[Part One of this essay can be found here.]
As capitalist society remains incapable of addressing climate breakdown, one measure is waiting in the wings: solar geoengineering. No other technology can cut global temperatures immediately. It would alleviate the symptoms of the crisis, not its causes. But might it be combined with radical emissions cuts? This essay, the final instalment of two, subjects geoengineering to a materialist psychoanalysis and argues that it represents a fantasy of repression, setting itself up for a dreadful return of the repressed.
1 A Hard Struggle with Reason
Can the Earth be successfully cooled with sulphate planes? Rationalist-optimists believe so. They are, we argued in the first instalment of this essay, prone to illusions. Solar geoengineering is rather hardwired to produce a rising tide of side effects and likely to set off a termination shock when the technology is eventually, at some point, switched off. Building directly on the first instalment, here we shall deepen the analysis of geoengineering in general and its rationalist-optimist champions in particular. We must begin with the category of reason, much beloved by the latter. The rationalist-optimists tend to perceive themselves as besieged by unreasonable people. Critics of geoengineering are ‘driven by intuition, ideology, and pre-existing conclusions instead of empiricism and rationality’, asseverates Jesse Reynolds; in the eyes of Gernot Wagner, the negative reactions are ‘visceral’, emotional, clouded by bias.1 Those in opposition do not honour evidence and logic. But do the rationalist-optimists themselves uphold such virtues of reason?
Next to the termination shock, the problem that has most doggedly haunted geoengineering is that of ‘moral hazard’. The term – first used, ironically, by the master rationalist-optimist himself, David Keith – is adapted from economics, where it designates a situation in which agents take greater risks because someone covers their backs. They feel protected and therefore indulge in the hazardous conduct. By analogy, geoengineering – even the mere thought of it, as a hypothetical future arrangement – would function as an insurance, lulling actors into the belief that they will be buffered against catastrophe and enticing them to keep emitting.2 In response, rationalist-optimists have compared geoengineering to seatbelts, which seem to inspire more incautious driving, since drivers feel safe anyway; and, more incongruently, to condoms – another ‘technofix’ that ‘increases risky behavior’.3 The recent literature has converged on ‘mitigation deterrence’ as a more precise term than ‘moral hazard’.4 We argued in the first part that geoengineering would deter mitigation at the moment of its deployment, but most discussions have focused on the gestational period: the research itself as a decoy leading actors to neglect their duties. Whether it has actually had that effect so far is disputable and, by definition, impossible to measure.5 But what if geoengineering – if still only on the drawing board – attracts more attention? Will it then discourage people from doing what must be done? Likening it to everyday paraphernalia like seatbelts or condoms is one ploy for mollifying this concern, but lately the rationalist-optimists have developed another line of defence: what they call ‘inverse moral hazard’.
If people get to know about geoengineering, the argument goes, they will be scared out of their wits. The spectre of the side effects and the shock and other disagreeable aspects will make them yearn for mitigation so powerful that none of this will ever come to pass.6 There are empirical studies supposedly suggesting as much: one found that subjects informed about geoengineering were more inclined to buy voluntary offsets.7 Another fed participants with particulars that led them to support a carbon tax.8 A handful of other papers – including a strictly game-theoretical ‘proof’ – lend credence to the notion of geoengineering inciting mitigation, but one can poke holes in them: a declared preference to purchase offsets is hardly a reliable indicator of emissions cuts.9 (As a matter of fact, it is the exact opposite: the well-known function of voluntary offsets is to enable emissions to continue.) Individual responses to questionnaires do not predict government policy. Reynolds believes to the contrary. Policy can in fact be read off from experimental polls – including that pursued by dictatorships, because ‘even authoritarian leaders are partially constrained by public opinion’; so if one or two studies suggest that the public will be sufficiently unnerved by geoengineering to jump into mitigation, then that is how states – all states – will act.10 The idealism of such an argument merits no further comment. Of greater interest are the contradictions at the heart of this line of reasoning.
Geoengineering, we are now told, is so good because it’s so bad that it will terrify people into dealing with the roots of the climate crisis when they learn about it. ‘That may well be the best use of solar geoengineering today: scare people into wanting to mitigate more’, contends Wagner; indeed, here is ‘the largest role for solar geoengineering research: not for its own sake, but as a wake-up call for broader climate action.’11 But the argument deflates itself. If the main objective of geoengineering is to inspire mitigation, then clearly there is nothing to be afraid of. People who read these sentences from Wagner would presumably feel calm, not alarm. Moreover, the ‘inverse moral hazard’ goes against the grain of the highest purpose of the rationalist-optimists – namely, to come up with evidence about how good geoengineering will be when deployed. ‘I am confident that we could eventually find “clean” ways to alter radiative forcing – methods that have negligible side effects’, Keith asserts.12 In one of the many papers he has co-authored, the danger of pollution and ozone depletion is greatly downplayed.13 Likewise, Wagner spends much of his book dispelling – supposedly – worries about monsoons and precipitation and oceans and plants, ticking off one side effect after another as exaggerated, arguing that the purpose of the research should be to ferret out any remaining risks and master them.14 All of this is obviously to pull the rug out from under any inverse moral hazard that may exist. Geoengineering cannot both be so good because it is so terrifying and so good because it is actually benign. Even rationalist-optimists need to abide by the laws of logic, and if they do not, there is reason to suspect that their relation to reason is more troubled than it appears at first sight – particularly if the gaps and contortions are recurring.
In a highly creative feat of modelling and argument, one team of rationalist-optimists has contended that geoengineering will increase equality in the world. Poor countries in the tropics currently suffer from a regional climate that is ‘warmer-than-optimal’. Their temperatures are, by some objective standard, too high for affluence to evolve. Because sulphate injections would overcool the tropics, they would also give a shot in the arm to GDP growth and improve chances of catch-up with the global North, where average temperatures already hover ‘around the optimum’. Better yet, by flattening the gradient between tropics and poles, geoengineering would bring ‘all countries’ climates slightly closer’.15 By this sleight of hand, one of the most disconcerting categories of side effects is transmuted into blessings of egalitarianism and gifts to the global South. (One more reversal of the inverse moral hazard, it could be added.) If this is an argument shrouded in reason, it wears a very thin version of it indeed.
As we saw in the first part, the rationalist-optimist confession of faith begins with renouncing the idea that sulphate planes can substitute for emissions cuts and instead postulating a combination of the two. But even the most fervent believers cannot help themselves slipping into a zero-sum game: they deplore the fact that climate disasters so far seem to have piqued public interest in the former rather than the latter.16 They are, in other words, jealous of the attention mitigation has received. Given how limited it has been, this does not bode well for their commitment to that pursuit. They know how pregnant with catastrophe full substitution would be, but ‘more plausibly, SRM [solar radiation management] could be a partial substitute’ for cuts.17 If geoengineering ends up squeezing out mitigation altogether, it would be ‘both rational and net beneficial to humans and the environment’, because on the assumptions of neoclassical economics, the welfare of a cooled climate would be bought at a lower price this way.18 Reynolds can invoke the inverse moral hazard in one sentence and the ‘net benefit’ from substitution in the next.19 The real danger is that obsession with mitigation deters from geoengineering, and so on.20 The slips accumulate. The rationalist-optimists seem quite unable to avoid blurting out the subtraction and preference they had purportedly overcome. Might there be something deeper going on here?
1.1 A Rational World and Other Fairy Tales
When computers are made to simulate the fallout from geoengineering, the identity of the subject is never specified. The models do not tell us if it is the Pentagon or G7 or India or the UN General Assembly or some other body that shoulders the task, but they do assign certain attributes to whoever it is: rationality, above all.21 Only if the geoengineer is rational can the technology be installed in working order and misuse avoided. The way to ‘predict state’s behavior’, Reynolds explains, ‘is to explicitly model them as rational actors.’22 This is how things are and ought to be. ‘Policy should be rationally designed and based upon the central goal of minimizing net climate risks to humans and the environment in accordance with society’s preferences’, runs a typical antiseptic line; unperturbed by indications to the contrary, the ‘assumption of rationality will be maintained’.23 Other rationalist-optimists have added more character traits. Wake Smith assumes that geoengineering will be ‘undertaken by a single, rational, and legitimate global monopolist deployer operating on a not-for-profit basis’, with nothing but the noblest of motives.24 ‘Any entity that intends to engineer the climate of the entire globe must act – and be seen to act – purely out of humanitarian and environmental considerations unclouded by aspirations of direct financial gain’, conclude Smith and Wagner.25 That is a one-of-a-kind entity.
Where on Earth does it exist? It has never been spotted in the realm of politics from which candidates for injectors could emerge – recall that a major economy is required – at least not in this century. Geoengineering is here placed squarely in utopia, among the wolf living with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the goat, and occasionally the rationalist-optimists admit as much: towards the end of one long modelling exercise, again co-authored by Keith, the reader is informed that ‘our centralized, benevolent decision-maker is a fiction’.26 So the reader had been perusing fiction all along. This escape from reality is not accidental or tangential to the argument, for geoengineering cannot be made to seem like a sensible proposition if the subject behind it were irrational, reckless, short-sighted, self-serving, beholden to private pecuniary interests or in any other way predisposed to realise malignant potentials.27 The modelled world must be sterilised of any such presences and lesser imperfections as well. But by the same measure, of course, geoengineering is driven out of observable reality. The assumption of rationality, so fundamental to the case, can be maintained only at the cost of descending into fabulation.
It does not get much better when the rationalist-optimists deal with the side effects by positing a subject that is all of the above plus responsive: the commander of the fleets must monitor developments and adjust injections. If, to take but the most obvious problem, a massive volcano eruption were to occur during deployment, doses would have to be swiftly reduced to avoid overcooling of the planet. The subject in charge ought to behave like a captain navigating his ship through a field of icebergs, engaging in ‘feedback’ as new information is received along the way. Models provide only the crudest of maps.28 The fully enlightened subject must fill in the details. If bad by-products materialise, it would be up to him to recalibrate the shots – for instance, parrying overcooling of the tropics by injecting more aerosols closer to the poles, or administering extra jabs in wintertime to keep the seasons in place.29 But simulations then hint at other secondary effects and trade-offs. Greater precision would be achieved if the aerosols were diffused lower down, in the troposphere; but then pollution would spike.30 Nonetheless, the idea persists of the geoengineered Earth as ‘a design problem’ or ‘an optimisation problem’, a machine to be tweaked to perfection by the owner and overseer varying the magnitude, altitude, latitude and timing of the injections.31 If one button flashes red, push another.
