Polar Eclipse

Hey, remember when climate change was a swell idea? Coconuts were in the offing.

But why stop there when you could also bomb the South Pole? "Cracking of the Antarctic icebox," the World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker put it just weeks later, would reveal vast mineral riches. The idea was enthusiastically pitched to America's tool-belt demographic by Mechanix Illustrated in May 1946, quoting one Columbia professor who "likens the polar ice to a 'common cold' afflicting the earth in 'head' and 'feet,' producing what he considers an unnatural condition." Bombing the polar caps, presumably, would be like blowing the earth's nose—but blowing really, really hard.

A few spoilsports pointed out that city dwellers wouldn't have too much time to enjoy their lovely coconuts if, the Times noted, there were "fish swimming in the lower offices of New York and other cities, and only the upper stories of skyscrapers protruding from the water." But someone in Moscow, at least, didn't get the memo. The Bering Strait dam project, the brainchild of Soviet engineer P.M. Borisov, was a Stalin-era update of Shaler's old idea. Borisov proposed "liquidating the ice sheet of the Arctic Basin" with a low dam across the Bering Strait; a series of atomic-powered pumping stations could skim off the cold surface waters of the Arctic and induce a flow of warm water in from the Atlantic. This would return the earth to balmy "climatic conditions which existed 1.5 million years ago. . . . Subtropical crops would be grown in the regions adjoining the Black Sea from the north, and in the lower reaches of the Don and the Volga." At long last, Russia could make its transition from a vodka- to a rum-based economy.

The idea was taken seriously enough that in 1972 Borisov's book was translated into the English-language volume Can Man Change the Climate? But even within his own book Borisov noted the dawning realization that man was already changing the climate; he quotes oceanographer N.M. Knipovich marveling that "In a mere 15 years or less time there has been such a change in the distribution of marine fauna as is usually associated with long geological periods."

And so now, alas, climate change is merely the province of Bond villains . . . and consumers. It turns out we didn't need monolithic jetties, atomic landscaping, or giant pumping stations to change the earth. All we had to do was drive over to the Circle-K for a six-pack and leave the engine idling. What previous generations dreamed of accomplishing through vast public works projects and new technology, humanity has accomplished through an even more inexorable force: stupidity.


Paul Collins's Not Even Wrong: A Father's Journey Into the Lost History of Autism (Bloomsbury USA) has just been issued in paperback.

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