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

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Picking "Geo-Engineering" to the Bone

Edited and Adapted from an (I hope friendly) Exchange in the Moot:
I've got a bone to pick about your [highly dismissive] Geoengineering comment. There are people advocating research into Geoengineering who take curbing emissions seriously. There's no guarantee we haven't already gone too far. Our emissions keep climbing and feedback effects worthy of science fiction disaster novels are showing up decades ahead of schedule. Emissions cuts are the best solution, everyone acknowledges that. That doesn't mean however that there's no such thing as too late.

I do not doubt that among the people who waste time foolishly or cynically throwing the term "geo-engineering" around there are surely many who do take curbing emission seriously, who are very rightly concerned about climate change more generally, and who likely support any number of sensible environmentalist policies apart from the ones they imagine to constitute "geo-engineering." However, my point is that so long as talk turns to "geo-engineering," so long as the lens through which environmental problems are being discussed is a "geo-engineering" one, the focus is not on curbing emissions, the focus is not on any of the suite of mainstream-legible environmentalist initiatives -- from regulation, public programs, incentives, to educational and activist campaigns -- and, worse, the framing of the politics, history, bad actors, urgencies of climate crises are profoundly skewed in ways that cannot be justified in the least from the vantage of environmentalist priorities.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I disagree that there is in fact anybody at all advocating "research" into geo-engineering stricto sensu inasmuch as there is nobody who can even tell you to what "geo-engineering" is supposed to refer as a coherent body of techniques in the world. This is not just to make the rather obvious observation that the sorts of scenarios that preoccupy most "geo-engineering" futurological discussion -- tons of iron filings dumped into the sea, vast sulfur spewing air fleets, massive pipe works disgorging icy water from the depths to cool warming ocean surfaces, orbiting Brobdingnagian archipelagos of space mirrors, and so on -- do not actually exist, often would require technologies that don't exist, would demand the mobilization of forces that dwarf those we already fail to muster in the service of more modest, better understood, perfectly sensible recommendations already.

No, when I say that nobody really is doing any "geo-engineering" for us to support or decry at all, I also mean that it isn't even clear what "geo-engineering" is supposed to consist of for it to exist as in the first place, even in potentia, especially if "geo-engineering" presumably is supposed to be some new sort of notion, in distinction from, say, aggregate effects of remediation strategies and renewable techniques already well understood, well underway, or at any rate being campaigned for by wide constituencies and supported by consensus science and serious policymakers.

Public reforestation programs, or building regulations that mandate small carbon footprints, or zoning ordinances that facilitate dense walkable neighborhoods are perfectly mainstream legible environmentalist proposals the aggregate effects of which could easily yield the sorts of vast-scaled and far-reaching impacts that the flashy mega-scale engineering daydreams of the futurologists might do, if any of the silly things ever managed to get off the ground, and yet nobody needed futurologists to come up with some neologism and sf-cover art to argue for the good sense of reforestation programs or better zoning ordinances (not that Americans have either yet), nor is it clear what "geo-engineering" adds to the scale or scope of environmentalist thinking that already accommodates such interventions so readily.

As far as I can tell, "geo-eningeering" is just another futurological neologism that introduces nothing of substance apart from the word itself, which then functions as a point of imaginative identification and fandom enthusiasm in the usual way. It would be better by far to treat "geo-engineering" discourse not as serious climate science or environmental policy but as a marketing effort, involving mostly repackaging, rebranding, hyperbole, snazzy CGI and cartoon renderings, all in the service of selling something. This recommendation that we read futurological "geo-engineering" proposals not as the science or policy they pretend to be but as public relations in the service, almost always, of elite incumbent interests, seems to me generally true of the futurological genre.

