Around two decades ago, scientists began seriously discussing the prospects and suitability of geoengineering as a response to climate change. The options which have the potential to make a difference over a short timeframe revolve around ‘Solar Radiation Management’ (SRM)―technological interventions in the earth’s climate system designed to enhance the reflection of incoming solar radiation and counteract anthropogenic warming. The debate is still ongoing as proponents suggest that these schemes may buy time and offer a means to avert the worst possible climate outcomes, while detractors emphasize the high costs, lack of demonstrated feasibility at scale, ethical concerns, and risks of unintended consequences. Proposed methods are becoming more outlandish as the climate threat mounts. Aside from stratospheric aerosol injection (the earliest and most widely discussed SRM technique), conceptual designs now include spreading reflective silica across vast tracts of the Arctic, thickening sea ice by pumping water onto the ice surface in winter, building space-based light deflectors, and even constructing giant walls and artificial islands to shore up disintegrating glaciers and ice sheets.
While at first glance you might want to applaud their audacity, let’s be blunt: these proposals are absurd. First, there are the obvious problems. SRM doesn’t slow the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, therefore, fails to address ocean and aquatic habitat acidification. SRM interventions would unavoidably produce a range of geochemical side effects, such as ozone depletion and changes to hydrological cycles. This translates to greater extremes of wet and dry, and hot and cold, with higher probability of severe droughts in equatorial regions. Consequently, implementing SRM would be tantamount to placing our economic and lifestyle priorities ahead of the basic needs of communities in developing regions already severely stressed by climate change. As many have argued, even maintaining SRM as an option entails significant moral hazard, as it offers an all too convenient excuse for those who would seek to delay or interrupt serious action on climate change.
The full scale of these risks is obscured by the serious gaps in our knowledge, which are difficult to recognize in our current age of scientific reductionism. We don’t fully understand the processes by which glaciers and ice sheets melt or clouds form, or the complexities of numerous climatic feedbacks. These are forces we can’t simply assume to be able to manipulate toward a chosen goal (leaving aside the difficulties of agreeing on such a goal). And then there’s the technical challenge. What can we infer from our experience to date with ambitious megaprojects? Do they typically measure up to expectations? A long list of transportation, energy, telecommunications, and scientific megaprojects―including the Three Gorges Dam, the Concorde aircraft, and the National Ignition Facility―demonstrate a reliable combination of extreme cost overruns, construction delays, and subpar performance. And consider for a moment that these projects operate on a much smaller scale, and are undertaken in contexts we understand far better, than most proposed SRM interventions. Furthermore, SRM would need to be maintained indefinitely to be effective, locking in immense operating costs. This would represent a conspicuous waste of potential investment funds as any benefits literally vanish the moment priorities shift and funding stops, and in fact, climate impacts may be significantly worsened following a cessation of wide-scale SRM.
Even if SRM turns out to be feasible, affordable, and socially acceptable with only minor unintended consequences (a very big if), it does nothing to address the onward march of other human impacts on the biosphere, such as biodiversity collapse, altered nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land degradation. Also, it only temporarily stretches the sink while resource depletion continues to diminish the source. Pushing back one ecological limit, without fundamentally changing the underlying economic system and its addiction to unsustainable growth, merely ensures that other limits will be tested more severely with corresponding harm to people and the planet. As such, SRM is at best a stop-gap measure and at worst a pathway to ecological, social, and economic disaster. Do we really want to roll those dice?
Unfortunately, geoengineering is only a symptom of something deeper―a collective misunderstanding of the extent of our control over the physical world around us and, by extension, the case for our intervention in it. Along this line of thinking, we undoubtedly possess the knowledge, wherewithal, and even the duty, to ‘manage’ the global system. Of course, implicit in this are the beliefs that this management should be carried out primarily for human benefit, that we will be able to deal with any and all unwelcome side effects, and that our immediate ends justify unloading uncertain repercussions onto future generations and the entire biosphere. Our technological and industrial achievements have left a lasting cultural legacy. As Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1971) noted, “the innovations in artefacts, being more impressive, have enslaved our imagination and, ipso facto, our thoughts of what we can achieve.” This has led to a modern-day mythology, a fantasy of human perfection disguised as benevolent heroism. In this view, the climate is a machine to be repaired, just as our physiological limitations are flaws to be upgraded. The real danger is that our technological civilization now wields powers of which we lack both the moral development and the understanding to responsibly use. We tread with very large boots, but with little control over where they land.
Our technological solutions are Promethean: bold, monumental, and defiant. But they are also cumbersome. To fix one problem, they often inflict harm somewhere else. We frequently compel our leaders to ‘do something’ in response to climate change, but in a world where all parts of the system are connected, the ecological dilemma may simply be a result of doing too much. And I’m not invoking the myth of pristine, human-free nature; we have a place in the living world and will continue to long after this civilization is gone. However, the issue of scale is pivotal. At the present scale, the world doesn’t need or benefit from our solutions. The world needs less of our heroism and grandiosity, alongside less consumption, extraction, pollution, and human appropriation of the biosphere. At the same time, the world urgently needs more from us: courage, sacrifice, generosity, determination, and resistance. We need to turn inward and remake ourselves as we retreat from the pursuit of physical mastery and dominance.
But are we really free to do less? If we look to the natural sciences, particularly ecology and thermodynamics, it is apparent that we may face additional obstacles. As Alfred Lotka, H.T. Odum, Martha Gilliland, and Ilya Prigogine have observed, it is in the nature of complex, self-organizing systems or ‘dissipative structures’―such as organisms, communities, or civilizations―to maximize their throughput of useful energy. This behaviour has a selective advantage and, as such, these systems develop a propensity to fully utilize all available energy sources and produce the greatest possible quantity of useful work. This is variously known as the maximum power principle, the minimum entropy principle, or simply ‘Lotka’s principle’. The language is not always intuitive and there are several theoretical jumps from power maximization to an analysis of human choice, but what it basically implies is that human societies and even individuals have acquired deep-rooted tendencies to do more rather than less. As argued by Vaclav Smil (1994), we need to break the hold of Lotka’s principle on civilization by concentrating our attention on the aspects of human development which don’t require power maximization. The prospects of achieving this are unknown, but such a move would certainly rule out heroic, world-shaping ambitions.
The skeptic might argue that, as smart as we are, we can’t possibly be bound to some obscure biological theory. Doesn’t this view veer dangerously close to biological determinism? Well, in more common vocabulary, Lotka’s principle becomes something much more familiar: the profit motive. It is also reflected in the enduring primacy of the market and the fact that economic growth is everywhere and always the first priority, while the sustainability imperative is a distant second. Breaking Lotka’s principle would require unprecedented collective restraint, including intentionally forgoing many opportunities for profit. This shift should be a priority for research and policy. But given that it would be predicated on convincing a wary public of its necessity, we can’t be sure it can be achieved without radical change precipitated by a catastrophe or revolution.
In contrast with the story we will continue to hear for some time to come, the answers to our ecological dilemma are not primarily technological. Insisting on more and shaping the world to suit our designs is a Faustian bargain. What we face is not so much a problem to be solved, but a crisis of culture stemming from the hidden conflict between Lotka’s principle and the boundaries of a finite world. Innovation, that favourite buzzword of the growth paradigm, is needed―not in its current form, but in imagining new ways to thrive while doing less. But first, we need to redouble our efforts to support an emerging narrative: the way out of our impasse lies not in forging ahead, but in having the humility to stop and ask if we’re going in the right direction.
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Teaser photo credit: Ghosts Of The Concrete World by Cameron Gray (parablevisions.com)