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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Full Monty "Geo-Engineering"

Thanks to the good folks at Worldchanging for directing attention to my serious-silly-seriously-silly-serious proposal that critics of "Geo-Engineering" make Simpsons arch-villain Mr. Burns the public face of this ultimately greenwashing discourse.

An io9 post by Alasdair Wilkins started the ball rolling, connecting the recent UN castigation of mad science, you know, for kids, sun-blotting schemes to the episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" (It turns out that this episode was formative for many a fledgling critic of "geo-engineering" discourse -- it comes up a lot.)

I was drawn to the episode "The Old Man and the Lisa" for my inspiration, in which Monty exploits Lisa's environmentalism for profit and creates out of recycled plastic six-pack yokes the geo-engineering nightmare monster, the "Burns Omninet" to "sweep the sea of life" and make "L'il Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry." (Hey, fans! Can you name three different uses to which Mr. Burns proposes his multipurpose slurry might beneficially be put?)

In my original post I proposed: "Let's make Monty Burns the face of 'geo-engineering!'" I also expressed the hope that "other fans of The Simpsons can provide legions of examples in which Mr. Burns attempts comparably catastrophic evil futurological schemes" and that they provide me with some of them. While awaiting that flood of responses (but not holding my breath), I did a little research.

It would appear that the connection with Mr. Burns is a natural one when talk turns to "geo-engineering." A rather bland introduction to the topic in Salon a couple of years ago, for example, notes early on: "Researchers all over the world have begun advocating large-scale climate control strategies that sound like something The Simpsons Mr. Burns might endorse." Although this cautionary tone remained throughout the piece, I have to note that it concluded as such "geo-engineering" puff pieces tend to do, declaring that, sure, "geo-engineering" is kinda-sorta crazy talk, but, heck, talking crazy is still doing something if we end up doing nothing and doing something is better than doing nothing so it would be crazy not to talk crazy, right?

As I never tire of pointing out, it is a very difficult thing to distinguish the aggregate effects of democratically legible environmental politics of education and regulation from the sorts of special effects that futurological "geo-engineering" boondoggles presumably make possible, furthermore it is plain to anyone with any historical awareness of corporate-military contracting in the context of global development schemes that without well-functioning accounting, oversight, regulation such schemes are invitations to inevitable disaster and corruption, and yet "geo-engineering" discourse tends to be premised on the failure of democratically legible environmental politics and on the failure of these indispensable regulatory processes.

Forgive my soapbox, now back to pop culture.

By way of conclusion, I think this post from Treehugger back in July, 2009, is my favorite example I have found so far:
"Bill Gates is recently listed as co-inventor "on a new batch of patent applications that propose using large fleets of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths." TechFlash writer, Todd Bishop, contacted an expert who nailed the generic problem with this, and similar ideas.
Some of them are more plausible than others, but they all face an enormous problem of scale. ... [One is] reminded of "The Simpsons"... "The richest man in the world hatches a plan to alter weather and ecology in return for insurance premiums and fees from governments and individuals," he writes. "It's got kind of a Mr. Burns feel to it, no?"

Recirculating cooler, anoxic "dead zone" water back to the surface, as called for in these patents, is likely to cause massive fish kills and promote run-away algae blooms, expanding the dead zone in depth and possibly in breadth. Should we call it "Burns-headed" instead of bone-headed?"

As I said, Mr. Burns does indeed appear pretty regularly whenever talk turns to "geo-engineering." The references abound. I do still hope others will provide more examples, and I do still think critics of "geo-engineering" have a friend (a fiend?) in Montgomery Burns.

3 comments:

Martin said...

"Bill Gates is recently listed as co-inventor "on a new batch of patent applications that propose using large fleets of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths.".... Recirculating cooler, anoxic "dead zone" water back to the surface, as called for in these patents, is likely to cause massive fish kills and promote run-away algae blooms, expanding the dead zone in depth and possibly in breadth."

Jesus Christ.

jollyspaniard said...

I'm skeptical of the underlying premise that we can avoid the extinction of our civilization just by emission reductions. We're already in very dangerous territory and we may have already strayed into positive feedback hell.

The really scary thing about geoengineering is that we might not have no choice but to pull Mr Burns out of the box.

It won't be any of the hair brained schemes you mentioned but shooting up sulphur into the stratosphere. Not something I want to see happen personaly but if the permafrost starts venting gigatons of methane what do we do?

Dale Carrico said...

I'm skeptical of the underlying premise that we can avoid the extinction of our civilization just by emission reductions.

Whose premise is that? Certainly not mine.

The really scary thing about geoengineering is that we might not have no choice

No, the scary thing is that people act as though something that can't even be distinctively and coherently characterized can nonetheless be a "choice." (It can't.)

There is no thing that "geo-engineering" is -- or will be -- it is better construed as a marketing discourse, a way of talking (or more precisely not talking) about or around something real, eliciting and exploiting passions occasioned by something real. Anthropogenic climate change is real -- but "geo-engineering" is a profoundly dangerous, and I would say immoral, opportunistic looting of that real, a bit of futurological flim-flam artistry, by salesmen pretending to be intellectuals, all the service of ongoing incumbent-elite profit-taking even from genocidal climate catastrophe.