The first problem with this ideal of successive fine-tuning is attribution: how will the subject know that a particular effect is caused by its actions and not by something else? What would it take, for example, to establish that an epic drought in the Sahel is induced by the ongoing geoengineering, rather than by some teleconnection to residual underlying warming or natural variability or other ‘noise’ in the system? It might take years to find out. Hence the subject would also have to possess the virtue of ‘extreme patience’.32 And that is still not the end of the requirements.
Because so many parameters are perturbed – not only temperature, but precipitation, humidity, CO2 concentration, surface energy balance, quality and quantity of sunlight and any number of regional factors correlating with any of these – a geoengineered Earth would be a computational apparatus tending towards infinite complexity.33 The ideal is that the subject in question, whoever it is, would exercise ‘improved control over more aspects of the climate system’.34 One after the other, they should be integrated into the calculus; perhaps the fine-grained details of Californian or Congolese climate will eventually be amenable to administration from the sky. And if sulphate injection is not perfectible on its own, it could be supplemented with marine cloud brightening or cirrus cloud thinning or some other technique of manipulation in what is referred to as ‘cocktail geoengineering’.35 The planet would be set up for ‘an infinite regress of further interventions’, in the words of Mike Hulme: the defects of Plan B patched up by Plan C, then Plan D, Plan E, and so on.36 The ideal of total domination of the nature of the planet is likely to be elusive.37 Every concrete step towards it, however – and attempts cannot be ruled out – raises the demands on the subject: it would have to be not only rational, legitimate and altruistic, but also patient and all-but-omniscient. Impulsiveness and ignorance would wreck the machine in no time.
Who could this possibly be? One rationalist-optimist of lesser prominence has a proposal: the IPCC. ‘Pre-existing scientific bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, possess large credibility, predisposing them toward an oversight role’, and ‘states will be receptive to the scientific body tasked with the monitoring of SRM implementation.’38 Of course states will listen to the IPCC! The naivety of the argument is astounding, as if the thought had not struck this author that an inclination to comply with the IPCC would have long ago obviated a deteriorating climate crisis and thereby any considerations of geoengineering. Similar amnesia is on display in Reynolds’s proposal for how to ensure that deploying states also cut their emissions: trust them to avoid ‘reputational damage’.39 If they do not live up to their mitigation duty, they will discredit themselves in the eyes of the world, so of course they will be conscientious about it. Again, the presupposition here seems to be that geoengineering will be implemented in a moment of civilisational catharsis, in which every flaw and blemish of hitherto existing climate politics are converted into their angelic opposites.
At other moments, however, rationalist-optimists suddenly remember what world they live in. Once the assumption of rationality is lifted, Reynolds confesses, the possibility emerges that states could abandon their declared aspirations to mitigate.40 ‘In the world of selfish “great powers”’, geoengineering ‘is likely to be overproduced’ – that is, there will be immoderate amounts of it.41 But it is Wagner who is most conflicted about the status of rationality. ‘Of course, we don’t live in a rational world’, he can add as postscript to a sanguine thought experiment; or, ‘there is no such thing as “rational” climate policy in the real world’ – the keyword often placed in scare quotes – or, ‘political actors aren’t always that responsible and rational’. On the one hand are the idealised model settings in which rationalist-optimists generate their results. On the other ‘is the real world, governed by political whims and forces that are better summarized by Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics, or treatises like Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince’, or, we might add, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. ‘Vested interests dominate.’42 As discoveries go, this one is belated, but it marks a significant concession from the rationalist-optimist camp: once geoengineering is placed in the real world, its home is in murky hell. What if this is treated as more than an afterthought? What if the irrational ways of capitalist society are not an extra parameter to acknowledge in the end, but the point of departure for understanding the very enterprise of geoengineering itself?
2 Towards a Freudo-Marxist Theory of Geoengineering
There is now a budding – to call it rich would be to underrate the subject matter it has yet to deal with – psychoanalytical literature on the climate crisis.43 Its foundational insight, somewhat like the equivalent of the greenhouse effect in the physical sciences, concerns denial. The progression of this crisis is constituted by denial. It originated in and is perpetuated and aggravated by denial in multifarious forms.44 In a powerful meditation on how it can work, Lee Zimmerman draws on the case of a dream reported by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: a father was watching his child’s sick-bed for days and nights on end, until the child died. The father then moved into the next room, to a bed from which he could see the corpse laid out. After a few hours of sleep, he had a ‘dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully, “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?”.’45 In Zimmerman’s reading, the child’s question captures the essence of the denial of the ongoing catastrophe. ‘Don’t you see that I am burning?’, the red-hot child asks the father, entreating him to open his eyes and intervene before the body is consumed, but despairing about his willingness to do so. Is he even mentally present, there at the bedside? Or has he turned away from the trauma in front of him?
The essence of denial, on this view, is the shutting out of a reality too painful to take in: the climate catastrophe is a trauma in motion, and like the father in the eyes of his dying child, people in capitalist society respond by turning away from it. They develop a myriad of strategies for knowing what is going on and at the same time not knowing.46 They keep on living as normal, as though nothing deeply troubling was happening in front of their eyes, no child set on fire; and only because they behave in this fashion can the burning progress towards its end. Had they intervened in time, they could have doused the flames. Such denial is a psychic process at the level of the individual, but above all – on this the literature is in resounding agreement – it is organised or produced, by material and ideological processes distinctive to a capitalist society based on fossil fuels. Denial is not an idiosyncrasy or private pathology, but a certificate of membership in this particular society, a kind of credit card, perhaps, necessary for moving around in it and accessing its commodities and living without going crazy.47
Importantly, this denial is protean enough to embrace all classes. It can be exercised by the most villainous personifications of fossil capital as well as the most innocent subalterns at the base of the pyramid. It can cloak crime and failure. As for the former, a sense of omnipotence breeds a refusal to acknowledge an external world that belies it. Sally Weintrobe, a pioneer of psychoanalytical climate studies, has recently emphasised this aspect: people on top of the pile cannot own up to a crisis resolvable only by them stepping down, and so ‘they live in a bubble-like psychic retreat from reality.’ To those who feel entitled to the gifts of the fossil economy, the full reality of climate breakdown is ‘anathema’.48 There is a photograph less famous than it should be, of three golfers – with calm composure, to all appearances – putting while the hillside behind them is aglow with fire. Taken during the 2017 wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest, the shot unsubtly captures the bubble as it approaches bursting point: should we pack away our golf clubs, just because the world around us is on fire?49 A talk show host at a Canadian golf programme chose these words to accompany the picture: ‘So many natural disasters, poor people in Houston, poor people in Florida, it also continues in Oregon and the west coast of Canada, the wildfires – and look at these guys, they are finishing their round, maybe 600 or 700 yards away from this fire. They have to be … absolutely … insane’, but it is an insanity that rarely raises eyebrows, a psychopathology at one with life as such for dominant classes.50 It became spectacular in the golf photo because it was caught in a moment at once overly typical and untypical.
By far the more common case is that the fire rages at a distance. The burning child can normally be regarded from a safe room, noticed, ignored, forgotten without risk. In this type of denial, there is a salient callousness or, as Adorno would have it, ‘coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity’ – the father as cold onlooker.51 Dominant classes have a renowned capacity to turn on the ‘blindness of the seeing eye’ (Freud) when faced with the suffering that they themselves cause.52 Here the trauma against which denial protects would be the loss of fossilised privilege.53
On the other hand, those most utterly deprived of any such privilege have their own reason to slump into denial. For them, it is the powerlessness that is so agonising. They, or ‘we find ourselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis, and by the enormity of the power and money arrayed against those who want to turn a corner to keep our planet liveable for all’, Donna Orange observes.54 Here the trauma, prototypical for psychoanalysis, is helplessness – the father genuinely incapable of helping his burning child, in possession of no means for intervention and unable to bear the pain of recognising it. Between these opposite class positions of denial, as it were, there are all sorts of intermediate locations and articulations, coming together in a society-wide psychopathology of everyday life. The ideas of this epoch as of every other are the ruling ideas – the ideas, that is, of the class that rules and plays golf as the world burns. ‘In the minds of the subjects, too, a bourgeois society will choose total destruction, its objective potential, rather than rise to reflections that would threaten its basic stratum’ (Adorno).55
Denial, then, is a structural condition in a capitalist society making its way towards unmitigated out-and-out climate emergency. It encompasses a much wider set of practices than the literal, organised denialism now predominantly found on the far right. More prevalent may be the interpretive form of denial: climate change exists, but it isn’t much of a problem. More universal still is the implicatory version.56 Here the father does not say anything to deny or downplay the fact that the child is burning – he merely acts as if it were not the case, standing there next to the bed, his attention focused elsewhere. He might just be going about his day. He might be finishing his round. In the circumstances, that, too, counts as a flight from reality.
And flight from reality is the hallmark of the irrational. Conversely, rationality can be defined, with Adorno, ‘as the organ of adjustment to reality – or, as contemporary psychoanalysis calls it, testing reality’.57 It is the faculty by which the subject recognises and tests reality and adjusts her actions to what she finds there – limits, demands, opportunities – or, the part of the mind that manoeuvres through the reality principle, not ignoring it, not repudiating it. The innumerable antithetical ways of being are the professional preoccupations of psychoanalysis. ‘Every neurosis has the effect, and so probably the purpose, of forcing the patient out of real life, of alienating him from reality’, Freud remarks. The flight spans the gamut of disorders, from the neurotic who ‘turns away from reality because he finds either the whole or parts of it unbearable’ to the hallucinatory psychotic who ‘attempts to deny the event that has triggered his insanity’. In either case, and in all cases in between, ‘we are presented with the task of studying the developments of the relationship of neurotics – and mankind in general – to reality’: psychoanalysis as the study of the fate of the rational in humanity.58
That faculty has not fared well recently. Weintrobe quite adequately dates a turning-point to the 1980s, the decade when the climate crisis (and other aspects of the ecological crisis) entered the consciousness of capitalist society, never again to leave it in peace, insisting on real limits coming closer: and precisely in this moment, neoliberalism opened up venues for fleeing. Through deregulation and privatisation, organised denialism and the cult of egoism, it encouraged aggressive escape from reality. Nearly half a century later, the cumulative result, Weintrobe goes so far as saying, is a ‘collective psychosis’.59 It follows that the climate crisis is determined by irrational forces through and through – and into this forcefield, the rationalist-optimists throw their project, with hopes that amount to giving a hallucinatory psychotic the keys to a nuclear power-plant, or even the codes to an atomic bomb, and expecting that it will work out just fine. A more promising approach might be to analyse geoengineering as a spin-off of those forces themselves.
