Climate, Complexity, and a Really Big Gun
by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 702 pp., $35
Termination Shock has an airplane-flying queen of the Netherlands and her half-Indonesian, gay political fixer; a Moby-Dick-obsessed Comanche who hunts giant, man-eating feral swine; and a T. Boone Pickens-Elon Musk-type Texas billionaire with a dream: reversing global climate change. All in the first fifty pages, mind you.
The author, Neal Stephenson, is America’s most prominent and successful living science fiction writer, regularly delivering long, well-structured, urgently paced tomes that weave together the past and present—history, culture, politics, economics, and technology—to illuminate our current problems and give us something interesting to consider about a future that is just barely over the horizon. Stephenson’s books tend to be about everything but always with an exceedingly sharp point.
The “point” of Termination Shock is to examine the problem of complexity. A “termination shock” is a reaction that follows an abrupt change in certain activities or patterns within a given system—in this case the earth’s climate. What happens if someone, perhaps not a government but a private actor, undertakes a geoengineering project to counter climate change? And what happens if that project is halted? “If the government intervenes—if they suddenly shut it down, might there be a disastrous snapback?” one character asks, explaining the concept of termination shock. Would there be a backlash in the global climate system?
Our environmental, economic, political, and social systems, Stephenson makes clear, are already well along in their adjustment to a warmer future. Russia and the United States are in the midst of shifting their strategies to cope with the geopolitical opportunities and dangers associated with a melting Arctic. On a smaller scale, coastal cities and countries with long shorelines are hardening their defenses against what appears to be a more hostile, or at least very different, climate future. Bets, sometimes large, expensive ones, are being placed about what the future will look like.
Throwing all this suddenly into reverse by “solving” climate change would scramble the calculus behind these commitments raising a host of other unforeseen challenges that might unsettle the “givens” that govern planning and decision-making. Regional rivalries, like that between China and India, are tied up in sensitive water-access problems. A chemical engineer friend once explained complexity to me this way: “Change one thing, and you change everything.” Earth’s climate is one very big thing.
The environmental protagonist of Termination Shock, Theodore Roosevelt “T.R.” Schmidt—whose business empire goes under the moniker T.R. McHooligan’s, a chain of gigantic truck stops that are really amusement parks with restaurants, fuel pumps, and “surgically clean” restrooms—has invested hundreds of millions in a plan to cool the planet. Schmidt’s Ph.D. in probability and statistics tells him this project is necessary to protect a vast empire of Houston real estate with its troubling proximity to Gulf hurricanes and rising sea levels. “The value of the real estate in greater Houston today is one point seven five trillion dollars,” he says, and he owns a sizable chunk of it. A cooler planet is a good and, considering his risk profile, a relatively cheap outlay that will pay off in multiples by preventing a collapse in the value of his assets.
This is a recurring theme throughout the novel. The energy companies and petro-states who have benefited so disproportionately from a carbon-based economy move to the forefront of efforts to manage the transition away from “ohl” (oil). Schmidt, the oil companies, and the Saudis (teamed up, naturally, with the Israelis who are anxious to restore the land of milk and honey) are all positioning themselves for the post-petro world, making money on the way up and on the way down, enraging the world’s various green parties who, just once, would like to see big energy pay for its sins.
Schmidt’s mechanism for cooling the planet is a humongous, water-cooled cannon buried some 240 meters deep in the rocky substratum of West Texas. This device will hurl, or as the kids say these days, yeet, rockets full of molten sulfur into the stratosphere every seven minutes. An amount of sulfur about the size of “half a stick of butter” can “neutralize the global warming caused by one boxcar of pure carbon,” we learn. Given enough time, Schmidt’s rockets will mimic how volcanos, like the 1991 Pinatubo eruption, lower global temperatures while painting the skies with spectacular sunsets, thus giving Schmidt’s gun its name: Pina2bo. The operation will also green-light other countries to launch their own climate-altering plays. The Gordian knot of international climate change negotiations, hopelessly entangled in competing interests, is sliced through the middle. It is a no-nonsense businessman’s solution to an otherwise intractable problem.
All that knot-cutting has perils. Powerful people and governments with much at stake don’t care for being cut out of planet-altering decisions. Moreover, no matter how sophisticated the computer models, it is impossible to predict all the effects. Like the proverbial butterfly batting its wings over Beijing, when Schmidt launches his rockets in the Texas desert to save Houston, London, the Low Countries, and Venice he also threatens to set off a famine-inducing drought in the Punjab. For India, the downsides are so severe its government decides to take offensive action that will silence Schmidt’s cannon and discourage other climate-meddling billionaires and governments.
Nations, Lord Palmerston and Henry Kissinger told us, don’t have permanent allies or enemies—only permanent interests. Stephenson would add to this formulation: Nations also have permanent and immutable cultures that condition the way they enact their interests. Scattered throughout the book we encounter how the climate change actions might interact with Sikh martial arts practices, long-view Chinese Confucianism, an ethnically diverse and drone-savvy Comanche hunter-tracker, wary Dutch water-watchers, and politicians and Very Online activists all coping with the same environmental challenge and all responding, out of their interests and cultures, in unique ways.
Stephenson is short on white, middle-class American culture. Going all the way back to his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, he’s been hinting, and sometimes more than hinting, that fat, happy, and increasingly dumbed-down Americans are thinking and behaving in ways that are permitting their civilization and influence to slip away. The output of a the most hugely successful capitalist economy in history, which sates human appetites to the point of obesity, leads to disorganization, social conflict, and collapse. In Termination Shock, Stephenson suggests America is entering its receivership phase where other nations must discipline its fearsome economic, technological, and military power for the good of the world.
It is a somewhat ironic, then, that the hero of this tale—to the extent it has one—is a paunchy, garrulous, and extremely smart American multibillionaire, the very epitome of the society Stephenson throws so much shade at. There’s nothing neat or tidy in this tale, and complexity is its only constant.