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

Monday, March 12, 2012

“Geo-Engineering” As Right-Wing War and Revolution

In an interview over at Grist the indispensable Naomi Klein talks about how the Republican right has only comparatively recently arrived at its present unanimity rejecting the scientific consensus about the reality and supreme danger of anthropogenic climate change, and how the change in their beliefs about the facts in question seems to have been preceded by their becoming convinced that the Democratic left is using environmentalism as a stealthy Marxist plot to take over America. One regularly sees frustrated liberals throwing up their hands and declaring that of course people can have their own arguments and values and desired outcomes, but that they cannot have their own facts. But, of course, one of the interesting things about the state of affairs Klein is pointing to is that Republicans are coming to new conclusions about factual questions not because they have been persuaded that the evidence is false or supports different factual conclusions but because they have been persuaded that what initially appeared to be a factual question is not one after all, but rather a Culture War issue for which the facts function less as evidences than as cultural signals indicating “us” versus “them.” What looks like Republicans inventing their own facts is really a matter of Republicans having a cultural dispute where Democrats are trying to have a policy dispute based on accurate assessments of fact.

In an earlier piece for the Nation Capitalism Versus the Climate Klein provided ample material to drive the fears of the cultural warriors of the right. Although the Republicans are rather absurd when they charge environmentalists of being crypto-marxists (John Bellamy Foster’s excellent Marx and Ecology notwithstanding, actually existing socialism has contributed more than its share to extractive-industrial-petrochemical catastrophe, “electrification plus soviets,” anyone?), indeed Republicans are rather absurd and rather paranoid to pretend environmentalists of being crypto-ANYTHING, given the cheerful eagerness with which eco-socialists, eco-feminists, and environmental justice critics talk up their perspectives and publish their online manifestos – the truth remains that market norms and forms pretending that growth without end is possible in a finite world, that brute productivity can bulldoze away all stakeholder differences over the long haul, that seeks to make the commodity form ubiquitous even over public and common goods to which it does not apply and which it destroys, that privileges short-term profitability over long-term deliberation, that encourages consumption, pollution, and waste in the service of apparent GDP health are simply unsustainable. Hence, serious environmentalism inevitably will demand changes that do look absolutely radical if not outright revolutionary from the vantage of the current parochial winners in our corporate-militarist industrial-extractive-petrochemical consumer-financial capitalist order.

What I would want to add to Klein’s account is that there actually is a right-wing revolutionary counterpart to the left-wing revolutionary environmentalism Klein is right to champion. And readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I will connect it to futurology. When I speak of a right-wing revolutionary environmental discourse I do not refer to a generation of complacent advocacy of patently inadequate “carbon markets” or the endless articles and blogs devoted to boutique activism and lifestyle “green” consumption -- obviously the first is yet another lame over-application of the market fundamentalist assumptions that catastrophically deregulated enterprise and privatized public goods in the thirty year neoliberal civilization dismantlement project against which the tide is now turning, one hopes not too late, while the second is yet another lame over-estimation of the agency of isolated individuals in a world of structural and collective historical forces, the possessive individualist ethos on which much of that neoliberal ideology depends. The role of futurological think-tanks and marketing gurus in the promulgation of carbon market techno-fixes and the congeniality to the futurological ethos of the green gizmo-fetishization and consumption-fandoms of privileged lifestyle “greens” surely goes without saying. But radical though these neoliberal assumptions, ends, and outcomes are, I do not think them revolutionary (although one might usefully say that they are counter-revolutionary).

No, the right-wing revolutionary form of environmentalist discourse indebted to futurology seems to me quite clearly to be so-called “geo-engineering” advocacy. “Geo-engineering” discourse is to neoliberal carbon market proposals and consumer lifestyle pseudo-greens as what I call superlative futurology is to mainstream futurology. “Geo-engineering” is the proposal that corporate-military formations can declare and wage war on climate change on an industrial scale, it is the proposal that the very agents responsible for environmental catastrophe are the only ones suited to resolve it by attacking it in the very mode of mega-scale brute-force willfully-ignorant extractive-industrial agency through which environmental catastrophe has been wrought. Note that the inevitably enabling premise of “geo-engineering” discourse is always that democratically-accountable public investment and regulation has failed to address the crisis -- usually followed by the stealthy re-introduction of this very failed governmental site when the time comes to fund and police away resistance to these certainly parochially profitable even if almost certainly destined to fail mad science mega-engineering wet-dreams of orbital mirror archipelagos, megaton sea dumps of iron filings, pseudo-volcanic aerosol spraying air fleets, and vast undersea cathedrals of vertical piping to cool ocean surfaces.