2.1 From Denial to Repression
To see geoengineering in this light, we might use a little help from the second, political generation of psychoanalysts. Based in Berlin during the Weimar years, they were animated by a belief in the self-evident affinity between psychoanalysis and Marxism, moved in Communist circles, offered therapy to the proletariat and fought the onrushing catastrophe. If they had a credo, it was that psychic processes are subject to the vagaries of history.60 One of their most brilliant minds was Edith Jacobson – anti-fascist activist, feminist, sex therapist counselling working-class youth in Berlin, stubborn enough to stay after the Machtergreifung. The Gestapo nabbed her in 1936, but she became so ill in prison that the Nazi authorities let her out, at which point her friends whisked her away to the US; like the rest of her generation, she is all but forgotten today.61 She is also the author of perhaps the clearest attempt to parse the relation between denial and repression.
There comes a point when denial shades into repression. The two processes are functionally related, but not identical. For Jacobson, denial targets outside reality. Repression specialises in internal drives. The former works on a broad, ‘global’ canvass, whereas the latter has more of a laser-focus. More significantly, however, there is a chronological and causal relation between the two: ‘Clinical observations leave no doubt that denial is a more archaic, more primitive, and historically earlier mechanism than repression – in fact, its forerunner’. Denial will ‘normally prepare and assist repression’, which supersedes the former in the struggle against reality and lends it finer precision.62 It is because denial has ruptured the relation between ego and reality that repression comes into play, as a successor, a more diligent executioner of the task bequeathed.
While these distinctions have not made it into the psychoanalytical canon, the basics of repression are not in much dispute.63 Here we might return to the founding father. ‘The essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious’, writes Freud, immediately pointing to the overlap with denial.64 Repression is all about keeping something unpleasant tucked away, out of sight, under the lid. It entails that the subject simultaneously will know about this thing and not know about it. She does not want to know and so pushes the material down into the unconscious, in yet another version of flight from reality: there is some trauma, some painful stimuli that cannot be borne out in the open.65 We can then move on and hazard the proposition that geoengineering would represent a materialised and institutionalised repression of the climate crisis.
It all begins with a moment of danger. ‘The Ego guards against this danger by repression.’66 Called forth by a drive internal to the ego, a real external menace is breathing down its neck. There has arisen a clash between reality and drive that is dangerous to the ego, which reacts by ‘freeing itself from the contradiction’ through an act of flying away: repression, Freud stresses again and again, is ‘an attempt at flight’.67 (The English words fusing the aerial and the elusive, one is here tempted to see the aviation technology of geoengineering literally fulfilling the scenario.) In his characteristic blend of psychology and thermodynamics, he conceives of the drive as a quantum of psychic energy pushing against the surrounding world; and when the energy reaches ‘a certain level of intensity’, the conflict ‘becomes active, and precisely this activation elicits repression.’68 We recognise here the emergency and the decision to deploy. This is the moment when the flames from the child have leapt onto the clothes of the father; or, when the wildfire has entered the lawn and the grass itself starts burning. Now something else has to be done. To endure, denial must make the leap into repression.
But the energy repressed does not thereby go out of existence. Rather it stays active down below, bubbling, simmering, exerting pressure on the forces above, seeking to break through the lid and discharge itself. Repression cannot be like a volcano that erupts in one moment and goes quiet the next. ‘We should not think of the process of repression as a single event with permanent results, as when, say, a living thing is killed and from then on remains dead; repression demands, rather, a constant expenditure of energy and would be undermined if this were relaxed’. Maintaining the equilibrium requires an equally ‘unrelenting counterpressure’ in an ‘unending conflict’: the injections must not cease; repression is a long-term commitment.69
Meanwhile, in this overheated cauldron, the energy – indestructible by definition – must find other outlets. They can appear far removed from the original source. The negated energy succeeds in getting its way ‘by certain roundabout paths’, but not without ‘submitting to some distortions’.70 Here come the side effects: the fractured regional climates, the lacking rainfall, the diffuse sunlight, the white sky, the blistering sunsets and all the far-fetched rest. The repressed material ‘proliferates in the dark, so to speak, and finds extreme forms of expression’, remote derivatives that can take the subject and those around her by surprise.71 They too must be dammed up, through new rounds of repression (feedback, cocktail geoengineering).72 But in the end, all of this, of course, is in vain. ‘A ceaseless struggle is being waged against the repressed, in which the repressing forces steadily lose ground’ (the law of the tendency of side effects to rise).73 Ultimately the defences fail. The more heavily the dam is reinforced, the greater the pressure, until there is the inevitable ‘return of the repressed’: and of this, science knows no better picture than the termination shock.74 ‘The “return of the repressed” takes place at the fearful turning points of history’, notes Herbert Marcuse.75 The research has described in some detail what it would look like.
This correspondence between the structure of geoengineering and that of repression seems nearly uncanny, but it is not, needless to say, perfect. In Freud, the secondary output from the repressed material chiefly consists in fantasies, not exactly analogous to side effects in the climate system.76 On the other hand, geoengineering almost realises other elements of his model. He famously compartmentalises the mind and likens it to a building with two rooms, a large entrance hall and a drawing-room, with a threshold in between. Facing the entrance hall into which impulses stream, positioned on the threshold, ‘a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him.’77 This metaphor has given rise to heated dispute between psychoanalysts and them and their critics, as it seems to imply that the mind is inhabited by an extra agent. The ‘watchman’ or ‘censor’ appears to be a subject in his own right, a homunculus inside the human, who can monitor prospective infiltrating forces, evaluate them and block the door if he judges it for the best. In a coherent theory of the mind, this kind of presence and activity are difficult to integrate.78 In our case, however, it is exactly how things are supposed to work: the geoengineer would be the Instanz endowed with intelligence, its extended arms stationed on the threshold to select among the radiation seeking entrance. Something similar goes for another problem in the Freudian theory, namely that of initial knowledge. Repression appears to require a ‘traumatic moment’, in which the mind knows perfectly well the danger it will pretend does not exist. Lucidity must supervene on at least one occasion for the flight to get underway.79 And, again, this is precisely how geoengineering would present itself. To these two outstanding problems in the theory of repression, an empirical solution has now been drafted.
Geoengineering does not address the causes of global warming: it represses it, exclusively and literally. It maps nearly perfectly onto the Freudian model of repression. The point, however, is not merely the formal resemblance or isomorphism between geoengineering and Freudian repression; rather, the former should be seen as a substantive instance of the latter, by dint of its functional relation to denial. Capitalist society will have moved all the way into the emergency on the psychic fuel of denial, which, beyond that point, must enter into the engines of the sulphate planes. The sole way for it to persist henceforth is to flip into repression: geoengineering is the single available measure by which this society can convince itself that the fire is not happening, even after it has become unignorable. There is no other practical proposition for the long-term survival of denial. And denial resists its own end.
Or, following Jacobson’s temporal schema, we can say that if geoengineering follows next, it will happen only because the prior phase has laid down the tracks for it. So strong as to drive society into the emergency, denial will also determine the technology for treating its symptoms (unlike a technology for attacking the root causes). Denial is the ‘forerunner’, preparing and assisting and initiating the higher phase of repression.80 Precisely because it is this fuel that has taken society so deep into the conflagration, we should expect its energies to flow over into the emergency response and upgrade themselves into an unrelenting effort to keep the heating at a distance. If we accept that denial is constitutive of the climate crisis, we should expect it to infuse geoengineering, which would be merely a continuation, a transmutation of the processes that have brought the catastrophe about. If the emergency is an eye of a needle for denial, it – and the rich man – can enter only by actually suppressing climate change, through technologies that constitute means of repression.81
The genius of David Keith might lie in his personal prefiguration of this upgrading. He is on record as making the following statement, in a book published in 2010:
I’m not sure that global warming is such a threat to human civilization. I think we have to be honest with ourselves – there will be winners and losers. Some places will experience more productivity. Some people will enjoy warmer weather. This is not to deny or minimize the suffering and hardship that others will experience, especially in poor countries. But the fact is, human beings are a remarkably adaptive species. And I believe that, by and large, people will adapt to the changing climate. If it’s just the human race you’re worried about, I’m not sure global warming is such a big problem.82
Along with the blatant racism and classism on display here – the distinction between the fate of non-white others in poor countries and that of the human race – one could hardly find a more perfect example of interpretive denial. The same book has Keith talking down solar and wind power.83 Today, however, he would be careful to avoid any such vulgar errors and instead consistently refers to the urgency of saving human civilisation – poor people in particular – from global heating, by means of solar and wind, yes, but first of all some rational geoengineering. He has made the volte-face for which he and his cohort are grooming others.84 If, or when, it happens en masse, it might well sweep up the most obdurate far-right denialists too; this has not transpired yet, precisely because the moment of emergency, as we have defined it here, still lies in the future. Denialism will remain a viable project for some time more.85 So will the ‘bubble-like psychic retreat from reality’ in which dominant classes are engaged – until reality pierces the bubble, and the retreat must continue in another form. After that traumatic moment, geoengineering alone would allow these classes to protect their fossilised privilege (finishing another round, as it were).86
If repression sublates denial and takes it to a higher, more refined stage, it also blends with symptom formation. Indeed, these two can be all but indistinguishable. Jamieson Webster points out that repression needs the symptom, in which psychic contradictions are converted into corporeal acts. She brings out the materialist character of the Freudian theory: the ego removes itself from danger by inventing a somatic symptom, as in a lady compulsively washing her hands. Likewise, geoengineering would activate a symptom through the mobilisation of substances around the body of the planet. It is through these conversions into physical symptoms that the ego runs away from the conflict, and in the process, she becomes dependent on them – obsessively so. Fidelity to the symptom is her persistent flight. ‘The force of repression creates a new relationship to the way the hysteric relates to knowledge, namely, that she does not know, and this not-knowing – far from being a problem – becomes her virtue.’87 Or, in Freud’s own words, apparently inspired by Macbeth, symptom formation is about ‘undoing what has been done’.88 Through such undoing, the subject can divest herself of knowledge of the real events. This, of course, is precisely the script Lady Macbeth tries to follow, but the brilliance of her creator lies in the repeated disclosures of its futility.
