A pale white sky

The limits of hubris

I REMEMBER A severe drought in 1964 when I was a child. First the grass became crisp and brown, as it always did in the summer. Then the soil cracked, as if there had been an earthquake. Slowly, the grass died in irregular patches, revealing the earth beneath. I watered the grass with used dishwater, but there was not enough. I heard the grown-ups talking about something called cloud seeding and I imagined a cloud with a small plant growing inside it. Some of my parents’ friends were all for the cloud seeding, but others said the rain, perhaps, would be too heavy. A few months later, I heard that although the seeding had been done, the clouds had dropped their rain over the sea. Or, maybe, had caused flooding in Haiti. The drought in Jamaica eventually broke, the cracks in the lawn closed and the grass reached out to itself. Cloud seeding was no longer talked about. I am sure no one on my parents’ veranda had heard the word geoengineering.

I have been an environmental activist as director of the Jamaica Environment Trust since its formation in 1991. My job, my vocation, is to address the way we humans have treated our homeplace at every stage of our history. I am therefore familiar with the word geoengineering, ‘the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change’. That is one definition; another might be hubris – the human arrogance found in Greek tragedy, the kind that brings ruin and catastrophe.

Back in 1946, Nobel prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir watched as pellets of dry ice were dropped into a cloud from a small plane. He had realised that most droplets of water in clouds were too small to fall to earth as rain. They needed something to hold on to – a seed of some kind – and then droplets clung together and became big enough to fall to earth. Langmuir’s experiments suggested dry ice would be an ideal seed. The experiment seemed to work, and Langmuir became convinced that mankind could control the weather. Not satisfied with rain-making, however, he turned to mastery of hurricanes. He theorised that he could weaken a storm by widening the eye at its centre. The following year, the United States Weather Bureau, together with the US Army Signal Corps, Office of Naval Research, and US Air Force carried out Project Cirrus. Hurricane King was drifting from Miami towards the Atlantic Ocean when it was seeded with dry-ice pellets. Observers waited for the storm to collapse. But, as Sam Kean wrote in The Atlantic, ‘the storm grew stronger, fiercer. To everyone’s horror, it then pivoted – taking an impossible 135-degree turn – and began racing into Savannah, Georgia, causing $3 million in damage [$32 million today] and killing one person.’

Fifteen years later, Project Stormfury was launched. The military shot dry-ice pellets at clouds with rocket canisters. Later, with Project Popeye, the US military attempted to adapt cloud seeding techniques as a weapon in the Vietnam War between 1967 and 1972. The operation was meant to cause torrential rain and disrupt the movement of supplies and people during the conflict. An inquiry into Project Popeye was held in 1974 after a series of floods in North Vietnam in 1971. The Pentagon denied cloud seeding caused them, or made them worse, claiming there had been only a few extra inches of rain per month. Why spend US$21.6 million (US$130 million today), they were asked. The answer amounted to, ‘We had to try something, sir.’

Try something. Anything. Because we don’t accept powerlessness. We are the ones with dominion: the ones who conquer oceans, wildernesses, people, even space. Why not hurricanes? Why not the climate itself?

When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, temperatures cooled. Scientists took note. Hubris suggested they should simulate a volcano to reduce global warming. The geoengineers proposed injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to achieve the cooling caused naturally by volcanoes. Two scientists from the Carnegie Institution for Science, Ben Kravitz and Ken Caldeira, along with Douglas MacMartin from the California Institute of Technology, modelled the effects of blocking 2 per cent of the sun’s radiation and published their results in Geophysical Research Letters in 2012. Their models predicted that the sky would be a lighter shade of blue, more hazy and white, like the skies now seen over polluted cities and burning forests. The sky, the study noted, would be white-ish everywhere and sunsets would have an ‘afterglow’.

An overarching sky that is not blue. Why not?

In 1994, astronomer Carl Sagan called the Earth a ‘pale blue dot’. His description was inspired by an image taken by the spacecraft Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990, when it was 6.4 billion kilometres away – the Earth a tiny scintilla of light in the black swoop of space. He wrote: ‘That’s here. That’s home. That’s us…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

The Earth is blue – blue sky, blue sea. If the sky becomes white, will it still be Earth?


ON MY DESK I have an old black-and-white photograph of an unnamed Jamaican beach. I found it in my mother’s things when she died in Toronto in 2005. I keep it in front of me because the beach is lined with tall coconut trees and there are very few of those remaining in Jamaica any longer. They were killed by a disease known as lethal yellowing. The tall coconut trees grew outwards over the sea in graceful curves, the better to drop their seeds into the waves for slow onward journeys to other places. The tall coconuts – the emblematic image of the Caribbean – came from South-East Asia, transported by European explorers. So much of the modern Jamaican landscape is populated by migrant species: ackee from West Africa, breadfruit from the South Pacific via Kew Gardens in England, banana and mango from South-East Asia, coffee from Ethiopia, sugarcane from New Guinea via Tahiti, orange from China via Haiti.

