Geoengineering and death

by Arran James

The argument against geoengineering is simple and can be thought of as occurring in the discontinuous opening between the two positions that allegedly dominate the spectrum of possible positions. One the one hand is the new accelerationist return to Prometheanism, while on the other hand it is the terrified retreat of the precautionary principle.


I’ll pick out Nick Srnicek’s take on this as one of the key acceleroes. He idenifies Prometheanism with a new project of that is neither veritical nor horizontal, and places the precautionary principle in the domain of the folk politics of neoanarchist horizontalism. This positioning allows nick to idenitfy the precautionary principle with the localism that is prefered by horizontalist organising. With this is the very swift marriage of the global perspective with reason’s capacity to transform the world.


With this the precautionary principle is mired with a politics that is meant to be ephemeral, stupid, tactically dull witted, and- as the implications of any critique of localism will go- contaminated with old fashioned and dangerous ideas about organic communities, spontaneity and so on.


At the exact same time it is also implied that the precautionary principle lacks faith in reason. There is an ambiguity here- does this suggest that the holders of the precautionary principle are insufficiently rationalist or does it show that they are irrational? If its the latter case then we’d need a demonstration of why this is the case, otherwise Srnicek is just doing the old and insulting “you’re nuttters we don’t have to respond to” routine. I don’t think this is what he is doing, but I can’t say for sure.


A couple of the problems here are the way that existing politics is devided into folk and (by extension) scientific formulations. This is a simple and old distinction that is being repeated- albeit differently from the past. That Srnicek is involved with Plan C means that some of the more exaggerated claims and critiques may be being misread by me here: I’ve got a lot of time for Plan C and an increasing amount for the idea of a politics that is neither verticalist nor horizontalist but “diagonalist”.


I’m willing to suppose that some of the way this divide is being carved up is actually lost in the emergence of this new diagonal trajectory. Because for me this kind of “diagonal” image- that is a politics that would correspond to the Accelerationist Manifesto’s calls for an ecology of organisations responsive to the various strategic stratifications of the global territory of capitalism- is one in which the very distinction between local and global is lost. To make sense of the diagonal as an image of thought for use open to politics is already to see local and global as axes of figural spatial coordination (ie. position on a chart we can map our activity against).


This kind of thinking would be open to the necessity of localised responsiveness given the non-continuous and non-localisable totality of the climate hyperobject; the climate and the geoterritories aren’t one big clump but are a vast object composed of many highly ideosyncratic conditions in its various regions. Put stupidly: Africa isn’t Scotland- they have different local weather conditions, soil conditions, infrastructural conditions, capacities, possibilities, and so on, as well as different populations whom we should at least attempt to get on board with our attempts to save ourselves. (Because screw it- their isn’t a single one of us that wants to save the earth because we love dolphins that much). My point is that local conditions need to be met and meshed together across vast distances. This means impositions from above (verticality) can’t work. And yet in dismissing any actual local projects (or perhaps I’m misunderstanding Srnicek’s precise critique of localism) we are missing that level of scale.


Geoengineering requires huge scale coordination and would need to be deployed sooner rather than later- just like any other means of combating climate change. Here’s the thing right…climate may not be the only game in town right now but it is the determinative. It’s going to significantly exacerbate every other problem we face and live with from working and living conditions to mental and physical health to the blossoming reactionary movements that just love a good old fashioned dose of large scale social fragmentation. Climate change puts a real time scale of things for us. We have 100 years or so for the species. Great. We have our lifetimes in which all sorts of shit is going to get worse.


So I would look to what is going on now. Right now it won’t be a communist revolutionary agency that is going to save us via geoengineering. Forgive my pessimism but I don’t see it. I do see the capitalists doing something though. But to think capitalism would do anything for us rather than for the sake of extending its own lifespan? The problem is that the risk, the gamble, is that we minimise or even obliterate our chances of survival right fucking now.


What is the precautionary principle. This is probably the most popular phrasing of it:


“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or

the environment, precautionary measures should be taken

even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully

established scientifically”.


Well I guess we can say we’re beyond that point. The precautionary principle seems to suggest an elevated threat of harm. What is a threat of harm if it isn’t a risk? So we’re talking as if the options are between a risk-aversive attitude that operates along the lines of preventative medicine (I’m a nurse so forgive me my favourite metaphorical language), while the Promethean is a radical surgical intervention involving cybernetic prosthesis. I’m not against cybernetic on singular bodies except where that body is the geo-climactic hyper-body upon which all other currently existing bodies are dependent. Maybe things would be infinitely better if life just blinked out, and maybe that kind of pessimism (one I definitely am regularly gripped by) is the secret heart of the accelerationist project. But if we were looking for secret hearts we’d find them everywhere.


