Geoengineering for the people

July 30th, 2018  |  Published in Politics

A new crew of organizers have re-launched the wonderful Science for the People, reviving a project that originated in the 1960s anti-war movement, and that was once represented by people like Stephen Jay Gould. It's a welcome and much needed development, and everyone should check them out and support them.

The first issue of the group's revived publication concerns geoengineering, an issue on which I've thrown in my own two cents. The prospect of directly attempting to manipulate the earth's climate, in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, has begun to seem more and more like a reality, and perhaps a necessity. So an intervention from scientists with solid leftist politics is timely and urgent.

The tone of the issue--and of the launch event I attended recently in New York--could perhaps be described as "against" geoengineering in some broad sense. That's not to say that climate manipulation schemes are rejected outright: Holly Jean Buck's contribution posits a "best-case scenario" for extracting and storing atmospheric carbon, one of the two main geoengineering strategies that are commonly discussed.

But the tone is set by Erik Wallenberg & Ansar Fayyazuddin, who use my own arguments among others as foils for their case against what they see as "a narrow focus on technical aspects" of climate change, as against the need to radically transform the capitalist political economy that underpins ecological destruction.

What strikes me about much of the geoengineering debate on the left, however, is precisely that it so often resolves to a contrast in tones. Which is not to say that the debate is superficial or irrelevant; in this case, differences in tone and emphasis have important political implications.

In Science for the People's anthology, writers like Wallenberg and Fayyazuddin, along with others like the sociologist John Bellamy Foster, portray geoengineering schemes as a dangerous ruse meant to distract us from the need for a zero carbon future, and to give fossil-fuel capitalism an alibi for going on with business as usual. It is "a way of defending an ecomodernist economic and technological strategy," as Foster puts it, with explicit reference to the recent issue of Jacobin that contains my own thoughts on the topic.

What these critiques target, however, is a proposition that all genuinely leftist "proponents" of geoengineering, myself included, reject. Namely, the idea that any climate manipulation scheme--whether the more sedate forms of carbon capture, or the more ambitious project of blocking some portion of sunlight from reaching the earth--can be considered substitutes for either ending the use of fossil fuels or overturning the capitalist mode of production. To be sure, this may be the general outlook of Bill Gates and others among the usual suspects of ruling class villains who crop up in attacks on geoengineering. But as applied to intra-left disputes, it aims at a straw target.

The anti-geoengineering line is thus left to fall back on the argument that even toying with climate manipulation strategies is a dangerous distraction, and plays into the hands of those forces that really do want to point to speculative techno-fixes as an excuse for maintaining fossil capitalism's destructive course. But the weakness of this rhetorical strategy derives from something that any serious analyst, in any aspect of this debate, has to acknowledge: we are far past the point of no return.

That is to say: suppose that we could completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels and overturn global capitalism immediately. If you doubt that this is what real eco-socialists are suggesting, look no further than John Bellamy Foster, who starts by demanding "an emergency moratorium on economic growth in the rich countries coupled with downward redistribution of income and wealth" and goes on from there. It's not that I oppose this program per se, but I don't think Foster or anyone else actually sees it as an imminent possibility, as opposed to the work of fits and starts, partial victories over years and decades.

But even if it were to happen, we would still be faced with the legacy of the past centuries of carbon emissions: an anthropocene environment with carbon levels far above those attested at any other time in recorded human history, and with broadly predictable effects on weather and sea levels. This, incidentally, is why I reject the well-intentioned attempts of left ecologists to rebrand our era as the "Capitalocene". Capitalism may have been at fault for creating our current geological age, but it is its successor system that will be tasked with adapting to this new era.

So if we are permanently living in the anthropocene period, and if drastically elevated atmospheric carbon levels are already "baked in", to use an ominous metaphor, what does that mean for the geoengineering debate? The anti-geoengineering scolds are not wrong to warn that the prospect of magical techno-fixes may be used to ward off the structural transformations of our political economy that are truly necessary. Where they are wrong, I believe, is in imagining that they can produce a compelling and convincing case for their position by simply repeating the litany of capital's crimes against nature, and invoking the need for an ecologically rational post-capitalism.

Once one has acknowledged the reality of already existing climate change, there are really only two ways to go. One is to simply repeat the mantra "this is all a distraction from the main struggle against capitalism!" Which, again, isn't false--it just isn't going to be convincing to anyone who has seriously studied the issue. The other option is to end up like the socialist science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who, in a recent interview, advocates an openness toward intentional climate manipulation and calls on us "to choose to put science, technology, engineering and medicine to good human and biosphere work, rather than let it be bought to serve profit for the few most wealthy."

In that same interview, Robinson expresses his unease with "geoengineering" as a term, preferring "geo-finessing" or "geo-tweaking" because "engineering implies we know what we’re doing more than we really do." But reading that pushed me to recognize something else, a different problem with the rhetorical approach of anti-geoengineering arguments on the eco-socialist left.

It's certainly true that any attempt to directly mitigate climate change will be sloppy and unpredictable and bursting with unintended consequences. But the force of the anti-promethean "don't mess with mother nature" tone of many anti-geoengineering screeds depends on the implicit claim that we aren't already deeply implicated in the human-made (and specifically capitalist-made) regulation of the human interchange with the rest of the ecosystem. This is why so much of my own contribution to this conversation was given over to a description of modern agriculture, artificial fertilizers, and the Earth's nitrogen cycle. The point I wanted to make is that the case for geoengineering is not "let's, for the first time ever, undertake the hubristic enterprise of controlling nature." Rather, it is "let's take account of the massive project of geoengineering we are already engaged in, and try to push it in an egalitarian and ecologically sensible direction."

Rather than retitling geoengineering, as Robinson proposes, I'd rather find a different way to pose the underlying question of what the geoengineering debate is about. The way it is commonly put is: should we undertake unpredictable and dangerous experiments to alter the fundamental conditions of life on Earth? A better framework, I would suggest, is: can we take hold of the unpredictable and dangerous experiment that capitalism began conducting hundreds of years ago, and turn it in an eco-socialist direction? If we can't, I fear that all our warnings of fossil capitalism's destructive trajectory will amount to so many ineffectual jeremiads, of little comfort to the sweltering masses who come after us.