10 Nutty Proposals to Save the Planet
By Sally Gao
Necessity is the mother of invention. But a little kookiness could preserve Mother Earth.
1. WE NEED: MARS TO BE INHABITABLE
Solution: Nuke Mars!
Mars is as cold as an Antarctic winter. So billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk threw out this idea: If Mars is too chilly for human habitation, why don’t we drop some thermonuclear bombs there to heat it up? Musk doesn’t want to nuke the Red Planet itself—just the sky over its two poles, creating twin suns that would heat the planet’s surface, by turning Mars’s store of carbon dioxide (currently trapped in its ice caps) into gas. At some point, the greenhouse effect would kick in. If we got it warm enough, we could even plant trees to thicken the atmosphere with oxygen. Academics reacting to Musk’s ideas ranged from dismissive to tentative (“It’s possible, but …”). For one, we’d need to send thousands of nukes over centuries. Others warn that radiation could harm the planet. And if there is life on Mars, this wouldn’t be the smartest way to say hello.
2. WE NEED: TO STOP CONSUMING SO MANY RESOURCES
Solution: Downsize Humankind
At 6-foot-5, Dutch artist Arne Hendriks isn’t proud to be using more than his share of global resources. We’re running low on everything, and humans are making matters worse by growing taller, living longer, and reproducing more. So Hendriks thinks people need to shrink. More specifically, he wants to bring the human race down to 20 inches tall. At that height, we’d need only 2 percent of the resources we use now. To get started, Hendriks says we should stop eating growth hormone–stimulating foods and get genetic counseling so we can select for shorter kids. He argues that gene manipulation could make people, not just the planet, healthier: Laron syndrome, a form of dwarfism, confers near-immunity to cancer and diabetes.
3. WE NEED: TO ALL GET ALONG
Solution: Relive the Triassic Period
The Political Tectonics Lab has a strange mission: Convince the world’s nations to unite and create a new supercontinent called Pangaea Optima, named after the single continent that existed 200 million years ago. At the helm is Jonathon Keats, a philosopher and conceptual artist who exhibited his idea at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery in 2015, complete with plans to control the movement of the continents by hooking nuclear reactors to the seafloor. It would be costly, but Keats expects to raise funds by selling naming rights to the new bodies of water that’ll be created. If the plan sounds bonkers, Keats has done his job. The project isn’t about feasibility—rather, it’s a thought experiment about how physical spaces divide us. Which is to say: He’s literally (and figuratively) talking about finding common ground.
4. WE NEED: BETTER WAYS TO HARNESS SUNLIGHT
Solution: Put a Solar Farm in Space
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) thinks that, by 2030, it will be able to harvest solar power straight from space—where sunlight is 24/7, with no atmosphere to dampen the rays. They hope to beam it down to an antenna in Tokyo Bay, but it comes with a challenge: figuring out how to deliver the solar energy to Earth with pinpoint accuracy. After all, any unintended targets of the beam could get fried to a crisp. Oh, and that’s on top of figuring out how to make the 10,000-ton transmitter orbit Earth with our rotation. In March 2015, JAXA transmitted 1.8 kilowatts of electricity—enough to power your cell phone for nearly two years—170 feet to a relatively small antenna. It’s the first time that such a large amount of power has been delivered wirelessly with accuracy. Now they just have to extend it 22,000 miles.
5. WE NEED: AN EXTRA HAND
Solution: Create Designer Organisms to do Our Bidding
Biochemist J. Craig Venter founded Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), a company devoted to creating “biomachinery”—genetically engineered organisms that can do, well, whatever we need. One project involves developing microbes that can clean water and generate electricity. When you put microbial fuel cells in wastewater, they feed off organic matter and transfer electrons as they “digest.” That energy transfer can actually be used to generate a current! SGI has also partnered with ExxonMobil to enhance the oil-producing abilities of algae, opening doors for a greener source of biofuel.
6. WE NEED: TO LOWER THE EARTH'S TEMPERATURE
Solution: Confetti the Stratosphere with Sulfur
When the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it spewed nearly 20 million tons of sunlight-reflecting sulfur, causing the global average temperature to drop by 1 degree Fahrenheit for 15 months. (Polar bears born that winter are called “Pinatubo cubs,” because the extra sea ice that year made hunting easier, making the bears extra large.) Since then, scientists have toyed with the idea of spraying the stratosphere with sulfur to combat climate change. Researchers at leading British universities proposed blasting the particles using naval artillery or releasing a balloon that would scatter the sulfur through a hose. Skeptics warn that the plan could weaken monsoons, cutting short the rainfall that provides drinking water for billions. At best, it’s a short-term fix.
7. WE NEED: PROTECTION FROM ARMAGEDDON
Solution: An IRL Giant Arcade Game
Astrophysicists at UC Santa Barbara have come up with an Atari-inspired plan in case an asteroid finds itself on a collision course with Earth: Mount a giant laser beam on a remote-controlled spacecraft, and blast the incoming rock. Once the asteroid surface reaches 5000 degrees Fahrenheit, it will start to vaporize, mucking up its rotation and steering it away from the planet. The solution is slightly more elegant than NASA’s current intervention plan: nuking it.
8. WE NEED: MORE FOOD
Solution: Robot Veggie Farms
We’re running out of food: The World Bank estimates that by 2050, climate change could reduce harvests by a quarter, yet we’ll need 50 percent more food than we produce now to feed a bigger population. So a Japanese company, Spread, has invented a super-efficient way to grow vegetables regardless of climate—robots. Inside the indoor farm known as the Vegetable Factory, robotic arms water, trim, and harvest crops while sensors adjust humidity, light, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels. Compared with a non-automated farm, the robot farm saves labor costs by half and energy costs by a third. Spread has already built a lettuce factory that can harvest 21,000 heads of lettuce a day.
9. WE NEED: TO GET OUT OF THE SUN
Solution: Put Sunshades in Space
In 2006, optics expert Roger Angel published his proposal to launch trillions of translucent discs into space to cool the planet down. The discs would float between the Earth and the sun, cutting sunlight exposure by 1.8 percent. Although Angel’s work was praised by academics, it’s too costly. The project would cost $5 trillion—about 10 years of U.S. military defense spending. His new plan is easier on the wallet. It involves redirecting sunlight with giant mirrors here on Earth.
10. WE NEED: FASTER WIND POWER
Solution: Grow Some Tornadoes
Tornado-force winds usually blow the power out, but Louis Michaud thinks they could help keep the lights on. By day, Michaud worked as an engineer at an oil refinery in a polluted town dubbed Ontario’s “Chemical Valley.” Nights were spent tinkering in his garage with turntables and plastic cylinders, working on a tornado generator. (Or, as he calls it, an “atmospheric vortex engine.”) Michaud finally got his break three years ago at age 72, winning a $300,000 grant to start building bigger, better prototypes. His most recent version creates a vortex that can reach a height of 65 feet, but the goal is to (somehow) create an 8-mile-high tornado to generate 200 megawatts of electricity. At that size, an hourlong tornado could produce nearly enough electricity to power 20 American households for a year.