Another black-and-white photograph: I am maybe two years old, wearing a frilly dress. I am with one of my great aunts – her face is lowered, so I can’t be sure which one. I can tell by the stones and the surf that we are on the beach at Palisadoes outside Kingston. The stones shine in the light of the sinking sun. That beach is all but lost now behind a wall of sea defences, justified by the threat of climate change.

The sky in both photographs is white-ish. Will the world become like a black-and-white photograph, the only colours painted by humans?


SINCE HUMANS FIRST emerged, we have walked, run, marched, paddled and sailed into new territories. Then we invented steam, rail and airplanes and we travelled everywhere. We took diseases with us. Seeds clung to our boots. We transported rats, rabbits, cows, pigs, horses, birds, toads, snakes – some accidentally, and some because we liked the idea. The American Acclimatization Society in the late nineteenth century had an explicit objective to exchange plants and animals between different parts of the world. In 1890, the society’s Eugene Schieffelin released sixty starlings in Central Park, New York – part of a plan to bring all the birds mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare to the United States. Now, characterised as an invasive species, there are an estimated two-hundred million starlings in the US.

But hubris is seductive. The mongoose (Herpestes griseus) was brought to Jamaica in 1872 to eat rats and snakes in the sugarcane plantations. The mongoose ate poultry and eggs, ground-laying birds, turtles, young pigs, lambs, fruit, fish, snakes, lizards, crabs, yams, cocos, sweet potatoes, cassava (bitter and sweet), bananas, mango, ackee and avocado, and made its home in whatever was available – tree hollows or dry stone walls. The existence of the mongoose was part of a grammar lesson at my school because the plural of mongoose was mongooses, not because it was thought to present a threat of any kind. My father used to half-heartedly swerve his car at them when they crossed the road in front of us on country trips. I begged him not to. ‘They’re pests,’ he said. But he never hit one.

Christopher Columbus said of the indigenous people on the first Caribbean islands he blundered upon, the Taino, ‘They should be good and intelligent servants.’ During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, men claimed lands not their own, drew borders on maps and named the places they thought they had discovered. They decreed the land needed improvement. Wild land needed governing and the ‘lesser’ people of those lands needed instruction. We enslaved the occupants of these other lands – tortured, slaughtered and infected them with diseases. We dug up ore, took plants, seeds and animals back to the Old World. Much of what we encountered was exterminated.

After the people in the new places died, other people were needed to clear forests, plant fields, dig canals, make roads, work mines, drain swamps, build structures. We went to Africa, called its people savages, and put them in the dark holds of ships with no more consideration than given to the plants. All over the Atlantic World, entire ecosystems fell to sugar and cotton. Fortunes were built on slavery and we deemed crops grown on plantations the basis of civilisation. Tobacco. Rice. Jute. Sugar. Rubber. Palm oil. Tea. Cocoa. Sugar. Pimento. Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Elaborate gardens stocked with the plants of the world conveyed the ultimate status in the parks, castles and stately homes of Europe.

These are some place names in Jamaica: Spanish Town, Sevilla la Nueva, Oristano, Aberdeen, Llandovery, Elderslie, Vauxhall, Windsor, Kendal, Charlottenburg, Falmouth, Font Hill. They are the stamp, the claiming, by those who came on ships and took whatever they wanted, their naming harking back to the places they had left, perhaps even to places they loved. Few Taino names remain – Maima on the north coast; Liguanea, where I live, named for the iguanas that were once common; Guanaboa in Saint Catherine, perhaps referring to the soursop tree. There are even fewer names commemorating those who fought back – Quaw Hill and Quaco Point are named for warriors. We recognise one female warrior – Nanny of the Maroons – at Nanny Town.

To be human is to be complicit in this history. But we are not all complicit in the same way.


MY MOTHER’S FAMILY came to Jamaica in the 1780s. Our ancestor was a Portuguese Jew, a youngest son, and he came to make his fortune growing tobacco. I am descended from a European slave owner and an enslaved West African woman. I know much about the Portuguese man – you can find records of him on the internet – and his male descendants, whose names appear in academic writings because they were prominent people in their parish and gave testimonies at inquiries and commissions. Of the West African woman, I know only her European name and I will state it here – Nancy McLean. I am more of the coloniser than of the enslaved, a fact I am still reckoning with.

My paternal great-aunts lived in Kingston in a colonial-style house called Miramont, which had a perfect view of the Blue Mountains. The floors were mahogany, reddish in colour, polished by a black woman on her hands and knees wearing a white uniform. She used the husk of a coconut to make the floors shine. I am ashamed that I do not remember her name. The aunts had a grand piano and taught my sisters and me French. We had English tea in the afternoons with a sliced jam roll and toast cut into thirds, which the aunts called soldiers. We all wanted the middle slice. My father demolished the house to build one of Kingston’s first set of townhouses. I still find colonial architecture graceful.

