Jamais Cascio has written one of the first comprehensive texts on the futurological notion of "geo-engineering," Hacking the Earth, and so I am especially grateful that he has responded to my critique last week of "geo-engineering" discourse. There have been quite a few responses to that blog-post ping-ponging back and forth over the week at this point, but the main ones so far are fairly easy to re-trace in order if you care to do so: First, there was Chris Mooney's Geoengineering: The Most Important Technology Nobody's Heard Of, then my critique of that article, "Geo-Engineering" As Futurological Greenwashing, then Mooney's response to my piece Is This the Right Room for a Geoengineering Argument? then my response to his response Chris Mooney Responds (an inspired title, you must admit), and now Jamais Cascio's A Response to Dale, to which the following, in turn, is my latest effort. It's an important topic and so I hope there is much more to come and that I can continue to have some small say in it.
I found it very striking that when Jamais Cascio framed his Response to my concerns from a post last week about "geo-engineering" discourse he began first with the claim that "geoengineering has moved from fringe fantasy ("space mirrors") to sober consideration." You will notice that while he provides an instantly clarifying example of "geo-engineering" as "fringe fantasy" he provides no such example of the sober and considered "geo-engineering" into which the discourse has now presumably matured. Only later, and only once, and only incidentally at that, does Cascio ever provide even a glancing reference to any actual "geo-engineering" proposal -- "sulfate-injection to keep temperatures down" -- and even this brief mention provides no survey of the scientific debates (of which there are many) questioning the efficacy of such a proposal, let alone the distribution of its effects on the diversity of its stakeholders, or any consideration of questions of who is qualified to implement such a project and who is qualified to decide on such qualifications, how funding priorities should accommodate its costs, and at whose cost, or what kinds of regulations can ensure some measure of the public safety and financial transparency of such an enormous and complex endeavor, and so on.
As I will point out in a moment, Cascio seems repeatedly to insist in his response that the urgency of catastrophic climate change may demand that we shunt aside cherished but (apparently) dispensable political and ethical considerations. But while I agree that it is all too common for "geo-engineering" discourses to shunt such considerations aside, it remains true nonetheless that actual "geo-engineering" projects would in fact be up to their necks in politics and ethics, come what may.
Unless "geo-engineering" is imagined to be undertaken by perfectly logical robots or perfectly benevolent angels, rather than by the corporate-military contractors who would undoubtedly be tasked with these vastly complex pork-laden monster-engineering projects (and many of these contractors will advertise as their relevant expertise their life-long participation in extractive-petrochemical-industrial enterprises that are primarily responsible for the catastrophe from which they are now auditioning profitably to save us), then you can be sure that politics and ethics would play out across every level and in every detail of any actual "geo-engineering" practice.
The question, then, would not be whether we can circumvent the ethical or the political concerns of more mainstream environmentalists through recourse to "geo-engineering," but just which ethical or political concerns are to be expressed in "geo-engineering" proposals. As we will see soon enough, the ethics and politics that seem to me to be facilitated by "geo-engineering" discourse, once exposed to actual scrutiny, are not entirely pleasant to contemplate in my view. But before we turn to that contemplation, I do want to dwell a bit longer on the curious evacuation of the substance of what "geo-engineering" is supposed to actually consist of in Cascio's response, because I believe this evacuation of specification is typical of "geo-engineering" discourse, perhaps even definitive of the discourse, and demands consideration on its own terms. It may even shed some light on the ethical and political considerations to follow.
You will notice that I don’t talk about the technical specifications of “geo-engineering” projects any more than Cascio does. But that is because I am talking about “geo-engineering” as a discourse -– I was trained in a Rhetoric Department, after all, I teach critical theory and discourse analysis, thinking what we are doing is what I write about. And part of what I keep proposing is that the “technical substance” of “geo-engineering” discourse is precisely the evacuation of technical considerations from a superficially techno-scientific discussion into which then is stealthed the support of particular elite-incumbent corporate-military industrial-authoritarian politics treated as though they were matters of mere technical expedience, either as technical in a facile “apolitical” understanding of techno-science questions or understood as “post-political” because of the urgency of problems that really have only technical solutions.
