On a more or less regular basis, some wild-eyed enthusiast in a lab coat will get his name – and by my account, they’ve all been men, the reasons for which will become evident as we proceed – in the media by proposing some massively destructive campaign of crapping all over the global environment in order to “save” it from AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming). In order to make such a deliberately manufactured catastrophe sound respectable, it is given a fancified, multi-syllabic name: geoengineering. According to these well-paid (male) lab-coats, the way to make things better is to make them unimaginably – and, most terrifyingly – unpredictably, worse. One is reminded of the enthusiastic, lower-level Air Force PR officer who effused to the press how it was necessary to destroy some particular Vietnamese village in order to “save” it. These days this isn’t even recognized as ironic. One is also reminded of the nursery rhyme about the Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly. But getting people to recognize an obvious analogy is almost as distressed a program as getting them to notice irony.
Now, everyone who isn’t intransigently stupid, viciously dishonest, or some combination of both, has long since recognized the reality of AGW. Gee golly willikers, it was cold in some places in North America this Winter. Well, given that we’re talking about less than 1.84% of the entire surface of the Earth, a person might feel justified in asking if there might just possibly be a difference between GLOBAL warming and “your backyard” warming? Or again, the fact that the destabilization of the winter jetstream that leads to the “polar vortex” is itself a consequence of global warming, as unparalleled warmth moves into the Arctic and pushes relatively cold air South, is not one of those arcane secrets that gets hidden away in books, so that the denialists will never find it. So, the question is: What do we do about it?
The climate change denialists,i of course, want to do nothing. Most of them aren’t really interested in providing a few more years of staggering profits to the fossil fuel industry. Rather, they are just not interested in – and, indeed, emotionally incapable of – admitting to the fact that they are a pack of credulous gulls who swallowed a bald-faced lie that was shoveled down their gaping gullets by paid professional liars (many, even most of whom, were variously in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry). They don’t really want to destroy the world, they’re simply incapable of breaking through their own denial and admitting to the truth of something they’ve been instructed to deny.
But speaking of denial, let us cast our gaze to the other side of the spectrum, to those who would mutilate the world in the name of saving it. The fancy name for this is “geo-engineering,” but I’ll refer to it as High-end Actively Radical Machination, or “HARM” for short. And make no mistake, the people who advocate for this approach hope to do as much HARM as possible. The “thinking” is, among those persons enamored of maximizing HARMful programs, that simply doing the things we know can work – stop pouring greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, for example – is not enough, and possibly not even possible (due to a lack of political will.) The attraction of doing HARM, or course, is that it involves spectacularly big engineering projects that garner huge, banner headlines, and even more spectacular paychecks. Because it is, after all monumentally expensive to do HARM. We are talking about redefining the environment on a literally global scale, and doing it effectively over night, all without any clear notion of what the consequences might even possibly be.
The notion that this sort of brute-force, massive engineering project can be executed with impunity, without any clear idea what its real secondary (or even primary) effects might be, and as a substitute for the real, and really known, small and unspectacular steps that must be taken any way, falls under the heading of what I call “The Myth of Technofix.” An obvious play on “the myth of Sisyphus,” this is the romantic delusion that we can locomotive our way straight through and across any problem with a massive enough bludgeon of technology. It often plays well with the public with its spectacular tales of gigantic projects and cool technology.
One thing that HARM and the technofix fairy tale share with the earlier Greek story is the need to keep rolling that stone up the mountain, only to have it roll right back down again. By failing to address the real, underlying causes of an issue, technofix can only keep pasting ever more expensive bandages over the problem. But that, in turn, keeps bursting through those bandages because, as noted, it is not being addressed, merely hidden (somewhat) from sight.
A person might be forgiven for supposing that this would pose an insuperable difficult for the HARM activists. But in reality (if not in explicit statement) the above is a feature, not a “bug” of technofix. The HARM project, and the Myth of Technofix, are built upon an ever escalating series of projects – bandages and patches, really – to undo the earlier, more incremental mass-industrial project that has created the existential threat of AGW in the first place. And that means money, great heaping piles of money, and in ever greater heaping piles as time goes on.
Now many, probably most, people advocating for HARM projects are not explicitly concerning themselves with monetary issues, but the thing to notice is that the people who will exercise control over these projects – and who must, of necessity, be consumed with issues of funding – will have and maintain such monetary issues at the top of their list of concerns. And that, in turn, means that no amount of idealistic chest thumping will dislodge the HARM that is being done from its pedestal as a revenue stream. Moreover, if – almost per impossibile – the HARM program should actually do some “good”, and mitigate in some measure or other the catastrophic effects of AGW, there will be little or no motivation to change the business/industrial models which are generating those AGW effects. Moreover, HARM itself will have become a business/industrial model, and so the motivation of perpetuating it as well, in an ever increasing cycle of doing more and more HARM, will have become integrated into the very social fabric that is the root source of all of the problems.
And this is the Myth of Technofix: the notion that problems rooted in the social fabric can be remedied with big tech and big projects, without seriously addressing the social fabric that is causing the problems to begin with. You cannot fix Big Business with more Big Business, and the causes of AGW are all very, very, big businesses. HARM, driven by the glib, and yet wild-eyed, embrace of the Myth, becomes yet another very big business, and that business model survives not on solving the problem, but on amplifying it.
At this point, if you’ve not already done so, rereading The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (linked to above) would be appropriate.
We know what we need to do in order to avoid the most existentially catastrophic consequences of AGW. We also know that we have already “built into the system” significant and unstoppable global warming that will require genuinely heroic efforts to mitigate. But mitigation does not mean introducing global re-engineering projects that will generate their own catastrophically unpredictable effects, it means dealing with the reality in hand using tools we understand, deployed against problems we can already predict with accuracy.
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iI prefer the term “denialist” to “denier” precisely because it is an uglier word, and its connotations offer no shred of legitimacy to the people it is applied to.