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

Saturday, August 07, 2010

"Geo-Engineering" As Futurological Greenwashing

"Geo-engineering" is one of the latest thrilling contributions of futurology to the ongoing derangement of sensible deliberation about ongoing technoscientific change in the world.

In a recent piece capturing this derangement rather nicely the usually more sensible Chris Mooney bemoans "the incredible gap between the importance of geoengineering as a possibility on the one hand, and the complete lack of public awareness that it’s even on the table on the other." Not only is the public unaware of "geo-engineering's" manifold promises, but Mooney declares that "only about 1 percent of Americans currently know what geoengineering even is."

I personally believe that the reason so many people are unaware of "geo-engineering" is probably because there is no such thing as "geo-engineering" for them to be aware of, and that a very good reason that so few people can say "what geo-engineering even is" is because there is no such thing as "geo-engineering" that actually is anything in particular to say something about.

Let me be plain at the outset that I am not making the rather conventional claim that some gee-whiz notion of the futurological fantasists like rocket-cars or meals-in-a-pill or sexy-slavebots hasn't materialized yet, in "answer" to which the futurologists will then of course dismiss my lack of imagination or can-do spirit or hard-nosed scientific grasp of the inevitabilities spilling forth from their meretricious maths the better to indulge yet another round of groundless self-congratulation.

No, I am saying that the futurological discourse of "geo-engineering" actually functions to create the appearance of a phenomenon where there is none, it functions as futurological frames tend to do as a derangement of sense, a distraction from substance onto non-substance, a substitute of frivolous over-generalities and hyperbolic promises for deliberation about actually complex, actually contingent technodevelopmental problems with a diversity of stakeholders.

Chris Mooney provides a fine example of what I mean when he first writes of "the prospect of geoengineering the climate" and then provides what amounts to the only thing remotely like a definition of this phenomenon on which he is about to pin so many of his hopes and about the ignorance of which he is about to excoriate so many of his planetary peers. He writes: "geoengineering the climate -- in other words, engaging in some type of deliberate intervention to alter the planet and thereby counteract global warming."

Is it necessary for me to point out the stunningly useless over-generality of the key phrase in this non-definition, namely "some type of deliberate intervention"? According to this definition-ish utterance, everyone who has changed their energy consumption patterns, purchased energy-efficient appliances, acquired roof-top solar panels (good going, by the way), educated or agitated or organized or legislated any kind of regulation of extractive-petrochemical industry to ameliorate global warming has been engaged in "geo-engineering."

If that is the case, then it is of course palpably false to claim nobody is aware of this "phenomenon" as Mooney declares. Lamentably few Americans take the issue of global warming seriously, it is true -- especially if a change in conduct commensurate with belief is treated as the sign of taking it seriously -- but far more than one percent of Americans are knowledgeable and concerned about environmental issues and act on this knowledge.

No doubt our fiery futurologists will already be stamping their feet and tearing their hair impatiently at my belligerent obtuseness in putting my objection in such terms. Mooney clearly doesn't mean by "geo-engineering" to refer to conventional environmental regulations or the sorts of shifts from extractive-petrochemical to renewable energy sources everyday green rhetoric and activism and practice have been concerned with for years in an incessant glare of publicity.

But the fact that his definition of "geo-engineering," such as it is, doesn't preclude mainstream environmentalist theory and practice while at once asserting very insistently that it is terribly new and more radical than mainstream environmental theory and practice is perfectly typical of futurological "geo-engineering" discourse, and I would argue a key part of its point.

The example Mooney does provide of what "geo-engineering" actually would consist of is "injecting sulfur particles into the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away from the Earth, thereby causing a global cooling." What I would draw your attention to is that this proposal is actually only one of a ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet-dreams that futurologists start handwaving about when talk turns to "geo-engineering." A New York Times article already four years old (futurologists tend to pretend their pet formulations are startling and new even after they grow whiskers, as witness the dead-enders who still crow breathlessly about the imminence of superintelligent AI) provided a nice summary of the sorts of proposals would-be "geo-engineers" bandy about in its first paragraph: "Build sunshades in orbit to cool the planet. Tinker with clouds to make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Trick oceans into soaking up more heat-trapping greenhouse gases."

Now, why on earth would it make sense to corral all these interventions together with Mooney's own example and then say of them, as Mooney does, that together they constitute a single "technology," or as the New York Times article does that together they constitute a single "emerging field"? I submit that everything that matters most about each of these proposals in terms of deliberation about their plausible effects, their costs, their risks, their benefits, their stakeholders differ from one another in absolutely indispensable ways. And it is hard to see why, given these differences, anything much about the relative success of one of these efforts would necessarily justify confidence that any of the others would have comparable success.

