The Yeti Homeland Project

I’m not sure what to make of our willingness to participate in the terraforming of the Earth.  To explore it, I’ll consider an alternative history in which Antarctica was marginally habitable, and colonized a million years ago by woolly hominids who developed a Yeti civilization.  Our whaling vessels meet up with them in the 1820s, but it’s so cold down there that nobody feels the need to molest them except for few hardy anthropologists, the occasional overzealous missionary expedition, and the usual cohort of scientists who will study the ends of the Earth, no matter how inhospitable.  Inevitably, the Yeti spend some late nights with the scientists in their hot tubs watching the aurorae.

They get to talking about the magnetosphere, some atmospheric physics, and the geology of their ice-clad homeland.  One day they decide their lives would be better if they could inhabit the entire continent, instead of just clinging to the coastal fringe, and so with the help of some misguided sympathizers, they develop a vast clandestine industrial complex pumping long-lived fluorinated super greenhouse gasses like CF4, C2F6, and SF6 into the atmosphere to warm things up.  These compounds are vastly more powerful warming agents than CO2 and methane.  They are also long lived atmospheric species, sticking around for up to 50,000 years.  If a serious industrial complex were set up to produce and release them en masse, they would close a good chunk of the atmosphere’s thermal infrared window and radically alter the climate for tens of thousands of years.  This atmospheric engineering could be done over the course of an election cycle, especially if the Yeti bastards had help from the cold-hearted Canucks and Russkies.

Would the G-20, the OECD or the UN Security Council stand by while a rogue Yeti nation threatened the billions of people who live in coastal cities, or depend on glacial water supplies, all in the name of Manifest Destiny?  Of course not.  We’d be more likely to bomb their furry white asses back into the Ice Age.

Would our response change if the timing were slightly different?  Because of the climate system’s inertia — the thermal mass of the oceans and the energy required to melt the ice sheets — it would still take centuries for the full extent of the Yeti’s damage to become apparent.  Would we believe our doomsaying scientists and take action?  If avoiding climate change were as simple as annihilating a foreign culture with high explosives, wouldn’t we have done it by now?

What if they did the damage slowly, instead of quickly?  Action wouldn’t seem so imperative then.  A few years of emissions wouldn’t completely remake the sky.  We’d try to negotiate, at first anyway.  What if in negotiations, they revealed to us that they’d been in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, which had given them the technology for controlled nuclear fusion?  They refuse to share the technology with us, but as a compromise they suggest that in exchange for letting them alter the atmosphere and melt the icecaps, for the next 100 years they will take care of all our energy needs at a very reasonable price.  After that, we’ll be on our own.  There will be no option to renew the agreement.  Would we really accept that offer?  A century of easy living, in exchange for the destruction of our coastal cities, mass desertification, hundreds of millions of refugees, and a world forever unlike the one on which our civilizations developed?

To accept that deal would be to take a bribe.  It is structurally identical to the kleptocratic corruption that plagues resource rich countries in sub-Saharan Africa: a few people are deputized to make decisions on behalf of many, and they choose to use that power to enrich themselves, at the expense of those they represent.  Instead of bureaucrats cheating their citizens, it is the present generation enriching itself at the expense of the future.  I’d like to think we would refuse this “compromise” outright, but I’m not entirely sure.  Maybe we really don’t care about our grandchildren, or any kind of posterity, in which case it’s a great deal.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we would reject this offer outright.

A more subtle plan

Now, the Yeti are a patient, long lived race.  They’ve spent millennia hibernating in their pale blue ice caves through harsh Antarctic winters.  They can wait a little longer for their homeland to thaw, and so they hatch a more subtle plan.  Rather than altering the atmosphere themselves, they realize it’s more politic to let us do it for them, by convincing us it is necessary and desirable in the short term.  (Since that’s apparently the way our sub-tropical savanna monkey minds think.)  Given a century or two and the willing participation of the global economy, they see that CO2 is a serviceable terraforming agent.

First they encourage us to equate prosperity with the consumption of material resources, land, and energy — far beyond any necessary or globally attainable threshold.  Instead of using advances in technology to maintain a relatively constant level of consumption, but with increased resilience, flexibility and leisure, the Yeti convince us it would be better to have more stuff and less time, to spend our money as fast as we earn it, and our resources as fast as they can be extracted from the Earth.

By the late 1980s we realize that we are living beneath a subtly different sky.  We begin to wonder whether there aren’t some “side effects” to combustion after all.  By this time things we once thought of as extravagant luxuries have become both entitlements and induced necessities.  We decide that we are each entitled to a private automobile.  Our cities are re-built around this expectation and they become necessary.  We decide we are entitled to fly thousands of miles every year, and so think little of scattering our friends, families and businesses across entire continents or hemispheres.  We decide we are entitled to meat at every meal, and so we look the other way while our agriculture is subsidized, industrialized, and rendered utterly dependent on fossil fuels.

Today the Yeti tell anyone who listens that change is unnecessary.  The unconvinced are told that change is impractical, that more research is needed, or that we will have to make great sacrifices.  To the stubborn few who are willing to make those sacrifices it is hinted that their actions are futile, so why not live it up while you still can?  It is vital to the Yeti plot that the developed world avoid or at least delay reevaluating its behavior.  We are setting the example of resource intensive prosperity they want the rest of the world to emulate.  If we voluntarily abandon consumer culture, it would suggest others re-consider the shape of their aspirations.