Contrary to the final sentence of the bone you have to pick with me, assuming I am understanding your point correctly, I declare that if mainstream-legible environmentalist interventions like regulations, incentives, government programs, educational campaigns fail (and I take your reference to emission standards as synecdochic for the full suite of strong but still mainstream-legible environmentalist proposals), then, yes, I really do believe that it really is too late. In a finite world in which a biosphere is possible within bounds that are strained already nearly beyond bearing and can indeed fail, there really is such a thing as too late, and serious people of good will damn well better leave off the infantile magical thinking bullshit.

The chief innovation of "geo-engineering" discourse finally seems to me to be to feather the nests of certain newly-minted "experts" in "geo-engineering" who would not otherwise be getting such attention, as well as providing some folks who otherwise grasp the catastrophic implications of climate science and who might therefore be useful motivated articulate collaborators in the political response to that catastrophe to pretend that there may be a techno-magickal "Plan B" to save our skins should the political response to the crisis fail, thus enabling their comparative complacency or distracting their efforts into flights of fancy that amount to apologies for the status quo.

Note that the sorts of untestable in advance, unknowable in advance, unfathomably vast-scaled and crazily ramifying impacts of the kind of futurological schemes that tend really to give the corporate-militarist "geo-engineering" bullshit artists their most ferocious hard-ons would also have to be funded, regulated, implemented, promoted, operated in the real world via precisely the very sorts of politics whose failure presumably would render futurological alternatives necessary in the first place, thus raising the question why political processes that presumably cannot work for stuff we all actually know would be equal to the climate crises would suddenly miraculously be political processes that work effectively to fund, regulate, and maintain megascale engineering wet dreams nobody can even pretend are real or understood in their impacts let alone plausible engineering tasks. We live, after all, in an age in which we can't build tunnels we could build a century ago, we cannot go to the Moon though we did a generation ago, we cannot have supersonic passenger service though we could a decade ago.

And, again, I must add that I do find it difficult to shake the suspicion that the fact that most "geo-engineering proposals" would enable the very same corporate/militarist-extractive/industrial concerns that so polluted and laid waste to the whole planet in the first place to assume center stage as heroes in for-profit megascale cleanup operations is a better explanation than their so-called necessity or even plausibility to account for their allure for these futurological techno-environmentalist "experts" who now cheerlead for them to the applause of well heeled corporate pricks and military wonks the world over.

My critic responded:
Nothing is unknowable in climate science. We already have a pretty good idea of the cooling effects of sulphur for instance. It's not an alternative to going zero carbon but a panic button if going zero carbon isn't enough. It's always being framed as being a stalking horse for something sinister. In reality it's just scientists speculating these people aren't united under a singular agenda. Do I want geoengineering? No. I don't think anybody in their right mind does. That position changes if the world's climate goes into runaway positive feedback.

The mistake you are making is fancying that "geo-engineering" discourse has anything substantially to do with serious science at all.

Many of the proposals corralled -- however incoherently -- under the banner of "geo-engineering" recommend interventions into climate systems of unprecedented scope to produce singular desired impacts in extraordinarily complex dynamic systems and without preliminary investigation into unintended consequences -- untested either, presumably, because "urgency" justifies all sorts of rashness (as usually happens when politics is refigured as a declaration of war in the service of elite incumbent profit-taking), or because in many cases there simply could be no test in advance that did not simply amount to the intervention itself given the scales and costs involved.

"Geo-engineering" is like every futurological topic turns out to be, primarily a promotional effort, the promulgation of an ideological -- or even, in its extreme variations, theological -- vantage selectively and superficially appropriating, organizing, while also freighting with emotional and narrative significance, some science (and usually no small amount of pseudo-science as well) in the service of wish-fulfillment fantasizing. I have explained elsewhere this wish-fulfillment fantasizing almost always functionally supports reactionary politics, despite its "progressive" coloration, peddling in the name of "The Future" what always amounts to the prolongation and amplification of elite-incumbent interests and actors and parochial values: hence my futurological brickbat that every futurism is functionally a retro-futurism.

