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

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Deep Anti-Ecology of the Futurological "Geo-Engineers"

The White Guys of The Future over at the Very Serious futurologist IEET think-tank (not to mention stealth transhumanist-singularitarian-technoimmortalist Robot Cult outfit) have posted another piece of paint-by-the-numbers advocacy for the greenwashing policy-via-neoligism of "geo-engineering" this week. The author this time around is one R. Dennis Hansen who is, we are told "a planner for a federal resource management agency in Utah" and "member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association" (very confidence-inspiring, I must say).

Hansen frames his bit of futurological flim-flammery with a question that both opens and closes his essay: "Who says we can’t do anything about the weather or the climate?" And I for one suspect it might be quite revealing to think about the actual answer to that question.

There is, of course, a consensus among climate scientists and environmental activists that human industry is affecting the climate, that is to say, that we are palpably doing all sorts of things already about the weather or the climate. Presumably, then, those who say we can't would first of all refer to those who deny anthropogenic climate change altogether. Given that Hansen's "geo-engineering" proposals are addressed in the first place to those who do accept the consensus of climate science and who also share at least some of the concerns of environmentalists, it seems to me that this is not an essay addressed to anybody at all who doubts we can anything about the weather or the climate.

Now, to be sure, many climate scientists and environmentalists are increasingly frustrated at the apparent incapacity of our law-makers to craft effective environmental regulations, support conservation and reforestation programs and the like, legislate lower carbon emissions standards, scrub industrial soot, zone for more dense walkable urban neighborhoods, educate their citizens about relevant health and climate issues, create structural incentives like bike-lanes and petroleum taxes and rebates for energy efficient technologies to facilitate more sustainable collective behavior, invest in renewable energy systems like solar rooftops, windfarms, tidal farms, residential geo-thermal pumps, intercontinental and urban mass transit systems, support smaller-scaled organic agriculture, appropriate polyculture, and permaculture practices, and so on. But it is crucial to grasp that these frustrations imply first of all that those who are frustrated think there are in fact an enormous number of practical things that can indeed be done about weather or climate, namely the very sorts of things just listed among many others, but that they are not being done enough yet or by enough people to do the good work reasonably and righteously expected of them.

To grasp that environmental policy proposals are not now being implemented adequately is far from declaring that they will not ever be, nor even that they cannot be implemented in time, that climatic or cultural tipping-points cannot change a long intractable status quo for the better should environmental education, agitation, and organization keep the pressure up long enough. Certainly such frustrations are the farthest imaginable thing from endorsements that more conventional environmental proposals like these should be jettisoned for altogether different proposals, especially wild-eyed epic-scaled mega-engineering proposals involving, when they actually offer any real details at all, proliferating questionable scientific and engineering and political assumptions.

Hansen "defines" geo-engineering as "large-scale technological interventions in the earth’s climate system." Of course, it is hard to see why the regulative and facilitative interventions into mass-behavior advocated by conventional environmentalists (encouraging consumers to switch to solar heating, or electric cars, or white rooftops, or building intercontinental high-speed rail or reforestation projects, say) are not "large-scale" enough to be considered "geo-engineering," then, or, if they are, just why it is useful for futurologists to have introduced their pet neologism "geo-engineering" into the discussion in the first place.

One needs to grasp the essentially gizmo-fetishistic distortions of futurology to understand why white paint, heirloom tomato seeds, landscaping swales, wind-turbines, and comparable techniques and appropriate technologies wouldn't count for a futurologist as "technology."

Instead, Hansen fixes his attention on what I have described as the usual "ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet-dreams," including with robotic predictability "‘[f]ertilizing’ the ocean with iron to encourage the growth of carbon-capturing phytoplankton… Building ‘artificial trees’ to absorb carbon dioxide… Spraying ocean water into the atmosphere to produce sunlight-reflecting clouds… Launching trillions of reflective disks into the upper atmosphere." In other words, the same endlessly discredited handwaving as always.