In the poorer parts of the world, the Yeti highlight how unfair it is that we have enjoyed this fossil fueled prosperity while the majority of humanity has been left behind.  They make us out to be a hypocritical elite, intent on maintaining our wealth at all costs.  Ignoring physical constraints, they do their best to convince the developing world that they too are entitled to the material wealth we have attained over the last half century.  The pent-up ambition and consumerist desires of those nations find their way into a world of depleted natural resources, with atmospheric CO2 at nearly 400ppm instead of 300ppm.  Note also: there are ten times as many people in this round of industrialization as there were in ours.

The Yeti plan will advance as long as the consensus is that the West’s model is the best option available.  Setting aside for the moment the question of whether it’s a desirable model, it’s actually not globally available.  We’ll eventually choose to do something else.  We might cynically decide to allow high rates of consumption among a hedonistic elite while forcing the vast majority of humanity to remain impoverished.  This would be both unfair and unstable.  More darkly, we could choose to wipe out most of humanity and start over.  If the Yeti get their way we’ll just keep on mining the Earth, burning ancient sunlight and then burying our garbage like deranged plastic munching squirrels, until material constraints force us to adopt another way of life.  At that point it will be too late; the Yeti homeland will be assured.

Are these thinly veiled retellings more disturbing than reality?  Would you be more outraged if you knew there were actual white-haired apes quietly orchestrating our long, slow folly?  If some of our politicians and bureaucrats were actually sleeper agents, ensuring massive and unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions?  Or if we allowed the anti-ice cap propagandists to purchase airtime during the Super Bowl?

I’d like to think it would be a scandal if we discovered our governments had been funneling half a trillion dollars a year to support of the Yeti efforts, and giving their foreign shell companies massive tax breaks.  I want to believe that we would be upset to find that the mines from which the Yeti extract their greenhousing materials had been quietly exempted from environmental regulations in order to facilitate the project.  I’d prefer we were disturbed by collaborations between our intelligence agencies and the Yeti security forces, aimed at protecting their terraforming stations.

You’d think the conspiracy would justify at least a little bit of a good ol’ Joe McCarthy style White Scare.  Unfortunately, we don’t seem paying any attention to the hirsute hominid behind the curtain.

Meanwhile, back on Earth…

What’s the difference between the real world and the slow Yeti conspiracy described above?  How do they compare to selling the climate to aliens in exchange for a hundred years of fusion?  Functionally they all seem virtually identical.  In all three cases we get easy energy for a little while, followed by serious and permanent negative consequences.  But they do feel different somehow.  Being bribed into sacrificing the world of our grandchildren feels more wrong.  I think it has to do with the decision being mediated by a third party.  The Yeti are devils we make a deal with.  A deal that benefits them much more than it does us, and that doesn’t feel fair.

There are times when you have no choice but to accept a lousy deal.  If it’s bad enough, it’s called extortion.  Those who offer such deals have every incentive to convince you that there’s no other option.  They want you to feel trapped and helpless, so you accept their unfavorable terms.  You can’t trust them to lay out all the possibilities for you honestly; you have to find them for yourself.

The fossil fuel dilemma is awkward because we feel as if we’re simultaneously the perpetrators and the victims.  So long as we feel responsible for it, it comes off as self destructive behavior.  Some groups have ended up identifying more strongly with the role of victim.  The Maldives for instance, or Vanuatu — tiny low-lying island nations that don’t burn much because they’re poor and tropical, and that will be the first to get snuffed as the oceans expand.  The billion people who live in the world’s coastal cities within a couple of meters of sea level might soon realize they’re in this camp, but the realization will be fraught, since they also derive benefits from our current energy system in the short term.

I think most of us have failed to name a corresponding and cohesive They to demonize.  It’s annoying that we seem to need things framed that way to get riled up, but we’re tribe forming animals so maybe deep down inside that’s just the we’re wired.  Retelling the story with the Yeti as the obvious perpetrators and beneficiaries creates a They.  Victims have an incentive to identify themselves, but perpetrators need to be outed.  We have to name them, and set them apart if we want to have a fight, and it unfortunately looks like we need to have a fight if we want to win.

More than anyone else, the real Yeti are Old King Coal, and his regicide is long overdue.

7 thoughts on “The Yeti Homeland Project”

  1. “Would the G-20, the OECD or the UN Security Council stand by while a rogue Yeti nation threatened the billions of people who live in coastal cities, or depend on glacial water supplies, all in the name of Manifest Destiny? Of course not.” “…destruction of our coastal cities, mass desertification, hundreds of millions of refugees, and a world forever unlike the one on which our civilizations developed?”

    Many people do not see fossil fuel burning and consequently higher CO2 emissions as having this effect, even if they admit that both global temperatures and CO2 concentrations are increasing.

    1. I realize that, but I don’t think they’re justified in that belief, making the situation closely analogous to the shipowner in The Ethics of Belief by William Clifford, which I mentioned in my previous post. Here’s a slightly longer excerpt:

      A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

      What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

      I think people choose to believe that nothing will happen if we double or even triple the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere because it’s expedient and comfortable, and because they mostly likely won’t personally have to deal with the consequences, and I think that’s unethical.

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