On not being the omniscient conqueror
January 5, 2009, 3:23 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

This post of Gary’s over at Muck and Mystery would be a fine piece of blogging even if it didn’t: a) have a title from an Elvis Costello song; b) reference Firefly; and c) say nice things about me. Given that it does in fact tick those three boxes it becomes quite one of the best posts I have seen for some time…

Gary is taking issue with some aspects of my Edge piece on geoengineering. Part of our disagreement, I think, is that I suspect that changes to the boundary condition of a system may need to be thought of slightly differently from changes to components within the system. (I am not sure that I can justify this belief, and I certainly can’t do so off the cuff. More thought is needed.) I am also not quite as negative as Gary is about the chances of rational poolitical action.

One of the many strengths of the post is an excellent passage Gary quotes from Donella Meadows, lead author of “The Limits to Growth”, which deserves to be better known:

The mindset of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control. I assumed that at first too. We all assumed it, as eager systems students at the great institution called MIT. More or less innocently, enchanted by what we could see through our new lens, we did what many discoverers do. We exaggerated our own ability to change the world. We did so not with any intent to deceive others, but in the expression of our own expectations and hopes. Systems thinking for us was more than subtle, complicated mindplay. It was going to Make Systems Work.

But self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionistic science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.

More of Gary on Meadows here, including this nice line from her

The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.


3 Comments so far
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[…] Oli responds […]

Pingback by Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » Risks of Geoengineering

I note that I found this post on the same day that I did a post about the Severn Barrage, which is looking increasingly likely to happen, and is definitely a major engineering project aimed at tackling climate change (though unless Wales decided to object it doesn’t carry much international risk).

Comment by Cheryl

Environmental engineering’s been part of life since there’s been, well, life. We’re only just beginning to fully realise how much of the planet’s crust geology upwards is the result of biology over time, and there are plenty of examples of one particular species invading a niche and creating a complete local ecology that modifies things like erosion, water distribution and so on. Of such things, climates change.

I don’t think anyone imagines that we’ll sit down at Omnivac one day and dial in a new planet. But I do think that as environmental awareness grows and people realise the various impacts of decisions, the need to have some way of assessing those impacts will grow. These will be difficult decisions, so a more analytical, model-based way of weather forecasting for the environment will emerge.

We’re geo-engineering, like it or not. Anything that pushes the probabilities towards us ‘getting it right’ is going to be adopted, given reasonable legislative/financial conditions – and we’ve already seen that happening with ozone depletion (remember that?) and carbon emissions.

The point at which it becomes ‘deliberate’ is rather more complex than ‘the point we start dumping iron filings off St Kilda’s’, and the question of whether we do it is moot. We can’t abdicate.

(oh, and is Wales abroad? I’ve always been a bit hazy about that)

Comment by Rupert

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