Weekend Reading: A Clockwork Planet

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form articles, collecting them here and on Longreads and Twitter. This installment focuses on geoengineering, the ugly side of the Olympics, and nutrition label.

    Photo: Daniel D. Snyder/Wikipedia/Oldmonk/Sociogas/Shutterstock

"The 'low-fat' claim is the most egregious—plenty of nutritionally worthless foods are in fact fat-free."

There was quite a kerfuffle this week over what The New Yorker’s Michael Specter called our first real “geo-vigilante,” Russ George. Over the summer, George dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean off the Canadian coast. The geoengineering experiment, which violated multiple U.N. conventions, was designed to create a plankton bloom that would absorb a large quantity of carbon dioxide and then sink to the bottom of the ocean. George called it an act of "ocean restoration" and was very positive about results, saying, “the news is good news, all around, for the planet." 

Specter disagrees. An article he wrote some months ago explored in great depth a few of the current initiatives to geoengineer a solution to global warming, determining that they were either ludicrous, risky, or both. The only solution, he says, is to cut greenhouse gas emissions “sharply.” To try anything else is simply too dangerous.

Specter opens up a conversation that we must have as we go further down the path of irreversible climate change. While George can’t fully predict the extent of his eco-meddling, perhaps geoengineering is a door that should remain open. Barring a complete reversal of our current energy consumption methods, we will, by many estimates, cross the point of no return over the next century. At that point we may have no choice but to turn to science. Would it not be preferable, then, for it to be proven or at least tested, science?

Anyway, without further speculative rambling, here’s your thought-provoking Weekend Reading! The winners of last week’s reading quiz should receive their sense of accomplishment in the mail.

Are you intrigued by the idea of humanity becoming a race of immortal geo-engineers presiding over the very currents of the ocean? Read on. Michael Specter, The New Yorker.

"The heavy industrial activity of the previous hundred years had caused the earth’s climate to warm by roughly three-quarters of a degree Celsius, helping to make the 20th century the hottest in at least a thousand years. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, however, reduced global temperatures by nearly that much in a single year. It also disrupted patterns of precipitation throughout the planet. It is believed to have influenced events as varied as floods along the Mississippi River in 1993 and, later that year, the drought that devastated the African Sahel. Most people considered the eruption a calamity. For geophysical scientists, though, Mt. Pinatubo provided the best model in at least a century to help us understand what might happen if humans attempted to ameliorate global warming by deliberately altering the climate of the earth."

Preparations for the 2016 Olympics are already underway in Rio de Janeiro, but not everyone stands to benefit from the city’s face-lift. Antonio Regalado, National Geographic.

"'We are guinea pigs,' declares Fabio do Amaral, a drug-gang killer turned evangelical minister. Brother Fabio preaches at a church in Santa Marta, one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. What he means is that the citizenry of Santa Marta is part of a plan to clean up the hillside slums for the 2016 Olympics. The experiment was set in motion in November 2008, when special operations police invaded the slum, a collection of brick and cinder block houses rising like a rickety skyscraper threaded with footpaths ascending 788 steps along a steep incline below the famed Christ the Redeemer statue. Unlike your usual Rio police assault on favela drug dealers—a bloody hit-and-run using armored trucks known as 'big skulls'—a contingent of 112 'pacification officers' arrived in Santa Marta that December and stayed to restore order and evict the gang. Then the government built brightly colored apartment blocks and installed new electrical service along with 700 free refrigerators. These days, the place is overrun by film crews and such red carpet visitors as Madonna and John McCain."

As Lance Armstrong’s legacy continues to come into focus, take a look back at his rise and fall through years of cover stories and interviews. Outside.

“It's not easy to add up all the ways in which Lance Armstrong has earned the title of American hero. First he was the fiery phenom, a brilliant athlete on the brink of greatness. Then he showed us the vulnerable, terrified, but always valiant young man who barefisted the cancer that nearly killed him. And then he became the determined comeback artist, reasserting himself step by step. Finally, in a rush of glory, he was the triumphant winner of the 1999 Tour de France; husband, father, and mature champion—a man now 'leaner in body and more balanced in spirit,' as he puts it. To which we would submit one more thought: A world that gives us Lance Armstrong is a world where it's a lot more fun to ride a bike.” (Of Lance We Sing, May 2000)

This week scientists found the closest planet to Earth yet discovered in the Alpha Centauri system, but how can we get there? There are a few ways you might not have thought of. Robert T. Gonzales, io9.

“Think of a generation ship like an interstellar ark. It's slow-moving (in the sense that it would likely travel much more slowly than the speed of light) but colossal and built to last. Granted, it's built to last because it has to last. The word 'generation' in 'Generation Ship' is a nod to the unfortunate reality that such a vessel would take quite some time to reach its destination—as in 'many generations will live and die on this ship en route to Alpha Centauri.' If we built a generation ship that could travel as quickly as the fastest thing we've put in space, we'd still be looking at tens of thousands of years between wheels up and wheels down.”

Can a simple label re-design change the way we eat in America? Mark Bittman, New York Times.

“One can hardly propose covering the front of packages with 500-word treatises about the product’s provenance. On the other hand, allowing junk food to be marketed as healthy is unacceptable, or at least would be in a society that valued the rights of consumers over those of the corporation. (The 'low-fat' claim is the most egregious—plenty of high-calorie, nutritionally worthless foods are in fact fat-free—but it’s not alone.) All of this may sound like it’s asking a lot from a label, but creating a model wasn’t that difficult. Over the last few months, I’ve worked with Werner Design Werks of St. Paul to devise a food label that, at perhaps little more than a glance (certainly in less than 10 seconds), can tell a story about three key elements of any packaged food and can provide an overall traffic-light-style recommendation or warning.”

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