Cape Cod girls they have no combs,
They comb their hair with codfish bones.
Cape Cod boys they have no sleds,
They slide down dunes on codfish heads.
Cape Cod cats they have no tails,
They lost them all in sou’east gales.
Old Nova Scotia chanty
Until a century ago there persisted a scientific belief, propagated by leading scientists like evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley, that nature was inexhaustible and that no human endeavour could deplete or even reduce the north western Atlantic fishing stock. As late as 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture declared that “unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.”
In Sea of Slaughter, environmentalist Farley Mowat writes that “it is probably impossible for anyone now alive to comprehend the magnitude of fish life in the waters of the New World when the European Invasion began.” When the European explorers arrived in North America, they found the waters swarming with such an abundance of fish that they could scoop them out of the sea with weighted buckets, and so thick by the shore that they struggled to row a boat through them. Seeing this for the first time in 1873, Alexandre Dumas believed that if cod were allowed to hatch undisturbed it would take merely three years to fill the entire ocean, such that European seafarers could have walked across the Atlantic dry-shod on their backs. Englishmen wrote of catching five-foot cod off the Maine seaboard and spotting six-foot lobsters along the coast of what is now New York.
Here is something I never realised until I took a family road trip during the last few weeks of my twenties: a fortnight with your parents inside a medium-sized rental sedan, especially while undergoing a period of heavy Saturn Returns-themed introspection, is actually a gateway to conjuring the spirit of your surly teenage self. Try it sometime, you won’t forget it. All sympathy in my case should go to my parents, who were forced to endure a bratty adult third-wheeling for the entirety of their pleasant holiday visiting the coastal communities of the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2016.
From Boston and the nearby lily-white holiday retreats of the US establishment, up to the Maine–Canada border, we were touring a part of the country that had always provoked vivid imagery for me: walking on cobblestones by lamplight, collars turned up to brace against the cold sea winds; taverns selling stew and chowder, the smell of salt and seaweed in the air. For centuries, these communities, as well as Nova Scotia and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in Canada, served the richest fishing grounds in the world — a bounty of nature so profound that it helped colonise a continent, fed the Caribbean slave trade, overhauled national cuisines and modernised subsistence economies in a single generation.
Within an hour of arriving on the coast it was clear to us that this history is now largely a marketing tactic, a way to sell nautical-themed fridge magnets, ships in glass bottles and postcards to tourists. Boats still leave harbour for offshore shoals, but there lingers a feeling of absence from many of the communities — an undeniable sense that, for the most part, fishing is preserved as a memory rather than a living trade.
Rockport, MA has a main street lined with boutiques selling expensive designer clothing and the fishing fleets of what is now officially an ‘artist colony’ have been replaced by commercial aquaculture. In Roy Moore’s Lobster Shack, located on a Disneyesque boardwalk selling taffy and cheap sunglasses, one of the old timers drew us a diagram on butcher’s paper of a typical fish farm. He explained that a cage full of rotting chickens suspended above the water drops maggots onto mid-water fish, who in turn feed a layer of oysters and bivalves and, beneath that, the Tilapia living on the seafloor. Intensive farming, according to this fishmonger, is thus a way to commercialise “three different kinds of shit.”
There have been even more extreme attempts to restore nature along the North American coast. A few years before our holiday, a commercial fishing charter called Ocean Pearl dumped 120 tonnes of iron sulphate dust into the frigid waters of the North Pacific, just beyond Canada’s territorial limit. The crew mixed this cargo with seawater and pumped it through a hose into the swirling eddies near the Haida Gwaii archipelago, trailing a cloudy red plume that, eventually, became a plankton bloom visible from space.
The experiment — a blatant violation of at least two international moratoria — was led by Russ George, a 62-year-old American businessman and climate activist who convinced the Old Massa Village Council to kick in 2.5 million dollars, or 20 per cent of the annual budget for the First Nations village of 2,500 people, on the basis that he would restore stocks of pink and sockeye salmon along their pristine coastline. For George, this was in fact an attempt to prove his belief in the science of geoengineering: the direct and large-scale manipulation of the earth’s environmental processes to counteract the effects of global warming. There are many experimental methods for doing this, but George believed in iron fertilisation to promote the growth of phytoplankton which boost the salmon’s food chain and consume carbon dioxide.
Climate engineering is already controversial among the scientific community, and the UN has banned large-scale experimentation. Even if they could be scaled to offset the profligacy of industrial capitalism, geoengineering technologies are generally very expensive, would require entirely new forms of international cooperation and regulation, and are, to say the least, extremely risky.
