Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, March 26, 2010

Geoengineering: Falling with style

Brandon Keim at Wired has a short piece and a gallery called "6 Ways We’re Already Geoengineering Earth," related to the new conference on geoengineering being held at Asilomar:
Scientists and policymakers are meeting this week to discuss whether geoengineering to fight climate change can be safe in the future, but make no mistake about it: We’re already geoengineering Earth on a massive scale.

From diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to planting and grazing two-fifths of its land surface, humankind has fiddled with the knobs of the Holocene, that 10,000-year period of climate stability that birthed civilization.
The point that humans are altering geophysical processes on a planetary scale is almost inarguable. But while this alteration is an aggregate effect of human engineering, it is not in any sense geoengineering. Geoengineering is the intentional alteration of geophysical processes on a planetary scale, while anthropogenic environmental change as it exists now occurs without such intent (either through ignorance or indifference).

Mr. Keim probably had no hidden agenda himself, but the attempt to blur a distinction of intent into a difference of degree is a common transhumanist move, and a seductively fallacious one. In the case of climate change, it can lead to advocacy for what amounts to fighting fire with fire. As I've argued before, the lesson we ought to learn from global warming is that humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them.

Just like a project to remake man, a project to remake the planet will have to be so advanced from today's technology as to overcome what is at least now the truth of this lesson — but it will not do so by treating the project as essentially more of the same of what humankind has already done to the planet.


  1. Since global warming itself is a fraud, geo-engineering is a double fraud.

    Enough said.

  2. Some transhumanists have used the term "left creationists" to label people who appear to believe in a benevolent Earth mother goddess of some sort, which is the only consistent explanation for a belief that transgenic technology, by violating the genetic rituals of natural life, offends in some way that is expected to have harmful effects on our health, or that of environmental ecosystems.

    A recent version of this thinking among technically literate people is that "complexity" shows that we can't predict the effects of what we do and therefore shouldn't have the hubris to try anything.

    The things we can do are limited to those that get in under the Organic revival tent. If it was done by our ancestors, if Indigenous people do it, if it's old familiar technology, it's okay, but certain demons have been outcast: genetic engineering, nuclear anything.

    Fear of nuclear weapons was projected onto nuclear power, which seemed to confirm the worst with accidents that revealed how badly and carelessly it had been done. Fear of technology's encroachment on life itself was projected onto gene transfer techniques which could as easily have been viewed as merely expanding the range of possible crosses and increasing the ability of breeders to select the characteristics they want.

    In fact, some biotechnology companies now specialize within the market for "organic" meaning non-transgenic products, integrating sophisticated genetic marker selection and protein chemistry to the selection of hybrid variants created by non-transgenic crossbreeding and even mutations induced by X-rays or other agents. They do eveything except the forbidden transfer of genes.

    A recent pseudoscientific justification for this religious prejudice (the practitioners of Organic biotechnology do bear a comparison to kosher butchers) against directing a selected gene fragment into target cell nuclei, as opposed to blasting the nucleus with high-energy radiation, waiting for mother Nature to do this for you, or cross-breeding with a distantly related germ line (which might be expected to be disruptive across the genome), is that the genome is "more complex than we thought" if we thought it was simple. There are often unexpected cascading interactions between seemingly unrelated genes. So yes, it is more complex than the genetic engineering visionaries of the 1970s thought it would be, but the methods are still powerful and excluding their use without good reason is still irrational. There is simply no reason to expect, in general, that products of genetic engineering are inherently likely to be harmful or have any particular effect on health or the environment, as compared with the products of natural happenstance and random genetic damage, exchange and reconstruction as mother Nature does it every day.

  3. I think the emerging prejudice against geoengineering is to some extent an extension of this thinking. Its loudest critics are openly offended on behalf of Mother at the outrage to Gaia of proposing that human impacts on Earth's climate be compensated to our best ability if they can't be rescinded. The Green intellectual's version of this is that Earth's climate is too complex a system, and such complex systems have inherent characteristics which defeat scientists' hubristic attempts to understand and control them,

    But if science means knowledge of the subject at hand, we must turn our attention to actual data, models, and predicted effects of various interventions, including the effects of doing nothing or at best slowing the rate of CO2 addition to the atmosphere. That seems to me the space within which one should evaluate any given geoengineering proposals for climate mitigation, rather than in the space of abstract and moral philosophical discussion. I would not conflate the possible feasibility and need for some form of geoengineering with "Wither the flesh?"

    This seems an issue likely to divide transhumanists as well, given that some like to wear Green. But of course the hard-core technophiles among them see nothing wrong with reingineering the planet, and the most deranged would like to refashion it into "computronium" or at best a giant theme park with lions that eat kibbles and lie down with lambs - all immortal, too, where have I heard this before?

    As to the general complex-system argument against geoengineering, that we can't predict the effects of our intervention, this may be true, or it may not always be, but even when it is true, if we at least think we have good reason to believe a certain intervention may have a beneficial effect, we might try it, carefully, a little at first, and see what happens. Since it will take immense efforts on our part to have an impact comparable to that of our CO2 release and the positive feedbacks of global warming, we don't have to worry that a small intervention is going to have an big effect. We can look for the effects of whatever we do as a perturbation on the patterns of weather and climate. If it seems to agree with our models, we can increase what we do and see what the effects are then.

    Some geoengineering proposals are obviously crazy, and many require technology that does not now exist, but some are more reasonable, such as the spraying of water at low altitudes. The effects being more local and regional, they would be easier to detect and monitor.

    I will leave it to climate scientists to debate these ideas, and I would urge other philosophers to do the same.


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