The precautionary principle may still hold in terms of the application of geoengineering projects insofar as they would have to be particular. What is actually being designed, deployed and so forth? And in this case, because the level of complexity from multiple localities and scales are bein considered in huge numbers of interactions with one another and are generative of emergent phenomena that cant be deduced or modelled for from within those interactions, it will always be on those advocating a particular form of geoengineering to convince the rest of us. This isn’t really all that precautionary as it is exercising caution which as far back as the Stoics of Greece has been a key feature of the use of reason.


The medical language I used above can carry over. Say I tell you I know you have cancer but that it won’t kill you for another 60 years. I can operate right now but that operation might kill you. Do you take it? The point isn’t that the risk isn’t worth it- it’s that it isn’t worth it yet. The obvious rejoinder to this is that without pursuing geoengineering it’ll be too late when the time does come. Here I can only agree. Any attempt to tackle the ecological catastrophe that believes it can be solved in the future has already failed because it is the viability of any future that is at stake.


So here is where other arguments come in. Geoengineering as a symptom of Prometheanism represents not nefarious neoliberal globalisation but rather the human tendency to treat ourselves as if we were the masters of nature that has been the psycho-moral undergirding of the development of processes and practices that led us to this precipice in the first place. To continue on with- to accelerate- those processes but this time in our hands is insufficient because whether the mastery of nature is red, green or capitalist it remains what it is. Here my focus on Snricek comes away a bit because there is a more nuanced debate to be had here about how he and the other acceleroes concieve of mastery (a beginning has been made into this by the Out of the Woods Collective on libcom). But in general the thrust of geoengineering is one that remains susceptible to Murray Bookchin’s multiple critiques of the mastery of nature. I’ll reproduce one here:

“Social ecologists argue, based on considerable anthropological evidence, that the modern view of nature as a hostile, stingy “other” grows historically out of a projection of warped, hierarchical social relations onto the rest of the natural world. Clearly, in non-hierarchical, organic, tribal societies, nature is usually viewed as a fecund source of life and well-being. Indeed, it is seen as a community to which humanity belongs. This yields a very different environmental ethic than today’s stratified and hierarchical societies. It explains why social ecologists continually stress the need to reharmonize social relationships as a fundamental part of resolving the ecological crisis in any deep, long-lasting way. It is an essential element in restoring a complementary ethical relationship with the non-human world.


And let’s be very clear about one thing. We are not simply talking about ending class exploitation, as most Marxists demand, as important as that is. We are talking about uprooting all forms of hierarchy and domination, in all spheres of social life. Of course, the immediate source of the ecological crisis is capitalism, but, to this, social ecologists add a deeper problem at the heart of our civilization — the existence of hierarchies and of a hierarchical mentality or culture that preceded the emergence of economic classes and exploitation” (Bookchin in Defending the Earth: a debate).


[I’ll add here Bookchin’s concept of heirarchy as “an institutionalized system of domination, by which clearly definable and well-organized strata of people accrue distinct material, cultural, and moral privileges not merely, as in classes, by the ownership or control of property and the exploitation of labor”].


The Promethean need to “master nature” is thus a projection of social mastery and therefore is simply a reproduction of the (psycho)logics of domination that produced the ecological catastrophe. And if the geoengineering project was taken up by capital it would obviously just allow business as usual to proceed.


It should be noted that as something of a Bookchinite I am not suggesting technology is bad or that it should be reliquished or any other kind of bullshit. Simply I think that there must be a way of ensuring that we liberate and make use of capitalist technologies in a way that does not repeat the hubris of the industrial era. This doesn’t simply mean avoiding techno-fixes that would displace social struggle and organisation but fundamentally using technologies in a way that reflect our desires for that organisation. In the era of the anthropocene (the true significance of the name I would argue is that it assembles “the human” in a non-ideal sense for the first time) we are drawn towards a sensibility of the ontological and political force of nonhuman bodies on human life- towards the way human communities are nested within, and are nests for, nonhuman biotic and machinic communities. It is this kind of Prometheanism that subtends the metabolic rift that Marx identified in his own ecological writing.