Despite this, members of the incoming Trump administration have said they support further research, such as former ExxonMobil CEO and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has called climate change “just an engineering problem.” Climate engineering has found an enthusiastic audience among the fossil fuel lobby and climate denialists because it promises an environmental diet pill that treats symptoms rather than causes, allowing us to continue with business as usual and rely on the free market and technological innovation. For George and his allies, the sea, already remade in our image, is merely a testing ground for their experimentation and techno-industrial fantasies.
We passed by thousands of corflutes and posters for the 2016 presidential election on our way out of Rockport, most of them promising to Make America Great Again. At the time, we could not know that the incoming president would pull the country from the Paris Agreement and abandon any attempt at limiting global temperature rise to two degrees. Nor that this would further embolden those who want to see geoengineering research moved into the mainstream.
We worked our way up the coast, stopping every so often to buy lobster rolls as big as our heads, each served with a small tub of melted butter and enough wet wipes to baptise the Baby Jesus. At Red’s Eats lobster shack, directly adjacent to Maine’s gridlocked Route 1, we lined up for an hour with other loud tourists in the vortex of passing motorhome traffic and conditions that could only be described as punishing. After a while I learned to differentiate the sweet meat of soft-shell lobsters, caught shortly after they have shed their exoskeleton, from the more robust hard shell. We also learned that lobsters were once so plentiful along this coast that they would crawl out of the water and spill onto the beach, and were fed to inmates as cheap protein or ground up for fertiliser.
Proponents of climate engineering say it should only be used as a temporary measure to provide relief while humanity transitions to renewable energy and sustainable societies (there are, of course, exceptions to this, like 1995 Nobel Prize-winning ozone researcher Paul Crutzen, who called international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “a pious wish” in an infamous 2006 article for Climatic Change). They believe more research should be done to prove the science behind the theory, and create a greater body of knowledge so we are prepared should this technology ever be deployed by rogue nations, corporations or billionaires.
Geoengineering ideas fall into two broad categories: reducing the amount of sunlight that hits earth, or sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The first includes dusting a Costa Rica-sized patch of reflective silica onto Arctic lakes or putting giant mirrors into space, while the second includes ocean fertilisation for plankton growth and scrubbing carbon dioxide from desert wind and burying it in disused aquifers or in the deep ocean. Some of the worst ideas are those such as shooting nuclear weapons at the moon to blast mushroom clouds of reflective dust into space, or sprinkling the ocean with millions of tonnes of Special K to form a reflective top layer that would, in turn, feed plankton blooms.
A group of Australian scientists have suggested preserving the Great Barrier Reef with marine cloud whitening, a new technique where fine mists of sea water would be sprayed into marine clouds from a fleet of boats permanently cruising the high seas. Based on observations of busy shipping lanes, where the sulphur exhaust from the global movement of cargo has been estimated to cool the earth by as much as 0.25 degrees, it suggests much about the complexities of earth sciences that global shipping has been a massive, accidental experiment in geoengineering.
Of all the methods proposed to manipulate the effects of global warming, the most popular is to have tethered balloons or fleets of planes pump sulphate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effects of a volcanic eruption, a technology inspired by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which reduced global temperatures by about one degree for a year. This layer of particles would increase the Earth’s albedo, or reflectivity, sending more solar radiation back into space and cooling the planet. It is also, coincidentally, the last gasp of the humans in the Animatrix, the prequel series to the Matrix, who order the “destruction of the sky” in a bid to win the war against machines thought to mostly rely on solar energy. Operation Dark Storm sends planes to shroud the earth in nanomachines, blocking the sun forever and destroying the biosphere.
It seems understandable that an existential threat as unfathomable as climate change would lead people to dream up just as drastic a response. Who among us would instead place their faith in messy politics? But even the most extensive stratospheric aerosol deployment would do nothing to slow down ocean acidification. Iron fertilisation has already been dismissed by marine scientists, including a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a zombie science that persists despite repeatedly being shown as ineffective at mitigating climate change. Not only this, but algal blooms driven by industry have already choked huge swathes of the ocean and left dead zones full of suffocated marine life, notably in the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, Australian academic and writer Clive Hamilton considers the Big Question prompted by geoengineering — whether we are capable of managing the Earth — to be the defining one of the twenty-first century. He adds:
A fleet of planes daily delivering sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere would be a grim monument to the ultimate failure of unbridled techno-industrialism and our unwillingness to change the way we live.
When we crossed over the border into Maine, televisions in every restaurant and bar showed around-the-clock cable news footage of the fallout from the first presidential debate, including then-Republican candidate Donald Trump lying about his tweet some years earlier that global warming was a hoax, “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”
Before we ever saw the New England seaside, we first spent several days travelling through the endless cornfields of Iowa to reach a family reunion in the landlocked Midwest. In some ways it left a stronger impression, this entire state made simply of two symmetrical planes of green and blue. The fields held a harvest we never could have dreamed, so much food that none of us might starve again — the Settler’s promise of the continent realised across the tabletop landscape. To pass the time we discussed how this corn will feed mouths on every continent, and that its proprietary genome is in all things. Best not to think of what has been sacrificed: the First Nations cultures; hundreds of wild apple species now referenced only in obscure diaries; the passenger pigeons which once flocked in such numbers they blackened the sky for hours.
