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

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Biosdrear, Too

Somehow I missed the Dumb Dvorsky io9 piece from a couple of summers ago in which he explained why he thinks We Should Reboot the Biosphere Projects. As he summarizes:
The failed Biosphere 2 project ended 18 years ago. That's right, our only real attempt to create an artificial, materially closed ecological system ended in complete failure. As it stands, we still do not know how to create a viable self-sustaining ecosystem -- a frightening prospect given the current state of our environment and considering our future plans in space.
A frightening prospect? I do not deny that creating a splashy stunt biosphere reality TV show before we know enough to construct a viable artificial ecosystem in a laboratory setting might indeed have accidentally yielded information to help us understand ecosystemic dynamisms a little or acquire some practical advice of eventual use to the construction of long-term space habitats or something. But I daresay part of the reason that researches are still learning more and more about ecosystemic dynamisms and engineers are still tinkering with human habitations for extreme situations like arctic research and long submarine missions and extended stays on the space station without seeming particularly interested in rebooting the biosphere projects is because the biosphere projects don't seem like the best way to do this sort of thing, unless perhaps you are a futurologist attracted to X-prize competitions and Mars One reality TV and techbro press releases for apps that Will. Change. Everything.

And so, I suspect that much of what seems "frightening" about the fact that nobody seems eager to waste money on more Biospheres right about now is simply Dumb Dvorsky being dumb, a futurist who has mistaken a rather tacky loosely science-fictional bit of drama and marketing hype for serious science and mistaken its end as the end of serious science in the relevant fields. But I think there is a bit more to Dvorsky's fright, and if I am right I must say I find that fright itself profoundly frightening myself. Because at another level I think that what Dvorsky means when he speaks of the significance of the failure of the biosphere projects given "the current state of our environment and considering our future plans in space" what he is signaling is a more prevailing and profoundly dangerous neoliberal futurological proposal that catastrophic anthropogenic climate change and resource descent are, in the words of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, merely "engineering problems," and also that, as Stephen Hawking and other futuristic public intellectuals have insisted, humans must escape the garbage dump we have made of the earth into space if we are to have any hope of survival -- greenwashing views congenial to all too many hokey Biosphere fandoms, I'm afraid.

I consider both of these futurological chestnuts profoundly wrongheaded and dangerous, of course, and you will find many critiques of both geo-engineering discourse and escape-hatch discourse collected under the heading Futurology Against Ecology at the sidebar. For a taste of those critiques, in which Dumb Dvorsky's cherished Biosphere actually makes a guest appearance, let me offer up some snippets from much larger pieces.

From "Geo-Engineering" Is A Declaration of War That Doesn't Care About Democracy:
Steve Benen recently posted this one-liner to his blog: “It was the warmest June on record. If only 60 senators cared.” The best of the “geo-engineering” enthusiasts... seem to me to be inspired by precisely this sort of frustration. But it is entirely beyond me why anybody would leap from this outrageous political reality to a suite of amorphously connected mega-engineering proposals of questionable scientific merit involving unspecified organizations and funding of questionable legality with troubling ethical implications -- when, for example, they might inquire instead, just how short of 60 Senators are we? How might we educate or pressure or primary them? What might it take in the way of filibuster reform to put those who do care in a position to actually vote to implement regulatory measures equal to our problems?

Are such political considerations really so unimaginable, so impractical that we would turn in frustration to a 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 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, anymore than do those futurologically-minded scientists and engineers who seriously propose mass migration into space as a "solution" to the climate crisis, anymore than did those futurologically-minded scientists and engineers who failed so disastrously to maintain an artificial "Biosphere 2" in which humans could live by means of cutting-edge techno-science, as if on the surface of an alien planet, but actually all the while in the living midst of the very Biosphere 1 (you know, the earth itself) being rendered at that moment through irresponsible artifice and technique a place in which humans might not long live anymore. 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.
And from Quick, Futurologal Escapists, to the Lifeboats!

[A]s a space enthusiast with my own measure of sensawunda... I firmly expect that should we be so lucky to explore and inhabit worlds beyond our own it will be the wonder and the work that drives us, not some hankering after an insurance policy. And to the extent that exploration is contemplated through the futurological discourse of "existential risk mitigation" it functions as a distraction and derangement of our deliberation about shared problems, whatever their depth and term. Nevertheless, it is to those futurologists who start handwaving about space migration when talk turns to serious environmental and social problems here and now that I mean to devote my attention in what remains of this post.

It should go without saying that such "serious" futurologists seem to have failed to notice that our deeply distressed ecosystem is nonetheless in incomparably better shape to support the human organisms who evolved after all to thrive precisely in that ecosystem than other planets actually on offer have to offer.

Also, they seem to have failed to notice that the intelligence and effort required to overcome the manifold technical difficulties to facilitate such a quixotic exodus would be incomparably better applied to the many well-understood technical and political difficulties required to ameliorate the climate problems that presumably provoke the desire for the exodus in the first place at less cost and with a much more reasonable chance of success.

Also, they seem to have failed to notice that the physical and organizational migration of the human race into inhospitable space would itself ensure the total and permanent destruction of the ecosystem more surely than any current practices of extractive-petrochemical industry is managing. This is assuming, of course, that these futurologists really mean by the terms "humanity" and "us" the billions of humans suffering now and sure to suffer more from extractive-industrial climate catastrophe rather than just a handful of the worst richest racist assholes whose irresponsibility and selfishness caused the problem and now mean to rocket off the shit-pile cinder they made in search of someplace else to loot and plunder and desolate just because they can.

Also, they seem to have failed to notice that the sorts of brute-force one-size-fits-all separatist-hierarchical reductive-instrumental rationalities that brought us all to our current distress would be migrating with the lucky few of us in our fiery treasure-stuffed rocket ships into outer-space dedicating us thereby to the same destructive destiny again and again. This is so not just because the same mammalian tendencies to hierarchy and aggression would go with us into the final frontier, futurological self-declared sooper-geniuses being monkeys all the same, but especially so to the extent that it is hard to imagine a more perfect and even flabbergastingly over-amplified application of this sort of self-blinding death-dealing irrational rationality than the very escapist futurological proposal presently under discussion itself should it happen to prevail.

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