When talk turns to "geo-engineering" any of a number of proposals are likely to follow: from whitening clouds with seawater sprays to whitening roofs with pale painting or repaving (I am a big believer in the latter myself, and think Obama's stimulus should have subsidized such things and hope a second stimulus to come will still do so, and soon), from sulfur aerosols in the stratosphere (what could possibly go wrong?) to cirrus cloud seeding with domestic jetliners, from "fertilizing" the sea with tons and tons of iron filings (thank heavens this foolishness has mostly been ridiculed into silence by now) to burying tons of tons of biochar (as indigenous people have been doing since well before the industrial revolution), from massive reforestation efforts to placing reflective mirrors in orbit (neither of which Cascio seems to consider as serious "geo-engineering," but both of which are seriously considered by those regarded as "serious" by those who take "geo-engineering" seriously, and one of which, massive public-subsidized tree planting, I strongly support myself while taking "geo-engineering" seriously only in the way that I take a heart attack seriously), from pimpling the land with an archipelago of ruinously expensive and dangerous nuclear plants and radioactive dump-sites (water and plutonium scarcity issues begone!) to Arctic re-glaciation via vertical pipe infrastructures pumping icy deep-ocean water to the surface to judicious application of Dr. Evil's Weaponized Weather Machine to global rocket-ship relocation of whole human populations to fully-automated Edenic habitats in the asteroid belt (an afternoon spent with the Google might soon disabuse you of the sensible impulse to giggle about the existence of such futurological hyperbole, believe me, it’s all seriously there).
Although Cascio's response offers little sense of just what it is that we are concretely committing to when, through a debate such as this one, we presumably come to accept the possibility, plausibility, desirability, or oh-so-reluctant necessity to embark upon the never-quite-clear some-thing conjured by the term "geo-engineering," it is worth noting that nonetheless Cascio still does refer to "geo-engineering" as an "option," as a "choice," as an "intervention," as "doing something," as an "effort," and so on. Indeed, the concluding sentence of his piece declares that he doesn't know for sure that "geoengineering is the right thing to do, or is wise, or will be cost-free -- only that there's a disturbingly high possibility that it's the least-bad of a set of very bad options." While I have many concerns with this line of argument, I have to say that chief among them is that Cascio has not given us any idea of what, concretely, this "least bad option" actually is, what kind of coherent "alternative" to what exactly the "geo-engineering" "concept" provides us, in what way it makes sense to say "geo-engineering" is any kind of "thing to do" at all, at this level of generality, never mind whether that thing is a right thing or wrong thing or a least bad thing.
I still maintain that when futurologists indulge in debates about the plausibility or the urgency of “geo-engineering” the functional substance of the debate is to ensure that what is not being debated are the different technical and diverse political plausibilities and implausibilities that attend the actually enormously different proposals that get corralled together beneath the umbrella of “geo-engineering” as well as, at one and the same time, to defuse, while depending on, the urgency of human-exacerbated human-remediable environmental crises by indulging in loose talk about human ingenuity and innovation and can-do know-how bringing splashy artist renderings of futurological mega-scale technofixes online to save us in the nick of time. Needless to say, such talk is little more than a re-mobilization of the very same hyperbolic marketing discourses originating in modern extractive-industrial-petrochemical enterprises themselves whose delusive profit-taking ethos mis-applied to a commensal world, whose delusive eternal-growth ethos mis-applied to a finite world, whose delusive reductionist ethos mis-applied to a pluralistic world got us into this mess in the first place.