In Wiscasset, a small tourist destination on Maine’s Mid Coast region, I buy Fishermen of Nova Scotia in an antique book store. It is a folk history, full of loving pencil sketches by L.B. Jenson of the Nova Scotian people, villages, fishing techniques, and bird and aquatic life. Over the course of a few hundred pages the book depicts the slow march of fishing technology that, in its final iteration, turned the ocean floors into a desert.
Salted cod has the benefit of lasting for months, even in tropical climates, and provided a cheap source of protein and nutrients for long voyages. The Basques had secretly been bringing cod home to Spain from these waters since the 1500s and, long before North America was permanently colonised, European merchants dried and salted cod on racks that lined the banks of what is now Boston. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that without fish like the cod, herring and mackerel, the USA as we know it would not exist today.
New England fish were traded in markets across the Atlantic and were the primary food given to British slaves in the brutal West Indies sugar plantations. The New England colony grew rich by extracting them from the ocean. By the mid-sixteenth century, just fifty years after John Cabot had explored coastal North America, sixty per cent of fish eaten in Europe was Atlantic cod, a figure that would hold for another 200 years.
For centuries, fish were hauled in by hand lines dropped from schooners and traditional Portuguese dories. Later, territorial disputes would erupt over weighted longlines stretching for miles along the inshore fishery on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The adaption of steam and, later, diesel engines, coupled with the invention of commercial freezers lead to massive trawlers sweeping the ground and mid-waters clean. These were a model of the accumulation of capital — bigger fleets, the division of labour and superior technology pushed out small vessels that could not remain competitive with the boats capable of fishing around the clock.
Mark Kurlansky writes in his book Cod of the devastation that one hundred years of unrestrained commercial operations had on the Northwest Atlantic Cod fisheries, which finally collapsed in the 1990s after supplying salted cod to the world for 500 years. Cod stocks on the Grand Banks fell by 95 per cent and have never recovered, devastating rural communities and leading to a Canadian moratorium on cod fishing that exists to this day. Where they once pulled six-foot fish from the waters, Kurlansky says the maximum size catch for fisherman in Petty Harbour, a small town in Newfoundland, is now 75cm, undersized for an average-sized fish as recent as 20 years ago. Observing the changes taking place in the industry, in 1902 the British consul in Genoa wrote “it would be far better to return to the old system of sailer cargoes.” He should have known that technology never reverses, rather it creates new products by which to confront and solve the existing problems.
Around the same time that powered boats were arriving on the Grand Bank, settlers moving onto the Great Plains were trying to make it rain. Scientists, pseudoscientists and scam artists all claimed to possess technologies that could coax the heavens to open. Roaming flim-flam men would turn up on dust bowl farms and towns promising that they could wring water from the sky. Some scientists believed concussion could vibrate the clouds and invented rain-making guns, culminating in an experiment in 1902 that ended with six cannons fired in two-minute intervals towards the sky. Ten years later, business magnates conducted “rain battles” in Texas by detonating dynamite along the Caprock Escarpment.
This science was revolutionised in the 1950s with the arrival of cloud seeding airplanes dispersing silver iodine or dry ice into clouds to alter weather patterns. Seeing this new technology, the US military began investigating how to win the “weather race with the Russians” and the potential for using weather modification as a weapon of war.
During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force flew more than 2,600 cloud-seeding sorties and fired 47,000 silver iodide flares over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to extend the monsoon season and suppress North Vietnamese troop movements as part of the covert Operation Popeye. This became known as the “Watergate of weather warfare” when it was revealed by a Washington Post columnist in 1971. The scandal also revealed that the CIA had tried rainmaking in South Vietnam as early as 1963 to break up protests by Buddhist monks, and in Cuba to disrupt the sugarcane harvest. Cuban President Fidel Castro suspected Project Stormfury—a cloud seeding program to weaken and divert tropical cyclones—was actually an American conspiracy to weaponise hurricanes as a counter-revolutionary instrument of war.
The World Meteorological Organization now counts fifty-six countries, including Australia, with active weather modification programs, most of which deploy cloud seeding for rain enhancement or hail suppression. In 2016, Hydro Tasmania had to defend its cloud seeding operations from farmers on the Derwent River who said the government- owned energy company, which uses the tagline “The power of natural thinking,” had deployed planes the day before a massive storm caused devastating floods that killed one person and left several others missing.
This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.
Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and the Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney