A black box for the planet?

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Anthropology / Environment / Health

What happens if we don’t address the climate crisis? If the harm that comes from human greenhouse gas emissions goes on to irreversibly and catastrophically change the planet? Will there be a record of what came before? And of what went wrong?

Share the love: this post was written by University of Melbourne Science Communication student Spencer Clark.

Could the remote Tasmanian wilderness become home to the last remaining record of humanity? Image by Joshua Brown on Unsplash.

In the aftermath of a horrific plane crash, one of the top priorities is the recovery of the aircraft’s flight recorder or ‘black box’. These unassuming devices, installed in every aircraft, preserve a record of its final moments. They are crucial for investigators trying to understand what went wrong and how to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

In December last year, a group of artists, researchers, activists, and architects sparked a great deal of media attention when they proposed the construction of a similar device, but for the planet itself. Styled as the ‘Earth’s Black Box’, this device is intended to preserve an immutable tale of human-induced climate change, and humanity’s pivotal role within it.

Now, after lodging a development application just last month, the project is one step closer to becoming a reality. So, what is the ‘Earth’s Black Box’, how will it work, and what does this project say about the fate of the planet?

Earth’s Black box

Earth’s Black Box would see an enormous 16-metre long and 4-metre-high structure of steel and concrete erected upon a remote granite-spotted plain in South-West Tasmania. Sheltered within multiple layers of steel, concrete and climate-controlled insulation will be a spacious data-storage compartment. It will consist of traditional disk drives that will continuously record a heap of information relating to human-induced climate change and our efforts to fight against it.

The project is designed for durability, intended to preserve a record of data hundreds, if not thousands, of years into the future. The remote Tasmanian location has been selected because of its social, political, geographical, and geological stability. The box will also be powered through two forms of renewable energy generation: rooftop solar and battery storage, and underground ‘thermo-electric storage’, allowing it to continually harvest data under a variety of weather conditions. While the data will initially be stored on traditional drives, eventually the plan is for it to be compressed, encoded, and engraved into the steel of its walls, providing an analogue record of data that could last hundreds of years.

Earth’s Black Box will record a wealth of data relating to physical climate changes, such as average global temperatures, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, all of which will be publicly accessible through a digital app. At the same time, Earth’s Black Box will also scour the internet for media headlines, public speeches and research articles relating to climate change, to illustrate how human actions are causing these physical changes. Eventually, the group also plans for the project to expand beyond Tasmania, with the goal of constructing  similar boxes in other places around the world.

Could we actually be headed for societal collapse?

When the proposal for Earth’s Black Box was announced in December of last year, it sparked a storm of online discussion, seemingly for the statement such a project seems to make. If Earth’s Black Box is intended to emulate an aircraft’s flight recorder, the surviving record of an aircraft that has met disaster, does this project suggest a similar thing? That is: does this project suggest that climate change could mean the end of our place on the planet?

The project’s development application does claim that climate change poses an existential threat to society, and that it could render the planet “uninhabitable”. The mere existence of a structure designed to survive the end of civilisation suggests a similar thing. But the question of whether society could collapse in the face of climate change is a controversial one, and this appears to be the reason why Earth’s Black Box has attracted so much attention.

There is very little scientific research exploring the possibility of climate-change inducing extinction of the human species, nor is this question one that can be answered scientifically. Future impacts of climate change clearly depend on a host of other political, social and economic factors. Many experts, such as Stanford University climate professor Noah Diffenbaugh, have criticised Earth’s Black Box for the fatalistic view of the future it appears to take, since this is not a view that is supported by science.

But in many respects, this debate around the question of human extinction does seem to be missing the greater point made by Earth’s Black Box.

There is no question that climate change does pose an existential threat to many human populations on the planet, for instance low-lying island states acutely susceptible to sea-level rise and extreme weather or regions of the Middle East that are warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Not to mention the fact that climate change has already proven to be an extinction risk for countless organisms other than humans

 And despite being aware of the dangers of climate change, and the urgent need to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases for decades, the world has continued to burn fossil fuels at record rates and current national emission reduction pledges remain insufficient to meet either the 1.5 or 2 degree targets of the Paris Agreement.

It is this tragic conflict that the people behind Earth’s Black Box appear to be trying to draw attention to. The Box contextualises the momentous and fateful impact of human-induced climate change, and the failure of the world’s governments to address it. Even if Earth’s Black Box never serves as the final remaining record of humanity’s plight against climate change, it symbolises the critical position we find ourselves in, and our responsibility to act accordingly.

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