Macbeth himself is the first to doubt that the washing really will have the desired effect. ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No – this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.’ The repression exercised through the symptom will merely spread the blood to all corners of the system. But his wife insists, and drifts ever further from reality: ‘You see her eyes are open’, says a doctor; ‘Ay but their sense is shut’, answers a gentlewoman. She suffers the blindness of the seeing eye, but eventually gives up too, when forced to realise that no amount of washing will in fact remove the deed: ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!’, and more acutely: ‘What’s done, cannot be undone.’89 All that then remains is the couple’s bloody downfall.
Geoengineering is about undoing what has been done – the recipe, in Macbeth, for going off the rails. A Freudo-Marxist theory would not only give a more realistic picture of what this enterprise would mean and what psychic energies it would run on than roseate premisses of rationality. It would also imply that a geoengineered world would be less governed by rationality than one that simply warms up. Repression marks one step not closer to reality, but away from it. Otto Fenichel – spiritual leader of the second generation, close comrade of Jacobson – intimated as much: ‘Anyone who must keep repressed material in a state of repression has to act inappropriately and is handicapped in his judgement and his sense of reality.’90 If that sounds like an abstract theorem, we can fill it only with speculative concretion.
2.2 Under the Blood-Red Sunsets
What would actual living people feel and think in a geoengineered world? It is impossible to know in advance, of course, but this factor warrants speculation as much as any other. One thing we know for a certainty: fossil capital will not die a natural death, not go into the night without defending itself, either before or after the onset of geoengineering. The miracle would require a massive thrust from below. Whether as the Children of Kali or some other incarnation of popular agency, there would have to be a force pulling off disruption on a scale never yet seen, inflicting material costs on fossil capital so injurious that it – presumably under the guidance of some states – would have to be conclusively liquidated. The question then becomes: would a geoengineered world be conducive to the formation of such subjectivity? Or would it be detrimental to it, thereby reducing not only the first incentive for mitigation worthy of the name (climate impacts) but the second (climate revolt) too?
If geoengineering works reasonably well, it will keep the reality of global heating away from the conscious, at a distance. But because this veil of repression would be wrapped around the entire planet, it would be visible to the naked eye. Sunsets would be reminders. Merely by turning the gaze skyward, at least outside conurbations, one would acquire proof of the procedure. How might people react to such atmospheric enclosure? One eminent scholar of geoengineering, Alan Robock, had the sagacity to raise that question in his classic catalogue of 20 side effects: ‘Both the disappearance of blue skies and the appearance of red sunsets could have strong psychological impacts on humanity.’91 It is not a theme that has been further explored. Psychological approaches are conspicuous by their absence in research on geoengineering, and the rationalist-optimists have no idea how to treat parameters of this stripe, except by bracketing them out; in his attempt to allay concerns about all of the 20 side effects, Wagner skips over this particular warning from Robock and leaves it ‘as an open question’.92 No rationalist-optimist could ponder it for long and stay true to his axioms.
But since a counterforce to take the place of the reduced first incentive – and hence any post-deployment future for mitigation – hinges on popular reactions and actions, the question should at least be elaborated. One possibility is awakening. One could imagine outpourings of revulsion and fury at this ultimate act of dispossession: not even the sky and the stars available for common appreciation any more. People might rise up against the tyrannical classes that first stabbed the climate so insistently that it collapsed and then sought to cover up the deed by this disgusting pollution. They might be provoked to mobilise all available force behind demands for expropriation of fossil fuel property and restoration of a liveable climate. Perhaps they might even win.
Or, things could go the other way around: geoengineering could hone the skill of blindness in the seeing eye. Flagrant manifestations of wrongness are evidently not a sufficient condition for indignant protest. If people have opted for an ‘ostrich-like policy’ (Freud) towards climate impacts raining down all around them, surely they would be capable of habituating themselves to an engineered atmosphere and accept it as one more token of contemporary life.93 (By the same token, the visibility of geoengineering-as-repression would not reduce its effectiveness as such – just as denial can be entirely open-eyed.) Catriona McKinnon has speculated that the generation growing up in the decades spanning intense research, launch and early deployment might decry the losses, but maybe not so their children. Acclimatisation could ensue. Several decades into geoengineering, ‘perhaps only nostalgic “old fools” with “lighted rooms” inside their heads would mourn for lost blue skies and starry nights.’94 Resignation should be expected to deepen over time.
But a scenario where geoengineering has no psychic effects on those below is improbable. Robock is onto something: merely the altered make-up of the sky (leaving other effects aside for the moment) may well induce inner turmoil. Anxiety could follow. Robock nods toward ‘The Scream’ by Edward Munch, the visual locus classicus for – not to say clichéd image of – that particular emotion, the vibrating blood-red sunset enhancing the anguish of the wailing figure: a composition possibly inspired by the effects of the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in 1883 (the blast of sulphate from which cut average temperatures on Earth by 1.2 degrees for a year).95 Of what does the feeling speak? ‘Angst’, Adorno lays down, ‘is the claustrophobia of a systematized society’, a gut response to ‘the closed system’.96 Geoengineering might take closure and claustrophobia to new heights. Capitalist society is like a ‘brick wall’, into which people bang their heads: and it expands, ‘leaving less and less outside’.97 The diagnosis fits: the wall enwrapping the sky itself, there to intensify the experience of powerlessness. It is through technology introduced from above that society integrates its populations ever more tightly and confines them in inferiority. ‘The individual is wholly devalued in relation to the economic powers, which at the same time press the control of society over nature to hitherto unsuspected heights.’98 Is geoengineering likely to herald empowerment? A season of confidence in the self-activity of the masses? Nothing less would be prerequisite to mitigation.
But white sky and red sunsets would be an index of epochal failure: the utter inadequacy of the forces taking on fossil capital; the stupefying power of this enemy, certified through a seal in heaven. The reminders would be of repression (perhaps in the dual sense) and defeat. An individual, a subaltern class might feel diminished to the point of nullity under this vault of stratospheric brick – psychologically, a strong deterrence to activism. In this scenario, a geoengineered world is ‘one that secretly everyone finds deeply dubious, but it is also one that is so overpowering that people feel they can do nothing about it’; one where the ‘incredible disproportion between all individuals, every individual, wherever they might be, and the concentrated power of society’ has increased even further, so that ‘the notion of resisting this agglomerated power seems illusory.’99 This would indeed be something like The Scream.
Effects of such nature could have their own temporal arc. The sigh of relief when the emergency is palliated might usher in positive acquiescence, as the first popular science book on the topic intuited: ‘The illusion of control – “Everything’s okay, the scientists have fixed the problem” – could engender apathy at a time when we desperately need to stop pouring carbon dioxide into the sky.’100 Deeper into the operation, the risk of termination shock might generate late submission. Who would dare to rise up against the powers in the sky, if their coming down to Earth would spell doom? People would be forced ‘to turn the realities that have been foisted on them into their own business simply in order to survive.’101 Needless to say, there would also be plenty of potential for bourgeois coldness towards victims of side effects. If things go this way, the repression above would be internalised below, shading back into the original denial; and to the same degree, the return of the repressed would become more inevitable, more frightful.
On the other hand, again, there is a distinct potential for politicisation of the weather. For the first time in history, some human giant would have his hands on clouds and rains, atmospheric rivers and air currents. Extreme weather events could no longer be dismissed as flukes, accepted as acts of God or, indeed, deplored as outcomes of global heating. A suspicion might take hold that they stem from the deliberate manipulation – this parching of our fields is your fault!102 Because weather would be subjected to intentions – the defining attribute of human agency – it would also enter the realm of political contestation; but as we have seen, satisfactory attribution would require painstaking scientific work. One scholar aligned with the rationalist-optimist position has thus identified a potential for mayhem: if bad weather happens under stratospheric aerosol injection, ‘the response is likely to be angry and irrational’.103 One can imagine people traumatised by suffering in the emergency carrying their rage into the geoengineered world and lashing out against presumed offenders. All sorts of dominant class interests could gain from scapegoating – say, an Indian government deflecting blame for an agricultural crisis onto the Chinese state spearheading injections.104 The crux of the matter is that an entire sphere of tellurian existence – weather – would be incorporated into the struggle between nations, classes, left and far right and scores of other contenders: and the result might be, rather than anxious lethargy, an immense volatility.
The less rational and savoury side of popular engagement with the phenomenon has prematurely rushed onto the stage, in the form of the chemtrails conspiracy theory. It holds that ‘geoengineering’ is already very much in progress. Planes operated by some Big Brother or other are secretly spraying the atmosphere with toxic chemicals. According to different renditions, it is the military, a cabal of businessmen or shady strata of states mixing aluminium, pathogens or even desiccated blood into the trails left by aeroplanes – not the contrails of gullible brains, but chemtrails – so as to murder unwanted parts of the population, control minds or simply manipulate the weather.105 In this internet-driven dust cloud of theory production, ‘geoengineering’ is used interchangeably with ‘chemtrails’; prominent websites have precocious names such as ‘geoengineering watch’ or ‘bye bye blue sky’.106 All versions are bogus. No evidence exists that any of this is taking place in the real world. And yet, a survey undertaken by Wagner and a colleague in 2017 found that 10 per cent of the American population held the chemtrails theory to be ‘completely’ true, while another 20 to 30 per cent thought it ‘somewhat’ true (up from 2.6 and 14 per cent, respectively, in 2010) – in other words, nearly half of Americans seeing some truth content in the fable. Furthermore, conversations about ‘geoengineering’ on social media were totally dominated by the chemtrails, outweighing more factually grounded posts – neutral or critical – by a ratio of more than 4 to 1. ‘Positive portrayal’ of stratospheric aerosol injection ‘barely registered at <1%’.107
One here pities the rationalist-optimists. They are like a guild of skilled artisans working hard in the shipyard to manufacture the mightiest, most magnificent new ship, so as to facilitate travel needed for common subsistence and survival, but the superstitious people of the region have already scaled the walls and pelted the protype with stones, in the belief that the ship is in fact a dragon: how misunderstood they must feel. The prodigious popularity of the chemtrails theory – in the homeland of rationalism-optimism to boot – ‘renders rational conversations around solar geoengineering and its potential role in climate policy even more difficult’, Wagner and colleague lament.108 And this even before geoengineering has become a real thing. ‘If conspiracists are gyrating now about secret deployments that are in fact not happening, imagine the world’s trepidation once they actually are!’, Smith exclaims.109 But such trepidation does not require secrecy on the part of the geoengineers. Even the most transparent take-off would be an earth-shattering event, entirely likely to arouse emotional storms – of apprehension, disorientation, incomprehension and, of course, again, angst. A launch of this ship into calm waters is inconceivable.110 Rather, if irrational forces in popular politics – if only online – have submerged geoengineering ex ante, we should expect them to influence its course ex post too.
