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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is "Geo-Engineering" Just Gardening? Is Robot Cultism Just Common Sense?

Also posted at the World Future Society.

A recent article over at io9 offers a rapid-fire scroll of lovely pictures of lovely gardens from Tivoli and Versailles to Suzhou and the Mehtab Bagh. The bright-green images are from Flickr, their vapid captions read like snippets from Wikipedia, but the ideological operation of the article (which may fancy itself "Bright Green") is pure, pernicious futurological bunkum. It is easy to let a punchy little number like The World's Most Beautiful Gardens Are Miracles of Geo-Engineering buzzily breeze in one eye and out the other, but I propose we dwell on it for a moment.

I have described Superlative Futurology as an extreme form of the deceptive hyperbolic gizmo-fetishizing norms and forms that utterly and disastrously suffuse our public discourse today. Where neoliberal think-tanks peddle digitization to corporate-military organizations to facilitate the financialized skimming and scamming of global treasure and program drone strikes for war-crimes on the cheap, or consumer corporations peddle the "romance" of coffee at five dollars a pop or promise some ill-smelling goop in a jar will make a seventy year old as sexy as a teenager, Superlative Futurology amplifies techno-triumphalism into outright theological territory promising techno-transcendance of the finitude of the human condition, a super-intelligence, super-longevity, and super-abundance that suspiciously mimes the familiar omni-predicates of divinity (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) in at once reductive and expansive pseudo-scientific drag. The mainstream futurology of marketing/promotional formulations at the heart of the media advertising and think-tank scenario spinning that utterly prevail over the neoliberal-neoconservative imaginary love to promise phony miracles to the rubes, but the superlative futurology that attracts fandom sub(cult)ures and True Believers who fancy they possess the Keys to History are promising Miracles in earnest.

At the risk of coming off as a pedant -- who, me? -- I want to propose to Vincze Miklos, the author of the piece under consideration that, stunning as they are in their beauty, sophisticated as they are in the formal knowledges deployed in their design and construction, impressive as they are in the efforts through which they are maintained, none of these gardens are actually "Miraculous" at all. Gardens are not miracles, even the good ones. When one is dealing with futurologists, saying these obvious things out loud often matters very much.

The payoff lines of the article propose that, "Humans don't always trash their ecosystems. Sometimes we reshape them into something amazing. Here are some of the most incredible examples of landscape architecture, also known humbly as gardening." Needless to say, often large gardens in inapt setting become septic swamps, and without painstaking maintenance they all referalize rapidly, and it really is unclear whether we rightly describe any of the examples in the piece as actually sustainable interventions. One should take care not to generalize from a few photogenic specimens, all already well-known to the lowest-common-denominator tourist to claims about human mastery of sustainable civilization, especially given the high energy input intensivity of most such gardens and the fact that few of them provide even rudimentary shelter or sustenance for the humans who cherish them. Indeed, perhaps the whole piece is really best described as a bland bit of misguided virtual eco-tourism. And, again, to risk pedantry, if it really is true that "geo-engineering" is just another word for gardening then it occurs to me that the word "gardening" is perfectly adequate to describe gardening. Who needs a klatch of futurological pseudo-intellectuals to coin a bit of ill-fitting multi-syllabic jargon to re-invent that wheel, exactly?

Of course, "geo-engineering" doesn't just mean gardening to those who deploy the term, geo-engineering is a reactionary pseudo-environmental futurological discourse that is presently gathering steam to who knows what eventual, probably disastrous, ends. "Geo-engineering" denotes an ill-conceived suite of imaginary mega-engineering proposals to combat catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. What these proposals tend to share is that they involve vast unilateral inputs into complex dynamic ecosystems without a clear sense of the consequences, usually argued for with some variation on the claim that "desperate times require desperate measures." Central to the conjuration of "desperate times" in "geo-engineering" proposals tends to be the insistence that conventional accountable political processes of regulation, education, incentivization, public investment and so on have all proved to be failures in the face of planetary problems like climate change and resource descent. Rarely discussed is the question how the mega-engineering projects that excite the "geo-engineering" imaginary would themselves be funded, how their safety would be ensured and corruption restrained, how their construction and maintenance would be made accountable to the stakeholders of these projects, how their costs, risks, and benefits would be reasonably distributed and so on -- and usually it seems the very political processes whose abject failure is the assumption on which desperate "geo-engineering" gambits are premised (else, why not keep pushing the laws and investment to which legible environmentalisms are already devoted?) are immediately re-validated once they are imagined to be underway to render these "geo-engineering" projects practically possible. That is to say, practically possible "in principle" -- since, you will remember, the projects are almost always highly speculative in their workings and effects, indeed that tends to be the point.