Just who, exactly, is made more knowledgeable about any of the costs, risks, or benefits to any of the diversity of stakeholders to any of these extraordinarily massive, costly, risky proposals by pretending that they are all essentially the same sort of thing? And what does it mean that this essential sameness they presumably exhibit (but which scarcely stands up to actual scrutiny) is also, at one and the same time, being peddled as so much more radical and promising than the sorts of legislative and popular lifeway recommendations of conventional environmentalist politics?

The older New York Times article to which I have already referred also provides a definition of "geo-engineering" which differs from Mooney's but offers up similar perplexities. "[G]eoengineering… means rearranging the earth's environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability." This is also the definition which the current Wikipedia entry on "geo-engineering" has adapted for its use, and so the definition may be said to have acquired a certain canonical force.

Given that aggregate lifestyle and design choices or regulatory effects can be quite large, it seems to me that this definition fails as Mooney's also does to distinguish "geo-engineering" interventions, so-called, from mainstream environmentalist efforts, even if the whole point of the exercise seems as usual to trumpet unprecedented novelty and radicality through the introduction of this futurological neologism.

Unlike Mooney's definition, however -- which demands at least the specificity that "geo-engineering" interventions "combat global warming" -- the more canonical definition demands only that geo-engineering "suit human needs" and "promote habitability." Again, needless to say, opinions as to what counts as human needs or more or less habitable environments are notions notoriously and interminably under contest, and to the extent that this definition pretends otherwise it is simply adding yet another layer of obfuscation into the discussion.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of "geo-engineering" seems to me to subsume far too many actually substantially different techniques in the service of far too many actually substantially different outcomes to be of much practical use in any of the deliberations into which it is being injected so enthusiastically by futurologists.

It is interesting to note that "geo-engineering" is more or less functionally equivalent to another idea, which, precisely to the contrary, is indispensable to environmentalist politics, namely, the idea of anthropogenic climate change as such. That collective human conduct -- the pollution of the atmosphere with carbon disturbing the biofeedback mechanisms through which the biosphere sustains complex organisms, the depletion and spoilage of planetary freshwater through human pollution and overuse, the destruction of living soils through unsustainable agricultural practices, the devastation of biodiversity through the impingement of human cultures on local ecosystems, and so on -- can radically undermine the capacity of the planet to sustain human and other life as such, seems roughly correlated to, even implied by, the "geo-engineering" conceit: Indeed, one is tempted to say that "Geo-engineering" is little more than a chirpy "reframing" or marketing "repackaging" of the notion of anthropogenic climate change as such.

How interesting, then, to contemplate the flood of dollars devoted by extractive-petrochemical industrial concerns to climate-change denialism, to calling into perpetual doubt the consensus of actual climate scientists about the contribution of human actions on catastrophic global warming, and then to think about the likely beneficiaries of the mega-scale engineering proposals that are inevitably proposed under the heading of "geo-engineering."

Even if the actual definitions and analyses of the "geo-engineering" "concept" never manage to provide a coherent and compelling case as to why they include such a disparate constellation of proposals under the same heading while always interestingly excluding mainstream regulatory and educational proposals from consideration under that heading, one can immediately make sense of the grouping if one simply makes expedient recourse to considerations of who profits from what proposals and who loses control over society from what proposals.

The mega-scale engineering proposals that are inevitably championed by futurological prophets-for-hire would without exception be undertaken by vast industrial concerns, helmed by military contractors and multinational corporations under the control of incumbent-elite actors. The legislative and educational approaches of mainstream environmentalism would either directly lower the profitability of such concerns by taxing and regulating them or indirectly do the same by changing the wasteful and destructive hysteria of consumer lifestyle capitalism as such. Furthermore, many mainstream green proposals for the subsidization of edible ecosystem appropriate landscaping and roof-top solar panels yield relocalization and decentralization of production in ways that are less susceptible to authoritarian hierarchical capture and exploitation than are the vast capital-intensive industrial formations like the nuclear plants or orbiting solar sails suave techno-boosters seem to prefer.

This is not to deny that there is a place in mainstream environmentalism for hopes of a Labor-friendly new American productive industrial economy making electric cars and wind turbines and laying high-speed rail across the continent and undoing the damage of the last generation of futurological techno-boosters who dismantled the substance of middle-class civilization in the name of fantasies of a borderless digital-utopia of frictionless capital, immaterial financial "products," and libertopian crypto-anarchy.

But mainstream environmental proposals tend in the main to be human-scaled, democratically-accountable, p2p-distributed lifeway formations while "geo-engineering" proposals tend in the main to be mega-scaled, unaccountably-technocratic, capital-intensive, elite-maintained, for-profit-or-pork formations. The analogy between the battle between elite-incumbent broadcast formations against democratizing peer-to-peer formations, between elite-incumbent secretive-and-propriety knowledge politics against democratizing access-to-knowledge politics is absolutely instructive here.

