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

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My “Geo-Engineering” “Denialism”

Over at Worldchanging, Lewis Cleverdon, a self-described “geo-engineer,” has taken offense (and he’s not the only one!) in rather forceful terms to my recent critiques of “geo-engineering” discourse. The following is my response to him, which I have posted there as well, and I do recommend that you follow the link to read his rebuttal on his own terms before you take in my answer to him.

I do not pre-emptively disapprove of every proposal that somebody, somewhere might presently describe as "geo-engineering." Given the disagreements among even its enthusiasts as to just what sorts of interventions should be included in the category -- disagreements that seem to become especially heated when their discourse is subjected to actual scrutiny and critique -- it wouldn’t be very sensible to disapprove of anything and everything any odd futurologist might get a hankering to slap a “geo-engineering” label on.

In the longer follow-up post of mine “Geo-Engineering” Is A Declaration of War That Does Not Care About Democracy to which Mr. Cleverdon is presumably responding he might recall a sprawling paragraph illustrating a host of “geo-engineering-esque” proposals, some of which I ridicule as science-fictional wet dreams (vast orbital space-mirror archipelagos), others of which I disapprove on the merits according to my sense of the present scientific consensus (tons of iron filings in the sea), others of which I actively approve (public subsidized reforestation and biochar projects), and in others of which I don’t weigh in, having insufficient grounds to do so (spraying clouds with seawater -- the elegant proposal on which Cleverdon seems to dote in his jeremiad against my denialism is indeed just such an example, mentioned right there in my piece, paragraph seven for those keeping score at home).

What I strongly disapprove is “geo-engineering” discourses that yoke all these disparate interventions together, as it were willy-nilly, ascending to a level of generality at which all their salient differences vanish, and then provoke a series of abstract debates on the feasibility of this unwieldy incoherent jumble which distracts our attention from the many -- to me more urgent -- debates of problems at hand, including debates about the practical politics of either getting sixty senators to vote the right way -- or reform the filibuster so that majorities with mandates can act accordingly, to be rewarded or punished in the aftermath by the voters -- to regulate carbon emissions, or mandate renewable energy standards, or introduce real environmental costs into pricing conventions, or subsidize sustainable lifeways, or bootstrap a domestic wind-turbine industry in Detroit, or invest in public works projects like millions of solar-rooftops, off-shore wind-farms, transcontinental high-speed rail, but also including debates of the sorts of technical proposals that preoccupy the attention of “geo-engineering” enthusiasts, but at a relevant level of specificity and in the context of all the more conventional sorts of proposals that define the actual field of environmentalist effort.

Cleverdon bemoans that “the denialists of Geo-E have yet to show a clear understanding of the basic science of the threat we face, or any interest in discriminating between the many Geo-E options now being advanced.” To this I have to say, first, I am certainly not a denialist about catastrophic anthropogenic climate change because it clearly exists, second, I suppose I am a denialist about at least the popular conceptions of “geo-engineering” because just as clearly these futurological mega-engineering projects do not exist (is this claim even under contest?) and, third, that we would seem to agree that it is unhelpful to jumble all these proposals indiscriminately together, a consequence I attribute to the discourse itself, which is presumably central to the debate we are presently having.

I also grant that I do, as a generic matter (“geo-engineering” is a discursive genre within environmentalist theory), disapprove the primacy of engineering assumptions, competitive and profit-taking guiding aspirations, the hyperbolic promotional conceits, the superlative futurological frames, and the elite-incumbent corporate-military industrial-authoritarian politics that tend to be facilitated by so much "geo-engineering" discourse, at any rate as it seems to be playing out in the actual world (good intentions of various proponents notwithstanding).

One of my chief interlocutors in this debate, Jamais Cascio, with whom everybody here should be familiar surely, has stressed to me that “geo-engineering” proposals are meant to be treated as supplements to the educational, regulative, legislative emphases of so much mainstream and radical environmentalist theory and practice hitherto. While I take great comfort in that re-assurance -- especially since Cascio is one of the more public proponents of the discourse -- the fact remains that quite a lot of “geo-engineering” discourse is framed instead as the “Plan B” we must reluctantly accept if or when or since already all these conventional approaches have failed, as it seems to me certainly they have not, even if we can all agree that our public institutions are as yet woefully unequal to the environmental problems that beset us. Like it or not, an enormous amount of “geo-engineering” discourse functions to dismiss, denigrate, or distract attention away from democratically-responsive modes of environmentalist lifeway change, regulation, legislation, and public works.

I don’t think it makes much sense to take umbrage at my noticing these things about so much “geo-engineering” discourse. Rather, I think if you disapprove yourself of anti-democratic, elite-incumbent, corporate-militarist, reductivist, brute-force, reckless, hyperbolic, delusively science-fictional variations or mis-appropriations of your own “geo-engineering” advocacy, you should join with me in exposing and critiquing them and inquire with me as to their likely causes and consequences. It is true that I am not likely to be won over to the club of “geo-engineering” enthusiasts -- who seem to me at their best to introduce nothing particularly new to the conversation and at their worst to derange the conversation despite its urgency -- but even I see the good sense of a prevailing “geo-engineering” discourse that is more sensible, not to mention more reliably devoted to equity, diversity, and democracy, than the present form seems to be. Surely that is something we can build on.

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