Oct 212012

Wednesday, my dear sister Rose stopped by my office and invited me to Sunday dinner.  For the last couple of years, such an invitation has meant that she, her husband Hank, Hank’s brother and his wife Shannon are running low on the funds necessary to feed both of their enormous Catholic broods of children an appropriate repast suitable to one or more special occasions, which, in this case, were celebrations for the christening of Rose’s youngest and the confirmation of one of Shannon’s daughters.  Upon receiving such an invitation, it is expected that on Sunday morning, I will drive my imported sports car from my home in Great Falls, Virginia to theirs in Fairfax, stopping on the way at a suitable supermarket to stuff my automobile’s trunk, back seat and passenger seat full with plenty of yummy comestibles.  It’s also expected that I will deliver a respectable selection of liquor for the enjoyment of the adults after Sunday dinner is finished, the numerous tables cleared, and the chaotic kitchen set orderly and aright, the dishwasher humming away contentedly. 
So, once again I did my duty as Rose’s younger brother and made sure there was a fine ham dinner with seasonal fall accents, including roasted root vegetables, potatoes au gratin, and hot pumpkin pies a la mode for all.  And afterward, as the dishwasher hummed and the numerous children cavorted elsewhere on the premises, the adults gathered in the living room to relax.  Included in that company were my brother Rob Roy, his wife Katje and their son Jason, who are always invited to such affairs as these in order to substantiate the idea among the children that these are traditional family gatherings and not Tom riding to the rescue of their cash-strapped parents with a car full of provisions from the Safeway. 
Just as we settled in, though, a huge crash, followed by muffled thumping and screams of “Mom” and “Dad” sent Shannon and her husband scurrying away to resolve yet another conundrum of sibling relations.  With Shannon thus occupied, I thought for certain that this left Rob Roy and Hank to start the inevitable argument, but much to my surprise, it was Jason who laid into his father before Hank even had a chance to develop a decent buzz from the bottle of Talisker 18 I had brought, among others, as part of my customary filial duty to Rose.
“How can you possibly defend someone like Russ George?” Jason demanded, obviously resuming a discussion that started before they had arrived.  “The man’s a total maniac!”
“The man,” Rob Roy shot back at his son, “is obviously a genius!”
“Rob,” Katje interjected after a sip of the 2007 Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Catena Alta Mendoza I brought, “you’ve got to be kidding.  The solution to global warming is reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the first place, not screwing around with the planet afterward trying to fix things.”
“Look,” Rob admonished gesturing with a margarita made from my Cointreau and Patrón Añejo Especial, “you gotta face the facts – and the fact is, until we bring nuclear fusion online, there simply isn’t going to be any significant reduction in fossil fuel consumption, no matter how many windmills and solar power plants we build, particularly with those Canadian tar sands being the biggest source of oil outside Saudi Arabia, and all this cheap natural gas they’re getting from fracking these days…”
“Only because the government lets them!” Jason protested after a manly swig of the Dogfish Head 120 Minute India Pale Ale I had provided.  “Obama’s letting big corporations completely [expletive] up the environment with stuff like tar sands and gas fracking so they can sell carbon-based fuels that completely [expletive] up the environment even more!”
“You think he’s got a choice?” Rob Roy challenged.  “And what difference would it make, anyhow, with the Chinese and the Indians burning coal faster than a crack house goes through butane lighters?  What Russ George is doing is the only logical alternative – the idiots have put too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and there’s no way to stop them, or even make them slow down.  The only alternative is to find ways to take the carbon dioxide out of the air after the idiots have put it there!”
“Seeing as how,” Hank piped up, “I know that global warming is hoax, anyway, and therefore I know you three are wasting your time trying to decide how to fix it, just out of curiosity, so I can tell my fellow Republicans, who’s this Russ George guy?”
“Russ George is a scientist…” Rob Roy began.
“Make that ‘capitalist entrepreneur charlatan,’” Jason insisted.
“Whatever,” Rob Roy sighed, “he’s this guy who’s looking for ways to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  So last July, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, he conducted an experiment…”
“Experiment?” Jason protested.  “What are you talking about, ‘he conducted an experiment?’  He committed a international maritime crime, that’s what Russ George did!”
“Huh?” Hank looked to me in frank puzzlement.  “What the hell are they talking about, Tom?”