I learned to sing ‘Rule, Britannia!’ at my prep school. The great-grandchildren of slaves and slave masters stood to attention and belted out that Britons never, never, never shall be slaves. We wore uniforms and our desks had inkwells. I had no black friends. We learned the poetry of William Wordsworth and I can still recite ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ from memory. I had never seen a daffodil. The first time I saw this pale, fragile flower I was shocked – I had imagined them large and fleshy, like an anthurium.

By 1962 I was in high school. We still wore uniforms, but the inkwells had disappeared. We sang the new Jamaican national anthem, which began, ‘Eternal Father, bless our land’. Some of my classmates learned dances to perform at Jamaica’s independence celebrations. I was not chosen to be among them.

I remember a girl who came to school with an afro, a hairstyle we had not seen before. She had to go to the principal’s office. I don’t know what was said there, but she wore her afro until graduation. I remember another girl said to our white history teacher that she did not want to learn history from a white person. Those girls were brave. I was not brave. I was not of Jamaica because I was not of the people. My history was that of the oppressor. But I knew I was of the land.

These are the countries where I have relatives living: England, Canada, the US, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, the Netherland Antilles, Scotland, Belgium, South Africa, Denmark, Israel, Italy, France, Spain, Dominican Republic, Sweden, Chile, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Ireland. I know this from using a genealogy website and slowly entering family names. The internet finds other family members all by itself. A DNA test showed no surprises – my genes are 89.3 per cent northern European (British, Irish, French, German, Scandinavian, Italian, Iberian, Ashkenazi, Eastern European), 9.8 per cent sub-Saharan African (West, Central, East) and 0.4 per cent East Asian and Native American. Every now and then I get an email from the DNA service to say a new DNA relative has been found. Sometimes I contact these new people. I imagine them connected to me like mycelium, the giant subterranean fungus that shares water and nutrients in soil and that, some argue, transforms a forest of trees into one single organism. Sometimes they reply, sometimes they don’t. If they do answer, we DNA relatives kick around the surnames and the histories we know and then lapse into silence. I only half believe in the DNA test, but it endlessly surprises me that yes, it manages to find common relatives, these people I have never heard of.


JAMAICA SUFFERED ANOTHER bad drought in 2015. Every day I checked the satellite photos of the Caribbean Sea for any small clump of moisture-holding clouds and every day there was nothing. I had never seen the Caribbean Sea so devoid of weather; day after day it was a painted sea. I had never seen the sky so far away that it was almost white. People bantered about wishing for a tropical depression or even a storm. Radio talk-show hosts entreated people not to have ‘water parties’. Despite the desiccated land, the dust-laden air and rivers turned to stagnant puddles, party promoters took water from any river still flowing to drench partygoers. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people attended such orgies of stupidity.

I am involved in a campaign to save Cockpit Country from bauxite mining – it has been a twenty-year struggle so far. Cockpit Country is a place in Jamaica where the Maroons, escaped slaves – perhaps from the Spanish cimarron, meaning wild, or from the French maron, meaning fugitive – fought the British to a treaty in 1739. The area is still largely inaccessible and, as a result, has intact native forest. From the air, Cockpit Country looks like green overturned egg boxes. It is a difficult place to see from the ground because there are few vantage points. Apart from the birds and butterflies, which are everywhere, the animals and plants of Cockpit Country are cryptic. Hidden. Weird. There is a frog that snores, a crab that raises her young in an old snail shell. It is a place at your feet, at your fingertips, if only you knew where to look; it is a place to make you slow down. Most of all, it is a vast water collection system, channelling rain via the veins and arteries of rivers, springs, streams, sinks, upwellings, risings, glades and ponds into the land’s lungs. Some climate projections for Jamaica suggest rainfall will decline by 40 per cent by the 2050s. Cockpit Country is Jamaica’s heartland. By the time you read this, perhaps its fate will be known.


THIS MUCH WE know: we are not at the beginning of the human journey. We have birthed a certain world, a certain humanity. Behind us lies brutality and subjugation, displacement, exclusion, genocide and the ravaging of the land. We cannot start over; we would not choose to start over. No modern Jamaican, not even me, would go back to the time before the foreign fruit trees came. The seeds of our past have bequeathed our present, which now threatens the pale blue dot itself. We have filled the oceans with plastic, tested weapons powerful enough to kill every living thing and our recklessness has changed the climate. Is it enough to sit in large conference rooms in different parts of the world, listen through interpreters, and try to agree on what the past owes to the present and the present to the future?