Back in 2007, I proposed that the Global War on Terror functioned as a direct displacement of the revolutionary energies of environmental politics:
The Global War on Terror mimes the contours and rhetorical figures of planetary peer-to-peer Green consciousness: GWOT offers itself up as a response to a presumably "global existential threat," imagery that derives its intuitive plausibility in no small part from the disseminated consciousness of the threat of extractive industrial toxicity and catastrophic climate change. What is extraordinary in this is not just that the GWOTs would substitute for the urgent threats that invigorate Greens what seems to me to be a less urgent threat in fact (which is obviously not to deny the reality of some of the threats GWOT clumsily addresses itself to), but that GWOT relies in substance, as it were parasitically, on the Green awareness of the very threat it would then displace from our attention. And all the while, GWOT False Consciousness appropriates and diverts the energies of Green consciousness into precisely contrary political movements.
It seems to me that “geo-engineering” discourse came into currency precisely as the exposure of the falsity of GWOT’s enabling premises became as widespread as fatigue with the ruinous costs of GWOT had also become. What is key to grasp is the centrality to each of the figures of war. Reading two of my early critiques of “geo-engineering,” “Geo-Engineering” As Futurological Greenwashing and “Geo-Engineering” Is A Declaration of War That Doesn’t Care About Democracy Alex Steffen (late of Worldchanging) tweeted his summary: “Geoengineering, he essentially argues, is Fascism’s answer to climate crisis: planetary action as war.”

Seeing it so baldly put I found myself making a connection I had not grasped myself hitherto, thinking about the key difference between the way, on the one hand, Adorno’s critique of the Culture Industry and Debord’s critique of the Spectacle both make recourse to what Debord literally describes as the “permanent Opium War” of the diversion of revolutionary dissatisfaction into lifestyle consumption (via “manufactured needs” in Adorno, “pseudo-needs” in Debord), as opposed to the way, on the other hand, in the stunning epilogue of Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility (partly as an answer to which Adorno mobilized the Culture Industry critique in the first place) the conflict with fascism (right-wing revolutionism) is very much a matter of literal and not cultural war-making:
War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system... If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production -- in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.

That last glancing reference to the abolition of aura in a “new way” … “through gas warfare” is especially intriguing in light of Peter Sloterdijk’s recent suggestion that environmental consciousness emerged precisely in the trenches, when soldiers grasped that the very atmosphere in which they had evolved to be fit and flourish could be re-engineered to kill them in clouds of mustard gas. Sloterdijk’s claim can be found in a slim volume Terror from the Air, excerpted from his vast work Sferen, and it is coupled to a rather Monty Pythonesque reading of Dali nearly asphyxiating in a malfunctioning diving suit while a vast crowd avidly watched wondering if his panicked convulsions were art. For me, this iconography recalls the failed artificial earth environment Biosphere 2, and the image of its futurologists crawling half dead from starvation and pollution from the toxic sewer it quickly became, crawling back into the embrace of the earth itself, Biosphere 1, as it were, the very planet the “confines” of which they so disdained that they were driven to build their presumably preliminary self-sufficient “escape craft” in the first place.

In "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man," Hannah Arendt wrote:
The situation, as it presents itself today, oddly resembles an elaborate verification of a remark by Franz Kafka, written at the very beginning of this development: Man, he said, “found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself; it seems that he was permitted to find it only under this condition.” For the conquest of space, the search for a point outside the earth from which it would be possible to move, to unhinge, as it were, the planet itself, is no accidental result of the modern age’s science. This was from its very beginnings not a “natural” but a universal science, it was not a physics but an astrophysics which looked upon the earth from a point in the universe. In terms of this development, the attempt to conquer space means that man hopes he will be able to journey to the Archimedean point which he anticipated by sheer force of abstraction and imagination. However, in doing so, he will necessarily lose his advantage. All he can find is the Archimedean point with respect to the earth, but once arrived there and having acquired this absolute power over his earthly habitat... man can only get lost in the immensity of the universe, for the only true Archimedean point would be the absolute void behind the universe... We have come to our present capacity to “conquer space” through our new ability to handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth. For this is what we actually do when we release energy processes that ordinarily go on only in the sun, or attempt to initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, or build machines for the production and control of energies unknown in the household of earthly nature. Without as yet actually occupying the point where Archimedes had wished to stand, we have found a way to act on the earth as though we disposed of terrestrial nature from outside, from the point of Einstein’s “observer freely poised in space.” If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, that is, if we apply the Archimedean point to ourselves, then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than “overt behavior,” which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats. Seen from a sufficient distance... [a]ll our pride in what we can do will disappear into some kind of mutation of the human race; the whole of technology, seen from this point, in fact no longer appears “as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process."
Again, we are confronted with the paradoxical technodeveopmental aspiration toward omnipotence figured in an arrival at threatened impotence, the consummately technologized actor the supremely fragile man in a space suit (another kind of diving suit, another kind of Biosphere 2) tethered to the gravity and warmth and air available everywhere on the earth he was born in and evolved to be fit for by nothing now but a thin cord and film of foil. Already I have accused that "geo-engineering" offers up a profoundly earth-alienated "vantage on environmentalism premised on pretending that the earth on which we evolved, in which we are fit to flourish, is imagined instead as an alien world to be rebuilt by machines inspired by a science fiction novel[.] Writes [geo-engineering advocate Jamais] Cascio: 'A science-fiction parallel that might illuminate is to think of it as terraforming the Earth.' I must say that this does not seem particularly illuminating to me at all of the environmental problems we earthlings face on this earth... If anything I think this thought-experiment illuminates the profoundly alienated vantage assumed in engineering and profit-taking and futurological rationalities that would reduce the good earth to a lifeless unearthly mineral-resource rock-scape."

