One of the elements of our world that often receives little exploration is the concept of the weather. Certainly we talk about the weather all the time, either as a form of small talk or as a means of expressing concern about climate change. But weather also stands in as something more elusive and, perhaps, beyond our control. Maybe this is why we often talk about it with strangers: it’s essentially noncontroversial, and there seems to be little we can do about it anyway, other thn appealing to some divine force for some rain. But Robert Greene’s documentary Owning the Weather explores the attempts of a small group of people to control the weather, using the powers of technology to reshape weather patterns, and in doing so, uncovers a complex set of motivations and beliefs that might explain why these people would want to take the risk of tampering with nature, while also introducing any number of important ethical questions, as The Indy observes.
The desire to control the weather would seem to involve actions that belong in conspiracy movies: powerful men and women seeking to control the uncontrollable, possibly in order to have power over the lives of millions of people. But what we encounter instead, quite often, are men who are well-intentioned, seeking to imrpove the lives of the members of their community, usually by “seeding clouds“in order to make rain more likely. Others point out that if you could change the direction of a Category 5 hunnicane, like Katrina, it would be very tempting. Of course, even these seemingly benevolent attempts at altering the weather are not without controversy. Perhaps the most famous example here is the use of cloud seeding by the Chinese government both to clear out air pollution before the Beijing Olympics and then, later, to make sure there was no rain during the Olympics.
While such weather modification activities might seem presumptuous, proponents observe that our current climate change conditions are merely low-level forms of altering the weather: the emission of greenhouse gasses has led to global warming. Others point out that overpopulation (and the rapid growth of a number of Sun Belt cities) has led to other forms of weather modification. And certainly, we work hard to alter our interior climates. Couldn’t some of our experiments in global cooling simply be a form of air conditioning on a grand scale? Greene’s film clearly comes down as skeptical of attempts at moifying weather patterns. He shows that it is difficult to measure authoritatively whether attempts to modify the weather have actually worked, and the film also makes clear the risks involved when you go about tinkering with a fragile climate. But Owning the Weather treats weather modifiers sympathetically, allowing them space to express thei views without mockery or heavy-handed critique. As Kenneth Morefield (who also saw the film at Full Frame) points out, it is a remarkably fair film.
The film shows both historical attempts to control the weather and more recent experiments and proposals, some of which sound as if they were planned by Dr. Evil. Seeding clouds is a relatively old practice, of course, and there have been debates about its legality for decades. More recently, as global warming has become recognized as a serious threat, extreme measures have been proposed, including one scientist’s suggestion that we launch 16 trillion flying discs into the space between the moon and the earth in order to blot out 2 percent of the sun. Or to build a giant volcano that would spew out sulfur dioxide creating the conditions for rain. I can’t imagine what would go wrong with those ideas.
Greene’s documentary is based on a Harper’s article by Ando Arike ($), and, like Arike, Greene is not only interested in the implications of weather modification but the motivations behind it. Quite often it is simple scientific curiosity: can I make this work? What are the limits of science and technology? In other cases, it is, indeed, something more sinister. The film’s title, implies a desire to own something completely intangible–a cloud, a patch of air–that woul seem to belong equally to everyone. Thus, even while the film seeks to uncover the dangers of excessive hubris with regard to altering our climate, it also shows the very human desires behind those practices.