We know this too: nature damages its own creations. Lightning brings wildfires that clear underbrush and bring new growth. A hurricane tears through a coral reef and leaves rubble behind, but slowly, creatures that are part animal and part plant, tiny organisms hard to see without a microscope, begin to rebuild the largest structures on Earth. We humans – with our intent, our agency, our hubris – heap destruction on top of destruction. But maybe the careful reconstruction of what has been lost and the recognition of all that remains at risk can begin at those conference tables. Maybe – if we pose questions that reveal the values that drive humankind.

Question one: are the changes wrought by weather, earthquakes or natural processes any different to those delivered by the machines of men? Hurricanes reshape coastlines; former beaches become submerged sandbanks, dunes are flattened and new beaches rise in other places, raw and glistening. The seeds of the tall coconut trees came to the Caribbean islands from elsewhere, and when the tall coconuts died humans brought other types of coconut seeds. Perhaps these too will die off in turn. Now there are places in Jamaica which used to be forested with hardwoods – yacca, mahogany and cedar – that are entirely covered with bamboo. I can easily see a time when a whole new set of visitors will photograph the waving bamboo and make admiring sounds. We don’t even notice the difference between bamboo and forest. It’s green – what more do you want?

Question two: what if there is nothing sublime about coral reef or forest, nothing to mourn under a pale white sky? We used to find our gods in sunrises and storms when we did not understand them. Then we studied them and wrote papers in academic journals and spoke about our research in academic conferences all over the world and our language became dispassionate. We used the passive voice. We studied the death of things. Learning did not mean understanding or valuing. Now we take pictures of much-diminished nature with smartphones and share them on social media. We post about the lack of fluffiness of the beach towels on TripAdvisor.

Question three: will the Earth – can the Earth – become something that is no longer the Earth? A miner asked me recently if I would support the painting of the excavation gashes in Jamaican mountains as environmental restoration. ‘We would use green paint,’ he said, as if to reassure. ‘At a distance, it would look just like forest.’ What if all we really want is a mural of nature, painted on a crumbling wall, in front of what used to be there? What if, for most of us, there is no difference between sunset and afterglow?

Question four: is it likely that we will ever regard the pale blue dot itself with respect for the complex processes that deliver to human beings every one of the basic requirements of life? Will we ever respect the intricate connections that we imperfectly understand? I read the Water Resources Authority’s 2004 hydrological assessment of Cockpit Country, and noticed how its springs and streams that rise as ponds, upwellings and boilings, become the rivers we learned about in school, and then disappear underground to become other springs and streams. From the study:

The One Eye River flows on the surface before sinking at Wallingford Cave near Balaclava…rises again at the Mexico Cave and flows west across the Nassau Valley…[where] a portion of the water sinks and rises again…as the Elim River.

Iguanas eat the fruit of the Hellshire Hills forest and spread the seeds into small pockets of reddish earth in the sharp white limestone rocks. Each seed has a dollop of fertiliser – this is a forest that needs reptiles. Franz Kafka said human nature can endure no restraint, that if we bind ourselves we will begin to tear madly at those bonds, until everything is rent asunder, the bonds along with self. Can we really endure no restraint, even when the sacrifice is the Earth itself?

Question five: is it important to understand how we are all complicit in the present moment? What do the descendants of plantation owners owe to the descendants of slaves? What if we are descended from both enslavers and the enslaved? Are the users of plastic as much to blame for the plastic soup in the sea as the manufacturers? Do those who fly on airplanes bear the same responsibility as those who drilled the fuel that keeps them in the air, those who mined the bauxite to make the aluminum that flies?

Father Ramon Pane observed and wrote about the Taino people of the Caribbean in the sixteenth century. They had communal systems of ownership and he saw them as peaceful, but this was merely weakness to the colonisers. The Tainos were annihilated and live only in the DNA of today’s Caribbean people. The much more warlike Caribs were greatly depleted but survived.

Perhaps the answer to all these questions lies in two words, common and wealth. Common: belonging equally to or shared alike by two or more persons. Belonging to the whole community or the public at large. Occurring, found or done often. Ordinary. Familiar. Wealth: an abundance of valuable possessions or money. A plentiful supply of something desirable. Like water. Like the atmosphere. From the Commonwealth Charter:

Affirming that the special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; and bound together by shared history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable.

Commonwealth: things of value other than money finally shared among countries with histories of conquest and oppression. Willingness to face the looming destruction of our one and only home and grapple with the fight-or-flight genetic heritage that easily converts the threat of immediate danger into action, but ignores the slow-moving ones we ourselves cause. Willingness to face the truth about our inheritances. Willing to own our complicities.

These are the fruit trees in my garden, all from elsewhere – ackee, three kinds of mango, avocado pear, breadfruit, lychee (but it never bears fruit), naseberry. Being human, I’m not fully satisfied and wish we had a lime tree. But I am sure the sky should not be white.

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