After (Reading) Geoengineering

After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration, by Holly Jean Buck (London: Verso, 2019)

Reviewed by Sam Mulopulos

Shortly after finishing Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering, I opened my mail to find that the April 2020 issue of National Geographic also focused on climate change survival. It was a two part issue, offering two different perspectives on the near future: the front cover showed a hellscape from space entitled “How we lost the planet,” and the back cover depicted a big blue marble announcing “How we saved the world.” Curiously, neither set of predictions mentioned geoengineering. In fact, the optimistic side of the issue focused on the importance of social transformation—adopting renewable energy sources, driving electric cars, and voting—implicitly reinforcing a dichotomy between behavioral or economic changes, on the one hand, and geoengineering solutions, on the other.

The National Geographic climate change issue reveals the need for more in-depth and nuanced considerations of climate survival like After Geoengineering. Buck argues against any binary between geoengineering and social transformation. She asserts instead that responsible geoengineering requires social transformation, and while she does not necessarily assert the reverse relationship, too, Buck makes clear that technological change does not happen on its own, but rather as the intentional result of human choice. This synthesis between the technological and the social is a necessary one, because geoengineering is not a one-off event. The decision to geoengineer would be less the climax than the opening chapter in any comprehensive response to climate change. As Buck explains “the hard thing isn’t beginning the project, but ending it: ensuring that what comes after engineering is livable” (p. 27).

After Geoengineering starts by raising a question that seems obvious yet is rarely asked in emerging technology circles: “Is this proposed program or project likely to produce a livable world 200 years from now?” (p. 48). Buck then goes on to ask, and answer, further questions about the political and social specifics of geoengineering: Who should decide when to engage in geoengineering? What should geoengineering look like? Who should be involved in ongoing geoengineering projects? And how would society know when to stop geoengineering?

These questions lead to further discussion of the relation between social transformation and geoengineering. According to Buck, geoengineering cannot be viewed purely in technological terms. Any decision to start, continue, or cease geoengineering would be as much political, social, and economic as technological. For example, Buck discusses the idea that developed countries might evaluate their potential responsibility to developing countries when considering geoengineering decisions, and emphasizes that for even seemingly futuristic solutions to be effective at reducing global warming, social change is required. For example, Buck discusses the potential for the capture and storage of biochar—by which biomass is combusted at low temperatures and without oxygen—to create charcoal that can be sequestered as an ingredient in new infrastructure as part of concrete or carbon fibers. And when pondering the attributes of a carbon negative society, she draws a connection between futuristic carbon removal and rural economic development, noting the potential for regenerative agriculture and direct air capture of carbon as a source of investment, infrastructure, and employment in rural areas that complements existing rural economies and values. In her treatment of such social change, Buck takes an almost populist point of view in her criticism of the big-is-beautiful, technology-as-panacea outlook held by some Marxist academics who scorn local and place-based environmental movements. In fact, she notes that both high technology and degrowth strategies ultimately leave climate change policy in the hands of elites.

In arguing against wholly top-down proposals, whether for geoengineering or social engineering, Buck deploys a number of personal stories, including a visit to a biofuel workshop in California, a tour of the commercial algae industry, and a stop-by at a direct air carbon capture operation in Canada. All are fascinating and well told. Buck also tells fictional vignettes of future life under different geoengineering regimes. Buck’s parables remind the reader that geoengineered life will continue to have all the quirks and attributes of life today. This both humanizes geoengineering, while also reiterating its gravity.

While the book sometimes strays into modish progressivism—claiming out of the blue that education must be decolonized—it makes a strong argument for looking at geoengineering in a new, holistic, and more human light. Where books on geoengineering, and emerging technology in general, often focus on technological mechanics, Buck’s work adds to the growing push to acknowledge and understand the social side of climate change, while also engaging in close and concrete engagement with the world of technological solutions. Her work is distinctive in showing us how to think about the social transformations that may emerge from technological responses to climate crisis. It would add a fresh perspective on any course about technology or the environment.

Sam Mulopulos works on emerging technology policy in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.