As it happens, my point is not to pre-emptively disapprove any and every proposal that might be construed by someone, somewhere as a “geo-engineering” effort, but to point out that our deliberations about the plausibility or usefulness or even necessity of specific “geo-engineering” proposals are rarely enriched by comparison with discussions of other such efforts, leading one to wonder what the use of the whole category is supposed to be. To understand why unloading tons of iron filings into the sea is a stupid idea is actually not to understand why spraying tons of sulfur into the atmosphere may or may not also be a stupid idea (I strongly suspect, by the way, that it is). But I am proposing that the actual force of the “geo-engineering” discourse and its substance as a category is to be discerned instead in the almost inevitable dismissal or even denigration that takes place within it of the regulative, educational, localized, distributed, appropriate-appropriable technology, lifestyle-oriented proposals of legible mainstream and even radical environmental discourses otherwise.
Cascio has proposed three criteria through which "geo-engineering" interventions are to be identified in his understanding (his definition has not acquired canonical force, but it is typical enough and symptomatic enough to justify consideration on its own terms): These criteria are purpose, scale, and scope.
His first criterion is that "geo-engineering" has a climate-changing purpose, that it is intentional. In the post of mine to which Cascio is responding I suggested that "geo-engineering" as a concept seemed little more than a kind of chirpy feel-good variation on the fundamental environmentalist recognition of the fact of anthropogenic climate change as such. That humans can intervene in the climate for the better implies the prior recognition that humans can impact the climate at all. However, given the pernicious role of the denial of this basic recognition by elite-incumbents who profit either directly from this denialism or indirectly as paid media shills, lobbyists, or corrupt politicians working on behalf of such elite-incumbents, it seems to me that it would be better to strive to educate, agitate, and organize to overcome this denialism before flitting off to some new agenda that still depends on the force of the denied premise for its own intelligibility.
With his emphasis on intentions, however, Cascio has circumvented this point somewhat. "Geo-engineering" is, after all, a futurological discourse and as such is suffused with the can-do! yes-siree-bob! let's-put-on-a-show! spirit of that uniquely American phenomenon -- hence, the foregrounding of declared purposes in manifesto form, of stated goals in think-tank white papers sketching working assumptions of working scenarios, of promises made to be broken between players in pitch-meetings, of pie charts and arrows rocketing up graphs, of TED squawks and Power Pointers, and so on and on and on.
To restrict the designation of "geo-engineering" only to those enterprises intentionally designed to impact the climate would rule out, presumably, my own tendency to describe as a "geo-engineer" the industrialist who rakes in profits from his carbon-belching smokestacks knowing full well that he is actively and voluntarily contributing to the making of a world that cannot sustain anything like the billions of people who currently share it with him, but is unconcerned because he believes that the same profits he is making in destroying the world will give him and those few like him that he cares about certain access to what little remains of a flourishing or even habitable world in the years to come.
It should go without saying, by the way, that just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the good intentions of the "geo-engineers" provide nothing in the way of assurance that outcomes will be good ones, and especially so when what is counting as "good intentions" are more likely marketing slogans coughed up by PR department to peddle profit-making schemes on behalf of some "geo-engineering" proposal's principle public mouthpieces and private contractors.
To define his second and third criteria, scale and scope, Cascio asserts first that "geoengineering focuses on manipulation of complex geophysical processes" and second that its “results aren't limited to or focused on a particular locality.” Given the diverse, intensive, ubiquitous, subtle, dynamic (not to mention, conspicuously imperfectly understood or even observed) interactions of such geophysical processes, across many layers and at many different scales in the living world it is unclear to me just what kinds of interventions would not satisfy such definitional criteria, unless what Cascio really does mean to stress here is the focus of "geo-engineering" efforts rather than their actual impacts. I can’t help but notice, for one thing, that this would suggest that all three of Cascio’s definitional criteria for “geo-engingeering” ultimately divert us from the actual and impactful to the intentional and aspirational, in a way that seems to me very true to the futurological more generally, considered essentially as a promotional mode of discourse rather than -- contra its exponents -- an explanatory one.