Given all of this, it comes as no real surprise, then, to read this proposal by Matthew Liao, an Associate Professor at New York University affiliated with the Center for Bioethics:
Anthropogenic climate change is arguably one of the biggest problems that confront us today. There is ample evidence that climate change is likely to affect adversely many aspects of life for all people around the world, and that existing solutions such as geoengineering might be too risky and ordinary behavioural and market solutions might not be sufficient to mitigate climate change. In this paper, we consider a new kind of solution to climate change, what we call human engineering, which involves biomedical modifications of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change. We argue that human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering and that it could help behavioural and market solutions succeed in mitigating climate change. We also consider some possible ethical concerns regarding human engineering such as its safety, the implications of human engineering for our children and for the society, and we argue that these concerns can be addressed. Our upshot is that human engineering deserves further consideration in the debate about climate change.
Quite apart from the fact that catastrophic climate change is real while "geo-engineering" and "genetic-enhancement" is not -- and so one might be forgiven the suspicion that perhaps a person turning to unreal solutions to real problems is less serious than they claim to be when they genuflect to real problems as pretexts to indulge in futurological day-dreaming about "gengineering" designer babies and enhanced super-humans -- what we find here is the amplification of the earth-alienation of the "geo-engineers" (an amplification even if Liao tut-tuts that it "might be too risky" -- too risky as compared, you will note, to re-writing human bodies in the image of space aliens flourishing on a methane-choked garbage planet rocked by greenhouse storms!) into the already more familiar territory of post-human body-alienation, with its full yield of rants against "meat-bodies" and raves about uploading into imperishable data-heaven. From a futurological declaration of war against climate change (consisting of an endless corporate-militarist war of climate-changing) we arrive at the familiar futurological declaration of war against the vulnerable, mortal human body itself.

I do not think we need choose Benjamin’s focus on literal war over Adorno’s and Debord’s focus on cultural war in grasping the ways in which ideology functions practically to seduce precarious workers into active collaboration in the terms of their own exploitation, but I do think it is important to recognize that the cases they are making are indeed different even if they are finally complementary. And to circle back to the claims with which I began, namely that right-wing anti-environmentalism, too, might have two faces, one of literal and the other of cultural war making, and that the literally war-like face of that right-wing anti-environmentalism is futurological, I propose that it is no accident either that Benjamin’s revolutionary figures here are repeatedly ecological, nor that he declares as the essential theoreticians of fascist war-making none other than the Italian Futurists.


jollyspaniard said...

I was sucked in by the TED talk on Geoengineering which sounded so impassioned and reasonable. He did neglect to mention that his research was being funded by companies involved in tarsands extraction.

I think Klein misses a key point when discussing the reasoning behind denial. The bulk of it stems from the same worldview that rejects evolution. Remember these people think evolution is a conspiracy to undermine religion.

I don't know if you heard about the Climate Change denier debating chatbot on twitter. It rebuts boilerplate denier arguments with links debunking them. According to it's author half the deniers throw up religious objections once all else fails. The chatbot can't overcome those objections.

When I worked in sales we we'd call the denier talking points "false objections", essentially conversational chaff people throw up when you don't want someone to know your real motivations "not tonight honey I've got a headache" type stuff.

You'll rarely hear a denier state that he rejects AGW because he thinks the world is 6,000 years old, god controls the weather and that the end of civiliation will be triggered by an evil other that instigates a war. The AGW hypothesis isn't compatible with that worldview. Only Infhoe and Santorum will say things that stupid in public and even then only rarely.

Christians have a reflex to guard their believes from criticism which is why they use false objections. A lot of people who don't share their worldview take these objections literally and miss the point.

jimf said...

> I think Klein misses a key point when discussing the reasoning
> behind denial. The bulk of it stems from the same worldview
> that rejects evolution.

Some of it is, maybe. Probably not the most important part.