Note that each of these proposals involve a verb, "fertilizing… building… spraying… launching…" and that the agencies corralling collective will and mobilizing the resources actually involved in these verbs would demand the introduction into these proposals of all the political dynamisms that bedevil environmentalism already.

The primary function of the "technological" in "bio-engineering" proposals -- especially given the hyperbolic scale and superlative cadences of the speculative technoscience preferred by futurologists waxing rhapsodic about "geo-engineering" technofixes -- is precisely to disavow the political agency indispensable to the worldly facilitation of sustainability, as well as to distract attention from the actual agents (the usual corporate-military elite-incumbent bad actors) who would most benefit from the implementation of "geo-engineering" proposals.

Behind all the can-do enthusiasm, the shiny gizmos, the technobabble, the "geo-engineers" are indulging in a profoundly reactionary anti-environmental discourse directed less to the usual opportunistic greed-heads and climate-denialist know-nothings most anti-environmentalism caters to, but directed precisely to those who are already concerned about anthropogenic climate change and respectful, at least in a rough and tumble sort of way, of technoscience as a site for the practical address of shared environmental problems, those otherwise likely to number among the ones doing the most good.

Just as I have been pointing out the real-world implications of deceptive hyperbolic futurological discourse playing out in the present in skewed assumptions of today's policy-makers (futurological fantasies of genetic enhancement and techno-magical longevity therapies providing uncritical rationales for catastrophic immiserating proposals to raise the retirement age and dismantle indispensable Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security entitlements), so too it is crucial to grasp the anti-environmentalist impacts of the futurological faux-environmentalism of the "geo-engineers" are no less likely to play our in present-day distractions, displaced priorities, deranged policy proposals, and skewed budgets.


erickingsley said...

The answer is of course, as always, that the Big Money Boys must be left alone to do as they wish, the little people and the very world be damned.

How dare you plebs pester your Military-Industrial-Transhumanist betters?

I mean, just look at their track record. What could possibly go wrong?

myst101 said...

I just got through reading Gary Shteyngart's novel 'Super Sad True Love Story' & it reminded me of the futurology movement (the future downfall of it). Cool book, have you read it? The book's researcher references some of Aubrey De Grey's work.

jimf said...

so I was at a Bat Mitzvah over the weekend, and I ran into an old friend and colleague who happens to be the producer of the "Rationally Speaking" podcast of the New York City Skeptics.

I had actually not listened to any of these podcasts until last night, but my friend suggested I should, and so I did.

The podcast archive contains an episode, RS17, entitled "Transhumanism", so I thought that might be the obvious place to start.

The two hosts of the podcast were Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at CUNY
and Julia Galef, a "writer and public speaker specializing in science, technology, and design" .

The talk on transhumanism was a back-and-forth between Pigliucci and Galef, with the former taking the role of skeptic, and Julia (all too honestly, I'm afraid) taking the role of believer (she balked at actually **calling** herself a "transhumanist", though she never quite got around to explaining why she hesitated at the self-identification).

I was particularly disappointed that Galef seemed to take Aubrey de Grey entirely at face value as an "anti-aging researcher" (rather than as a computer sysadmin whose job at Cambridge University allowed him to putter around campus and use the library facilities there, but who was eventually fired for using, or at least allowing the use, of the university's name to promote his "anti-aging researcher" Web persona). Pigliucci, on the other hand, in response to Galef's statement that transhumanism had often been tarred (unfairly, in her view) with the label of "religion", said that, while he wouldn't go so far as to call transhumanism a "religion", nevertheless said that the nearest comparison **of that sort** he would make would be to Scientology -- describing them both as "science-fiction-derived cults". He then backpedalled a bit, saying he wouldn't call transhumanism a "cult" either, but then reiterating that the closest comparison he could think of would be to Scientology. Ouch! ;->

But Galef, I'm afraid, is on the verge of true belief. A bit of over-credulity, I fear, among the New York City Skeptics.