Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Ten)



It is important to realise the concept of a natural, untouched “wilderness” is a false one, and one we must eject from our thinking when it comes to issues such as climate change, climate stabilisation, and geoengineering. Indeed, the neat divide between “natural” and “artificial” is a false one – as Donna Haraway (1991) puts it, in modern society “the certainty of what counts as nature — a source of insight and promise of innocence — is undermined, probably fatally” (152-3). To quote Murray Bookchin’s work at length:

“There is no part of the world that has not been profoundly affected by human activity–neither the remote fastnesses of Antarctica nor the canyons of the ocean’s depths. Even wilderness areas require protection from human intervention; much that is designated as wilderness today has already been profoundly affected by human activity. Indeed, wilderness can be said to exist primarily as a result of a human decision to preserve it. Nearly all the nonhuman life-forms that exist today are, like it or not, to some degree in human custody, and whether they are preserved in their wild lifeways depends largely on human attitudes and behavior.” (1995)

The “primeval” world that some desire, Bookchin continues, no longer exists and so “the possibility of returning to it is simply excluded” (2005: 58). Returning to the theme of alienation William Cronon (1995) adds to this, stating that

“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.”

In less abstract terms, Li (2009) points out that “in reality, it is impossible for human economic activities to have zero impact on the environment” (1041).

In this sense geoengineering technologies should not be rejected based on their supposed artificiality or naturalness, but based on their appropriateness and limitations. CDR, for example, should be seen as a prudent alternative to SRM not because it involves “respecting nature” (Preston, 2013: 24) but because it mimics processes of carbon dioxide drawdown that have been proven to work. As the GHGs humanity emits will “last many thousands of years in the atmosphere before losing even half its warming potential” (Kintisch, 2010: 231) we must come to terms with the fact that “if we do not intervene in the world today for purposes of ecological restoration” then the earth system will be in grave danger (Bookchin, 2005: 58).

This does not entail uncritical use of geoengineering technologies however. As detailed some geoengineering approaches may simply replicate or worsen the already deadly effects of future climate change (Cooper, 2010: 184; Klein, 2014: 261; Dwortzan, 2015). But as a degree of climate chaos is expected with locked-in atmospheric warming we are faced with the “daunting challenge” of taking action and acting as “caretaker of both people and ecosystems” (Preston, 2012: 197). As David Orrell (2007) informs us, “we have passed a kind of tipping point in our relationship with the world” and, like it or not, “our actions now influence its workings at every level” (12).

Public Science

Science is increasingly seen not as a public good but as something that belongs in the private domain. Science, Mirowski et al (2013) fear, is being made “to conform to the market imperative, as can be seen from attacks on high school science teachers and the re-engineering of the university for the knowledge economy”. Even in the lofty world of peer-reviewed journals it was found that “the greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true” (Ioannidis, 2005: 699). As institutions are privatised or reduced to “joint-ventures” the common person’s control of science and the public accountability of scientific research will diminish (Brown, 2000; Vaughan, 2014). This comes naturally as under capitalism there is

“a disincentive to communicate information. The market encourages secrecy, which is inimical to openness in science. It presupposes a view of property in which the owner has rights to exclude others. In the sphere of science, such rights of exclusion place limits on the communication of information and theories which are incompatible with the growth of knowledge … science tends to grow when communication is open… [In addition a] necessary condition for the acceptability of a theory or experimental result is that it pass the public, critical scrutiny of competent scientific judges. A private theory or result is one that is shielded from the criteria of scientific acceptability.” (O’Neill, 1998: 153)

Even further, Levins and Lewontin (1985) comment on evidence that “modern science is a product of capitalism” (197) and that “the commoditization of science, then, is not a unique transformation but a natural part of capitalist development” (199). Such appropriation of scientific findings in the context of geoengineering is dangerous, limiting public accountability and fuelling technocratic practices. More forcefully Albert Camus (1956) accuses science of betraying “its origins…in allowing itself to be put to the service of State terrorism and the desire for power” (295). As Francisco Ferrer argued, “science, which is produced by observers and workers of all countries and ages, ought not be restricted to class” (Harper, 1987: 100).

What we need then is “socially responsible science” to play a larger role in any and all geoengineering research. As geoengineering research is carried out “in the name of society” and as a result needs to express society’s “needs, interests, and priorities” scientists need to accept their responsibilities and duties to the common good and not to private or state interests (Bird, 2014: 170). Scientists are part of society, not separate or above it.

In this regard the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) is a welcome template. Established in 1969 the BSSRS “aimed to open up the politics of science to both scientific and public scrutiny”, noting the importance of environmental issues and women’s rights and having a “strong commitment to the class component of environmental problems” (Bell, 2013). Science was a force for good but “as it was currently constructed was part of the problem” and needed to be changed. The BSSRS passed what was to be known as the “Durham Resolution”, whereby they pledged, among other things, “not to conceal from the public any information about the general nature of my research and about the dangerous uses to which it might be put” and “to explain to the public the general nature and possible uses of research conducted by private or State bodies over which there is little or no public control” (Solidarity, 1971). Such attitudes, if adopted by contemporary scientists in the fields of geoengineering research, would ensure research into modifying the planet’s climate was acceptably controlled, understandable, and communicated adequately to wider society. As Levins and Lewontin (1985) remind us, “the irrationalities of a scientifically sophisticated world come not from failures of intelligence but from the persistence of capitalism” (208).

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

Part Eleven coming soon


  • Bell, A. (2013). Beneath the white coat: the radical science movement. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  • Bird, S. J. (2014). Socially Responsible Science Is More than “Good Science”. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 15 (2), 169–172.
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  • Kintisch, E. (2010). Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope – Or Worst Nightmare – for Averting Climate Catastrophe. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey.
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  • O’Neill, J. (1998). The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics. Routledge, London.
  • Orrell, D. (2007). The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction. Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York.
  • 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.
  • 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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One thought on “Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Ten)

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

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