Macroengineering: its history and future

Richard Brook Cathcart


Word use history: although the concept of ‘macroengineering' has existed for thousands of years of humankind's archaeologically substantiated and recorded history, the word evidently had its first print appearance in the UK weekly science roundup magazine, New Scientist, on 12 March 1964 at page 685. There, columnist "Geminus", in "It seems to me", elegantly alleged: "The real cause of our attachment to macro-engineering is at once more subtle and more profound". Frank P. Davidson, in "Macroengineering: A Capability in Search of a Methodology", Futures, December 1968, at page 153 probably used ‘macroengineering' for the first time in a USA publication. The New York Times, often cited as one of America's daily newspapers of record, may have first employed ‘macroengineering' in print in its 19 February 1978 issue.


During the early years of engineering's development, it was divided between civil and military professionals. Most engineered construction/destruction projects were envisioned by individuals, "Big Thinkers", blessed or cursed with "visions" of a better world for humanity. Sometimes such persons, often gifted with attractive personalities, had social organizational talents endowing them with the ability to impress their visionary outlooks and schemes onto a significant segment of the world public's consciousness. Engineering was, to such charming persons, a scientific and artistic method by which a particular group of people enhanced Earthly global nature and cleaned the world (Earth-biosphere) using available technologies that were mostly useful and usually harmless to other humans (and sometimes even highly regarded life forms).


In 1983, the American doyen of macroengineering, Frank P. Davidson (b. 1918), defined Macroengineering: "Essentially, macro-engineering is … the study, preparation, and execution of the largest [spatially, financially] engineering works which mankind can accomplish at any particular period of time". Nowadays, Davidson is associated with The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy (founded 2003) at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. In Europe, macro-engineering plays a significant role in the European Union (especially in France, the UK, and Germany) and Romania. In Bucharest, Romania, the Candida Oancea Institute (founded 1997) bridges the social connectivity gap between Europe and Asia, where Japan and China are leading the advancement of Macro-engineering. The American and Romanian organizations have effective planning efforts ongoing that deal with basic North African and Middle Eastern macro-problems.


Macroengineering projects have shaped humanity's past and may well shape its future, here and in other Solar System places. The emergence of macro-management with World War II and the onset of the Space Race eclipsed the era of individual Big Thinkers, more or less. Macro-management is the day-to-day management of macroprojects (also known as, megaprojects) that are not completed and operational. Macroprojects have some well-known defining characteristics: (1) complex and trying multi-scale engineering and geographical and other management problems must be solved even before the focused basic megaproject is undertaken; (2) significant public and private commitments are necessary, both in terms of finance and societal dedication; (3) sometimes scientific and purely operational technical problems of inordinate complexity arise that must be deftly macro-managed with favorable final outcomes; and (4) macroprojects usually impact the planetary biosphere or large regions of the Earth's human-inhabited volume – say, from the Mohorovicic Discontinuity at the base of the planet's crust to the lowest possible satellite orbit above the stratosphere. From 1944 until 1950, Geoffrey Dobbs in the UK published a series of articles that were compiled in 1951 into a book, On Planning the Earth (K.R.P. Publications Ltd., Belfast, Northern Ireland). Dobbs dramatically illuminated the biggest drawback for Macro-engineering: "Planning implies control… As history has repeatedly shown, the ultimate evil of centralized planning is that it is the stealing of choices."


More and more, living humans are witnessing the overt melding of modern-day macro-engineering's Big Thinking with Big History, which offers vast accounts of large perceivable technological trends in world history, because biology, geology and engineering have adopted unified historical assessments of their subject matter chiefly since the dawn of humanity's Space Age in October 1957. [See, David Christian, "The Case for ‘Big History'", Journal of World History 2: 223-238, Fall 1991.] Furthermore, human intellectual and scientific assessments of the present Solar System will affect humanity's interaction with the future Universe.


Geo-engineering, best exampled by carbon sequestration macroprojects designed to offset anthropogenic global warming of the Earth-atmosphere in real-time, and terraforming – transforming naturally harsh non-Earth global nature climates (say, of Mars and Venus) into climates that are far more favorable to outdoor human lifestyles – are examples of two subdivisions of a tripartite macro-engineering. ["Geo-engineering" has been defined by David William Keith (b. 1963) in A. S. Goudie & D. J. Cuff's Encyclopedia of Global Change 1: 495-502 (Oxford UP, 2002).] Of course, there are macroprojects, examples of the Third Division, which are merely incrementally alliterative in their total effect on the Earth-biosphere, with their impacts specifically relegated to locales or regions only.


Macro-engineers devise and provide workable descriptions of the Earth-biosphere, but sometime in the near-term future Terraforming will become an additional skill set exhibited by many more macro-engineers, especially since the first discipline-defining textbook on the topic, Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments (SAE, Warrendale, 1995, 544 pages) was produced by Martyn John Fogg (b. 1960).