In framing the urgency of "geo-engineering" as "a program" -- an urgency that one might expect would issue in greater clarity as to the actual substance of the concept itself -- Mooney declares that "climate change now looks increasingly unstoppable." To this he adds the disastrous failure of our elected representatives to enact regulations the least bit equal to the problems at hand. "[E]ven if the proposals on the table at Copenhagen had been adopted, we’d still end the century with an atmospheric carbon dioxide of 700 parts per million -- more than enough to cause climate upheaval, raise seas dramatically, and so forth." It is in light of this failure of our responsible democratic politics that he turns instead to the techno-utopian techno-fix of "geo-engineering" in the first place. "[I]f we can’t cut emissions, at some point we’ll be forced to consider a more radical alternative."

Let us pause to consider the politics inhering in this little hymn to resignation to our corporate-military overlords. Why would it be true that failure to enact the minimally necessary regulations to ameliorate catastrophic anthropogenic climate change means that every subsequent effort would also fail? Surely if recourse to the radically under-specified "geo-engineering" alternative happens only "at some point" when regulation has failed and disaster looms, this very same state of affairs would also have changed the knowledge and felt-urgency that is making political solutions so intractable?

Not to belabor my point, but recall that the "geo-engineering alternative" here isn't after all "an alternative" in any singular or coherent sense, but a disparate collection of technical proposals that seem to have little in common but a scale and expense that ensures they would be profitable to and under the control of mostly the very same bad-faith actors whose unconscionably reckless profit-taking and war-making have been responsible hitherto for the very problem they would be mobilized to ameliorate, and, even worse, whose cynical efforts at public misinformation have been the chief reason that democratically accountable political solutions are failing in the first place.

"Geo-engineering" may not make much sense as an analytic category, but it is supremely sensible as a rhetorical strategy on the part of incumbent-elites who seek to profit as much from cleaning up their mess (or simply from the promise to clean it up through highly dramatic implausible boondoggles) as they made from making their mess.

Although, as I have already pointed out, "geo-engineering" seems simply to be a rather involuted cheer-leading variation on the straightforward premise that anthropogenic climate change is evident in the world (if collective human action is altering the climate for the worse, it isn't that extraordinary to claim that collective human action might alter the climate for the better), it is more to the point to recognize that those who have profited by denial of the premise of anthropogenic climate change now stand to profit by the promotion of the premise of "geo-engineering."

To the extent that the glossy mega-engineering fantasies of "geo-engineering" futurologists distract our attention from the efforts of more mainstream-legible educational, agitational, organizational, and regulatory environmentalist efforts -- or take for granted the failure of these -- they should be seen as a second wave of denialism. This time the denialism is not about the fact or human causation of climate catastrophe itself (since "geo-engineering" contains an implicit admission of both of these), but a denialism about the possibility or effectiveness of any democratic response to that crisis.

From the reactionary denial that human agency could possibly impact the whole vast and resourceful planet on which we all depend for survival and flourishing, we find ourselves confronted by a reactionary denial that the collective democratic agency of everyday people can preserve this vast and resourceful planet on which we all depend for survival and flourishing.

Far from a startlingly new or radical idea, "geo-engineering" seems to me little more than a very familiar, very old-fashioned insistence on the part of corporate-military incumbent-elites that nothing from which they cannot profit and prosper themselves should ever count as real or as possible or as important. All the substance and consistency of "geo-engineering" as an analytic category, as a set of imaginary or actual techniques, or as a program of proposals derives from the preferential benefit it confers to incumbent interests in the midst of a burgeoning planetary awareness and activism that otherwise threatens those interests with the loss of their unearned privileges and status in the world we are making, peer to peer, in the name of sustainability and fairness.


watching the watchers said...

Just out of curiosity, how much time do you spend outside? What is your take on aerial spraying campaigns producing emissions that literally spread out in a quite visible manner across the entire sky, sometimes making criss cross patterns where the supposed "contrails" overlap each other, until eventually merging in an amorphous grey mess superimposed over previously cloudless blue skies? Have you seen these emissions or do you spend too much time inside to notice how often aerial spraying completely obliterates the visibility of the sky? I'm not trying to be condescending. That's a legitimate question, because a lot of people aren't aware that there is a qualitative difference between contrails (normal jet fuel emissions) which disappear from the sky in a matter of minutes, and the phenomenon known as chemtrails, which remain in the sky for hours after merging into formless grey blobs that simply must be having significant effects on the environment and, quite possibly, human health. Atmospheric manipulation by corporate-military interests already exists whether or not it's promoted as such. *expecting that the word chemtrails alone will be enough to get this post dismissed as conspiracy nonsense* With all due respect, your blog is highly informative, but this take on geo-engineering does not appear to be informed by direct observation or common sense.

Dale Carrico said...

It takes more than being the enemy of my enemy to be my friend, that's for sure. For one thing, my friends aren't stupid. My critique of geo-engineering is no more complemented by contrail conspiracists than my critique of transhumanists is complemented by wingnuts who think transhumanists are the anti-christ. I'm not trying to be condescending. Sometimes you don't have to try.