Putting aside the religious component of the political right wing,
the bulk of the resistance (and even some [most?] transhumanists
fall into this category) comes from anti-government-regulation,
pro-business (and techno-optimistic) types who would characterize
the global warming "panic" as simply the latest manifestation of
the political proclivities and/or biases that provided the audience
for Rachel Carson's _Silent Spring_, "Earth Day" 1970, Paul Erlich's
_The Population Bomb_, E. F. Schumacher's _Small Is Beautiful_,
the Green Party, the Club of Rome's _Limits To Growth_,
_Soylent Green_, John Brunner's _The Sheep Look Up_,
_Star Trek IV_ "Save The Whales!", Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi",
etc., etc., etc.

In other words, the whole environmental **movement** thought of (with
some justification) as a left-wing, anti-corporation, anti-technology,
anti-progress, anti-rational political agenda (and propaganda machine).

There is, as I say, some justification for this. For one thing, the dire
predictions of the 60s (Erlich's being the most notorious)
didn't happen. Not being an expert myself, and realizing that the
scientific data requires a good deal of statistical analysis
and **interpretation**, I (if I were responsible for formulating
policy based on these scientific opinions) would certainly at least
want to know if any of the global warming researchers had a discernible
extra-scientific agenda or an obvious political bias (just as I would want
to know if medical research was being paid for by a drug company or
a tobacco company).

It is certainly true that there is enormous room for self-deception
on either side of the issue.

In many ways, getting a clear, believable, and **believed** signal
from the science here is parallel to the situation with smoking and the
tobacco companies. Except it involves **all** business (not just
the tobacco business) and **all** consumers -- in the "developing"
as well as the rich countries (not just smokers), and the consequences
for future generations are much more severe. Also, while an
individual could (with extreme self discipline) quit smoking even
after decades and still reverse some of the damage fairly quickly,
the "hysteresis" involved in climate change will mean that by the
time the cause becomes incontrovertibly obvious to everybody,
it will be too late to avoid the consequences.

**If** it's true. YMMV.

Dale Carrico said...

I am always flummoxed by the "didn't happen" riposte, inasmuch as it, kinda sorta, did/has. To an enormously important extent, the discovery of the North Atlantic undersea oilfield underwrote the Reagan/Thatcher repudiation of rising environmental consciousness, and fueled the whole generational deregulatory privatizing looting spree of neoliberalism. But it remains as true as ever that Carter's so called "malaise" speech and gesture of putting solar panels on the White House roof set the scene for what could have been an incomparably more sensible transition from an extractive-petrochemical society into a renewable one arriving right about now, when it needs to be happening, rather than just now beginning and beginning only if we can strong-arm a whole lot of denialist suicidal madness out of the way. When I teach my various environmental theory and politics courses (I teach it either at Berkeley or SFAI at least once a year) I always point out that those skeptics who derive reassurance from the fact that the world has not ended are always actually just expressing contempt for the people in overexploited regions in the world whose world has indeed ended in the drought, disruption, famine, and pandemics of catastrophic climate change. To say, with Edwina Monsoon, cheer up world it might not happen, is always essentially to say, it will always only happen to somebody else so laissez les bon temps rouler, my fellow rich white assholes!

Dale Carrico said...

Just to be clear, Jim, I wrote that comment assuming you would sympathize with its thrust, not feel skewered by it!

ian @ paul said...

Thought you might be interested in this "solution" as well:

jimf said...

> Just to be clear, Jim, I wrote that comment assuming
> you would sympathize with its thrust, not feel skewered by it!

No, no, I didn't feel skewered. ;->

As far as "didn't happen" -- I was thinking mostly of Erlich's
_Population Bomb_. (I remember calling up a friend one Saturday
afternoon in '69 or whenever, and, in dire tones, reading her excerpts from
the paperback over the phone.)

**Mass** famines (maybe even in the US and other first world
countries, I can't remember) were supposed to have become common
by the 80s.
( )

By now it was supposed to be all over. I don't remember
if he said the human race was likely to be **completely** extinct,
but certainly we weren't, by now, supposed to be enjoying the luxury
of worrying about things like people talking on their
portable phones and while driving.
(Hm. There are some Earth Day Erlich quotes at ).

As a friend of mine is wont to say to me, the late sixties alarmists
may yet be right. We may yet have a global nuclear war, too.
(I sometimes have the nasty thought that the cure for global warming
might end up being Carl Sagan's "nuclear winter". :-/ ).

jimf said...

So much more heat than light:

Teresa said...

The Agriculture Defense Coalition maintains a web site that includes annual weather modification reports of sites, dates, operators, sponsors, purpose and results at

Weather Modification Reports:

Also, NASA is about to light up the night sky so they can study jet streams:

Terminology for "chemtrails" appears to have evolved into geo or climate engineering and climate remediation. Searches with those keywords may yield more current information. I too am interested in our environment and climate remediation. I hope you have time to browse the ADC web site and find it as interesting as I did.


Teresa Frisch