Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Technofix Technoflummoxed

Yesterday, I posted a quick link to an article from the beeb's technoscience bureau under a bit of snark of a title: Yet Another Geoengineering Technofix Fails to Live Up to the Hype. The pic of a tattoo based on a Tom of Finland drawing accompanying the link probably attracted more attention than the link itself. But there was an intriguing "Anonymous" comment in the Moot that seemed to disapprove of the conclusion I drew from the article. The following is upgraded and adapted from that Moot:

"Anonymous" protests my titular reaction to and summary of the article at the end of the link, namely that "Yet Another Geoengineering Technofix Fails to Live Up to the Hype." "Anonymous" comments:
The article did not say that iron fertilization is infeasible. It says that diatoms blooms sequester more carbon than other kinds of blooms and that diatoms didn't bloom because of local conditions (lack of silicic acid).

So, you contend that the article is about how this technofix does indeed live up to the hype?

Let's see now.

Title of the article: "Setback for climate technical fix."

Hm.

Opening paragraphs: "The biggest ever investigation into 'ocean fertilisation' as a climate change fix has brought modest results. The idea is that putting iron filings in the ocean will stimulate growth of algae, which will absorb CO2 from air. But scientists on the Lohafex project, which put six tonnes of iron into the Southern Ocean, said little extra carbon dioxide was taken up."

Okay...

First quotation from an expert: "There's been hope that one could remove some of the excess carbon dioxide... But our results show this is going to be a small amount, almost negligible."

There's a lot more where that came from.

Is it that you are hoping people don't follow the link?

Is it that you see only what you want to see?

Is it that you think my statement that this technofix fails to live up to its hype is equivalent to saying experiment conclusively demonstrates logical impossibility of geoengineering intervention yielding any impact?

If yes, it isn't, so you're wrong.

But, then, since I'm not a futurologist (corporate-militarist hack) I need much more than handwaving about logical possibility to become enthusiastic about a proposed intervention, especially one that would yield so many effects at such a scale into such complex systems in the face of so many unknowns. But I hardly expect that sort of intelligence from futurologists, even though, of course, as we all know, they are all soopergeniuses.

I liked this part of the article especially:
Some scientists have long argued that the iron fertilisation vision was flawed because lack of iron was not always the factor limiting growth; and this result appears to provide some backing for that contention.

But Kenneth Coale, director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, who has led several iron fertilisation experiments, said the initial burst of phytoplankton growth was consistent with previous findings.

"To date we've conducted experiments in what amounts to 0.04% of the ocean's surface," he told BBC News. "All have indicated that iron is the key factor controlling phytoplankton growth, and most have indicated that there is carbon flux (towards the sea floor) -- this is one that didn't."

"A key aim for the future," he said, "was to understand better the various ecosystems contained in the ocean in order that fertilisation could be conducted in areas containing the 'right' kinds of organism."

In other words, there are debates here rather than cocksure certainties, and these debates are proceeding in the direction of ever more modest and qualified claims, as is so overabundantly usual in such matters that it is always safe to assume that those who pretend otherwise will be revealed in the fullness of time to be charlatans and dupes.

And so, the futurological technofix scenarists are substituting hope for knowledge, exactly as usual, whomping up enthusiasm and writing checks their asses can't cash, exactly as usual, surfing "trends" and coughing up hairballs of self-congratulatory narrative in the hope that some of these just-so stories will "catch on" and become "fashionable notions" they can hang their hats on for a while so that they can play at being technical experts rather than just science fiction authors who can't actually manage to produce science fiction with actual characters or narrative drama or compelling themes or realistic settings and so they pretend instead that their fictions are hypotheses of some kind, exactly as usual, indulging in facile public relations for incumbent interests while selling others, and often themselves, on the notion that this makes them some kind of scientists somehow, paragons of scientific rationality "on the edge," supreme champions of science even, exactly as usual.

Possibly they are doing this because geoengineering seems such an easy fix compared to actually altering (through regulation, price incentivation, education, better design) our manifestly idiotic extractive-industrial-consumer behavior? Possibly they are doing this because geoengineering solutions tend to look so linear, simple, monolithic in the face of the terrorizing dynamisms, complexities, unknowns of the problems they would address and this appeals to the mindset of instrumental rationality one finds in so many engineers, investors, and wonks (not to mention the masterminds in the Department of Defense) who are the real players in this scene. Possibly they are doing this because in their industrial-scaled hugeness and capital-intensive centralization such geoengineering scenarios require appealing genuflections to the status quo in the face of environmental devastations of that status quo, approaches that conduce especially to the benefit of corporate-militarist incumbent interests who will still finance and own these would-be pharaonic sooper-projects, decide how they are administered in backrooms and CEO suites, need establishment media hacks, er, expert gatekeepers, to seal the deal and sooth public nerves and coddle the "talent," and so on.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Futurology is the quintessence of neoliberal discourse: Hyperbolizing derangements of sense in the service of elite or incumbent advantage, peddled as neutral cost-benefit analysis. Hype, hence that word in my title.

