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

Monday, January 03, 2011

What's New in "Geo-Engineering"?

As it happens, I do not disapprove of the contemplation of releasing various amounts of sulphur into various regions of the atmosphere under various conditions. Hell, I do not disapprove of the contemplation of much of anything at all. I do disapprove of anybody actually going ahead and pumping massive amounts of sulphur into the atmosphere, half-cocked (you might, too, after you've read this and this and this and this), but contemplating it? Not so much.

More to the point, I strongly disapprove the suggestion that in contemplating pumping sulphur into the atmosphere and then subjecting the notion to serious scrutiny we are doing some radically new sort of thing than we are when we are contemplating, say, planting thousands of acres of trees, contemplating installing thousands of wind turbines or millions of solar roofs, contemplating changing zoning ordinances to facilitate the emergence of dense, walkable neighborhoods, or the like.

I disapprove the suggestion that contemplating pumping sulphur into the atmosphere is a matter of engaging in an additional and special environmental discourse, one that needs the new word "geo-engineering" to describe it, an environmentalism that futurologists of all people are special experts in, presumably because of their special capacity for having especially Big Ideas and thinking especially fearless thoughts. Although I daresay it is true that most of the sorts of handwaving futurologists indulge in when they get into a lather of "geo-engineering" talk would indeed get shot down, especially as and to the extent that the proportion of non-futurologists who are actually competent climate scientists and engineers at the discussion table rises, I do disapprove the suggestion that these futurological proposals necessarily constitute a separate kind of environmentalist proposal rather than, say, just dumb ideas environmentalists who cannot distinguish science and science fiction very well came up with without thinking things fully through.

I disapprove the suggestion that contemplating pumping sulphur into the atmosphere is a newfangled environmentalism made necessary by the failures of already existing environmentalism and which justifies or even necessitates making obviously ugly and misguided separate political assumptions than usually circumscribe the field of legitimate discourse, new assumptions that are described as visionary, brave, tough-minded rather than ugly and misguided, such that when futurological experts contemplate pumping sulphur into the atmosphere suddenly we are licensed or encouraged to think of the corporate-militarist villains who have been destroying our world for their reckless profit-taking instead as our last, best hope to save that world they are destroying, as uniquely competent elites that must be given the authority to clean up their mess in their own way however awful and ugly and criminal that may appear, that saving the world must proceed in a way that is above all profitable for elite-incumbent interests, that democratic processes and accountability are suddenly (oh- so- reluctantly- and- regretfully!) dispensable and for the good of precisely those who would otherwise have a say in public decisions that directly affect them should democracy prevail, that when political processes fail to implement emissions regulations we must turn to megascale engineering projects instead since, of course, no political processes are involved in the funding, regulation, oversight, building, or maintenance of megascale engineering projects (oh, wait, that's the opposite of reality), that since catastrophic climate change is real and renewable energy technology is real and emission standards and energy efficiency standards and health and safety standards necessary for sustainability are well-understood and perfectly reasonable we must turn, when political will seems unequal to these realities, to grandiose ill-conceived scenario-spinning about acres of orbiting space mirrors and vast chemical spewing airfleets peddled with splashy artist renderings and futurological neologisms and talk of "terraforming" the earth as though humans were alien invaders re-engineering an extraterrestrial planet from the Mother Ship.

There is no unique climate science data set or specific modality of engineering proposal of which "geo-engineering" as a discourse uniquely consists. What "geo-engineering" essentially and substantially consists of in my view is the assumption of a particular (and profoundly pernicious) vantage on environmentalist consciousness, a particular framing of environmentalist assumptions and aspirations, one that insists on freighting a handful of loosely connected proposals (no stable or coherent criteria exists to explain why any particular "geo-engineer" includes their particular preoccupations under the umbrella of "geo-engineering" while excluding others with comparable scope in their aggregate effects) with phony novelty to the self-promotional benefit of futurologists themselves cast as special "experts," while also creating a space in which anti-democratic policy recommendations and skewed elite-incumbent corporate-militarist for-profit priorities over remediation and sustainability itself can be voiced in public as if they were "serious" proposals.

In my view, these anti-democratizing effects are not incidental but absolutely essential to "geo-engineering" discourse. Indeed, they are the only things "geo-engineering" introduces into environmentalist ideas and politics as they already exist -- apart from the fact that a disproportionate number of "geo-engineering" proposals also tend in their hyperbole and militarism (deriving from their emergence, like all futurology, out of the norms of corporate-militarist marketing and promotional discourse) to be unusually grandiloquent and half-baked (mirrors on the Moon! Submarine cityscapes of pipeworks churning the depths! and so on).

1 comment:

Adam said...

Hi Dale,

I just stumbled across this: The University Of Washington, Seattle's College of the Environment is hosing an event appropriately titled "Geoengineering as a Response to Climate Change: An Urgent Problem Meets a Bad Concept." I do not recognize any of the speakers but perhaps you might. Whatever the case, I thought it might be of interest considering your recent (and, no doubt, many previous) posts on the topic. Link below:

http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~robwood/Geoengineering/

I hope this modest contribution finds you well!