Another key problem with current approaches to geoengineering and the climate crisis is the pervasiveness of “techno-fetishism”, the love of technology and its apparent ability to produce quick-fixes to hitherto intractable problems. As Marxist David Harvey (2003) explains,
“By fetishism I mean the habit humans have of endowing real or imagined objects or entities with self-contained, mysterious, and even magical powers to move and shape the world in distinctive ways.” (3)
Harvey’s technological fetishism corresponds well with Alvin Weinberg’s concept of a “technological fix”, the idea of using engineering solutions to solve social or behavioural problems (Weinberg, 1967). These elements come as no surprise given geoengineering’s roots in the “golden era of American big science” (Kintisch, 2010: 86; Klein, 2014). As Winner (1980) so eloquently stated, “scarcely a new invention comes along that someone does not proclaim it the salvation of a free society” (122). Indeed, as its advocates hope, geoengineering would ensure that
“…numerous environmental as well as human harms would be avoided. Arctic ice would be maintained, polar bears would be saved, bull trout would be preserved within their mountain streams, the rains would not be reduced in Africa, plant species would have no need to shift their ranges northwards and upwards, crops would be less likely to fail and diseases would be less likely to expand their range. Humanity would breathe a huge, collective sigh of relief as a whole host of human and natural values would be salvaged. Environmentalists could rejoice at this last-gasp preservation of those things they care about most.” (Preston, 2012: 195)
Such a technological assemblage, aiming to advance scientific solutions to problems that confront capitalism, is an element of “late capitalist hypermodernity”, alongside other such technologies as genetic engineering, in vitro meat, and smart devices (Malm, 2015). As Pascal Steven (2012) warns, however, “there is no equitable technological solution to climate change”. Such an emphasis on technological fixes serves to distract humanity’s collective attention from the real cause of the climate crisis – “capital not carbon” (Ibid).
Non-neutrality of Technology
Similarly to techno-fetishism is the common idea that technology is a neutral “thing”, independent of politics or society. It is a concept that needs to be addressed and rebuked as it is rife within the geoengineering clique (Kintisch, 2010).
The core issue is that technology is never neutral. To quote the writers Hardt and Negri:
“We know well that machines and technologies are not neutral and independent entities. They are biopolitical tools deployed in specific regimes of production, which facilitate certain practices and prohibit others.” (2000: 405)
In simpler terms, as “humans create technology and use it…it is sensible to say that technology is political in the sense that it involves or embodies the exercise of power” (Martin, 2015). In other words all technological breakthroughs, intentionally or not, reflect and embody certain political and social views and structures. Tom Athanasiou (1991) cites the Human Genome Project as a prime example of a supposedly neutral technology, a “frightening development” not because of its capacity to reduce life to “information” but because it contains a
“promise to further increase the power and hegemony of today’s reductionist medical establishment. And this is true despite the fact that real improvements in therapy and healing, as well as some amazing science, can be expected to flow from it.”
Similarly geoengineering, despite some scientific findings that would help mitigate and reverse elements of the biocrisis, would “increase the power and hegemony” of the capitalist ruling class. Geoengineering under capitalism would simply further the objectives of the global market – that is, “the maximization of economic growth and efficiency…for profit purposes” as well as reinforcing capitalism’s “hierarchical organization” (Fotopoulos, 1997: 155). As the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote:
“…the technologies that allow us to alter the global environment that sustains us should mandate caution and prudence. Yes, it’s the same old humans who have made it so far. Yes, we’re developing new technologies as we always have. But when the weaknesses we’ve always had join forces with a capacity to do harm on an unprecedented planetary scale, something more is required of us – an emerging ethic that also must be established on an unprecedented planetary scale.” (1997: 268)
Unfortunately under capitalism, this “emerging ethic” is unlikely to be obtained, leaving geoengineering in the hands of the powerful.
The Rise of Technocracy
If geoengineering were to be used it would necessitate the creation of an anti-democratic technocracy of scientists and engineers, leaving the control of the world’s climate in the hands of a self-chosen panel of experts in the form of a “command-and-control world-governing structure” (Szerszynski et al., 2013: 2812). This embryonic geoengineering clique, or “geoclique” (Kintisch, 2010), far from being a human embodiment of scientific objectivity, has a vested interest in the implementation of geoengineering. As Klein (2014) details, “many of the most aggressive advocates of geoengineering research are associated with planet-hacking start-ups, or hold patents on various methods” and as a result stand “to make an incredible amount of money if their technique goes forward” (263). Far from neutral, these technocrats embody the non-neutrality of technology detailed above, standing to enhance their own power and wealth in the pursuit of technological fixes for the climate crisis.