“The growth of algae and plankton in the ocean,” I explained, “occurs more or less exponentially until one or more limits are encountered.  Usually, the limiting factor is the presence of nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, of course – algae need the same N / P / K that your houseplants do.  But limits on micronutrients can also bring oceanic algae and plankton populations to equilibrium; which is to say, slow or stop them, keeping them in check.  One of those micronutrients is iron.  Furthermore, it just so happens that there is a cheap and plentiful source of water-soluble iron available to modern industrialized societies.  When iron reacts with sulfuric acid, it creates a compound called ferrous sulphate.  It’s an inevitable by-product of steel manufacturing and there’s so much of it available, if anyone could find a profitable use for the stuff, it would be a veritable gold mine…”
“Exactly,” Jason pointed out, “a [expletive] gold mine, and just as evil!  That stuff is a waste product – industrial garbage, and this Russ George guy wants to get as rich as Mitt Romney by purchasing it for next to nothing and then charging the American taxpayers out the [expletive] to dump it in the ocean!  Then he wants to turn around and sell that as cap-and-trade carbon credits to the same corporations that mine tar sands and drill fracking wells!
“Wait a minute,” Hank requested, scratching his head in perplexity.  “Even if this… um… Ferris wheel sulfur stuff makes the seaweed or whatever grow, what does that have to do with getting carbon dioxide out of the air?  I mean, if you put fertilizer in your garden, your plants maybe take more carbon dioxide out of the air to grow bigger and all, but when they die, that extra carbon dioxide goes back into the air, doesn’t it?  Or am I not remembering my high school biology right?”
“The difference,” Rob Roy told Hank, “is that the plants in your garden are on land, and the plants Russ George fertilizes with micronutrient iron are in the ocean.  So when a large amount of algae and plankton grow in response to the ferrous sulfate, a significant amount die and sink down into the deep ocean, where the carbon dioxide they took in when they were growing is trapped forever in sediments, miles beneath the surface.  You see?  It’s brilliant!”
“About as brilliant,” Jason objected, “as introducing the mongoose to Hawaii, the cane toad to Australia, or the starling to Central Park!”
“Tom,” Hank shook his head in despair, “do you have any idea what toads, starlings and… uh… mongeese have to do with this guy Russ George and him fertilizing seaweed with industrial waste?”
“What Jason is trying to do,” I surmised, as I, myself, quaffed a bubbling glass of chilled Dom Pérignon, a bottle of which I thought to bring to enjoy after dinner, “is draw parallels between various modes of human interference with the ecology – on one hand, the introduction of exotic species and on the other, the artificial enhancement of algae and plankton populations.  He’s saying that if you monkey around the ecology, even with the best of intentions, you can really mess things up.  The mongoose was imported to the West Indies and to Hawaii for the same reason – people thought the ferocious little beasts would control the rat populations on sugar plantations.  Instead, they preyed on local birds, decimating their populations and ruining the balance of nature.  Cane toads were imported to Australia to control Dermolepida albohirtum, a native beetle.  Its larvae eat sugar cane plant roots.  But instead of wiping out the insects, the cane toads themselves became a national plague of nature all over Australia.  And the starlings – well, in some respects, that’s the best example of good intentions gone wrong.  In the late nineteenth century, a well-meaning European released one hundred breeding pairs of European starlings in Central Park.  They have no natural predators in America.  Now, they’re a major ecological problem that’s kept in check only by constant application of expensive bird control measures.”
“But why did the guy from Europe let the starlings go in Central Park?” Hank asked, nonplussed.  “Did he want them to eat something that was bothering him or costing people money?”
“No,” I clarified, “that fellow, Eugene Schieffelin, did it in order to ensure that every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare could be seen in America.”
“So,” Hank reasoned, his face locked in an expression of extreme concentration as he sought to apprehend the concepts of discourse, “Jason’s saying that fertilizing the seaweeds in Canada is going to end up like it did in Hawaii, with all the local wildlife wiped out, or in Australia, overrun with toads everywhere, or here in Virginia, with huge flocks of filthy, noisy starlings [expletive] on everything all over the place unless we electrocute and poison them?”
“Essentially,” I confirmed.
“But what do we care if stuff like that happens out in the middle of the ocean?” Hank shrugged.  “I don’t live in the ocean, you don’t live in the ocean – nobody here does – so what should we care if maybe there’s too many or too few of some kind of fish or something way out there?”