Indeed, when (if) the thing becomes real, the stimulants to conspiracy theories should be more, not less, potent. To a higher degree than when contrails stand in for a diffuse sense of victimisation, plenty of people under actual sulphate planes can be expected to feel ‘that everything is linked up with everything else and that they have no way out, but at the same time the whole mechanism is so complicated that they fail to understand its raison d’être and even more, they suspect that this closed and systematic organization of society does not really serve their wants and needs’, and so they develop ‘a feeling of being “caught”’. There is widespread ‘insecurity and anxiety’. The condition spawns ‘paranoid tendencies in people’ – the chemtrails theory as another prefiguration, a hansel of political pathologies to come.111 Paralysis and paranoia are co-constitutive.
Pandemonium, then, could be a general psychic result. If so, prospects for rational treatment of the underlying causes – fossil fuel production, above all – would diminish or vanish. The apparatus of repression would make people take issue with and bicker over and hallucinate about a thousand other things than what brought them into their mess in the first place. This, of course, is analogous to how a patient behaves in therapy, when his symptoms have pushed him to a point of misery but he cannot face up to its causes; rather he resists attempts at their unearthing.112 He is exercised by more immediate woes. The repression has buried the trauma under layer after layer of distraction and distortion: and ‘one cannot overcome an enemy who is absent or not within range.’113 This would seem to be the logical situation in a geoengineered world. In every scenario except for that of mass outrage provoked by the double offence, coming to grips with the primary drivers would be harder, since they would be overlaid by heaps of diversions. There would have to be a whole lot of remembering and working-through to get to the bottom of the predicament. Until then, the second incentive would be dulled too.
2.3 The Insane Root that Takes Reason Prisoner
None of this is to say that geoengineering, as an idea in the present and possible practice in the future, is irrational all the way through. In some respects, it displays a keen sense of reality. The notion of feedback, for instance, adumbrates an assiduous application of the reality principle: the captain that steers around any snags appearing on the radar. He continuously tests and adjusts his course to the surroundings. Or, consider this passage from the pen of Smith:
The high-bypass engines installed on current production airliners, with big front-end fans that route most of the air around the engine core rather than through it, operate very poorly above 15 km, so SAIL-01 [the sulphate planes to be constructed] would utilize medium bypass engines such as the F1118 GE-101 high-altitude turbofan. The engines would be mounted on four pylon nacelles on the wings, and inboard twin pod (two engines) and a mid-span single pod.114
However much it might sound like it to the uninitiated, this is not a magical incantation or fever dream. These sentences are, in a sense, written in hyper-rational code, in the style of the manual that tells the reader how to use a machine. Geoengineering research is intensely preoccupied with material properties of the world: the size of aerosols, the density and dispersal of plumes, the chemical reactions between particles.115 It seeks a path through thick clouds of intransigent realities, a method that will take it securely to the goal. It scans the shelves for the best precursors, engines, wings, points of injection and other items to be assembled into the most efficient possible hardware.
There are no difficulties in classifying this rationality: it is instrumental. The concern is with the means. These must be optimised, so as to provide the shortest route to the fixed and set end. Presumptive geoengineers strive to excel in the ‘handling of matter as the mere stuff of control’: to make their way in the world, conceived as a design problem.116 What is lacking, however, is a reflective relation to ‘the real end or purpose of society’, which ought to be – but isn’t: hence the work assignment of the geoengineers – the ‘preservation of the species as a whole in a way conferring fulfilment and happiness’.117 Because this higher perspective is missing, rationality regresses to a constricted obsession with technology. Adorno speaks of an ‘infantile and repressed behaviour’, similar to ‘that of the child, which cannot rest until the clock has been opened up and it can see how the little cogs work inside it’; and such micro-rationality is the only fare on offer, when the question of the very point of society has been taken off the table.118
This classic argument from critical theory seems tailormade for geoengineering, but it can be taken one step further. The ruling order to be served by these instruments is not merely failing to raise the preservation of the species to the overarching goal. It is more assertively and aggressively irrational than that, along lines first sketched by Marx in the chapter on the working day. His account opens with the observation that reality exhibits certain physical limits, boundaries that inhere in the diurnal cycle and the needs of a body; within the 24 hours of ‘the natural day’, there are only so many a human being can possibly expend on labour. Capital, however, has no regard for such limits. It refuses to see them. This is because it has ‘one sole driving force, the drive to valorise itself’, a point repeated throughout the chapter: here is ‘a blind and measureless drive’, a ‘blind desire for profit’ that cannot, by its own reason, stop before external barriers, which do not even come into sight.119
The word for ‘drive’ in the German original is Trieb, incidentally a keyword of Freud’s. When Marx writes of the ‘driving force’ of capital, he uses the term Lebenstrieb, a Freudian synonym for Eros. Elsewhere in the first volume, he refers to the drive for enrichment (Beriechtungstrieb), the drive of accumulation (Akkumulationstrieb), the drive of self-valorisation (Selbstverwertungstrieb).120 But it is in the analysis of the working day that the logic is most sharply in focus. While Marx here varies his portrait of the capitalist with phrases like ‘insatiable appetite’ and ‘werewolf-like hunger’, drive – Trieb – is the central category and propulsive force of the mechanisms laid out in the chapter: above all, the tendency to push the worker beyond the limits of endurance, into 12 or 14 or even more hours of labour per day.121 The driving force destroys the worker’s body. She becomes ‘an absolutely exhausted organism’, on the brink of death.122 To illustrate the surreally detached mentality, Marx famously borrows the French expression après moi, le deluge, with renewed resonance in the age of global heating; and just before these words, he comments on the bourgeois attitude to extinction. Capital is guilty of ‘denying the sufferings of the legions of workers surrounding it’ – a primitive accumulation of denial, as it were – as perturbed by ‘the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun’.123 Capital, in short, does not care. Capital ‘asks no questions’ about the misery it creates, and, most significantly, it is here that Marx draws his parallels between the exploitation of the worker and that of the soil: capital abuses both with the same indifference to their limits.124
It appears as a matter of pain and pleasure. Faced with an outcry over the degradation of life, capital responds: ‘Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)?’ – and again, the term for pleasure, Lust, is the one used by Freud.125 The proto-Freudian nomenclature of the chapter is striking. Translated fully, it seems to suggest that capital has no other agent in its psychic apparatus than an id. Capital knows no reality principle: capital possesses only its own inner Trieb, the Lust for profit and ever more profit, for whose sake it will literally kill (and in this regard, the drive is closer to Thanatos than to Eros).126 But – needless to remind readers – this bloodthirsty avarice does not sit at the level of the character, as in the tragedy of Macbeth. Marx does not ascribe the predispositions to the individual capitalist, who, in his private life, need not be a psychopath.127 He can be a mature family man with years of healing therapy behind him. Be that as it may, ‘as a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital’, forged in competition, enforced through the immanent laws of this mode of production. Impersonal forces compel him onwards, however many bodies and ecosystems he must trample underfoot: the owner of an oil company who does not reinvest his profits in fresh wells will be squeezed out before long.128
Such external origins of this particular Trieb form the hinge in Fenichel’s seminal essay ‘The Drive to Amass Wealth’. What does it mean to say that a child likes to collect stones? For Sándor Ferenczi, such ubiquitous behaviour among children – searching for cherished objects, hoarding them, turning them into exclusive possessions – is the instinctual source of capitalism. Ultimately anal in origin, the drive will seize on sticks or pearls or any objects in the surroundings, before hitting on the natural solution of money. But a capitalist, Fenichel retorts, has no choice but to amass wealth – if he fails to do so, he is done for. The sole drive required to explain such amassment is that of self-preservation. That is not the end of the story, however, for ‘a social system of this kind makes use of and strengthens erogenous drives that serve the necessity for accumulating’: the best capitalist is the one who can put a desire for maximum power and self-regard in the service of value.129 Capitalism has not entered history as ‘the result of an “anal-erotic mutation” that has fallen from heaven’; in his polemics with Ferenczi, Fenichel sets down the differentia specifica of a Marxist as opposed to a bourgeois psychoanalysis.130 The former rejects any recourse to timeless, pseudo-biological factors when trying to explain novelties in history. Something as eccentric and epochal as capitalism cannot be attributed to children’s fondness for their faeces. Conversely, however, the success of capitalism is inexplicable without reference to the drives it mobilises: turning Ferenczi inside out, Fenichel argues that this mode of production stimulates, demands, thrives on and gives direction to the sordid motives.131 Much like tennis exercises certain muscles in the arm, capitalist property relations call forth the lust it needs.
Playing by the rules of the competitive game, then, does not leave the soul unaffected. Rather, the game comes to constitute a soul of its own, a meta-soul of a kind, hovering above the personifications of capital and taking up residence in their interior, as soon as they behave as capitalists in the public arena of production. David Pavón-Cuéllar puts it vividly: ‘Brains, neurons and nervous fibres are required by capital for it to acquire its characteristic ambitious and ruthless psyche. However, once acquired, this is no longer the psyche of people who possess capital, but of capital that possesses, like a demon, the people who have sold their souls to it.’132 And this soul of capital – the soul of ‘the automatic subject’ – has no appreciation for boundaries in external reality, neither corporeal ones nor their planetary equivalents. There is, however, a critical difference between these two kinds.
