What BASC0016 taught me about geoengineering

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Growing enthusiasm for geoengineering techniques within the Trump administration has placed these controversial technologies on my radar as real and important environmental issues.

Through BASC0016, my understandings of geoengineering have extended beyond scientific and technological risks to examine its ideological and political implications, namely, its role in the Human Exceptionalist Paradigm, the escapism that ensues from such a techno-fix, and the questions it raises about instrumental versus inherent value.


Situated in the Human Exceptionalist Paradigm

Weber understood that values attached to nature can provide cause for or against social change (Foster & Holleman, 2012). Geoengineering’s disregard for the natural laws governing our climate is situated in the Human Exceptionalist Paradigm (Catton and Dunlap, 1978). Offering a planetary-scale manipulation of Earth systems perpetuates the narrative of the anthropocene and our ‘mastery over nature’, which is dangerous for the shaping of environmental identities.

Image 2: The way we view nature affects the way we treat it.

Norgaard’s (1997) coevolutionary paradigm tells us that nature is constantly coevolving with society. Linkages of cause, effect, and feedback mean that the unidirectional power dynamic in geoenegineering’s efforts to control nature will produce unintended consequences. Catton and Dunlap’s New Ecological Paradigm (1978) also warns us that human inventiveness does not exempt us from the laws of nature. Geoengineers need to understand that the climate is not ours to command.


Encourages escapism

In line with ecological modernization, geoengineering offers a seductive technological quick-fix and escape from the real structural, socio-political problems. It encourages a false sense of security, which provides an excuse for politicians and corporates to turn away from limits to growth discussions. Thus, even if we artificially increase biocapacity, our ecological footprint may pursue some version of the Jevon’s paradox, resulting in further ecological degradation that cannot be solved by geoengineering. Furthermore, geoengineering risks a disregard for the political economy and human ecology perspectives’ calls to change, despite the higher empirical validities offered by these two theories over ecological modernization (York et al., 2003).


Perpetuates nature’s instrumental value

Geoengineering speaks the language of business. The deployment on Solar Radiation Management was recently projected to cost $2bn/year, an attractive alternative to green technologies, which we currently invest $500bn/year in. But while considering financial interests best appeals to policymakers and industry, reinforcing nature’s instrumental value over its inherent value does little to support a true green revolution. We need a more radical framing from the progressive left, a framing that values First Nature and critical natural capital (Redclift and Woodgate, 2013). We must speak the language of the people- using emotions, morals, and values to repair our relationships with nature. Geoengineering, like Pigovian taxes and Coasian bargaining, fail in that they reject nature’s inherent value.

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BASC0016 has encouraged me to critically examine geoengineering both as a technology and as a narrative. I understand now that the case against geoengineering is more than geophysical. It is political and moral as well, about accepting our vulnerability to nature, addressing climate change at its socio-political roots, and opening our eyes to nature’s inherent value.

Word count: 499




Catton, William R., and Riley E. Dunlap. “Environmental Sociology: A New Paradigm.” The American Sociologist, vol. 13, no. 1, 1978, pp. 41–49. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27702311.

Foster, John Bellamy, and Hannah Holleman. “Weber And The Environment: Classical Foundations For A Postexemptionalist Sociology”. American Journal Of Sociology, vol 117, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1625-1673. University Of Chicago Press, doi:10.1086/664617. Accessed 10 Dec 2018.

Norgaard, Richard B. “The International Handbook Of Environmental Sociology”. 1997, pp. 158-168. Edward Elgar Publishing, doi:10.4337/9781843768593. Accessed 10 Dec 2018.

Redclift, Michael, and Graham Woodgate. “Sustainable Development And Nature: The Social And The Material”. Sustainable Development, vol 21, no. 2, 2013, pp. 92-100. Wiley, doi:10.1002/sd.1560. Accessed 10 Dec 2018.

York, Richard et al. “Footprints On The Earth: The Environmental Consequences Of Modernity”. American Sociological Review, vol 68, no. 2, 2003, p. 279. SAGE Publications, doi:10.2307/1519769. Accessed 10 Dec 2018.



Image 1: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/24/us-scientists-launch-worlds-biggest-solar-geoengineering-study

Image 2: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2010/4/27/858027/-The-Week-in-Editorial-Cartoons-Treating-Mother-Earth-Badly

Image 3: https://www.washington.edu/news/2017/11/15/what-counts-as-nature-it-all-depends/




Veganism- Sociocultural and Political Influencers


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In most imaginings of a 1.5/2-degree warming world, large-scale systemic change is required. Yes, everyone is responsible for their individual lifestyle choices, but we need high-level decision-makers on our side. And as social beings, our choices will also be influenced by sociocultural trends.

I reflected on Food as a problematic consumption category, and identified sociocultural and political forces as having significant enabling-constraining influence over my choice to eat meat and dairy.


Image 2: Meat and dairy have high carbon footprints


It’s hard going vegan and maintaining a balanced diet on a student budget, yet there are students who manage to do so. In our current political economy, financial costs of veganism are high, which constrain individual choices. The problem here is a lack of state intervention. We have a sugar tax, so why not meat tax?

Sociologist Bob Torres poses a Marxian critique of capitalist speciesism in his book Making a Killing, suggesting that advocacy isn’t enough and a shift to an egalitarian social structure will be essential to achieving wide-spread veganism.  Though Torres’ focus is on animal rights, his critique of our political economy is well-situated in an ecological footprint debate as well. We know free market policies are associated with greater ecological degradation, it’s time to question the long-term ecological viability of capitalism and its production systems (Özler and Öbach). As propagated by Schneiberg, we need reform in the social relations between producers and political institutions, a radical restructuring of society to regulate the ecological and social ‘treadmills of production’.