By way of conclusion, by the way, I do not utterly and absolutely discount the whole set of interventions that could conceivably get filed under the heading "geoengineering" as ways to think about ameliorating at least some environmental problems. Extractive-industrial-petrochemical-technoscience got us into most of these difficulties and possibly at least sometimes it will turn out that interventions arising out of that scale really are the best on offer to address them.

But I am very skeptical of these scenarios. I am very skeptical of the people who peddle them so enthusiastically. I am very skeptical of the people who nod knowingly and approvingly when these notions are spun. And I am even more skeptical of those who aren't skeptical about all this smoke and mirrors. And among these I definitely include those who say they're skeptical and then always advocate them anyway, so demonstrating their skepticism isn't worth a damn.

12 comments:

jimf said...

> The pic of a tattoo based on a Tom of Finland drawing accompanying
> the link probably attracted more attention than the link itself.

Yeah, I didn't even notice there **was** a link until the comments
started showing up.

Since the pic isn't "work-safe", I had to make sure it mostly wasn't
visible on my screen yesterday, and keep the mouse pointer on
the scroll bar. ;->

(Not that I mind racy pics, you understand. Far from it.)

Martin said...

Possibly they are doing this because geoengineering seems such an easy fix compared to actually altering (through regulation, price incentivation, education, better design) our manifestly idiotic extractive-industrial-consumer behavior? Possibly they are doing this because geoengineering solutions tend to look so linear, simple, monolithic in the face of the terrorizing dynamisms, complexities, unknowns of the problems they would address and this appeals to the mindset of instrumental rationality one finds in so many engineers, investors, and wonks

I think I've mentioned several times that one of the main reasons I left the ExI list back in 2006 (aside from the fact that I got busy doing real things in real life) is my exhaustion defending and promoting what I will broadly call "green energy" to the transhumanist community. I was baffled that such forward-thinking people as ExI regulars would seem indifferent at best and hostile at worst to technscientific development on the energy front. "The future is green!" I yelled. "Why cling to 150 year old energy technology?" I asked.

I was met with a variety of responses, and a few suggestions. Some of those suggestions were pure fantasy at this point (spray nanobots into the atmosphere to fix carbon dioxide), some more realistic, including, not surprisingly, the suggestion that we seed the oceans with nitrogen.

Of course, everything sounds good on paper, but as the research into lead seeding demonstrates, most things are fraught with difficulty. I don't think it's a bad idea per se, but it's treating the symptoms rather than the disease. We should be treating the disease. Further, we should be working on multiple fronts. Let various technoscientific industries and research programs compete and collaborate to find a solution.

So I heartily agree with your assessment that people look for linear, simple solutions. I would go further to say that the most revealing thing about people who make these proposals, or womp up one magical solution to cure a complex problem, is their intractibility when it comes to changing their own lifestyle. Those who support technodevelopmental change seem sometimes to be the most resistant to change when it comes to a particular privileged way of life.

I'm not saying we should abandon modern society, but there are things people can do to help energy, the environment, and their health.

Norway has a per capita GDP 6% higher than the US (they have 6% more wealth, on average), but they consume 25% less energy per capita than the US (data taken from WP). They also haven't abandoned modern technology. So more wealth doesn't necessitate higher energy consumption. The difference is lifestyle and the vagaries of population distribution.

But back to the point about lead seeding. I hope they are successful. I hope nitrogen seeding is successful. I hope many other interventions are successful, but I hope they don't take away from research into green energy, and I hope they don't become an excuse to cling to combustion technology. Seems like, among futurists, that is all too often exactly what they are.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm not saying we should abandon modern society, but there are things people can do to help energy, the environment, and their health.

Indeed, you are saying that modern society sounds like a good idea (to elbow in on Gandhi's bon mot on the subject of western civilization). I know I'm a broken record, but even though I am decried as a muzzy poetical humanities faggot caught up in postmodern relativism and so on, it seems to me that consensus science is a modest, qualified, collaborative, contestatory process that sounds very unlike the stuff that superlatives peddle when they are "championing science" and calling me its enemy.

Superlative technodevelopmental discourses like transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, techno-immortalism, technofix futurology are just conventional religious discourses as far as I can tell, to be tolerated by democratic nonbelievers, appreciated for their occasional aesthetic features, but never, ever mistaken for pragmatic or scientific discourses or invested with the authority of the latter or ever put in a position to derange the criteria of warrant through which the latter do their proper and indispensable work.

barry gillis said...

Sometimes you really bore me to death like when you have to rationalise your bias, the failed test really is not an example of failed geo engeneering.Its a failed test.