Marx’s story of the struggle over the working day memorably ends on a positive note. The workers of Britain rose up against overexploitation and, after decades of organising, petitioning, marching, striking and threatening revolution, managed to put a limit on it. The Ten Hours Act of 1847 was the fruit of resistance. Because of the pressure from organised labour, the state had to step into the fray and bridle capital – left to its own devices, endlessly ravenous for working hours – and impose on it a minimal sense of where reality ended.133 Capital ‘takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.’134 We can then say that resistance from below is the source of the reality principle in capitalist society, and where such resistance is missing, there is only the blind drive (‘resistance’ here not in the Freudian, but in the strictly political sense). As for the working day, its extension in early capitalist development triggered resistance ‘as soon as the working class, stunned at first by the noise and turmoil of the new system of production, had recovered its senses’.135 Because the abused bodies had minds of their own, the transgression provoked a counterforce. There is in Capital a one-to-one correspondence between the extension of the working day and the formation of the working class as a class for itself. As for planetary boundaries, matters are not that straightforward.
The breach of a tolerable atmospheric concentration of CO2 does not elicit the same spontaneous or organised fightback. Most fundamentally, the delayed reaction time probably has some relation to the fact that there is no agency in the carbon cycle: neither the atmosphere nor the forests or peatlands or oceans have minds of their own and so cannot turn on the capitalists that overburden them. In the sphere of ecology, and more particularly the climate crisis, the formation of a force of resistance tends to come about – if at all – only through qualitatively different mediations. The historical task the climate movement has set itself is to fill the yawning hole where the ten-hour movement once confronted the same demonic drive; but so far it has succeeded in wringing but ‘purely nominal’ concessions from states, barely advancing further than the factory legislation of, say, 1802.136 It has yet to develop anything like the striking force of the early proletariat.
There is a gap in this analogy, of course, in that fossil fuels cannot be limited to certain hours of the day – they must be abolished in toto – but even a reform analogous to a Ten Hours Act, such as the moratorium on new fossil fuel installations long asked for by scientific and other bodies, appears impossibly irreconcilable with the Trieb.137 Such an ‘all-powerful social barrier’ to guard the number-one planetary boundary would evidently require mass resistance on a scale hitherto unseen.138 Here, the chapter on the working day serves as a negative foil for the irrationality currently running rampant.139 Because ecological limits and climatic thresholds are not embodied in a class, breaking them does not call forth the same near-immediate and mighty response as the breaking down of workers’ bodies did, in Marx’s chapter and beyond. The formation of a subject of resistance is here a far more circuitous, drawn-out and uncertain affair.
It follows that capitalist society in the age of the climate crisis is more thoroughly and uninhibitedly irrational than in the classical era of the struggle between labour and capital: the source of the reality principle – from below, outside of capital – is orders of magnitude weaker. But this disappearance of a medium for reminding capital of reality is also, of course, a result of the political decomposition of the working class itself. The historical antagonist of capital is no longer strong enough to force it to come to its senses.140 Up until the defeat of the class across the globe in the 1980s, there could still be something like enlightened liberalism, a bourgeois politics loyal to states vulnerable to the power of labour and hence capable of discerning at least a few realities. (Indeed, as late as in the early 1980s, the prospect of nuclear winter contributed to disarmament efforts – in comparison with the present, a marvel of reason. The Montreal Protocol is another case in point.) But with the triumph of neoliberalism, in keeping with Weintrobe’s chronology, the world was flung into the universe precociously explored by critical theory: one where the slide into catastrophe appears inexorable, since there are (as yet) no oppositional forces capable of blocking it.
The whole is now unrestrainedly irrational. Little cogs and turbofans might work perfectly, but the totality of which they are part has become rudderless in the extreme. This is not, as Adorno never tired of pointing out, because class antagonism has disappeared – to the contrary, it is as alive and determinant as ever, only one side is crushingly victorious. The profit motive has been set free to rule alone, and it tears society apart.141 Or, in the condensed-but-elaborate syntax of Negative Dialectics: ‘Society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it; the profit interest and thus the class relationship make up the objective motor of the production process which the life of all men hangs by, and the primacy of which has its vanishing point in the death of all.’142
One tragedy of the climate crisis is that its outbreak in the 1980s and ’90s coincided with the defeat of the working class and failed to spur any class-based or other system-wide resistance. Whether the latter might happen in deeper, more desperate phases remains an open question. In the first four decades, it evidently did not. The irrationality of the whole stands in direct proportion to this double absence – of a subject of resistance defending the limits of the climate system, like the English workers defended their own bodies; of working-class politics itself, enfeebled beyond historical recognition – reflected at the summit of society in the lack of a ‘self-conscious global subject’.143 Such a subject would have to be some kind of state apparatus, under the sway of forces of resistance; but when these are missing in action, the state regresses to a committee for smoothing out the affairs of the bourgeoise. At the centre is then the void of the blind drive. ‘What carries anxiety’ – and here Adorno could have referred directly to climate anxiety – ‘is the fact that society is not in control of itself; there is no overall social subject’ that can turn the supertanker around and discard it.144 And it is precisely on this giant drifting vessel that geoengineering piggybacks.
On the subjective plane, the relation is expressed in a bond of loyalty: in its moment of unmitigated irrationality, the rationalist-optimists affirm their allegiance to capitalist society. ‘Must we fix capitalism in order to fix the climate?’, asks Keith (as though capitalism were a broken entity like climate, in need of repair rather than destruction). His answer is no. ‘Any serious argument in favor of this proposition must confront the fact that Western democracies have made enormous progress in managing environmental problems over the last half century.’145 It would be superfluous to list all the errors in this statement, sufficient simply to state that if it were true, there would be zero demand for the services of this same Keith. Wagner is responsible for the following sentence: ‘Far from posing a fundamental problem to capitalism, it’s capitalism with all its innovative and entrepreneurial powers that is our only hope of steering clear of the looming climate shock.’146 Reynolds doubts that there can be anything valuable about a ‘restraint of capitalism’.147 With such declarations of faith and love, the rationalist-optimists tie themselves to capitalist society as the best of all possible worlds, and the single possible one to boot. They are wont to writing off any rupture with business-as-usual as a pie in the sky. ‘We suffer from the persistent illusion that we can rapidly accomplish the deep structural change necessary to decarbonize our economy’, Keith affirms, going on to remind us that ‘cutting emissions to zero means replacing a big chunk of the heavy infrastructure on which our society rests’.148 It apparently goes without saying that such a shake-up is out of the question. The inertia is a fact before we must bow. Social fixes being unfeasible, we must instead embrace techno-fixes – a no-choice situation that is all for the better, since capitalism is doing such an awesome job anyway.149
On this score, the rationalist-optimists suffer from not a deficit but an excess of attachment to reality.150 Their instrumental reason is coupled to a social order accepted as both desirable and irreplaceable.151 Theirs is ‘a mode of thought immune against any other than the established rationality’ – although ‘blind to’ would perhaps be more apt, and more in line with the ocular metaphors of Marx and Freud.152 The geoengineering enterprise as formulated by Keith et al. is premised on blindness to any other property relations than those that happen to reign. To their forces, there can be only acquiescence and assistance. Given just how irrational they are, however, the enterprise thereby puts itself wide open for psychopathological processes and primes itself as their technical conduit: what happens when the allegiance is re-affirmed in the moment of free drifting.
Rationalist-optimists rarely if ever champion radical emissions cuts. Their policy preferences tend to be located at the moderate, incremental, pro-market end of the spectrum.153 The suspicion then arises that geoengineering has the merit of rescuing capital from liquidation. By decoupling temperatures from CO2 in the moment of emergency, it would deliver a planet of value from the verdict of instant destruction, saving it for the long haul – the objective role geoengineering would play for fossil capital. It spills out from the literature every now and then. Shaving off the peak of the heat would allow ‘emissions cuts and adaptation measures to be made in an orderly program of technology deployment and capital turnover, at much lower cost and disruption’ than under mitigation at speed.154 Capital would be spared severe losses. Trillions of dollars of investments might yet be harvested at profit.155 If this is the function of the operation at the moment of its launch, it is unlikely to fade over the years and decades, for capital accumulation is by nature a self-sustaining, expanding circuit.
