The Near Horizon Collapse, TechUtopia, or Small Is Beautiful – Part One: Hubris
By Holly Jean Buck

Review by Tim Barton

In After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (Verso, £16.99), Holly Jean Buck quotes SF author Kim Stanley Robinson, who says of “a good future place”, “what’s hard is imagining any plausible way of getting from here to there.” Buck is a technophile, and although positing, via fictionalised future dialogues dispersed throughout the text, a worst case scenario, she is at pains to describe rather optimistic, mainly hi-tech, large-scale methods of reaching a zero-carbon emissions society as quickly as possible to avert this. Read critically, as a primer on geo-engineering (GE) her book is a valuable read. “So, is this after-zero society techno-utopia? Or is it a small-is-beautiful utopia?” she asks. This review will be the first in a series exploring these topics.

We face immanent global systems failure, of which greenhouse gas emissions are just one facet (pretty much the only one ‘addressed’ by GE ‘solutions’). Discovering this has been painful, and for many players the psychological stage they are in is one of denial. A mis-guided optimism, plus short-term greed-driven factors, leads to a response that is ‘too little’, and to a failure to face the possibility that it is already ‘too late’ for many of our basic life-support ‘systems’.

Collapse is inevitable without action. We have had decades of warning, yet, whilst giving lip-service to issues around ecological stability, we have accelerated ever faster into a cul-de-sac with an abyss at its end. Buck’s hi-tech solutions are ones where the very destroyers of the Earth become its guardians, by force majeure, from above. In this context, my primary concerns are with the ‘precautionary principle’, decentralisation, flattening hierarchies, and allowing an autocratic guardianship to become instead an integrated stewardship. Although this may sound like a hippy utopia, I believe these considerations will be core to any viable long-term solutions, ones only available if short-term measures respect them. 

THE IDEOLOGIES DRIVING OUR ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL STRUCTURES ARE GREED-DRIVEN 

Buck’s attempt to see a way from “here to there” is highly flawed, relying on an unfounded techno-optimism, and trust in an industrial-machine that has caused much of the damage. It is inevitably run from the ‘top’, and is in effect a modified ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. The ideologies driving our economic and political structures are not only greed-driven but deeply hubristic, and untutored in the foundation of engineering – science itself. ‘Scientism’ is a sin that is to be found primarily amongst mis-educated politicians, corporate financiers, industrial profiteers, and a fourth estate that largely kow-tows to their prejudices. Although scientists often have to give lip service to ‘scientistic’ fantasies to get funding, or even pander to it in fudged papers for cash, the majority are aware that science is not a magic trick, where if you can imagine it it will inevitably occur. It is a process, in dialogue with social and historical factors, yes, but ultimately dictated by fundamental laws and limits. New paradigms do emerge as knowledge grows, but at no point is wishful-thinking and a wand involved.

The combination of hubris, greed and scientism helps us understand the enthusiasm and drive of GE advocates. Most projects are large-scale, often global, as indeed they may need to be to achieve the goals they set themselves. The techno-optimism they display brooks no doubts about unwanted side-effects or runaway synergistic processes: yet look at most of the large-scale industrial projects of the last two centuries, from the Pennsylvania oil-boom of the 1850s, the subsequent oil-addiction of factories, transport, and ‘green’ revolution agriculture, through the mid-twentieth-century tobacco, plastics, and bleaching industries, and you see a failure to predict unintended, lethal, consequences; and a failure to put aside profiteering by admitting and addressing consequences. Generally, it is those responsible that first realise side-effects, and a pattern of decades-long cover-ups, and investment in ‘scientific’ reports that support the ‘it’s safe / it’s not us’ narrative, is common in every case. Frankly, I question the sanity and moral integrity of GE advocates. But, in Buck’s case the charge is ‘naïve over-enthusiasm’.

One of her main enthusiasms is solar GE. She advocates spraying particles into the atmosphere to mitigate fossil-fuel, livestock-sourced, and coolant emissions: as an on-going and global project, with, naturally, a large fleet of fuel-hungry airplanes. In other areas she looks at a variety of methods, but with solar she seems dazzled by this, a borderline insane one. Ironically, more rational methods of solar GE exist – for example, putting vast ‘umbrellas’ in space at stable points between Earth and the sun can modify albedo without toxifying the atmosphere. Once up, little fuel is needed, and if they need to be furled or even totally removed they can be. I am not advocating that, either, as a crepuscular midday has severe biological consequences.

ACKNOWLEDGING MODERN TENDENCIES TO SEE HUMANITY AS SEPARATE FROM ‘NATURE’ 

I think her embrace of GE is a psychologically driven need for a fix she can believe in, now things are so far gone that only extreme options seem open to us. I sympathise with this position, but if such methods are ‘necessary’, it is already ‘too late’. Mitigation is, it’s true, all that’s left, as we have reached a stage where you cannot make the omelette without breaking a lot of eggs: GE in the current ideological paradigm will break the wrong eggs, too many, and too late. ‘Appropriate’ mitigation requires a strong ethical drive to work whilst leaving a liveable society: GE’s productivist infrastructure cannot lead to this without very different contexts for action.

This is a shame, as elements Buck brings to bear are on the right path – for example, she quotes Giorgos Kallis on how organising principles of “simplicity, conviviality, and sharing”, and “frugal living” are required, and  Ursula Le Guin on the need to “change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival”. She also voices some positive views about societal and political system change: in answering her own questions regarding “technoutopia or small-is-beautiful” she says, “perhaps it can be both. I’m interested in a synthesis between these industrial technologies and something that appears to be on the other side of a binary from them: degrowth.” 

Her chapters on ‘regenerative food systems’ and ‘carbon farming’ are integral to real solutions; her laying out of serious issues with long-term carbon capture and sequestration are important; she
is very good on how oil-price fluctuation has stopped many of the grand ‘capture and storage’ projects; in discussing rural labour and the global south she acknowledges the need to address social justice issues (but, whilst acknowledging modern tendencies to see humanity as separate from ‘nature’, shows scant awareness of ideological over-determining structures in neoliberal capitalism); she posits a 10-point list of necessary transformations for GE to ‘work’ as a long-term ‘fix’, some of which are clearly necessary in other survival scenarios (‘cross-cultural and multispecies empathy’, ‘interdisciplinary systems thinking’, and ‘decolonial practice’). Yet her hopes are too unanalysed, and the briefest critical thought applied to her arguments shows up her wishful thinking.

Whilst I feel technophilic optimism doesn’t come close to squaring the tech-utopia/small-is-beautiful circle, in future ‘Near Horizon’ reviews I will
look further at concepts such as ‘degrowth’, the ‘Anthropocene’, ‘appropriate technologies’, and ‘productivist’/’consumerist’ business-as-usual approaches with a view to illuminating some necessary elements of a “plausible way of getting from here to there”.


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