Gwynne Dyer writes of James Lovelock:
If we overwhelm the natural systems that keep the climate stable, Lovelock predicted, then we would “wake up one morning to find that [we] had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer … The ceaseless intricate task of keeping all the global cycles in balance would be ours. Then at last we should be riding that strange contraption, the ‘spaceship Earth’, and whatever tamed and domesticated biosphere remained would indeed be our ‘life support system’.”
I have a nasty feeling that we are almost there.
So do I.
The whole debate over “geoengineering” as a means of combating climate change suffers from a problem of definitions. If humans collectively and consciously reduce our CO2 emissions to a level that doesn’t threaten planetary stability, is that not a form of geoengineering? Someone will have to explain to me the categorical difference between dumping sulphur particles in to the atmosphere and not dumping CO2 in to the atmosphere, and why one is “geoengineering” and the other isn’t.
(The very word — suggesting we can somehow engineer the earth itself — is loaded with hubris. Science fiction authors were writing about geoengineering long ago, but they called it “terraforming”. I prefer that term, at least for our side.)
I should think environmentalists have no problem with the idea that humans should act positively to stabilize the climate. That is, we all agree with Lovelock — at least in part — that we now play a role in regulating the climate. Else why bother reducing CO2 at all, right? This isn’t a matter of political ideology but of material facts. Six and a half billion people — most brazenly the wealthiest 1 billion — have overwhelmed the earth’s natural homeostasis. Greens of all stripes have been arguing that we need to do something about this for decades. We were for geoengineering before it was cool.
Of course, we do disagree with the geoengineers. Not over the principle, but the prescription. Our geoengineering takes the form of trying to steer humanity away from the cliff, lowering our impacts until the earth’s natural systems can cope once more. The idea that we can somehow master the world itself, pulling all the right levers and never making a mistake, would be laughable if it weren’t seductive and dangerous. It’s also precisely the ideology that’s the root of our problems. The idea that we are separate from the world, above it, controlling it, is the root of our modern evils.
As a final note, I’ll just point out how amusing it is to me that geoengineering seems to be most popular in the avowedly liberal, free-market countries of the world. This is silly on two levels. First off, any geoengineering in practice is going to necessitate higher taxes and more state interference in the economy, not less. I’m going on record here saying any attempt at geoengineering will be vastly more costly and less effective than simply reducing consumption. More fundamentally, small-L liberals should be profoundly suspicious of the ideas that humans can be smarter than the biosphere. As nifty as the human mind is, we aren’t nearly as smart as the carbon cycle, nor are we capable of similar elegance.