There is of course plenty of science happening at the nanoscale level, there is plenty of molecular biochemistry afoot, but there is no Drexlerian "nanotechnology" that correlates to the futurological topic. There is plenty of non-normativizing prosthetic, genetic, cognitive medicine emerging on the scene but there is no "post-human enhancement" and certainly no "immortality" or "super-longevity" medicine that correlates to the futurological topic. There is plenty of network security and user-friendly software coding but no "AI" and certainly no "Friendly super-intelligent AI" that correlates to the futurological topic.

So, too, there is no "geo-engineering" for you to want or not to want. In claiming to have an opinion on the question of whether you want or don't want "it" you are entrapped by a discursive cul-de-sac into conceptual confusions and distractions. The term has little substance at all except as a discursive canalization directing attention and imagination from mainstream-legible environmentalism onto greenwashing pseudo-environmentalist formations to maintain and even amplify elite-incumbent profit-taking and authority.

Quite apart from whether you agree with me or not, do you grasp now the altogether different nature of the critique I am leveling than the one to which you seemed hitherto to be responding?


jollyspaniard said...

I do understand where you're coming from. But I'm not betting on an unknown alterative to cutting emissions. Going zero carbon or even carbon negative is the only solution. We might find that it's already too late.

We do have a pretty good idea of what sulphur in the upper atmosphere does to solar radiation. We acquired that knowledge by studying the effects of volcanoes and our own sulphur emissions. The other geoengineering schemes are dubious and or require as of yet undeveloped technology. However you could inject sulphur into the stratosphere with a battleship cannon.

That however isn't a plan B or a solution. Anymore than experimental chemotherapy treatments are a solution to the health risks of smoking. However if you've quit smoking and develop lung cancer a year later what are you going to do? You can't quit smoking again. You're well beyond the question of moral hazard or ontological traps that point. The same goes for going zero carbon and runaway climate change.

I see your point about the moral hazard of it. I'm not sure that's the case. Injecting sulphur into the stratosphere would have some pretty nasty side effects. However we do know it would cool the polar regions. That might be all that matters if gigatons of methane starts bubbling out of siberia. That isn't an irrational fear btw it's already started.

You wouldn't want to be in that position. You'd do everything you could to prevent that scenario from coming about in the first place. I don't see a moral hazard in contemplating it quite the opposite.

Dale Carrico said...

Injecting sulphur into the stratosphere would have some pretty nasty side effects.

Quite so, indeed a consensus is forming to insist the palpable risks, quite apart from the unknowns, are far larger than the proposed benefits in any case. As with earlier futurological handwaving in the geo-engineering mode -- iron filings in the seas, oceanic pipeworks -- actual scrutiny tends to shoot down the grandiose sales pitches soon enough.

As it happen, I do not disapprove of the contemplation of releasing various amounts of sulphur into various regions of the atmosphere under various conditions. I do not disapprove of the contemplation of much of anything at all.

I do strongly disapprove the the suggestion that in contemplating pumping sulphur into the atmosphere and subjecting the notion to serious scrutiny we are doing some new sort of thing, engaging in a new environmental discourse, one that should be given a new word to describe, a discourse that futurologists are experts in because of their big ideas and fearless thinking, that this is a separate kind of environmentalist proposal, made necessary by the failures of already existing environmentalism and necessitating obviously misguided separate assumptions, such as that the corporate-militarist villains who have destroyed our world must be given the authority to clean up their mess in their own way however awful and ugly and criminal that may appear, that democratic processes and accountability may need to be set aside for this new kind of environmentalism and so on.

It is not the data of climate science or specific engineering proposal of which "geo-engineering" as a discourse consists, but its freighting with pernicious faux novelty faux expertise anti-democratic justification, and elite-incumbent corporate-militarist interests. These are not incidental but essential to "geo-engineering" discourse, they are the only things "geo-engineering" introduces into environmentalist ideas and politics as they already exist.