It would virtually be impossible to wrest control from this technocracy once established. After all, they would control the “complex array of atmospheric measurements” synonymous with any geoengineering programme (Hamilton, 2014). As a result the “decision makers in government would…be highly dependent on a technocratic elite at what would effectively be a global climate regulatory agency” (Ibid). What we risk is a repeat of the nuclear “techno-science agendas” of the Cold War, where despite “local opposition, general population risks, and scientific uncertainty”, states would employ strategies of mass surveillance (1) and propaganda to override public fears and ensure the implementation of geoengineering (Thorpe and Welsh, 2008). And geoengineering, like nuclear weaponry, is far from being an innocuous technological invention. It’s potential pervasiveness and control of the planet’s climate would establish issues of “world risk, anticipatory governance of futures, [and] atmospheric securitisation” (Yusoff, 2013: 2800), serving to further cement the power of a fledgling technocracy. In such a world, “idealistic” democracy would give way to “practical” technological solutions to society’s problems. Quoting Winner (1980) at length:
“It is characteristic of societies based on large, complex technological systems, however, that moral reasons other than those of practical necessity appear increasingly obsolete, “idealistic,” and irrelevant. Whatever claims one may wish to make on behalf of liberty, justice, or equality can be immediately neutralized when confronted with arguments to the effect: “Fine, but that’s no way to run a railroad” (or steel mill, or airline, or communications system, and so on).” (133)
Would calls to reduce GHG emissions be seen as “idealistic” or “irrelevant? Would we be told “Fine, but that’s no way to run the climate?”
Part Eight coming soon
(1) The surveillance of environmental activists is already well underway. For examples see Ahmed (2013; 2014); Wallace (2014); Netpol (2015); and Levine (2015).
- Ahmed, N. (2013). Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/jun/14/climate-change-energy-shocks-nsa-prism Accessed 7 December 2015.
- Ahmed, N. (2014). Are you opposed to fracking? Then you might just be a terrorist. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jan/21/fracking-activism-protest-terrorist-oil-corporate-spies Accessed 7 December 2015.
- Athanasiou, T. (1991). Greenwashing Agricultural Biotechnology. Processed World 28, 16-21.
- Fotopoulos, T. (1997). Towards an Inclusive Democracy. Cassell, London and New York.
- Hamilton, C. (2014). Geoengineering and the politics of science. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70 (3), 17-26.
- Hardt, M., Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press, London.
- Harvey, D. (2003). The Fetish of Technology: Causes and Consequences. Macalester International 13 (7), 3-30.
- Kintisch, E. (2010). Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope – Or Worst Nightmare – for Averting Climate Catastrophe. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey.
- Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simon & Schuster, New York.
- Levine, G. (2015). FBI spied on Keystone protesters, worked with pipeline builder TransCanada. http://america.aljazeera.com/blogs/scrutineer/2015/5/12/fbi-spied-on-keystone-protesters-worked-with-pipeline-builder-transcanada.html Accessed 7 December 2015.
- Malm, A. (2015). Socialism or barbecue, war communism or geoengineering: Some thoughts on choices in a time of emergency. In: Borgnäs, K., Eskelinen, T., Perkiö, J., Warlenius, R. The Politics of Ecosocialism: Transforming welfare. Routledge, London.
- Martin, B, (2015). Anarchist shaping of technology. Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 63, 11-15.
- Netpol [Network for Police Monitoring] (2015). Why are counter-terrorism police treating fracking opponents as ‘extremists’? https://netpol.org/2015/04/09/prevent-fracking-extremism/ Accessed 7 December 2015.
- Preston, C. J. (2012). Beyond the End of Nature: SRM and Two Tales of Artificity for the Anthropocene. Ethics, Policy & Environment 15 (2), 188-201.
- Sagan, C. (1997). Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Random House, Inc., New York.
- Steven, P. (2012). Are We Anywhere? Carbon, Capital and COP-15. https://libcom.org/library/are-we-anywhere-carbon-capital-cop-15-pascal-steven Accessed 6 December 2015.
- Szerszynski, B., Kearnes, M., Macnaghten, P., Owen, R., Stilgoe, J. (2013). Why Solar Radiation Management Geoengineering and Democracy Won’t Mix. Environment and Planning A 45 (12), 2809-2816.
- Thorpe, C., Welsh, I. (2008). Beyond Primitivism: Toward a 21st Century Anarchist Theory & Praxis for Science. Anarchist Studies 16 (1), 48-75.
- Wallace, W. (2014). Surveillance of activists is about to get much, much worse. https://overland.org.au/2014/07/surveillance-of-activists-is-about-to-get-much-much-worse/ Accessed 7 December 2015.
- Weinberg, A. (1967). Reflections on Big Science. MIT Press, Cambridge.
- Winner, L. (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus 109 (1), 121-136.
- Yusoff, K. (2013). The Geoengine: Geoengineering and the Geopolitics of Planetary Modification. Environment and Planning A 45 (12), 2799-2808.