Geoengineering, as we have seen, would not act on the contradiction between this drive and reality, in the manner of the Ten Hours Act: it would merely repress it. But repression can, Freud suggests, paradoxically serve to liberate that which is being repressed, by transposing the conflict onto somatic symptoms that allow the drive to run amok.156 Under the white sky, the supertanker would again be free to drift aimlessly. The more efficient the hardware, the greater the latitude of the drifting: the micro-rational instruments, Adorno points out, buttress the irrational whole and make it stronger not weaker. Advancing technological prowess ‘takes on a threatening and terrifying character’, pushing the contradictions onto other trajectories, where they might ‘eventually even destroy the whole interconnected system’ – the better it works, the worse it will be.157 The blame for this danse macabre should be put not on reason or rationality as such, but on the totality so deficient in both.158 Or, as Banquo, the comrade-in-arms of Macbeth, apprehensively asks: ‘have we eaten on the insane root / that takes the reason prisoner?’159
The id, then, is not really all that exists immanent to capital. It must be escorted by an ego. In a brilliant essay, Benjamin Fong has drawn a portrait of a ‘new anthropological type’ that corresponds perfectly with the psychic apparatus producing geoengineering: at the core is ‘the overgrown child’, the person who has failed the transition from pleasure to reality principle.160 That bloated and boundless id, however, is paired with an ego that alone can pilot it through refractory realities. Flight combines with able execution: there is a peculiar ‘alternation between an exacting rationality, efficiency, and technical skill in certain parts of life and a blinding stupidity in others’, and the two go together.161 Macbethian symptom-formation exhibits the same mix. Hand-washing is a transaction with physical reality that produces an intended local effect, while amplifying a larger insanity: ‘the precautionary measures are rational, while trying to get rid of something by “making it not to have happened” is irrational and in the nature of magic.’162 Marx too sketches a similar profile: ‘This boundless drive’ – the Trieb again – ‘for enrichment, this passionate chase after value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser.’163 He also possesses a competent ego. What he sorely lacks, with Fong, following Adorno, is a superego. There is no inner agency to challenge the blind drive or the instrumentalist ego, bring them down to earth, converse with them in a critical tone, speak for the needs of others and, when necessary, disrupt their self-propelled ride.164
At the end of this duality – id and ego but no superego – stands a fusion between libido and instrumentality in the desire for the machine. The heralds of geoengineering every so often let slip their cathexis to the object.165 ‘It is hard not to delight in these newfound tools’, Keith comes clean.166 Smith shares the feeling: ‘The SAIL-01 wing geometry would be selected to substantially reduce drag. Check out the cool renderings in Figures 15.1 to 15.3!’, where readers can salivate over images of the planes to come.167
2.4 A Machine with a Ghost in It
The hard reality of a geoengineered planet is still in the future. One must hope that it never comes to pass. Already now, however, the ideology of geoengineering, while awaiting materialisation, is an actual phenomenon, in a superstructure saturated with impulses from the base. With its programme for symptom formation, it is symptomatic of the dead ends capitalist climate governance has reached. Oddly, it represents a fantasy of repression, a yearning for the impacts of climate breakdown to be undone by technical means. Or, we might say that denial is plotting a course to its long-term endurance, even as the proponents of the venture justify it with the severity of the crisis (thereby recognising the traumatic moment to come). We here have the opportunity to study psychic processes feeding into a technology in statu nascendi. Considered from this angle, geoengineering – if only as a scientific blueprint – issues from and partakes in ‘the psychic state of deep cultural anxiety about the future for the planet and for humans’, with E. Ann Kaplan, or, with Adorno, ‘the dizziness that overcomes a society threatened by total destruction’.168 There really seems to be a ghost in the machine this time. If this is a valid perspective, it comes with the irony that geoengineering is normally defined as the conscious or deliberate manipulation of the climate system; we are suggesting that it has unconscious dimensions of import.169 Beneath the level of the ego, a desire for repression may already be operational.
This would be the latest nail in the coffin for the notion of the neutrality of technology, pace Smith: ‘As regards how climate intervention might actually be used in the future, the capacity for evil lies not in the tools, but in the hands in which the tools are placed, which would make geoengineering like artificial intelligence, recombinant DNA, and lots of other emergent technology.’170 Leaving the other cases aside, our argument so far suggests that the capacity for evil – or, perhaps better, harm and degeneration – does in fact lie in the constitution of the tools. Like a computer its code, they bear within them a defining encryption of dynamics with streaks of psychopathology. The notion of neutral technology has, of course, been called into question by theorists like Marcuse and Adorno, the former going so far as to suggest that Thanatos, or the death drive, provides the psychic fuel for technological development: an instinct for destruction is extroverted and applied to nature, which humans have for millennia been hacking up, reassembling, slaughtering and trying to control.171 The hypothesis is sweepingly formulated for all of civilisation. Here, we have argued that the psychic fuel for geoengineering is rather synthesised at a particular conjuncture in history, when repression is the only way out of an otherwise unmanageable contradiction.172
Indeed, in the spirit of the second generation, we should resist more or less flippant attempts to explain the climate crisis with transhistorical complexes or drives – notably, the hypothesis that the present generation is bent on destroying the Earth in a murderous act of sibling rivalry with future generations, which would thereby be denied a liveable planet; or, the idea that humans fill the atmosphere with emissions because as infants they become used to their mothers taking away waste products.173 Likewise with the technologies for treating the symptoms of global warming. These cannot possibly have arisen as a result of phenomena always and everywhere present in the psyche. Fenichel offers the following synoptic formulations:
Let us think of an invention with a practical and at the same time a sexual symbolic value, for example, a Zeppelin airship which is certainly a sexual symbol but on which people can also fly. In order to understand inventions we must not overlook the rational necessity which must be present before an invention can result, and which arises only in a certain social situation. The task which is imposed in reality, can evidently be completed with the help of instinctual drives […] [ – indeed, it can] only be performed with the aid of a certain instinctual structure.174
Substitute the sulphate planes for the Zeppelins, and we get the following: an invention of such a kind can only come about in a highly determinate situation. A ‘rational necessity’ – doing something about the emergency – calls forth the novel productive force. But the task is completed with the help of instinctual drives, notably the lust for profit, to which it gives extended reign; moreover, the emergency is the product of the previous work of that drive, as it clashes with biophysical reality. We then get precisely the recursive spiral Fenichel seeks to outline. ‘Not only do social influences alter the instinctual structure, but the thus modified instinctual structure reacts again upon social reality through the actions of individuals.’175 In schematic terms: capitalist property relations elevate the drive to amass wealth into the engine of the social order; this drive runs without a superego; when it collides with the climate system, denial is the paramount response; in the moment of all-out emergency, means of repression are rolled out; these productive forces have an indelible moment of psychopathology in them. In a damaged life, the psychic is the endpoint, in its most material form.
But as already noted, psychology – psychoanalysis included – has so far stood outside, or been shut out from, research on geoengineering.176 To the best of our knowledge, there is one paper explicitly viewing the phenomenon through a psychological lens, published in 2013, making an argument based on substitution. Imagine that geoengineering works perfectly fine! Then emissions cuts will be supererogatory. This, contends the author, would spell psychic loss for anti-capitalists and other extreme alarmists who have built an identity around the doctrine that only system change can save the planet. They would be shattered, virtually castrated by the spectacle of a tech that easily fills the bill.177 Whatever else could be said about such a speculation, it belongs to the era when substitution was still a credible idea; since 2013, the consensus has, as we have seen, moved towards combination, the controversy restricted to whether this scenario is likely or not. It follows that geoengineering would not be a psychological blow to the left, other than as a defeat uncommonly epochal even as left defeats go. Radical or even revolutionary emissions cuts would be just as urgently needed after as before the launch; the risk is merely that geoengineering – by dint of its psychological implications – makes them even harder to achieve.
The paucity of psychology stands in sharp contrast to ethics. Hard-working moral philosophers have made it impossible for hard-nosed rationalist-optimists to ignore their objections; no one can claim to write comprehensively on the topic today without displaying an ethical literacy.178 But ethics is by nature a normative business. While it can inform the discussion about what is good and evil in geoengineering, it has no explanatory power as regards its development in the real world. If, however, the progression of the climate crisis is constituted by denial, then psychology ought to have an authoritative position in this field. ‘The realm specific to psychology is the realm of irrationality’, and this crisis is a journey ever deeper into that realm, even if the rationalist-optimists take the helm: for precisely their rationalism is irrational.179 Insofar as reality is determined by irrational forces, positing a rational world means departing from that reality – while thereby also sinking headlong, without resistance, into it. Truly rational research on geoengineering would place the irrational front and centre.180 ‘Truly rational behaviour’, in this era as in Marcuse’s, would mean ‘the refusal to go along, and the effort to do away with the conditions which produce the insanity.’181
3 Free Driving into Hell
So who will do it? The prime candidate for setting off geoengineering remains the US. That is where the vast bulk of research is conducted, the US being far ahead of everyone else – an edge NASEM apparently wants to sharpen – and home to the requisite platforms of technological, logistical and, not to be forgotten, military capacities.182 Geoengineering cannot be considered apart from the projection of imperial power. The very notion of weather manipulation has its roots in military planning, and the present enterprise bears plenty of bootprints from the US military-industrial complex: the basic research at Harvard has links to the defence and intelligence communities; when Smith consulted companies for the design of planes, he also sat down with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and other suppliers of American aerial supremacy.183 The rationalist-optimists do not shy away from the connection. ‘Militaries possess useful equipment and knowledge regarding complex logistical operations at high altitudes and at sea’, Reynolds justifies their involvement – but the militaries in question are unlikely to be North Korean or Iranian.184 Given the stakes, the US will not stand by idly as someone else – least of all a rival or ‘rogue state’ – sends up the planes. At the very least, the US will, if it continues to exist in its current form, under any configurations of geopolitical power conceivable from the present, insist on having the last word. Junior partners might be given a go-ahead. But the US will seek to ensure that geoengineering stays within the fold of its empire.185
The irreducibly military character of the enterprise pertains not only to congenial skills and research settings: once underway, the bases would have to be vigilantly guarded against any malefactors, as would the supply chains, from sulphate mines to engine factories. This would be ‘critical national infrastructure’ stretching across the globe, to be sheathed in imperial power; a military staying within its national borders could not accomplish the mission. The risk of the termination shock would make armed protection all the more essential.186 Candidates other than the US can be imagined, however. The Chinese state has tried its hand at rainfall manipulation in recent years. It has experience of large-scale engineering projects, an efficient top-down command structure, much to lose from accelerating climate breakdown, much to lose from serious mitigation too: the People’s Republic might have reason to move first.187 So might India, or Russia, or the European Union, or any other ‘major economy’ required for the task. But what is scarcely in doubt is that the agent of geoengineering, whoever it is, will be embroiled in the inter-imperialist rivalry that looks set to be a defining feature of the middle of this century.188
Any rationalist-optimist assumptions about bridged divides and smooth co-operation and parasol-induced world peace belong to the category of escapism. Due to its propensity to scramble regional climates and scatter uneven impacts, geoengineering rather seems predestined to foment conflict: actors will have divergent preferences.189 Some might want more soot to be injected. Some might prefer less, or elsewhere, or another schedule or substance; there is no shortage of possible bones of contention. Life and death on a mass scale could be at stake. The by-now usual suspects have suggested that conflicts can be avoided by a compensation mechanism: if one country suffers loss and damage, others would pay indemnities.190 ‘Some sort of international fund to share this burden seems logical.’191 Oh does it seem logical. Once again, geoengineering is here placed in a universe – a possible world of logics – other than that of the climate crisis, where negotiations over loss and damage have proved singularly unsuccessful from the standpoint of the aggrieved and funds for sharing the burden have remained glaringly empty chests.192
‘One rational approach might be to coordinate any efforts’ to intervene into the stratosphere ‘at the highest level possible. Ideally that might mean the UN General Assembly’, writes Wagner, ‘ideally’ being the signifier that carries meaning: here is an idealism that long ago bid farewell to planet Earth, a methodology perhaps concordant with the technology.193 The cacophony of preferences is quite unlikely to be graciously managed by the same ‘world community’ that failed to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, any number of annual summits to uphold the UNFCCC notwithstanding. Friction and fracas will continue beyond the emergency, and move upwards, into the stratosphere: a Sky Wars, perhaps an airborne bellum omnium contra omnes, for control over the thermostat.194
But in any such conflict, the upper hand will stay with those who prefer maximum injection. Adversaries might want to see smaller amounts of sulphate. There will then be a battlefield where some try to inject a little and others a lot, which means the latter are guaranteed victory: geoengineering lends itself to ‘over-provisioning’. If one state has the capabilities to loft the greatest quantity of soot into the air and wants to exercise them, it will carry the day.195 In game-theoretical terms, geoengineering here inverts the structure of mitigation, which is supposedly plagued by the problem of the ‘free rider’: if some states cut their emissions and render the climate stable, one selfish state will have an incentive to benefit from their services while letting its own emissions grow. And if one has that incentive, everyone has. In the end, no one will find it in their interest to go zero; everyone will seek to free-ride on the cuts of everyone else. Aggregate mitigation will not happen.196 But in geoengineering, to the contrary, the problem is that of the ‘free driver’: it is enough that one single state pulls it off for the whole thing to happen, even if others do not want it.197 This structure, this inherent momentum towards the maximum, is as damaging for any notions of ‘tremendous potential for security and peace’ (Buck) as for the axioms of moderation and modesty (and the rationalist-optimists know this).198 But it is remarkably consonant with the boundlessness of the drives of capital.
