geoengineering is just another suitcase word

… and that’s as good a reason to distrust it on principle as any other.

Via Jay, here’s a rant from Jeff Maurer (a Daily Show writer, I think?) about reductive attitudes to geoengineering which, through its own deployment of reductive attitudes, illustrates (presumably unintentionally) exactly why the reductive attitudes it attacks are justifiable.

It will make sense if I walk you through it, I think. Let’s start here:

I find it slightly odd that geoengineering doesn’t get more traction with people who are worried about climate change. The case for geoengineering stems from the seriousness of the problem; the argument is less “altering the atmosphere sounds fun” and more “well if we get into a feedback loop then what’s your plan if you’re so goddamned smart?” I attribute geoengineering’s understated place in the dialogue partly to the fact that some percentage of the environmental movement is a cult that sees climate change as an opportunity to scold humanity for its wickedness. But I ignore those people; they’re all presently glued to various artworks around the world anyway, so they’re functionally removed from the dialogue.

Now, OK, this guy’s a comedy writer, so I’mma cut him a little slack on this stuff. Nonetheless, it’s something of a look to be leading into your argument about how a some people are just wholesale writing off a whole complicated tangle of ideas with, ah… a caricature of a whole complicated tangle of ideas that you’re then just wholesale writing off? This has pretty strong Boomer energy in terms of form as well as content, really.

The problem here is false binaries — two of them, in fact. The first is that the effects of climate change will either be minimal or disastrous, and the second is that we’ll either engage in planetary-scale geoengineering projects or none at all.

Again, this is less sophisticated a counterargument than it seems. The first of these is not a binary when treated at the planetary scale, but when considered from a situated perspective, things get a bit more complex: the effects of the climate change that’s already in the pipe—that would happen even if we shut off all the emissions today—will be undeniably disastrous for some people in some places. (No prizes for guessing which people and which places.)

The second of these is a false binary, and in exploring it a little further Maurer almost gets there:

With that being true, geoengineering efforts should also not be thought of in binary terms. There is no big lever on the wall with positions labeled “No geoengineering whatsoever” and “Yes, geoengineering, all of it”. The word “geoengineering” refers to several ideas, plus many more ideas that scientists ain’t thunk up yet, and those ideas range from “possibly genius” to “obviously crackpot”. These ideas are categorically similar, but that says nothing about their quality.

Maurer has just discovered suitcase words, basically, and—as indicated above—is quite frustrated by people who distrust a suitcase which they know has one or more definitely bad things in it.

Now, in an ideal world, where we could simply stop the civilisational ferris wheel for an afternoon, gather round and unpack the suitcase, get all those individual things out of there, make a patient and slow assessment of which we think are “possibly genius” and which we think are “obviously crackpot”, and—crucially—somehow do so without the discursive muddying of the incredibly powerful and well-funded fossil fuel lobbying machine… in that ideal world, then yes, it would be short-sighted to treat the geoengineering suitcase as if it contained some sort of poorly-thought-out yet immensely-profitable-in-the-deployment-phase doomsday device.

But we do not live in that ideal world. The ferris wheel keeps turning. The fossil lobbyists keep whispering. And the solutionist paradigm that prevails in most systems of research funding allocation is waving cheques at well-meaning people who are brilliant at engineering, but who aren’t very good at critical thinking.

(And the label “possibly genius” apparently still seems worth using unironically in this, a non-ideal world in whose manifold non-ideal characteristics we might include the existence of Elon Musk fandom.)

But the real kicker is that it turns out that people are a bit lazy when it comes to unpacking discursive suitcases, even when they’re aware of them:

If you want to dig into the details — and I don’t — geoengineering can refer to altering how the Earth processes sunlight or to efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere. For that reason, many people don’t like the term; you sometimes hear people refer to “solar radiation management” and “carbon dioxide removal” as two separate things. I think this delineation makes sense, but “geoengineering” is the word people use, so that’s the word I’m going to use, too. Though, it is true: When I say “geoengineering” in this article, I’m talking about solar radiation management and not carbon dioxide removal.

If you’re going to identify a debate in which detail is clearly everything, and then castigate a whole tranche of positions in that debate for not wanting to engage with the nuance thereof, ending with a declaration that you “don’t want to dig into the details” makes you look, at the very least, like exactly the sort of lazy thinker you seem to believe you’re putting to rights.

If you don’t want to dig into the details, Jeff, maybe STFU? Stick to gags about Trump’s toupee or something.

For my money, there are things in the geoengineering suitcase that are possibly worth considering, and there are also things in there that I strongly suspect will make things worse in new, exciting and largely unforeseen ways. It would be good if we unpacked that suitcase somewhat—if we dug into the details, so to speak—and looked at them individually.

In the meantime, I will continue to be extremely distrustful of anyone advocating geoengineering tout court, precisely because I have no way of knowing which sort they mean, and because experience dictates that the course of wisdom lies in assuming they mean the very fucking worst form. If they don’t mean that, then my distrust will hopefully encourage them to be more specific about what they do mean.

Taking the knuckledusters off, I think Maurer’s glossing of (some sorts of) geoengineering as “altering how the Earth processes sunlight” is quite an interesting one, not least because that categorisation effectively includes solar energy generation.

We’re doing pretty well on that front, too; assuming it’s not just the European Energy Agency patting itself on the back without good reason, it looks like the EU is gonna hit its renewable generation targets for 2030 thanks to the plummeting cost of solar watts-per-hour. (This certainly tracks with the increased number of photovoltaic plots, little and large, which I’ve seen cropping up on my railway travels over the last five years or so.)

Solar panels are not an unproblematic thing! They have a short viability cycle, we don’t know yet how to recycle them (or indeed whether recycling them is even plausible), they rely on a whole new extractivist supply chain, and they’re making a bunch of people a lot of money very quickly. But these are known unknowns, which is why solar generation is a strategy I am willing to support, even as I critique it.

By contrast, the unknown unknowns of ocean-bloom seeding, atmospheric interventions, space mirrors, and other ideas whose pulp-novel plot-engine vibe should be warning enough of their dangerous simplicities, deserve far more substantive critique than they currently get, not less.

If that means that the “possibly genius” geoengineerings get tarred with the same brush, then I suggest you either take them out of that damned suitcase and discuss them specifically, or you suck it up.




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