“Eutrophication, that’s algal blooms from too much fertilizer run-off – soaks up all the oxygen and kills off the fish, the crabs, the squid, you name it – everything dies.  It’s happened in Florida, it’s happened on the West Coast, it’s happening right now, right over there, in the Chesapeake Bay,” Jason thundered, pointing northwest however, instead of due east as he should have been, “where the high-nitrogen fertilizer run-off from upper class playgrounds like the Congressional Country Club and a million suburban lawns combines with the chicken [expletive] from the Purdue farms on the Eastern Shore and kicks off algal blooms that choke the life out of seventy percent of the aquatic ecosystem!”
“You’re comparing apples and oranges,” Rob Roy suggested.  “Russ George spread ferrous sulphate over the deep ocean, well outside the two hundred mile Canadian economic maritime limit.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Jason acknowledged, “he did.  But if you look at NASA’s map of where the photosynthetic plankton grew afterward, most of it’s all along the Canadian coast line, all over the…”
“No, no,” Rob Roy interrupted, “if you look at the same map from July 2011, you’ll see that what you’re talking about is completely normal growth.  It’s an additional patch out in the middle of the ocean that’s new, and that’s all.”
“Wrong!” Jason snapped.  “Sure, during the summer, there’s always higher growth near the Canadian land mass than over the deep ocean, but the near-continent growth in July 2011 is nothing like July 2012!  And even if what he did proves something scientifically – which I doubt – but even if it does prove something, dumping a hundred metric tons of sulfuric acid-based steel manufacturing waste into a pristine stretch of the North Pacific Ocean was illegal!”
“So was occupying Zuccotti Park,” Rob Roy pointed out.  “Call it a form of civil disobedience if you like.”
“Civil disobedience?” Jason was incredulous.  “Lying down in front of a bulldozer to prevent the destruction of a redwood forest is civil disobedience!  Getting arrested in a segregated public facility while sitting in against racism is civil disobedience!  Being thrown off a military base for protesting the war in Iraq is civil disobedience!  Come on, now, are you saying that the Japanese defying international law by killing whales in protected marine sanctuaries is civil disobedience?”
“It worked!” Rob Roy confidently declared.  “The experiment was a success, it produced valid, useful scientific data, and that’s what matters.”
“The experiments the Nazis conducted on freezing human beings to death using Russian POWs during World War II were scientifically successful;” Jason sneered dismissively, “and what’s more, they produced valid, useful scientific data.  Does that justify having conducted them?”
“No, no, of course not,” Rob Roy backpedaled.  “But it’s… ah… unjustifiable hyperbole at the very least to suggest that Russ George violating a few international laws by spreading ferrous sulphate over the deep ocean is some kind of… well… some kind of crime against humanity.”
“It’s a crime against ecology,” Jason gamely contended, “and if you kill off the ecology, you kill off humanity, too.”
“Even if that syllogism holds,” Rob Roy rebutted, “and I don’t necessarily see that it should, by the way – there’s no initial evidence whatsoever that the fertilization had any negative effects.”
“There was no initial evidence whatsoever,” Jason echoed ironically, “that nuclear radiation is dangerous, but Pierre and Marie Curie found out that it most certainly is – and they found out the hard way.  There was no initial evidence whatsoever that cigarettes cause lung cancer; or that phthalates in plastic drink bottles are endocrine hormone disrupters; or that thalidomide would turn out to be a teratogen in humans; or that spraying DDT to control mosquitoes would wipe out the bald eagle; or that…”
“There was no initial evidence that the Bible wasn’t literally true,” Rob Roy broke in.  “And I can’t prove to you Santa Claus doesn’t exist, either!  What are we supposed to do – sit on our hands while the planet burns up?  I’ll tell you what Russ George did – he took direct action, that’s what!”
“You call that direct action?” Jason disagreed emphatically, “What Russ George did is no more direct action than it was civil disobedience!”
“You, my dear son,” Rob Roy sarcastically chided, “wouldn’t know the difference between direct action and dialectical materialism.”
“And you, my dear father,” Jason japed, “you don’t know the difference between dialectical materialism and magical realism!”
At that, Hank clinked his glass of scotch to mine of champagne and whispered as the heated exchange continued, “I just love it when tattooed liberal weenies get into fights like this.  Can I have a refill?”