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With the increasing attention being accorded to climate change in the mainstream media these days, there is also an increased attention being given to technological solutions to assist in combating the problem.
While such solutions are admirable in that they go above and beyond the usual calls for recycling and the purchase of ‘green’ products – which have been proven to be of trivial impact upon the large scale flaws in systems of production and consumption that characterize industrial modernity – not all of them should embraced uncritically. It is only by subjecting every proposal to save the planet to scrutiny that we can determine a truly sustainable future.
One of the ideas that has been receiving increasing currency in environmentalist discussions are large scale planetary ‘technofixes’ collectively referred to as geo-engineering or planetary engineering. These include mirrors in space designed to reflect excess amount of sunlight, artificial trees designed to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and managed release of sulfates into the atmosphere, and many, many other epic plans to manipulate the ecological fabric of our planet.
Here’s the rub: The term geo engineering is a rather questionable one, as it implies that it has the same kind of empirical or mathematical certainty as engineering when it doesn’t. It smoothens over many of the bumps and curves that characterize our problems and demand creative solutions. In effect, planetary salvation becomes as easy as building a tunnel into a hill or a bridge across a river, when in fact our collective understanding of the systemic impacts is far less than the geo engineering promoters would have us believe. One might as well call it ‘planetary experimentation.’
While the potential benefits proposed are of an epic magnitude, this magnitude would also apply to the potential consequences. Take for example a proposal to suck carbon dioxide into the planet’s oceans by seeding it with iron deposits. Many, including the Scientific Steering Committee of the Surface Ocean-Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) have observed that this has the potential to worsen ocean acidification and lead to catastrophic results for marine ecology:
“The oceans are complex, dynamic, unpredictable and already vulnerable … We need [to] build their resilience, not undermine it [not] quick fixes to this global problem that may [cause far more long-term harm] than good.” (Gjerde)
Additionally, the historical track record of large scale intervention in the name of environmental concern has never been very good to begin with, asserts Alex Steffen of Worldchanging:
“From damming rivers to fighting forest fires to eliminating pests … efforts have … in hindsight [been] so overrun with unintended consequences as to become full-blown disasters, often … worse than the original problems …. [And the] cost of errors [increase] with the magnitude of the attempted solution.” (Steffen)
Geo engineering is essentially a ‘silver bullet’ solution, one which reduces the political will to creatively retrofit our present lifestyles in such a manner as to be sustainable and environmentally sound, while still being able to enjoy the luxuries of post-industrial advancements. In essence, the tools for a greener world are already here and their downsides are negligible in the face of overwhelming benefits both environmental and societal.
In any case, discussion over geo engineering merely provides a distraction from mustering the political will necessary to effect true change. It provides climate change skeptics a justification for political indifference to redressing our present way of life: Why opt for better designed cities, fuel efficient vehicles and profound infrastructural rethinking when we can merely ‘erase’ the effects of our problematic systems?
One’s stance on geo engineering is not a question of whether you are a techno utopian or a complete Luddite. However, there is a major distinction to be made between technology that is transparent in agenda, collaborative in nature, and egalitarian in application as well as easy to remedy and technology that is centralized, expensive and difficult to reverse. Between “Star Wars” – a missile defense system saddled with so much corruption that does nothing to provide for homeland security – and nuclear power – a promise of perpetual source of energy whose failures wreaked massive consequences – we ought to regard geo engineering with suspicion: dangerous until proven safe.
Geo engineering is unnecessary. “Fixing” the planet in such a manner is turning a blind eye to the way we live: it shows a lack of innovation and political courage that is necessary to the bright green future.
Stiles, Lori. “Space Sunshade Might Be Feasible In Global Warming Emergency.” NASA Earth Observatory. 3 November 2006. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/MediaAlerts/2006/2006110323537.html
Bentley, Molly. “Guns and sunshades to rescue climate.” BBC News. 2 March 2006. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4762720.stm
Gjerde, Kristina. “Hold back the geo-engineering tide.” BBC News. 11 December 2007. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7133619.stm
Romm, Joseph. “Rule three of offsets: No geo-engineering.” Grist Magazine Online. 27 July 2007. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from: http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/7/27/144848/844