I have noticed lately, and with great relief, that actual environmentalists have already begun to roll their eyes when the subject of "geo-engineering" comes up as they have also long done when they observe corporate greenwashing spin. Real environmentalists have amply noticed by now how readily pollution profiteers shift their rhetoric from climate change denialism to geo-engineering advocacy. Those reckless criminals eager to parochially profit from the destruction of the environment on which they and we all depend for our survival and flourishing are only too happy to confuse and undermine the deliberative processes through which our politics would struggle to be equal to the planetary problems we confront, but then as that effort begins to falter in the face of ever more conspicuous greenhouse storms they are now just as happy to divert public awareness and energy instead into elaborate cleanup boondoggles from which they are uniquely situated to profit as much as they profited from making the messes they would now clean up. What matters to the pollution profiteers is not whether or not "geo-engineering" proposals would work better than international efforts at sustainable education, regulation, and public investment in efficient renewable infrastructure, but whether they themselves will still be in the money when and if civilization turns away from petro-chemical industrialism.

Again, "geo-engineering" is a futurological discourse, and true to the marketing and promotional norms and forms it amplifies, it is an act of deception and hyperbole amounting to something like fraud, promising consumers an easy fix (Easy credit! Get rich quick! Sex appeal in a pill! Eternal youth in a cream or procedure! Confidence in any situation by attending my self-esteem seminar! An end to climate change that doesn't demand any changes from you!) for what is always in fact the parochial profit-taking of a con artist -- whether it is a huckster peddling a balding cure on a three am infomercial or an imperialist power peddling flashy industrial development loans followed by debt-restructuring forcing austerity on an over-exploited (they call it "under-developed," natch) nation.

The serious student of futurological discourse will notice the regularity with which the plausibility of futurological scam artistry depends here as elsewhere on a deft incessant switching between the quotidian and the fantastic:

* Advocates of good old fashioned serially-failed artificial intelligence as well as Singularitarian Robot Cultists who amplify AI advocacy into a techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasy of coding a history-ending super-intelligent Robot God will, in the face of skepticism or criticism or momentary instrusions of sense, retreat from their ecstasies into talk familiar to anybody who works on network security issues or who strives to make software more user-friendly. Needless to say, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to work on network security issues or make software more user friendly -- which is why almost nobody in the whole world ever does -- but neither is there any reason at all to fancy that one can get from network security or user-friendly software to coding a history-shattering super-Dad who solves all our problems for us, unless one is the sort of person who already desperately wants to arrive at the latter outcome and won't take no for an answer.

* Advocates of Drexlerian nanotechnology who dream of creating self-replicating, universally programmable, nanobots that can assemble cheap ubiquitous materials into treasure, reliably and stably at room temperature, possibly via a desktop device combining a desktop computer and a microwave oven into a Star Trek replicator, or possibly via a diffuse responsive nanobotic Utility Fog combining virtual reality and an input interface, say, a wand, into Hogwarts magic (without the Five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration to hold it back), indulging in a techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasy of overcoming the impasse of stakeholder politics politics via cheap effortless superabundance -- a commonplace postwar futurological fantasy that already drove idiotic dreams of redemptive nuclear power too cheap to meter, "I have one word for you -- plastic," virtual reality in the irrational exuberance of the dot.bomb, the current 3D printing mania, and on and on -- will, in the face of skepticism or criticism or momentary intrusions of sense, retreat from their ecstasies into talk familiar to anybody who works in biochemistry or materials science or micro-sensors, or they will rhapsodize about the biological cell as an "existence proof" of the nanobot. Needless to say, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to work in biochemistry or materials science or microsensors -- which is why almost nobody in the whole world ever does -- but neither is there any reason at all to fancy that one can get from a biological cell to a self-replicating, universally programmable, reliable and stable at room temperature nanobotic swarm that can turn crap into treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, unless one is the sort of person who already desperately wants to arrive at the latter outcome and won't take no for an answer.

