Geo-Engineering Could Save the Planet â€¦ and in the Process Sacrifice the World
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The geo-engineering debate proves once again that while our technological society is adept at exploring the how, we are less practiced in pursuing why and whether. As geo-engineering proponents acknowledge, schemes like sulfur aerosol address only the symptoms, not the source, of global climate change. That fact betrays our society's bias for the techno-fix, the seemingly easy way out. Seemingly – because geo-engineering is the most complicated strategy we could pursue. It takes a problem, simplifies its cause, and then exaggerates its solution. It's like a Rube Goldberg machine, employing eight or nine steps when one or two would do. Instead of pursuing the elegant solutions -- trading in our cars for buses, turning off the coal and turning on the wind -- we are going to build a contraption to make the clouds shinier. Bill Becker, head of the Presidential Climate Action Project, summed up this thinking in an essay earlier this year: "Geo-engineering is rooted in the idea that although we're too stupid to do the simple things that would slow climate change, we're smart enough to do the improbable things."
Indeed, geo-engineering involves a surfeit of technological imagination and a poverty of political imagination, an imbalance that's ingrained in the notion that if we can do something we should do it. We prefer the overly complicated solutions because they flatter us, confirming our power and intelligence. This makes geo-engineering -- the ambivalence of its promoters notwithstanding -- human hubris compounded. It's like doubling down on self-regard.
Geo-engineering is a bet that we can save civilization by divorcing our species from the rest of the globe. The payoff is the idea that in "fixing" the planet, we can absolve ourselves of having ruined Earth. The risk is that if we turn the atmosphere into what Dale Jamieson, director of environmental studies at NYU, calls a "human artifact," we will lose our connection to much of what is best in life. In taking possession of the sky, we will become ungrounded.
The psychological ramifications of geo-engineering shouldn't be underestimated. It's exactly what Bill McKibben worried about 20 years ago in his seminal book on global warming, The End of Nature , when he warned of "the imposition of our artificial world in place of the broken natural one. … How can there be a mystique of the rain now that every drop … bears the permanent stamp of man? Having lost its separateness, it loses its special power. Instead of being a category like God -- something beyond our control -- it is now a category like the defense budget or the minimum wage, a problem we must work out. This in itself changes its meaning completely, and changes our reaction to it." Tinker with the heavens, and our relationship to the rest of the world suffers. We will sever our bonds to the other natural systems -- rivers, forests, oceans -- on which we depend. We will have made a decision that we can live without those things.
Once we take responsibility for managing the planet's curtains, our position in this place changes. We will be in charge in a way we never have been before, knowing that if for any reason we were to cease overseeing the sunlight, global temperatures would shoot upward again, spelling disaster. The new role will force upon us an existential anxiety. Because as soon as we are in control of the weather, we will always be fearful of letting our grip slip from the string that keeps the planet in a semblance of balance.
Such ownership of Earth would be a new step in human evolution. It would turn us into a bubble species, living inside a protective dome of our own making. If that comes to pass, we will cease to view the world as a comfort. It will have become, instead, a threat.