But another part of what I am getting at is that perhaps with these last two attentional criteria Cascio is just emphasizing that the "geo-engineering" vantage is indeed more an engineering than ecological one, after all. In focusing on a particular target -- lowering the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, ameliorating desalination before it interferes with ocean currents, reversing topsoil depletion before food crops fail, whatever the target in question may happen to be -- and then focusing on marshaling particular forces at hand to achieve this target, "geo-engineers" tend to overlook unintended consequences arising from the actual but imperfectly understood interactions of geophysical systems at many levels. This is part of the reason why concrete proposals by "geo-engineers" so often seem, upon scrutiny, to introduce proliferating problematic side-effects together with the solution to the problems to which they directly address themselves.
In all this, “geo-engineering” seems to me in making a spectacle of what it is forgetting simply to be re-acquainting us with the formative insights out of which environmentalist consciousness usually emerges in the first place. After all, nobody meant for the petrochemical amplification of muscular force to turn the planet into a septic sewer turf-tossed by Greenhouse storms, nobody meant for convenient goods to turn our homes into toxic carcinogenic cell-blocks, nobody meant for fast food to slaughter us with heart-disease, obesity, and diabetes: the unilateral pursuit of instrumental targets and personal profits lead us in one direction and mislead us into ruin.
Perhaps “geo-engineering” re-enacts the inaugural delusion of modern futurology -- that the nuclear techno-science that rendered humanity the chief threat to its own existence might be redeemed by a nuclear techno-science leading us to Paradise, into the Edenic superabundance of energy too cheap to meter and into the literal rocket-bound Heaven of outer space -– but translated now into the application of engineering logic to the remediation of a world needlessly carelessly foolishly spoiled by the over-application in the first place of engineering logic into a living, limited, diverse, dynamic world.
Unfortunately, the list[s] of what's technically feasible and what's ethically palatable don't necessarily line up -- and some choices that are both technically and ethically attractive (such as radical emission reductions) are very likely insufficient at this point. So what do we do? We can't just hand-wave that question away[.]
I cannot help but think that the concerns I am raising here are precisely of the kind many “geo-engineers” would deride as “just hand-wav[ing]… away.” I am not one who pretends that an ethically ideal outcome is therefore pragmatically possible, and yet I am disturbed that the moment the specter of compromise is proposed here suddenly the words that Cascio is using to describe the unethical and the undemocratic are aesthetic ones -– “palatable” or not, “attractive” or not –- as if suddenly all this is a matter of style and not substance.
Neither do I understand how it can be that “geo-engineering” enthusiasts could possibly think they can get away with painting themselves as hard-nosed hard-headed hard-bodied realists, and their critics as wooly-headed sentimentalists, when these futurologists can’t even account for the ways in which these debates about “geo-engineering” are supposed to actually inform anybody about the technical merits of any of these proposals vis-à-vis any of the others, let alone explain how these proposals are supposed to be funded, regulated, implemented, maintained -– especially when “geo-engineering” is usually premised on the failure of the very sorts of political organizations that presumably would then be instrumental in this funding, regulation, implementation, maintenance –- let alone what we are supposed to do about the palpably differential impacts of their recommendations on the diversity of their stakeholders.
Steve Benen recently posted this one-liner to his blog: “It was the warmest June on record. If only 60 senators cared.” The best of the “geo-engineering” enthusiasts (among whom I would number both my principal interlocutors in this conversation, Cascio and Mooney) seem to me to be inspired by precisely this sort of frustration. But it is entirely beyond me why anybody would leap from this outrageous political reality to a suite of amorphously connected mega-engineering proposals of questionable scientific merit involving unspecified organizations and funding of questionable legality with troubling ethical implications –- when, for example, they might inquire instead, just how short of 60 Senators are we? How might we educate or pressure or primary them? What might it take in the way of filibuster reform to put those who do care in a position to actually vote to implement regulatory measures equal to our problems?
