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

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Geo-Engineering" and the "Ticking Time-Bomb"

I have highlighted what seems to me to be a curious incoherence in the very concept of "geo-engineering." The criteria for inclusion within and exclusion from the category don't seem to me to stand up to scrutiny. On the one hand, "geo-engineering" enthusiasts tend to dismiss the aggregate impact of many local, educational, regulative, legislative, conventional public works proposals, while, on the other hand, they celebrate the hypothetical benefits of highly speculative mega-scale engineering proposals, largely indifferent to their inevitably diverse impacts on dynamic, multilayered, interdependent geophysical systems apart from their intended targets.

I have also noted that "geo-engineering" enthusiasts tend to argue that the urgency of environmental crises now demands that the implementation of their schemes proceed in ways that treat as more dispensable than we would like concerns with democratic procedures and ethical norms like fairness and respect for diversity. This is because the address of such concerns and norms so far has presumably frustrated the capacity of our public institutions to respond to clear environmental crises, and hence so exacerbated these crises that now only "geo-engineering" efforts provide a chance for salvation, and because the further frustration of the "geo-engineering" schemes themselves by these concerns and norms would likely ensure still further delay, when delay is indistinguishable from disaster.

This argument proposes the environmentalist's equivalent of the "ticking time bomb" scenario that many torture-apologists of the morally-blighted knowledge-benighted Bush era believed rendered our intuitions about the impermissibility of torture dispensable. The analogy is indeed illuminating because we know that the torture of fellow human beings is not only morally repugnant -- and a war-crime that should (still) be prosecuted as such -- but that torture provides unreliable information in any case. That is to say, torture is not only immoral, but also, incidentally, impractical.

In a post a couple of days ago, There Is No "Plan B", I wrote of the "geo-engineering" enthusiasts:
Anti-democratic sentiments, supposedly hard-boiled declarations that "we don't have time for ethics" are attitudes that were instrumental in leading and misleading us into planetary catastrophe. I strongly believe that the solicitation of diverse energies and responsiveness to diverse knowledges arising from democratic mechanisms and ethical deliberations will be indispensable to the remedy of the both the geophysical and sociocultural wounds of accumulated, serial environmental crises exacted by extractive-industrial-petrochemical-corporatist-militarist-colonialist enterprises. To dismiss concerns with democracy, equity, plurality as dispensable niceties, stylistic superficialities -- oblivious to their practical and epistemological indispensability to the actual problems at hand is to re-enact the crime at the scene of the crime and pretend this time, somehow, the error, the delusion, the madness will work.

"Geo-engineering" enthusiasts are too quick in my view to dismiss sustainable local and lifeway practices, and the educational efforts that facilitate them, forgetting that the ramifications of local efforts in the aggregate can also be global and that the local dissemination of knowledges creates knowledge platforms that can enable, unexpectedly and in a lightning flash, the dissemination of knowledges on a global scale. So, too, they seem to me too quick to confuse momentary set-backs in legislative and regulatory and public investment efforts to address environmental problems with insurmountable barriers to such an address.

"Geo-engineers" will likely greet these objections with ridicule of my unseriousness, my failure to grasp the enormity and urgency of the crisis at hand, my indifference in my North Atlantic privilege to the precarious poor in over-exploited regions of the world who will bear the brunt of catastrophic climate change every day by the day while we wait for our democratic procedures to creep forward. Given that the solutions the "geo-engineers" are proposing almost inevitably involve mega-engineering projects that would unquestionably make obscenely rich and powerful corporate-military contractors even more obscenely rich and powerful, given that these corporate-military actors largely made their fortunes and shored up their power precisely through the devastation of the planet they would now be called upon to save, given that these corporate-military actors have exhibited indifference at best to the clear environmental catastrophes from which they were profiting as well as to the endless human tragedies especially among the poor in the over-exploited regions of the world, I must say that I find such responses to my objections on the part of "geo-engineering" enthusiasts, frankly, ridiculous.

But what I want to draw especial attention to in this context is that I think it is the deranging work of "the ticking time bomb" that prepares the ground for such obviously foolish hypocrisies and sloppy thinking. My point is not to deny the urgency, the proximity, the scale of environmental catastrophe that besets us, but to insist that even in the face of such looming disaster our survival will depend on cooler heads prevailing, and that we should be especially wary by now of those who seek to persuade us through the conjuration of spectacles of terror that danger demands the circumvention of democratic, equitable, pluralist intuitions.

After all, since "geo-engineering" proposals would themselves have to be funded and then implemented over long time-scales involving the ongoing co-ordination of multitudes of individuals it is quite honestly to indulge in magical thinking to pretend that, somehow, through a shifted focus onto these often dramatic, highly speculative, usually mega-scale "geo-engineering" proposals one thereby escapes the frustrations of public governance, contending stakeholders, organizational impasses, regulative bottlenecks.

Like so much futurological discourse, "geo-engineering" amounts to an escapist fantasy -- it amounts to precisely the refusal of seriousness of which it then accuses all those who shake their heads at its obvious practical and moral and political imbecilities. Even those few technical proposals among the surreal science-fictional assortment beloved of "geo-engineering" enthusiasts that might actually pass the tests of scientific scrutiny and political expediency will fare, it seems to me, incomparably better when advocated and implemented through the conventions of accountable governance and equitable norms than they could as deranged through the futurological hyperbole and elite-incumbency of "geo-engineering" discourses themselves. As the "geo-engineers" are so fond of reminding us, we really no longer have any time for wasting time with such nonsense.

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