At the moment there isn’t much to look to in terms of environmentalist praxis. There is obviously the anti-fracking movement, the recent new york stuff, the popularity of Green Parties (which it may become necessary to tactically make use of- ideologies are melting under the demands of eco-crises). There are also practices emergent around ideas of rewilding, sustainability skill sharing workshops, the Transitional Movement that has produced transitional towns that are seeking to create ecological communities, those that can survive the impacts of climate change as well as make use of appropriate ecotechnologies, and calls for a fossil fuel abolitionist movement (although I haven’t seen anything come out of that as yet in real terms), some of which are explored here.


There are also key problems on the governance issues surronding the use of geoengineering. Here we’re affecting the whole system. How do we decide? Who decides? I realise that is often taken as a kind of banal anarcho-ethical question but its important nonetheless as we’re talking about having unforeseen consequences in unforeseen places that could destroy communities, lives, ramping up the speed rates of suffering and death (although that might be alarmist, the point is we don’t know). More pragmatically for the pragmatic politicos out there is the question of geopolitical shifts in response to someone nation having this technology and potentially unilaterally, or more likely with the support of the “international community”, making this decision. It’s hard to imagine anyone being fucked off about the Earth cooling a bit or the oceans be de-acidified but geopolitics is a strange game of spectacle as much as anything else. And there again, in predicted conflicts for resource rich regions of the Earth, alot of states have already invested a lot of money into military and security infrastructure and planning.


Maybe the best thing would be for some eco-terrorist to geoengineering bomb the skies; the Unabomber who loved me.


I do agree with the geoengineering advocates in one sense though…time is running out, things are getting urgent, and so all those clever Zizekian critiques of actionism run out of the luxury of having infinite time for contemplation. In terms of disposition, I read and loved the Mars novels. If geoengineering- essentially terraforming- could work safely it’d be fantastic. If we could try it out elsewhere (ie. not Earth) great.

Here is the problem then- my position here is one that replays a particular contradiction between viewing the threat of climate change as a genuine existential threat to the species and between a desire to maintain a particular politics. And this is the essential problem. I agree with the need for geoengineering given the severity of what is facing us but also see in that the complete surrender of certain liberatory ideals whilst at the same time moving from some so-called horizontalism to whatever this diagonalism might be. The question I used to pose to people, anarchism or annihilation, might belong to another time. The reason these ideological debates- are you are Leninist or an anarchist- and so on continue is, I am sure, because we have not yet accepted the truth of climate change and as such have not yet even begun to adapt to it.

I think its clear from all this that I am in the middle of rethinking things, that I am always in the middle of rethinking things, and that it is ecological catastrophe that is behind this thinking. The name for post-nihilist reorientations towards an expanded and philosophically nuanced conception of what @MichaelPyska calls survivalism. At the same time I am more and more entrenched in the work of philosophical salvage from those traditions designed to help us cope. It wasn’t that long ago that I was slipping into a very real dread of climate change, a very potent “fuck its all already over…not in logical time, right now” and it didn’t feel liberating as it had before. One of the my prefered philosophical systems is Stoicism, and not least because of its central ethical precept since Musonious Rufus, although more famously put forward by his student Epictetus, that some things are under our control and something aren’t.

Climate isn’t. We can act to curb it, and perhaps considering the scale we should use geoengineering as that is something in our power, a way we can affect the Earth, the Planet, even if we can’t know the outcome. The Stoics called this acting with the reserve clause: we never know how our actions will turn out but that should not stop us from acting, and once we have acted, if we have failed, we simply have to accept the new situation. Of course, from the Stoic point of view human life itself is an indifferent. That is, it has no value in and of itself. This may be a forward from both the pessimists’ “life is wrong” and from the insipid idea of philosophical optimists that life is sacred (as Camus said, wherever sacredness is you’ll find no rebellion). It is our life and the biotic communities we are enmeshed with we’re seeking to preserve.

At the end of this post perhaps I have resolved nothing. It’s enough to actually get the thoughts out of your head. To see what it is that you’re thinking and to say “so much of this shit belongs to a dead world”. In any event, philosophy has always been a practice of vulnerability, at its extreme it has been a practice of learning how to die. Stoicism is only one such tradition that has counselled that learning how to die well has never meant resignation. And if we are to die well, the Stoics saw no better death than suicide. Geo-engineering may save us, or it may be our collective honourable dying well.

This post was originally a response to someone on Facebook in a thread about the anthropocene and the capitalocene. The question was asked: “what’s wrong with geoengineering anyway”? It got a little out of hand.