This is my forward written for the book Macro-Engineering: a Challenge for the Future, edited by Viorel Badescu, Richard B. Cathcart, and Roelof D. Schuiling (Springer Verlag 2007).
- Niccolo Machiavelli
Man is the engineering animal. Since prehistoric times, we have used our skills at engineering to adapt our environment to suit ourselves. We have leveled mountains, engineered man-made lakes and drained swamps, reversed the course of rivers, and made deserts bloom. The stone monoliths of Stonehenge were an engineering feat unrivaled for its time. Later, the great pyramids boasted in stone to the gods of Egypt that we humans, too, could make mountains. In more modern times, Gustav Eiffel's tower-- at the time the tallest building in the world-- was the marvel of the age, a poem in steel.
For better or for worse, as our technology becomes more powerful, our engineering feats are moving to planetary scales. The United States interstate highway system, a network of concrete cumulatively almost a hundred thousand kilometers long, is an engineering structure of continent-spanning scale. By burning fossil fuels and increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is now creating global effects on the climate of Earth, we are even now altering the climate by our own efforts and returning the planet to the warmer environment that had prevailed in the age of the dinosaurs. This human-induced global climate change is, so far, an unplanned act of planetary engineering, but actions of similar consequence could be accomplished deliberately, if we want to do so. We can engineer the environments of entire worlds, or at least we will soon be able to do so, if we so choose. In the near term, we will want to engineer the climate of our planet deliberately, and not accidentally. If the warming due to the greenhouse effect is not to our liking, we can and will learn how to change it.
And this process will, in the long term, be not only a choice, but also a necessity. Over the timespan of a hundred thousand years, the cycle of ice ages bringing kilometer-thick sheets of ice onto the continents will be something we will want to engineer away. On a time scale of a billion years, the sun itself is gradually increasing in luminosity. If life itself is to survive, we will have to learn to effect planetary-scale climate engineering, either by regulating the temperature of the Earth with albedo changes or solar shield, or by moving the planet itself to a more suitable location further from the sun, as well as terraforming the other planets and moons of our solar system into habitable places for life. And on the time scale of five billion years, the sun will exhaust its nuclear fuel and swell into a red giant. This will be the ultimate challenge to macro engineering. By this time, we will learn to tame stars. In the long view, space flight and planetary engineering are not luxuries, but a necessity. Humanity may well have spread life into the galaxy, and be looking at the great gulfs between galaxies.
We are engineering our planet now, getting ready for the greening of the solar system.
Engineering is at the very heart of what makes us human. Other animals adapt to live in the world; we adapt the world to ourselves, building our hopes and our dreams in concrete and steel. Daniel Burnham, the great builder of parks and buildings, expanding upon the advice of Machiavelli: "Make big plans!" said Burnham. "Aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence."
I will end with a final quote, this time from Michelangelo:
"The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it."
Let us resolve to make no small plans.
page 2006 by Geoffrey A. Landis