* Advocates of techno-immortalism who dream of transcending death via "enhancement" medicine, Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence (it just makes SENS!), cryonics, or the uploading of their "info-selves" into cyberspatial heaven (techno-immortalists tend to advocate more than one of these techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasies at once, often in tandem with others I have already mentioned, since most Robot Cultists think nanobots are indispensable to cryonic resurrection schemes and superintelligent Robot Gods indispensable to heavenly cyberspatial uploading schemes), will, in the face of skepticism, criticism, or momentary intrusions of sense, retreat from their ecstasies and propose that "life-extension" is really just medicine since healthcare always extends life; that engineering immortality is really just like muscle car hobbyists incessantly tinkering to keep their beloved heaps indefinitely on the road; that the medium-term cryopreservation of some organs facilitating transplantation operations "implies" that frozen or vitrified hamburgerized brains will one day be nanobotically resurrected as comic book superhero bodies or "migrated" into cyber-angelic avatars; that a sufficiently advanced scan of your brain is really "you," presumably just like any representation of you already is really approximately "you" somehow (yeah, that one doesn't make sense at any level, but that's what these Robot Cultists believe), and so on. Needless to say, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to work in the medical profession or real medical research or advocate for access to healthcare, clean water, or food security -- which is why almost nobody in the whole world ever does -- and it really isn't true that real medicine is extending life expectancy, since most increases in that statistical measure arise from improvements in prenatal care and infant mortality and tinkering around the edges of advances in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, and the people who live longest now are not living any longer than those who lived longest in the past already did; and it isn't really true that hobbyists manage to keep most human-made gizmos working as long as human lives are lived, in fact most of our artifacts are wasted, disposable, obsolete before their usefulness runs out, destined for landfill, and anyway almost none of the knowledge that enables us to maintain one kind of artifact in good shape tells us much of anything about the knowledge that would enable us, if anything would, to keep any other kind of artifact in good shape; and it isn't really true that the short-term cryopreservation of some organs implies that the unknown electrochemical dispositions of brains and bodies that render us intelligibly "selved" can likewise be thusly so preserved, let alone revived, let alone eternalized; and materialism demands we grant that the material form in which information or even intelligence is actually incarnated is not negligible but essential to its form, and hence there can be no "migration" without loss of form from one materialization to another, and in any case nobody in their right mind ever believed that a picture of you was actually you in the first place, unless one is the sort of person who already desperately wants to arrive at the latter outcome and won't take no for an answer.

The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Regular readers of Amor Mundi will no doubt ruefully attest that I spend lots of my time doing just that. But suffice it to say that the dream of "geo-engineering" advocates that those elite-incumbent corporate-military interests that parochially profited from polluting our world quite to the brink of utter desolation will profit just as much from cleaning up the mess they made, that complacent consumers who acquiesced to this devastation can continue on in their consumption and acquiescence without any cost to themselves, that the very brute insensate industrial-extractive planetary war-making that unleashed destruction on the world can now magically heal it, however appealing that may be to your sense of style, to your sense of entitlement, to your sense of righteousness has nothing in the way of actual sense or science to recommend it. And, no, retreating back to a glib "existence proof" identifying "geo-engineering" with "gardening" -- however predictable that is as futurological gambits go -- does nothing to make the case a more plausible one or a less dangerous one.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

Real environmentalists have amply noticed by now how readily pollution profiteers shift their rhetoric from climate change denialism to geo-engineering advocacy


We need to expand the use of the term denialism here. Geo Engineering is denialism in my view. And I don't think it's being used exclusively or even primarily by the interests you mention. It's late stage denial for people who accept that the AGW hypothesis as true but who don't want to accept the gravity of the situation. I know because I used to be one of those people.

Obama is coming off as a denier to me in his most recent comments on climate change. Almost everyone is in some stage of denial at this point about AGW. We're like smokers who know that our habit is bad for us but we don't want to really face up to what that really means. It's too big and scary and we don't want to think about it.

When that bubble bursts people are going to get very scared. Geoengineering is going to get trotted out as the golden calf.

Interesting allegory you cite conflating gardening with geoengineering. Perhaps we should rebrand Global Themonuclear War as Golden Showers of Subatomic Particles, sounds a bit more appealing.