Jason Rhys Parry reviews Holly Jean Buck’s Guide to Geoengineering.
Holly Jean Buck, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (Verso, 2019), 288pp.
Holly Jean Buck’s new book, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (Verso Press, 2019), is full of surprises in both form and content. Veering from science fiction interludes to reportage and interviews, the book playfully investigates the social and political implications of several cutting-edge climate change countermeasures. Far from being an apocalyptic last resort or an excuse for inaction on climate change, Buck claims that geoengineering (or “climate engineering,” as it is sometimes called) is an opportunity for confronting histories of exploitation and dispossession while simultaneously mitigating future catastrophes brought about by runaway climate change.
While many have decried the promethean hubris of geoengineering research, Buck takes a very different view of these climate modification techniques. The modes of governance and social coordination that effective geoengineering will require, Buck writes, “represent a rather utopian dream,” in which “people are really capable of long-term thinking and cooperation.” As her book repeatedly makes clear, it is wrongheaded to reduce geoengineering to a given set of technologies. The effectiveness of any particular instance of geoengineering will be contingent on the social, political and economic contexts in which it is elaborated, the stakeholders consulted and considered, and its place within a broader campaign of decarbonization. Although some may balk at such proposals, any realistic appraisal of our planet’s current trajectory makes the imperative to study large-scale climate intervention evident. As Buck explains, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ambitious models for limiting warming to 2°C rely on removing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in addition to emissions reductions. In other words, the IPCC’s best-case scenario calls for geoengineering.
The title of Buck’s book is key to understanding her argument (after + geoengineering—a preposition to a proposition). Buck asks us to consider a world in which geoengineering has not only happened but has effectively dissolved into a more ethical and restorative form of engagement with the planet’s metabolism. The temporality implied by her title is essential, as it underscores a neglected point in coverage of geoengineering, which is more accurately viewed as an ongoing commitment than as a singular event – less like pulling a trigger than planting a garden. As in most discussions of climate change and proposed solutions to it, time is the silent antagonist of Buck’s work. Against a seemingly sensible policy of postponing geoengineering efforts until the full scope of the climate catastrophe is evident, Buck paints a picture of the planet’s carbon budget as a bathtub steadily filling by the gigaton. Waiting to see the effects of climate change before serious efforts are made to remove emissions will only guarantee a catastrophic carbon overflow. Moreover, as climate change-related stressors begin to fracture political systems, the international community’s ability to coordinate geoengineering efforts may be progressively undermined. Refusing to countenance geoengineering now may lead to a series of rogue reactions down the road, undertaken by desperate states being smothered by heat or swallowed by seas.
Buck’s book is organized into four parts, each of which includes descriptions of the possibilities and potential limitations of various geoengineering proposals from direct air capture to solar radiation management. Interviews with scientists and entrepreneurs complement autobiographical anecdotes taken from Buck’s travels to climate conferences, laboratories and infrastructure pilot projects. The book is also filled with unexpected detours into such fields as education reform, the influence of AI on near-future employment rates, and startup culture. While this may sound like a whirlwind of genres, Buck is a deft stylist, able to convincingly outline a fictional future world in a few sentences and carefully explain the shortcomings of policies promoting biofuels.
Besides its formal eclecticism, the book is also a compelling intervention in a broader debate between two positions that Buck calls “ecomodernism” and “degrowth.” While advocates of ecomodernism – associated with authors of an eponymous manifesto – advocate for intensifying industrial production and technological innovation to address the climate crisis, degrowth theorists believe that scaling back production and consumption is essential to attaining a sustainable global economy. Buck attempts to reconcile these seemingly antithetical camps. She states that we need “more of certain kinds of industries, and less of others,” and insists that such strategic adjustments might simultaneously reduce aggregate emissions and lead to the growth of entirely new fields. In other words: fewer coal-fired power stations, more robotic kelp farms.
Many of the most riveting passages of Buck’s book concern the kinds of choices that will need to be made as the various consequences of different geoengineering methods become apparent. Buck interviews scientists trying to save the last remnants of the world’s coral reefs by artificially brightening clouds offshore. Another scientist points to the possibility that marine cloud brightening could cause Africa’s famed savannahs to turn into woody shrubland. Readers are faced with a truly difficult moral predicament: save the Great Barrier Reef or the Serengeti? Developing the individual and institutional expertise necessary to address these dilemmas satisfactorily would appear to require a vast reworking of our education system, and Buck devotes significant time in the latter stages of the book to outlining how we might educate a new generation of biosphere designers equally comfortable handling algae and algorithms.
One of the great rewards of reading After Geoengineering is being introduced to a novel lexicon for assessing the potential implications of different climate engineering projects. Terms such as “climate velocity,” “termination shock,” “peak shaving” and “teleconnections” give names to severe risks that are well defined but poorly understood. If we are to pursue genuinely democratic engagement with the question of geoengineering, it would seem necessary for the terms comprising this specialized vocabulary to become part of the broader public debate.
In this respect, it is somewhat frustrating that despite the overall lucidity of Buck’s writing the term “geoengineering” itself is only provisionally defined. At one point she writes: “Understanding geoengineering as a program, practice, project, intervention, infrastructure, and so on might make the concept seem sprawling.” And to a degree she is right. There is a real risk that such terminological flexibility threatens to obfuscate the public debate that she clearly shows is necessary. It may be simpler to follow the media theorist Benjamin Bratton and define geoengineering as primarily referring to a scale of effect rather than to a discrete set of techniques. In this sense, a carbon tax could be geoengineering, as could judicial decisions that uphold indigenous land rights. Passing a Green New Deal is a form of geoengineering, but so is blocking meaningful climate legislation. Even the fever dreams of anarcho-primitivists, deep ecologists and neo-Luddites, of a world restored to some pre-industrial (or pre-agricultural) condition, are also dreams of geoengineering – albeit ones rooted in denial.
Whatever programs of climate restoration are eventually adapted or dismissed, they will all confront to greater or lesser degrees the ongoing power imbalances that have thrust some communities into the most threatened corners of a rapidly changing world. But in striving for an “after-zero society,” Buck claims, we can achieve a more just one too. After Geoengineering encourages us to imagine democracy at the scale of the carbon cycle and to consider geoengineering as collaborative practices of planetary care.
Jason Rhys Parry is a postdoctoral fellow in the Honors College at Purdue University where he teaches courses in human rights and sustainable design. His writing has appeared in SubStance, Theory & Event, Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Philosophy Today. In 2020, he was named a fellow of the Future Architecture Platform.