There are many ways we may be able to "fix" the globe, wich i think is the wrong idea to start with.The cause of the problem should be fixed not the effect.

Unfortunatly the abilit or percieved ability if you prefer forces us to deal with the possibility.

Maybe this was in your post somewhere but i am too lazy to read stuff that bores me ,your political posts like the one you wrote after this post are way more interesting.

I think its the lack of ridiculing and actually making very good points.

Dale Carrico said...

You sure whine a lot when you're bored.

Anonymous said...

I did not say that the article had to prove iron fertilization impossible. I said that it was only a small setback (and not major news) because the thing that caused the experiment to fail only existed in one area (or, at least, there are other areas without that problem).

"There's been hope that one could remove some of the excess carbon dioxide... But our results show this is going to be a small amount, almost negligible."

He does say this, but the article says that the experiment failed because of local factors (unless I misunderstood), so I think he generalized too much from his experiment (this article says "[t]he southern part of the Southern Ocean typically has an abundance of silicic acid but the northern part often has very low levels" and talks about a similar experiment with exactly the opposite results).

barry gillis said...

You should hear me when i am agitated, i can be a real little whiny bitch.

Dont take me more serious than some of your writings deserve.

Dale Carrico said...

the article says that the experiment failed because of local factors

It actually doesn't. That is logically possible, certainly, given the reported result, but there is no endorsement of that one logically possible interpretation in the article while there are plenty of strong suggestions in it that very different also logically possible interpretations with opposite implications to the one's beloved by technofixers are more likely.

It is very hard to come away from the article with an impression other than that much more modest and qualified hopes are the order of the day and that undersubstantiated hype has been too prevalent in these discussions hitherto. And that still seems to me exactly as right as it did when I said it yesterday.

Dale Carrico said...

Dont take me more serious than some of your writings deserve.

Such displays of wit never fail to impress, how can I help but take them, as you say, "serious"?

barry gillis said...

Zorree me bad,i shud hav sad seriously rite?pleez don blamee im forein.

You dont seem to find it hard to not take cultists seriously, you could try the same strategy maybe?

Anonymous said...

I don't think seeding the oceans with iron filings was ever a very respectable idea in the first place.

Still there is biochar which seems like a credible geoengineering strategy. And I think we're going to be forced to think about geoengineering at some stage because going zero carbon may not be enough.

Jose Garcia

Dale Carrico said...

People need to start planting trees and region-appropriate home gardens, in addition to going zero carbon, regulating toxic materials and manufacturing processes to within an inch of their lives, and so on. I know enough about organic gardening to know that people who want to believe in technofixes consistently and even systematically underestimate the resilience of even devastated ecosystems that are finally being cared for rather than mistreated, and I suspect that at least some talk of tipping points being crossed that force us "reluctantly" to accept the necessity of geoengineering interventions and nuclear archipelagos and so on ultimately express the failure of imagination one has come to expect of corporate-militarists more than anything else.

I disagree strongly if you are implying that seeding the oceans with iron fillings was never treated as a respectable idea by those who think such things are respectable and megaphone them endlessly to distract us from more local and distributed strategies that are effective but less likely to be profitable for incumbents.

Although I don't know enough about every other geoengineering strategy on offer to suavely trot out all the dangers and limits and hyperbole occasioned by each one (as neither unfortunately do the overabundant majority of those who handwave most enthusiastically about these strategies to the cost of sense) I do know that skipping from one scam to another to another as each is exposed as handwaving while the more difficult work of gathering reliable data, implementing piecemeal regulation, price incentivization, better design practices, general education, facilitation of organic, local, carbon neutral practices at the proper scale and intensity can be done but likely won't be done while greedheads are endlessly jerking off to their effort-deferring guilt-denying profit-making authority-retaining fantasies of "greening" corporate-militarism via geoengineering.

Actually, as I have said before, I don't rule out geoengineering interventions in principle -- even though, as with most things futurological, many of these are entirely fantastic daydreams of megascale engineering that don't really connect up at the level of data or do-ability with the urgency of environmental problems nor with accomplishments of more local strategies with a track record that could be effectively scaled via regulation, education, facilitation and so on. My whole point is that I am skeptical about geoengineering, skeptical of those who prefer such interventions over others, skeptical of the hyperbolic discourse through which they are advocated, skeptical of their genuflections to a "skepticism" that never has any impact on their advocacy.

I think it is not a co-incidence that corporate-militarism would shift from a very public denialism about environmental problems directly to a very public advocacy of geoengineering solutions to environmental problems. The continuity between these two positions of incumbents maintaining control through extractive/industrial/capital-intensive/broadcast formations possibly matters more than the discontinuity between the two of first denying and then admitting the existence and scale and seriousness of environmental problems.