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/




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