Are such political considerations really so unimaginable, so impractical that we would turn in frustration to a vantage on environmentalism premised on pretending that the earth on which we evolved, in which we are fit to flourish, is imagined instead as an alien world to be rebuilt by machines inspired by a science fiction novel? Writes Cascio: "A science-fiction parallel that might illuminate is to think of it as terraforming the Earth." I must say that this does not seem particularly illuminating to me at all of the environmental problems we earthlings face on this earth, anymore than do those futurologically-minded scientists and engineers who seriously propose mass migration into space as a "solution" to the climate crisis, anymore than did those futurologically-minded scientists and engineers who failed so disastrously to maintain an artificial "Biosphere 2" in which humans could live by means of cutting-edge techno-science, as if on the surface of an alien planet, but actually all the while in the living midst of the very Biosphere 1 (you know, the earth itself) being rendered at that moment through irresponsible artifice and technique a place in which humans might not long live anymore. If anything I think this thought-experiment illuminates the profoundly alienated vantage assumed in engineering and profit-taking and futurological rationalities that would reduce the good earth to a lifeless unearthly mineral-resource rock-scape.
Like most Green-minded folks I certainly strongly sympathize with Cascio’s sense of urgency. “Climate systems are slow-change systems,” he points out,
we could stop putting any carbon into the atmosphere right this very second, globally and totally, and still see another 20-50 years of warming due to the carbon that's already there, and the thermal inertia of heat accumulated in the oceans. That translates into at least another 1° C of warming guaranteed, and potentially another 3° C. And 3° C translates into catastrophe.
This does not mean that do anything else! is inevitably better than doing what we are doing now, which, however obviously unequal to the problems that beset us, is a matter of educating, agitating, and organizing that is always susceptible to sudden unexpected world-transforming shifts in our laws, customs, prices, institutions, possibilities. It isn’t only climates that have tipping points. And by the very logic cited above, we know that industrial-scaled mega-engineering interventions into imperfectly understood geophysical systems (especially when those interventions are undertaken by corporate-military agencies defined in their essence by competitive logics that seem to me profoundly mis-matched to ecological problem solving) could well yield disastrous consequences from which we are even slower to recover than is the slowness to get properly underway of the deliberative and governing processes with which “geo-engineers” are presently so impatient.
Cascio points out that “doing all of the right things, for all of the right reasons, may at this point no longer be sufficient to hold off disaster,” but this truism is far from reason to believe that doing all the wrong things is a better idea, or that we should dispense with everything we think right and all the reasons that make them seem right to us. We demand accountability and oversight and democratic deliberation, among other reasons, because all stakeholders to problems are in possession of knowledge that may be indispensable to the solution of the problems at hand, because no problem matters at all except insofar as it impacts on lives that matter and all of the lives on whom a problem impacts do indeed matter just the same.
These are not "merely" aesthetic considerations, they are practical, they constitute the actual substance of the problems at hand. It is not "realistic" to shunt such considerations aside but, precisely to the contrary, to prefer parochialism to realism. I must say that I was a bit shocked to hear Cascio seriously propose that “efforts by the rich to save their own skins through (say) sulfate-injection to keep temperatures down would potentially do more to protect the poor nations than would more locally-focused adaptation efforts.” No realist on earth is going to fall for the siren song of such “trickle-down” rationalizations any more after all we've been through. You can be sure that if the rich fancy they could save their skins by placing bubble-domes over Vegas and Paris and DC and Dubai and filling the domes with photogenic slaves and ringing them with robot soldiers to keep the rabble out otherwise they would quite cheerfully do so –- indeed, it seems to me that this is simply a slightly hyperbolic description of the state of affairs we denote by the unlovely term “Neoliberalism” that defines the prevailing logic of global corporate-militarist developmentalism in our present world.
I believe we can all be reasonably sure that the risks and costs of our failures will be borne disproportionately by the most precarious people among us, and especially in the over-exploited regions of the world, while the benefits of our relative successes will likewise be enjoyed disproportionately by those who already enjoy the most, those who happen to be disproportionately responsible for the desperate distress of planetary catastrophe -– and this is true whether the failures are a matter of insufficient efforts arising out of insulation from consequences of privileged people or a matter of misguided efforts arising out of the recklessness, impatience, or greed of privileged people.
