As consumers in the digital age, we are programmed for faith in the redemptive power of technological innovation. Faith that whatever we’ve messed up, technology can surely fix. Counterposing this modern religion, ancient wisdom warns us to beware of unintended consequences ─ that the flawed human can only ever see part of the picture. In our world of multiple, converging crises, how we resolve this tension may determine the fate not only of our own species, but countless others as well.
Author and Cornell University doctoral researcher Holly Jean Buck begins her book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair and Restoration by asking whether society is “at the point” where we should entertain the idea of stratospheric aerosol injection, generally referred to as solar geoengineering. Given the dire tone of the latest IPCC report, this is a critical, perhaps existential question. Those of us who pay attention to the accelerating pace of climate chaos understand that governing bodies have been unable to stop the rise in global emissions. Capital certainly has no intention to reduce emissions ─ meaning the range of options shrinks with each day that passes. So where exactly is that “desperation point” where the risks of doing nothing outweigh the risks of tinkering with the sun’s rays?
In his novel Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines that this point follows a mass death event caused by extreme heating. Holly Jean Buck hopes we can avoid both this horrific scenario as well as “solar management” by evolving “the conceptual language of what it means to intentionally change the climate.” But should solar geoengineering become necessary (as both the author and I suspect it will), Buck wants to ensure that what comes after is transformational in terms of both the biosphere and social well-being. To that end she maps the strategies still available and the pitfalls to avoid.
She explains early in the book that at this stage of the crisis, it won’t be enough to simply reduce emissions. We have already dumped too much. To avoid catastrophe, we must also actively pull carbon from the atmosphere, and here the author provides a valuable compendium of the various technologies being employed or simply imagined, both industrial and nature based. She also does a great job synthesizing the current ─ too often binary ─ debates on the left around the viability of these approaches. Buck argues that “climate engineering is not a monolithic ‘technology’, but a variety of practices” that civil society could hopefully “shape … in a meaningfully democratic way.” A section of the book is devoted to the climate justice movement and its various tendencies, all struggling to build enough power to engage on the critical question of “who develops and controls” those practices.
In an interesting stylistic twist, Buck intersperses fiction with her academic research, imagining the various futures which exist in the realm of the possible. Indeed, the difficulty for anyone writing about the fraught subject of carbon removal is the gulf between the world as it is and the world as it should be. The author acknowledges that a climate justice framework requires “taking back our democracy,” a project with a distant horizon. Yet humans will have burnt through the carbon budget in a very short time. Her scenarios allow the reader to better understand the choices that still exist, difficult choices on which our future depends.
Which leads us to the section of the book titled “Buying Time.” Weighing the risks and benefits of various carbon removal strategies, including capture and storage, direct air capture, enhanced weathering, ocean fertilization, marine cloud brightening and regenerative agriculture, we are confronted with the reality that, as the author puts it, “while the world gets its act together,” crucial time is being lost. Waiting for market signals, waiting for politics, waiting for governing bodies and entrepreneurs has already cost our biosphere dearly. Species are going extinct, communities are being destroyed, people are dying while fossil capital profits. It is now all but certain we will overshoot global warming goals established in the Paris accords. Yet it is at this late date that Buck calls for more research on “the ecologies of a warming world” to “figure out as many of the unknowns as we can.” While research is always valuable, I would argue we must act based on what we know now.
I recently published a climate fiction novel where hubris mixed with disavowal is the undoing of the system (spoiler alert: it involves geoengineering). Today I read that the massively engineered water system of California, one of the world’s “breadbaskets,” faces catastrophic failure with coming spring floods. All this as their salmon stocks disappear. As with nuclear power or bioengineering, the “innovative technology” of artificial intelligence poses threats we are only beginning to understand. And all of a sudden “stratospheric aerosol injection” as a strategy for “buying time” is no longer in the realm of fiction. But is it a good idea and who would decide? Buck warns that “the climate system is inordinately complex.” The “precautionary principle” warns against acting hastily. There are some things you can’t take back.
In this “world as it really is,” where the imperatives of capital are hegemonic, it can be difficult to imagine the conditions of possibility under which a sustainable, just climate restoration might emerge. Yet imagine we must and the author, who cares deeply about both ecosystem health and justice, ends her book with some hopeful “R” words: reckoning, reparation, recognition, redistribution, replenishment, and a reconciliation that is not simply performative. I would add relinquishment for those who have historically benefited the most from fossil energy. Many humans and other species are already “living in the ruins” of a modernity that didn’t acknowledge limits, whose hubris knew no bounds. The real question may be whether collapse can be managed or left to the anarchy of market forces. Holly Jean Buck believes the worst can still be avoided “if we fully acknowledge the current situation.” Another crucial question is how to construct that “we” in the face of growing reaction.
Dave Jones is a retired fishing guide and autodidact living in western Montana. He is the father of three amazing women and husband to a fourth. He is a founding member of the Zootown Zapatistas and is active with DSA as well as with System Change Not Climate Change.