This article by Peter Frase was originally published in Jacobin.
In early 2017, there was a widely reported story about the death of the Great Barrier Reef. This natural wonder, off the coast of Australia, stretches over 100,000 square miles. It has been built and maintained for thousands of years by billions of tiny organisms, and it sustains a complex population of aquatic life.
The reef has now become yet another victim of human-induced climate change. The culprit is a phenomenon known as “coral bleaching,” caused by warming ocean waters. The coral polyps that create the reef overheat and expel algae that live in their tissue, turning white. Over time, this leads to the death of the polyps, and thus the death of the reef ecosystem.
The problem of coral bleaching has been known for some time, but recent studies have found that the process is proceeding much faster than expected — large sections of the reef are already dead. In a March 2017 New York Times article, an Australian scientist reports finding a level of destruction not expected to occur for thirty years.
Reactions to the story followed predictable environmentalist narratives. For some, it was grist for the mill of green moralizing, yet another testament to the undeniable imperative to move to a zero-carbon-emissions world. For others, it was a dispiriting call to nihilism. After all, this was just the latest demonstration that climate change is happening much faster than even the most pessimistic scientists had believed. In such circumstances, it is easy to abandon hope that political institutions can address the crisis on the time-scale it demands.
There was, however, another story about the reef, one which hinted at a different political imaginary for the response to climate crisis. A group of researchers at the University of Sydney released a study in which they proposed to protect the reef by means of a technique known as “cloud brightening.”
The idea is simple to describe, yet radical in its ecological implications. The objective is simply to make clouds reflect more sunlight. This decreases the amount of light that reaches the Earth’s surface, thereby cooling it. In one of the most commonly considered implementations, this would be done by ships that traverse the ocean, converting seawater into salt particles, and then dispersing those particles into the atmosphere.
The scientists proposed a local cloud brightening effort, focused specifically on protecting the reef. By preventing a few degrees of warming, they argued, it might yet be possible to save it.
This may or may not be realistic. Indeed, recent accounts suggest that time may have run out for the Great Barrier Reef. But the researchers were suggesting an approach to the climate crisis that has been discussed on a much larger scale, one which is extremely controversial among those concerned with the breakdown of the ecological systems that sustain civilization.
The World We Made
Geoengineering, in the definition offered by Oxford University’s geoengineering program, is “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.” Cloud brightening is only one item on the agenda. These proposals entail either reducing the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth, as cloud brightening does, or actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through some type of capture and sequestration. Such ideas have attracted the interest of rich investors like Bill Gates and Elon Musk.
It is at this point that many on the Left jump ship. Geoengineering can easily be dismissed as a fantasy, the most absurd iteration yet of the Promethean delusion that we can exercise mastery over the natural world. Even if the possibility of these efforts is acknowledged, it’s disturbing to think that it is our current ruling class that would implement them, with their characteristic combination of hubristic short-term thinking and disregard for workers. And finally, some simply find it abhorrent to tamper with nature in this fashion, disrupting the Earth’s metabolic process.
The last objection is the easiest to dispense with, but also perhaps the most important. We have to recognize that we are, and have been for a long time, the manipulators and managers of nature. Even those who acknowledge this in one breath will still fall back on metaphors like reduced “carbon footprint” — as if we could just step more lightly and allow nature to repair itself. This is, paradoxically, one of the most anthropocentric positions imaginable, since it presumes that it is the eternal and natural state of the world to be habitable for humans. But God didn’t create the world specifically for us. Natural history is indifferent to humans and every other living being, and is characterized by chaotic change and mass extinctions, not homeostatic balance.
Moreover, we have irreversibly transformed the natural world already, often to our detriment. “You broke it, you bought it,” as the retail expression goes. And we have most definitely bought it.
This is the case made by science journalist Oliver Morton in his 2015 brief in favor of geoengineering, The Planet Remade. In it, he takes up the popular idea of the “Anthropocene.” The term originates with geologists, who have proposed that we have left the Holocene period for a stage in the history of the Earth that is specifically characterized by the human transformation of the ecosystem.
There are geographical criticisms of this proposal, but there are also some serious political ones. Left scholars like Elmar Altvater, Andreas Malm, and Jason Moore have called into question the entire notion of the Anthropocene. It would, these critics say, be better called the Capitalocene, since the degradation of nature is really attributable to the ruling class’s methods of capital accumulation, rather than human civilization in general.
Though this argument is based on sound historical analysis, it is limited as a guide to politics. Calling out the Capitalocene amounts to an argument from moral righteousness: it was you ruling elites who broke the world, not us! But be that as it may, any society that succeeds capitalism will inherit the world that previous societies have made — and we have been actively making it for longer than many people realize.
Morton’s book illustrates this by way of an intervention into nature that gets quite a bit less attention than the carbon cycle that fuels global warming: the nitrogen cycle.