Those who want to reduce injection might resort to shooting down planes. Or, they could engage in ‘counter-geoengineering’: deliberately releasing ultra- potent greenhouse gases, chemicals with exotic names such as sulphur hexafluoride and difluoromethane, to overtop the sulphate and reheat the planet. An arms race may ensue. Rationalist-optimist attempts to discredit this scenario descend into the usual ultra-charitable interpretations of the world: states with countervailing stockpiles will use them no more than those with atomic bombs; the mere threat will contribute to peace and understanding (and mitigation no less); no one would ever do something so destructive.199 (That is, no one would ever release great quantities of greenhouse gases.) Only one insurance against counter-geoengineering carries actual weight. Not everyone can be allowed to engineer the planet according to taste: the capabilities will have to ‘be limited to major powers or coalitions’ (think NATO, G7).200 Put differently, the geoengineering state or conglomerate must establish a monopoly on stratospheric violence. A central actor has to impose its will on everyone else, the repression of global heating executed through a repressive apparatus capable of projecting its power across the globe. It is a case of either counter-geoengineering and bellum omnium contra omnes or a full-spectrum-dominant Leviathan.201
‘Geoengineering seems to demand centralized control’, Keith blithely accepts.202 Not everyone can be allowed a say in these matters. Decisions about how to proceed with the operation – how to assess info, modulate feedback, update tech – must ‘rely on expert analysis’ and ‘be institutionally insulated from broader debates’. In short, ‘some degree of technocracy will be necessary.’203 And this philosopher-king will have come to world power in an acute emergency.204 But if the rationalist-optimists call forth the spectre of tyranny, they must swiftly bury it: technocratic geoengineering is not, we are now told, incompatible with a democracy – for do not central banks regulate the economy shielded from popular oversight?205 And is not democracy everywhere circumscribed?206 And is it not always the case that ‘wealth and power shape individuals’ control over their own lives and their access to decision-making’?207 Here, at last, the rationalist-optimists explicitly align with the bleak realities of capitalist society, of which their geoengineered world will be an extension and intensification. No leap into fairyland on the field of democracy. Non-rationalist, non-optimist, more reality-attuned scholars have suggested that geoengineering fits the mould of emerging twenty-first century authoritarianism: under ‘slogans like “Hundred aircraft shielding us from global warming”’, strongmen could appear to control the climate for the benefit of their people.208 There is something totalitarian – and this goes even for the most liberal versions – about the technology.209
A subject of this kind would, needless to say, be a far cry from that posited as absent by Adorno: the ‘global social subject’ in which humanity ‘possesses genuine control of its own destiny right down to the concrete details’ and comes to its own ‘rescue after all’.210 It would be a poor substitute for collective rationality on a systemic scale. Since no one is ready to shoulder such a burden, the task of repression devolves to a lesser, partial subject, an imperialist power pitted against rivals; repression of the contradiction takes on repressive political features, in a manner Adorno would have recognised. The US state seems positioned to play this role, as the best-armed wing of capital, a representative of the demon left to figure out how to parley with the reality that it denies. Indeed, were the US to initiate geoengineering, the switch from denial to repression would be consummate. For about half of the time since the signing of the UNFCCC in 1992, this country has been governed by literal climate denialists; for the other half, by implicatory ditto. Throughout the period, no other state has done more to obstruct mitigation.211 All the more logical that it would also be the first to fire this gun.
3.1 The Fantasy of Never Termination
‘From my current vantage point,’ writes Smith, the commencement of geoengineering ‘looks as if it would be among the most consequential decisions in human history.’212 On this, he cannot be gainsaid. It is only slightly easier to shake off the impression shared by so many students of the phenomenon: that it is inevitable.213 Geoengineering is simply too easy to do, with too immediate gains in temperature reduction, poised against too overwhelming and extreme dangers from untreated heating, for it to go untested. One day, someone will do it; perhaps one day soon, perhaps in the early 2030s, perhaps a little later.214 The pace of the breakdown will have some bearing on the timing. But if geoengineering is among the most consequential things that can happen and nearly inevitable, the termination shock, in turn, looks only slightly less so.
The dynamics impelling the operation towards that endpoint is, as we have seen, immanent to it; but the rationalist-optimists have focused their rebuttals on the exogenous triggers. Terrorists can be stopped in their tracks. Just guard the facilities.215 In the unlikely event that they were to succeed and paralyse the global injection system, ‘humanity would have a period of several months’ to turn it back on, a job made easier if there is back-up hardware.216 In other words, the infrastructure should have a copy in reserve that can be activated in case of a knock-out blow. But this would, of course, duplicate the sensitivities, guard duties, coordination requirements and other logistical challenges: instead of one system, the geoengineer would have to maintain two. (Or perhaps three, an additional shadow infrastructure to protect against a crash in the second?)217 Moreover, this particular threat might as well come from within as from without. Geoengineering would presumably rely on a great deal of advanced software and algorithmic programmes vulnerable to cyberattack, including from disgruntled workers. The system ‘would likely depend on a large workforce and have numerous reasons for controversy’: anti-geoengineering cyber-terrorism, of proletarian or other subaltern character, as an inherent risk.218
In their efforts to belittle the problem, the rationalist-optimists habitually point to other systems that have been kept in unbroken operation despite stress. Did not the Dutch maintain their dikes through two world wars?219 Has not the world succeeded in maintaining ‘trans-oceanic communication links and electric power grids for more than a century in spite of horrific wars’, or healthcare and farming systems, not to mention satellites?220 And the internet? All these vast, complex technological apparatuses have withstood strain and continued to function 24/7 worldwide, and so, the argument goes, we should expect the same resilience from stratospheric aerosol injection. But it overlooks one difference: none of these putative analogues has a tendency to produce a rising tide of negative side effects on ecosystems. Dikes and satellites do not tip clouds or crops into collapse after some decades of enhanced operation. They do not tend towards a termination shock, since they lack that inbuilt law.
But, the rationalist-optimists continue, geoengineering will be done moderately and temporarily – this is how we want it! – so the mask will remain thin, the combination rigorous, the risk low, as prescribed in our idealised models.221 Groundless as this optimism is, it sits alongside the opposite argument, advanced whenever the shock is mentioned: ‘if the world wanted to continue flying dozens of planes into the stratosphere around the clock, chances are it would be able to do so.’222 That is, termination will not happen. We need not lose any sleep over it, because the world will find a way to keep injecting aerosols in perpetuity.223 We can do it forever, so let’s go – an argument that obviously undercuts any pretensions to minimalism and sets up precisely the journey towards inevitable shock; for the longer the journey goes on, the more severe the risk, the greater the incentive to continue, the worse the accumulation of side effects (and the longer the exposure to exogenous jolts to boot) until the geoengineered world reaches some breaking point.224 The same applies to the argument that if the ensuing shock really is that bad, it will serve to remind the world that it needs to resume operations.225 The antinomy of geoengineering without a termination shock is that of geoengineering everlasting (which, on purely logical grounds, would offer the shock so many more points of entry).
But rationalist-optimists would like to think that if the side effects become unendurable, the sunshade can be dialled down gradually, gently, to avoid the shock; this would be the rational way to do it.226 ‘The risk of termination might not be so great. Unexpected negative environmental effects might be detected early [sic], and solar geoengineering could be ended slowly instead of suddenly.’227 This wish seems as pious as that for a similarly charted inauguration. Just as the climate crisis will have to reach some critical state before geoengineering is switched on, so will a crisis of side effects before it is switched off. If there is anything the former has taught us, it is that capitalist society is inert and blocks incremental change. It is more likely than not to let pressures build up to a point where it eventually flips into another state or course: non-linear, punctuated change is the rule, not the exception. Geoengineering will be a shock when it comes and when it goes.
3.2 A Combat Line
But in human history, of course, nothing is truly inevitable. Nightmares may weigh on even the most alert brains of the living, but human beings do, at the end of the day, make their own history. Whether geoengineering will occur depends, among dozens of other variables, on what position popular and progressive forces take on it. From what we have seen here, there is nothing to indicate that advocacy is sensible: there can be no left case for solar geoengineering. Rationalist-optimist approaches deserve implacable hostility and should be countered with consistently critical pessimism, anchored in the realities of capitalist society under a sky filled with carbon.
Does that mean that if geoengineering gets going, we should take aim at the planes? Not necessarily: the historical mission is to train any fire that can be mustered on fossil capital. Posterior as much as prior to a launch, the principal contradiction is that between the climate of planet Earth and the accumulation of capital through the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, and it is on that contradiction it behoves the left to act. If anyone sends up sulphate planes, the demand should be to bring them back as fast as possible, one more demand to add on top of an immediate phase-out of all fossil fuels. But the praxis ought to be close to that of the Children of Kali.228
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