.

Horticulturist Tom Ogren stumbled upon the bias years ago, tracing it back to prescriptions like that in a 1949 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture: “For street plantings, only male trees should be selected, to avoid the nuisance from the seed.” And now? Walk down any city sidewalk and sex the trees. Male, male, male. Now even nurseries sell more male plants, which are quick and easy to clone from the existing trees. Natural reproduction requires more patience.

And so we sneeze, and walk around in a sleepy brain fog, and claw at itchy red eyes, and congratulate ourselves on managing the landscape.

In New World Same Humans, David Mattin labeled the chalky sunblock project yet another example of “technological solutionism.” “The phrase was coined by the technology thinker Evgeny Morozov, who used it to describe a worldview—common, he said, in Silicon Valley—in which the conditions of human life, including our greatest individual and collective challenges, are seen as only a set of technical problems to be engineered away.”

Planting only convenient trees is not a high-tech solution, but it smacks of the same short-sighted, human-centered thoughtlessness. And as usual, the joke is on us: Had we planted predominantly female trees, we would have been free of pollen and, without a lot of male trees spewing pollen, there would have been no messy fruit anyway.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.