Nitrogen is essential to life, and it is plentiful in the atmosphere. But in order to be usable for plant growth, inert nitrogen atoms must be “fixed” to another element, a process that for millions of years was done almost exclusively by soil bacteria.
That is, until industrial capitalism came along.
It All Comes to Shit
The history of human management of the nitrogen cycle is a literal history of shit. Our story starts in nineteenth-century Europe, with the German chemist Justus von Liebig. It was he who noted the significance of nitrogen for plant growth, and therefore food supplies. Moreover, he noted the particular way that capitalist industrialization had disrupted the traditional nitrogen cycle.
In an agrarian society, food is consumed where it is grown, and the waste, in the form of manure and compost, is returned to the soil. But in Victorian England, this cycle was disrupted by industrialization, which drew huge numbers of people to cities. There, they consumed food grown in the countryside. Their waste, rather than returning to the soil, went into the streets of London, producing squalor in the city and diminished soil fertility in the country. Karl Marx, in an expression later popularized by sociologist John Bellamy Foster, called this disjuncture in the ecosystem capitalism’s “metabolic rift.”
This, in turn, led Britain to confront an urgent geopolitical problem: an insufficient supply of shit. Off the coast of Peru, it was discovered that birds had, for thousands of years, been depositing their droppings on islands, where they built up into huge amounts of a nitrogen-rich substance known as “guano.” This could be used as fertilizer, a substitute for the lost nitrogen of an urbanized economy, and a means to escape any Malthusian limit to the ability of a given territory to feed a growing population. During the period of “guano imperialism,” wars were fought to secure these supplies — but by the end of the nineteenth century, they had been mostly depleted.
It was at this point that capitalist societies took a decisive leap into human management of the nitrogen cycle. In 1909, German chemist Fritz Haber developed a process for artificially fixing nitrogen into ammonia, a process which is still used to produce commercial fertilizers. It was now possible to escape the dependence on shit, but at a cost: the process was extremely energy intensive. Thus we come back around to the climate crisis — so long as energy generation depends on fossil fuels, all food is, in essence, a petroleum product.
Decades on, we now live in a world where more nitrogen is fixed in factories than in the soil, and consequently we can support a global population of over seven billion. It is certainly true that we could support that population more efficiently were we free of the artificial scarcities and wastes imposed by capitalism. And the production of excess nitrogen, like the emission of excess carbon, has serious environmental impacts that scientists are still figuring out how to address. But it is hard to see how we could ever completely leave behind industrial nitrogen fixation, humanity’s first great geoengineering project.
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Nevertheless, left rhetoric remains largely focused on reducing emissions, rather than on either mitigating or adapting to the effects of climate change. Take, for example, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, which lays out both the urgency of the climate crisis and capitalism’s inability to address it. Klein correctly observes that demands for redistribution and justice, and a fundamental debate over economic and social values, are prerequisites for real climate solutions. Hence her suggestion that fighting for a guaranteed minimum income might be more pressing than technocratic policies like a carbon tax. But she also includes a chapter on geoengineering, in which the subject is met with the usual leftist response of dismissal, disturbance, and disgust.
The subtitle of the chapter asks mockingly if “the solution to pollution is . . . pollution?” The dismissive attitude toward the subject is thus announced at the start. Likewise with the opening quote from William James: “our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.”
True enough. But as we have seen, our ignorance has bumbled us into a place where we have made ourselves the managers of an entire ecosystem, like it or not. Just as there is no easy way back from industrial nitrogen fixation, it’s hard to see how we escape an ever-greater entanglement with the carbon system. This is even more the case if we take seriously Klein’s, and many scientists’, insistence that climate change is likely to be more severe and rapid than was anticipated even a few years ago. That is, even if we went to zero emissions tomorrow, carbon that has already been emitted is there to stay and will have profound effects.
Klein finds discussions of geoengineering disturbing, for the same reason many left environmentalists do: they threaten to be a distraction from the task of transforming our energy, political, and economic systems. She notes that the most popular of the aggressive geoengineering plans “do nothing to change the underlying cause of climate change, the buildup of heat-trapping gases.” This is undoubtedly true.
Leaving aside charlatans like Newt Gingrich, no one believes geoengineering is an alternative to moving to a zero-carbon energy system. Rather, it’s part of a “both/and” strategy, combining mitigation and adaptation with decarbonization. But the political concern is that even discussing active climate manipulation gives cover to those who would use such schemes as an excuse for fossil fuel capitalism to continue business as usual. Given that, some on the Left ask, can’t we just leave all this stuff for after the eco-socialist revolution?
But tabling this conversation would itself enable our enemies — and our fair-weather friends. After all, it isn’t justrogue tech entrepreneurs who have started down the road toward climate manipulation. The apparatus of global neo-liberal governance has geoengineering in its sights as well.