Here’s the catch: top-down political restructuring to a New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) requires a struggle out of a Human Exceptionalist Paradigm (HEP). The difficultly is getting consensus when some parties want social change towards the NEP and others want to maintain the anthropocentric social order.


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Despite Torres’ critique of advocacy, we cannot wait passively for structural change. We must harness vegan-enabling sociocultural forces. While veganism is accepted within circles of socialisation in London, it’s deemed radical in my home country Singapore. Social factors like religion and tradition create vegan stereotypes and deter Singaporeans like me from going vegan. This in turn results in less vegan options on the market.

My social understanding of the vegan identity changed after making vegan friends and being exposed to communities like the UCL Vegan Society. Cherry (2006) writes about veganism as a cultural movement and highlights the importance of sociocultural networks of support in cultural movement participation. I took comfort in knowing these groups were supportive of me should I participate in veganism, and became pescatarian for 2 years.


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In a globalized world, realities like global trade, industrial agriculture and affordable travel imply high ecological footprints. Though structural change seem out of the individual’s hands, we have to harness our collective power as consumers, pensioners, voters and agents of sociocultural change. Sustainable lifestyle choices are not enough without state intervention, but there will be no intervention without a call from consumers themselves. Sociocultural momentum will remove social barriers to sustainability and reverse the power balance, putting pressure on the system itself.


Word count: 500



Cherry, Elizabeth. “Veganism As A Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach”. Social Movement Studies, vol 5, no. 2, 2006, pp. 155-170. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/14742830600807543. Accessed 18 Nov 2018.

Allan Schnaiberg, , David N. Pellow, , Adam Weinberg, “The treadmill of production and the environmental state” In The Environmental State Under Pressure. Published online: 12 Mar 2015; 15-32, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0196-1152(02)80004-7

Torres, Bob. Making A Killing. AK Press, 2007.

Özler, Ş İlgü, and Brian K. Obach. “Capitalism, State Economic Policy And Ecological Footprint: An International Comparative Analysis”. Global Environmental Politics, vol 9, no. 1, 2009, pp. 79-108. MIT Press – Journals, doi:10.1162/glep.2009.9.1.79.

Image 1: https://earth.google.com/web
Image 2: https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/is-meat-bad-for-you
Image 3: Hayati, Dariush & Rezaei-Moghaddam, Kurosh. (2006). Towards a paradigm shift for agricultural extension: An environmental sociology perspective. Journal of Food, Agriculture and Environment. 4.
Image 4: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/fruit-vegetable-better-mental-health-raw-cooked-healthy-eating-psychology-a8316571.html


My kind of environmentalism – The human kind

My environmentalism has always been an anthropocentric one. And surprisingly, it is through this understanding of the human function of nature that I developed alertness towards my behaviour, preventing me from eating beef or taking long showers. Occasionally, I wonder if the disconnect between my actions and motivations are a result of close-mindedness or perhaps an inherent selfishness. However, I realize that the superficial, human exceptionalist paradigm I hold true does not remove from the authenticity of my actions.

My childhood was filled with gardens and swimming pools, rather than parks, mountains or sea. Singapore is great at ‘planting’ artificial nature, nature wrapped in a bow. Neat rows of trees line every street and tourist attractions include our iconic supertrees– vertical gardens that come alive with light and sound, not to mention the Singapore zoo, bird park and aquarium. Nature is only palatable when it can be contained and monetized off. As a kid till now, I only enjoy nature in its most ordered, tame, sanitary forms.

Supertrees in Singapore (Gardensbythebay.com.sg, 2018)

Here’s a fun fact: our resort island, Sentosa, which translates as ‘peace and tranquillity’ in Malay, was formerly known as Pulau Blakang Mati or ‘Island of Death Behind’. In WW2, the island was a British military base and a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Now, Sentosa packs over 20 million visitors yearly, contains the country’s most expensive property and boasts beautiful artificial beaches. All these years sun bathing on reclaimed sand, I never knew Sentosa as Pulau Blaking Mati and never really cared. Nobody talks about Pulau Blaking Mati. Singapore’s approach to Sentosa has shaped my understanding of nature itself – as a pathway to growth. Ecological modernization (Scanu, 2015) can be a true economic, political and environmental win-win-win. Singapore used ‘Garden City’ rhetoric to fabricate a new urban identity, clean beginning, and a built solution to our Nation’s conflict-filled past.

Sentosa- aerial view (En.wikipedia.org, 2018)

In Singapore, students are taught about climate change from primary school. While we learn about the geography of climate change, we also learn about our responsibilities to nature through Social Studies classes, which frames sustainable living through a nationalist lens. Good Singaporeans don’t litter, recycle often, and conserve energy. A specific environmental mentality is inherent to my national identity, and at the same time, there is a national and cultural logic behind my environmental identity.

My generation’s environmental consciousness matured with the increasing scale of our environmental problem. Compared to our parents, the planet we know is an injured, deteriorating one, and a passion towards our planetary health shapes our environmental identities. I feel this anger and call to action. Simultaneously, I am starkly aware of the human function of nature, as a pathway to growth, an identity and an understood concept rather than a felt thing. I have justified this internal contradiction of mine with teleology. The environment has its natural functions and human functions, and the realist in me believes that it doesn’t matter which we subscribe to as long as we show care through our behaviours and actions.


En.wikipedia.org. (2018). 1 sentosa aerial panorama 2016 from south.jpg. [online][Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].

Gardensbythebay.com.sg. (2018). Visitor Information. [online] Available at: http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/attractions/supertree-grove/visitor-information.html [Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].

Scanu, E. (2015). Climate governance in the post-industrial city: the urban side of ecological modernisation. Environmental Sociology, 1(2), pp.102-115.