Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Nine)


What Is To Be Done? 

“Humanity’s global geochemical dominance and the dangers that loom as a result are etched in the sky. It will be that way for a very long time.” — Eli Kintisch, 2010


For the sake of humanity and the climate we have seen we have to struggle against both climate nationalism, consisting of unilateral actions and economic growth regardless of its consequences, and the threat of a rising technocracy that would dominate and de-politicise the global society through scientific expertise and techno-fetishism. But as Dr Thorpe and Dr Welsh (2008) remind us, “this is an era where the potential for interventions consistent with anarchist principles is perhaps greater than ever before”. As the impacts of climate change become locked-in regardless of what we do in the present, we have to remember that global warming is, as well as a question of science and policy, a question of “democracy”:

“about who benefits, who loses, who should decide, and who does. Surviving and maybe even turning back the tide of this pervasive ongoing disaster will require more ability to improvise together, stronger societies, more confidence in each other.” (Solnit, 2010: 296)

Indeed geoengineering, not as an issue of stabilising climate but of stabilising capitalist modes of production, “is not the political answer we need; therefore it is also not the technical answer we need” (Millar and Mitchell, 2015). We must be aiming to stabilise and restore the Earth’s climate system for the benefit of all, not for profit. Climate change is a “symptom” of the normal functioning of capitalism – “Capitalism is the origin of the biocrisis, the last and final crisis of capitalism”, and if allowed to continue the climate system will be the latest victim to be “sacrificed to the ravenous appetite of capital” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009: 12). It is not unrealistic to imagine that “the future of humanity depends on the global class struggle” (Li, 2009: 1057).

At the COP21 Climate Change conference references to “negative emissions” technology (aka CDR) “have been dropped from a draft climate agreement” (Upton, 2015). Whether this will alter current research into geoengineering remains to be seen.

Regardless, the most appropriate way to prevent the climate crisis is to reduce GHG emissions (Ming et al., 2014). Buck (2012) reports that within the scientific community there is “near consensus” that geoengineering should not be considered a substitute for reducing GHG emissions and is in no way a “silver bullet”, stressing that “geoengineering research must take place in a context of climate change management that includes mitigation and adaptation measures” (258). A reliance on geoengineering whilst maintaining current fossil fuel consumption rates is in fact extremely dangerous as “our ability to stabilize the climate at <2 °C declines as cumulative emissions increase” (Smith et al., 2015: 7-8). If we fail and reach a period of climate crisis, then we face the possibility that

“Maybe a hundred years down the line, nobody will look back at climate change as the most important issue of the early 21st century, because the damage will have been done, and the idea that it might have been prevented will seem absurd. Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers, there’ll be no moral dimension at all. We will have wrecked the planet, but our great-grandchildren won’t care much, because they’ll have been born into a planet already wrecked.” (The Economist, 2011).

“Appropriate” Geoengineering

Technology is not, as some primitivists assume (Sheppard, 2003), an evil unto itself, but simply reflects and embodies relations of power and social structures. There is room for sensible application of most technologies if it is appropriately scaled and judged in terms of environmental and social effects. Like Murray Bookchin’s Social Ecology, “technologies are to be assessed according to their role in enhancing human freedom and integrating human society with natural processes” (Out of the Woods, 2014). To quote the philosopher Albert Camus at length:

“it is useless to want to reverse the advance of technology. The age of the spinning-wheel is over and the dream of a civilization of artisans is vain. The machine is bad only in the way that it is now employed. Its benefits must be accepted even if its ravages are rejected.” (1956: 295)

This technological progress must be guided, however. We cannot afford to neglect the consequences – environmental, political, economic, social – of breakthroughs and applications of untested technology. As the popular astronomer Carl Sagan encouragingly said, it is “well within our power to guide technology, to direct it to the benefit of everyone on Earth” (1997: 163). He also hoped the biocrisis would encourage the view that “the well-being of the human species takes precedence over national and corporate interests” and produce the end result of “a binding up of the nations and the generations, and even the end of our long childhood” (Ibid). Hopefully we will not disappoint him.

As mentioned throughout this article, the more “natural” geoengineering technologies of CDR lend themselves well to an “appropriate” form of managing the Earth’s climate (e.g. Becker et al., 2013). Although geoengineering technologies large in scale and complexity lend themselves to technocratic management and “alienation from the land” (1), CDR techniques, especially local and inclusive forms, would “bring about a decrease in alienation for many of us” (Buck, 2012: 260). Buck continues:

“The impulse to engineer, to make or re-make nature, need not be ‘interventionist’, with all the negative connotations the term carries; it could be the positive intervention of people who are designing their habitats, with an eye for beauty. There are other cultural patterns that factor into our nature-making besides the desires for control or profit.” (Ibid.)

Such “positive intervention” is a welcome response to the idea of “designer climates” controlled for the purposes of the wealthy where “the whole idea of restoring a ‘natural’ climate had been abandoned entirely” (Preston, 2013: 33). Additionally, compared to SRM technologies which often require technocratic control and centuries-long programme maintenance, “simple” CDR such as forest preservation/restoration represent an “immediate opportunity” for “efficient” geoengineering with corresponding “greenhouse gas benefits” (Jackson and Salzman, 2010: 73).

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight

Part Ten coming soon

(1) For short introductions to the Marxist concept of “alienation” see Cox (1998) and Warburton (2015).


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  • Millar, S. W. S., Mitchell, D. (2015). The Tight Dialectic: The Anthropocene and the Capitalist Production of Nature. Antipode [Early View].
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  • Out of the Woods (2014). Murray Bookchin’s libertarian technics. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  • Preston, C. J. (2013). Ethics and geoengineering: reviewing the moral issues raised by solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 4 (1), 23-37.
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  • Smith, P., Davis, S. J., Creutzig, F., Fuss, S., Minx, J., Gabrielle, B., Kato, E., Jackson, R. B., Cowie, A., Kriegler, E., van Vuuren, D. P., Rogelj, J., Ciais, P., Milne, J., Canadell, J. G., McCollum, D., Peters, G., Andrew, R., Krey, V., Gyami, S., Friedlingstein, P., Gasser, T., Grübler, A., Heidug, W. K., Jonas, M., Jones, C. D., Kraxner, F., Littleton, E., Lowe, J., Moreira, J. R., Nakicenovic, N., Obersteiner, M., Patwardhan, A., Rogner, M., Rubin, E., Sharifi, A., Torvanger, A., Yamagata, Y., Edmonds, J., Yongsung, C. (2015). Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions. Nature Climate Change.
  • Solnit, R. (2010). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Penguin Books, New York.
  • The Economist (2011). Durban and everything that matters. Accessed 13 January 2015.
  • Thorpe, C., Welsh, I. (2008). Beyond Primitivism: Toward a 21st Century Anarchist Theory & Praxis for Science. Anarchist Studies 16 (1), 48-75.
  • Upton, J. (2015). Geoengineering a ‘Risky’ Bet, Scientists Warn Negotiators. Accessed 9 December 2015.
  • Warburton, N. (2015). Karl Marx on Alienation. [Online]. Accessed 10 December 2015.

2 thoughts on “Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Nine)

  1. Pingback: Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Ten) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  2. Pingback: Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Eleven) | Fighting The Biocrisis

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