Consider, for example, the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, or the “C2G2.” This is a project of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, a nonprofit whose origins go back to nineteenth-century robber baron Andrew Carnegie. C2G2 takes a cautious view of geoengineering, asserting that while they are not “for or against the research, testing or potential use of climate geoengineering technologies,” they nevertheless see a need for “a broader, society-wide discussion about the risks, potential benefits, ethical and governance challenges raised by climate geoengineering.”
In principle, this seems a sensible, even laudable perspective. Certainly it is preferable to placing our faith in unaccountable private actors. But the C2G2 is a creature of the transnational capitalist order, its board populated by United Nations and NGO functionaries. Left unmolested, a “society-wide discussion” about climate manipulation will involve the same elites who gave us transnational governance bodies like the World Trade Organization and European Union.
This is why the Left can’t ignore these debates. Because it turns out that geoengineering isn’t actually all that unique, or all that different from a whole range of issues that confront us today. It is yet another problem that is global in scope, while our movements remain persistently local in character. Building international solidarity is necessary so that we can present alternatives to both the techno-utopian and liberal-NGO visions of climate politics.
That is one reason to have open discussions of geoengineering on the Left: if we don’t, the bourgeoisie will simply carry out their work without us. But there is another reason too. Though the prospect of geoengineering as a distraction from the urgency of ending fossil fuels is an alarming one, we should also be mindful of another trap that lies in the other direction. Simply, those who want to emphasize the severity of the climate crisis find themselves caught between two contradictory imperatives.
On one side is the need to convince people that, as the title of Klein’s book says, this changes everything. Rapid climate change is a reality, and capitalism can only respond in ways that are by turns inept and inhuman. From this perspective, to speak of anything other than the immediate need for zero-carbon emissions is to feed the delusional or disingenuous arguments of those who say we don’t need to change much of anything, and can rely on a few technical fixes to solve the problem.
But an emphasis on the apocalyptic has severe downsides. Journalist Sasha Lilley has warned against the dangers of “catastrophism.” She argues that “an awareness of the scale or severity of catastrophe does not ineluctably steer one down the path of radical politics.” Instead, it can encourage passivity and quiescence. This can take the pessimistic form of anticipating inevitable doom, or the optimistic conviction that the present system will necessarily fall and be replaced by something better. Neither version motivates political action.
This is the purpose of raising the prospect of geoengineering in a left context — not as a substitute for decarbonization, but as part of a larger portrait of eco-socialism. Drawing this portrait matters, because the Left has always motivated itself for the immediate struggle by looking to a vision of a better world in the future. And for that vision to appear both realistic and appealing today, it must encompass both the end of fossil fuels and active intervention in the climate. Otherwise we are left to imagine a future of hair-shirt austerity at best, and apocalyptic die-off at worst.
What that intervention should look like is still a matter of scientific debate, albeit one that is becoming increasingly pressing. Morton leans toward a program of spraying aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere, thus reducing the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth and counteracting the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Other proposals involve actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently burying it. Even the mass planting of trees, which absorb CO2, can be considered a form of geoengineering.
Some, including Klein, object to all of this on the grounds that it would permanently commit us to a project of human-controlled ecological planning, “taking our ecosystems even further away from self-regulation.” But capitalism committed us to that course long ago. She worries, too, about an ecological correlate of her famous “shock doctrine,” in which “all kinds of sensible opposition melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem temporarily acceptable” in the face of an acute environmental crisis.
The comparison rings true, but not in the way Klein intends. Shock-doctrine neoliberalism was a response to the real crisis of postwar welfare capitalism, a crisis that caught the Left completely unprepared. And if we don’t prepare a comprehensive vision of ecological reconstruction, it’s not unreasonable to worry that the ruling class — whether tech elites like Bill Gates or C2G2 bureaucrats — will come up with theirs, and impose it by force.
For what matters is ultimately less the techniques of geoengineering than how they are implemented, and by whom. In this way, geoengineering resembles genetically modified organisms: not inherently objectionable, but potentially monstrous when developed by capitalist agribusiness for the purpose of profit maximization.
In response to the charge of hubris and Prometheanism, it is just as important to emphasize that though we accept the inevitability of attempting to “plan” nature, the socialist project does not aim at controlling nature. Nature is never under our control, and there are always unintended consequences. But just as we cannot trust either the market or a policy elite to automatically produce just economic outcomes, we cannot assume that an unmolested nature will provide us with a safe and abundant world in which to live, in this or any other social system. And so, in the process of achieving the post-scarcity order that the Marxist biologist David Schwartzman calls “solar communism,” we will take up the task of cleaning up the mess capitalism has made, and creating an Anthropocene more rational, democratic, and egalitarian than the one we now inhabit.
Perhaps it won’t matter. Perhaps climate change has already progressed too far, and geoengineering is merely a pipe dream — or worse, something that will create unintentional side effects that merely hasten our demise. But the only alternative to hoping for the best is resigning ourselves to the worst. The socialist project is predicated on the emancipatory hope that, in the words of The Internationale, “a better world’s in birth.” If so, it won’t be born unless we help deliver it.