Nor do I understand why Cascio’s “realism” seems so insistently to repudiate the aggregate impacts of “locally-focused adaptation efforts” as well as the aggregate impacts of carbon-reducing regulations and public projects of tree-planting and architectural retrofitting and all the rest.
Let us return by way of conclusion to Cascio’s own conclusion. ”[H]ere's the ugly truth,” he confides. “[N]ature doesn't care about democracy, or who's right, or what's fair.” I do not consider this a particularly ugly truth, but a fairly innocuous truism. Of course, it is we who care about democracy, we who care about what is right, we who care about fairness. We care about these things for very good reasons -– many of them as supremely practical as you could care to find. I happen to know that Jamais Cascio is very much among the ones who do care about all of these, indeed to an extent I would describe as notable among his futurological colleagues. But I do not agree with his suggestion that these considerations are ever dispensable, nor do I accept his insinuation that his is a more practical or realistic vantage in the least because he has treated them here as dispensable. Far from it. I think that in taking up the organizing assumptions and aspirations of this futurological vantage on an ecological problem Cascio has not only been brought to dispense with moral and political considerations that would destroy the world in the name of saving it, but has actually been bamboozled into talking nonsense and fancying it practical sense.
When he writes that “[t]he scenario we may be faced with is one where doing something for the wrong reasons, run by the wrong people, may still save more lives than holding out for a more appealing option,” I have to wonder what on earth he is thinking! In my experience doing things for the wrong reasons always ends up leading to disaster, not salvation. In my experience part of the reason we describe the wrong people as the “wrong people” is because they are greedy, corrupt, irresponsible, and untrustworthy, that is to say the least likely people to solve serious problems with us, let alone for us. I do not agree that in educating, agitating, and organizing in the service of environmental regulations, fair trade, renewable standards, pricing conventions that reflect environmental costs, subsizing and celebrating sustainable lifeways we are “holding out for a more appealing option,” I think we are actually being the change we want to see in the world.
I believe that “Geo-Engineering” is a declaration of war on the climate crisis.
I believe that when people declare war the whole world becomes a constellation of nail-heads at which the warriors begin hammering brutally away and that once begun there is just no stopping them. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter that it does more harm than good, it doesn’t matter that the world is not the same thing as the war-plan, it doesn’t matter that the sentimental hippies predicted every disaster accurately and the warriors got and keep on getting everything completely wrong, it doesn’t matter that all the values in the name of which the warriors claim to be saving the world are debauched and dispensed with in saving it, it doesn’t matter the worst brutes and bullies and thieves and frauds thrive in the chaos while the best are thrust into hells of terror and despair, it doesn’t matter the generation of warriors before them created the problems with which the warriors are grappling today in ways that prepare the bloody groundwork for the warriors among their children. War has -- indeed, is -- its own logic, it creates its own reality, it moves by way of its own irresistable interminable urgencies until at long last it meets its consummation in universal death.
I have long hoped that the emergence of planetary consciousness without which we cannot grasp the fundamental character of environmental problems and their collaborative solutions would at long last provide an answer equal to the insatiable logic of the war machine. In “geo-engineering” I see the appearance within environmentalism itself of the insect-eye of that war machine displacing the human face that cares for the shared world. I see the appearance of the war-planners with their fraudulent charts and with their bullying bluster silencing the human voices that testify to appropriate techniques and flourishing lifeways. I see the approach of the final madness and the retreat of hope, the coming of the irrational rationality that subdues, controls, sterilizes, conquers, and then bitterly perishes amidst the ruins. "Geo-Engineering," like the physical environment to which it addresses itself, indeed does not care about our democracy, or about our values -- but we do, and we must, else our world will be lost even in saving it.