The Philosophy of Global Warming

If you are interested in the relationship between the human species and the rest of life on Earth, individual and collective human purpose, evolution, cosmology, the nature of reality, astrology, spirituality, and how all of this relates to global warming & the environmental crisis of modernity, then I am sure that you will like my new book 'The Philosophy of Global Warming'. In the post below I have provided the book description, the list of contents and the first two sections of the book. You can find out how to get hold of the book by clicking on this link:

The Philosophy of Global Warming

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Need for Geoengineering - a clarification

In the previous posting "Two Routes to the Need for Geoengineering" I might have given the impression that there is a doubt as to whether or not there is a need for geoengineering. However, if the life which has arisen on the Earth is to survive there is very little doubt about this need. The only real question concerns the timescale within which the need exists.

To see this let me say a few words about the 'environmental crisis'. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that before humans had a significant impact on the Earth that the Earth was in some kind of 'static' state. According to this view, the Earth (and life on Earth in particular) was in a perfectly 'happy' and 'stable' state until humans started having a significant impact on the Earth; when this impact arose then humans 'disturbed this static state' by 'destabilising' the systems and cycles of the biosphere. The first thing to appreciate is that there is actually no such thing as a 'static' Earth. The Earth is an evolving and ageing whole. When the Earth was in its 'youthful' stage of evolution life spread out over the entire planet and was almost effortlessly maintaining the conditions of the Earth to keep them favourable for its continued existence. The Earth aged out of its youthful stage a long time ago. Life on Earth is now in a stage in which it is in peril (see Sir James Lovelock on this - Gaia, The Ages of Gaia, The Revenge of Gaia). In the future the ageing process will have reached the stage in which the Earth is unable to sustain any life. The youthful exuberance of a young Earth gives way to decay and death.

The only way in which the Earth as a whole can escape such a death is if humans somehow find a way to move the Earth to a more youthful part of the universe (via very advanced technology); and it is hard to take such a possibility seriously. It is more plausible that the life which has arisen on the Earth could survive by leaving the Earth and travelling to a distant part of the universe via human technology - a highly advanced spaceship - in a Noah's Ark type scenario. The future survival of the life that has arisen on the Earth clearly depends on human technology.

The considerations in the previous paragraph apply to the distant future. Let us now consider the more immediate survival prospects for the life that has arisen on the Earth. This is a complex issue with many aspects; I cannot go into all of these aspects here (they will appear at some stage in future blogs, and I have written 3 books in which I try to cover all of these aspects). There is one thing that is crystal clear. If there is no geoengineering then the Earth will become devoid of life much sooner (and seemingly very very much sooner) than if such geoengineering occurs. The non-technological ability of the ageing Earth to keep the conditions of the Earth favourable for complex life-forms is already weakening due to the ageing process. However, just as with an individual human, technology can extend life. If humans can successfully geoengineer the Earth (in particular the temperature of the atmosphere) then the life-forms of the Earth can look forward to a long and rosy future. If not, there is just a downward spiral of decay and death.

So, there is no doubt about the need for geoengineering. The only question is when such geoengineering is required. If the human perturbations to the cycles of the Earth hadn't occurred there would probably be quite a few thousand years before complex life on Earth died. The human movement of fossil fuels from their underground storage areas to the temporary storage areas of the slow moving deep ocean currents (the thermohaline circulation) leads me to believe that we have, at most, until the year 3000 to be successfully geoengineering the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere.

There is no certainty about the date; there is just certainty about the need.



  1. This is good study material, I have added a link to your work in the next update of my web site.

    Your emphasis on the need for sustainability research to be both "embodied" (in human bodies and body language) and "embedded" (in the cosmos - the total human habitat) is right on target.

    However, I am still concerned about the wisdom of geoengineering. The web of life that abides in the cosmos has been evolving for millions of years. I think we should be extremely careful about engineering interventions pursuant to modifying (let alone "improving") the human habitat. Don't you think that a wiser strategy would be to re-enginner all human made things to conform to Mother Nature?

    Would like to discuss further ...

    Luis Gutierrez

  2. Hi Neil,

    Just a few comments, mostly aimed at the certainty of geoengineering in the future.

    Increased growth in terms of humans/human needs at current levels seems to be a given in your formulations, but you should consider also the potential of compression, and even partial collapse as realistic ways for human life to go.

    Compression might take the direction of economic compression due to resource depletion, or it might take the form of enforced rationing by nations who see the writing on the wall for upcoming resource shortages.

    Partial collapse of the current trajectories of humans might take the form of an acute shortage of an integral resource like petroleum products.

    Either of these scenarios would lead to resting time for natural systems currently worked very hard (eg. green revolution style farming), this due to overall population compression.

    I would tend to favor shorter-term goals related to integrated systems design that takes advantage of the natural systems already taking place on earth with amazing efficiencies (mostly thinking of ecological systems of growing food and other products). If you're unfamiliar with the cross-discipline techniques of Permaculture, I'd suggest having a look at that in some detail. You could think of Permaculture as an agriculture with an ethic of 'earth care'.

    Taking Geoengineering as the only option for the future of humankind is a bit like saying the only answer to death from heart disease is to get better medical techniques - and not take into account lifestyle and diet choices.

    Also, Geoengineering is a bit of a catch-all phrase anyway. Technically, building fake metal trees that can prevent more carbon build-up in the atmosphere and planting 'real' trees on a large-scale could both be classified as geoengineering in some sense.

    I appreciate the time you spend thinking on these matters,

    Rob Read (just posting anonymous for expedience)

  3. Thanks Luis

    I agree that we need to be extremely careful about the geoengineering interventions. All interventions ideally require extreme care. One would like to believe that a doctor carrying out life-saving surgery was intervening in one's body in an extremely careful way.

    The main point to realise is that everything is in a constant state of modification. The very large modifications that humans have made to the Earth over the past few hundred years are the cause of the major environmental problems of today - biodiversity loss and human-induced global warming.

    As far as the biosphere of the Earth is concerned there is no meaningful difference between 'unintended modifications' and 'geoengineering modifications' - there are just modifications. It is my belief that the perturbations/modifications that humans have (largely unwittingly) already made to the biosphere necessitate the need for counterbalancing 'intended modifications' (geoengineering modifications).

    This hasn't been widely appreciated yet - there seems to a widespread belief that high human resource use/human impacts were the problem, so the solution (for a sustainable biosphere) must be low resource use/human impacts. If one believes that humans have made massive, and dangerous, changes to the biosphere that have barely manifested themselves yet, then one will conclude that reducing human impacts cannot deliver sustainability to the biosphere. The situation is such that only geoengineering can deliver sustainability.

  4. Thanks Rob

    I've only recently started using the term 'geoengineering'. I particularly have in mind the need to maintain the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere in the face of both the human forces and the non-human forces which are exerting upwards pressure which could cause that temperature to significantly increase. I am using the term 'geoengineering' to refer to any intentional human actions which have the aim of maintaining the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere in a range within which complex life can survive.

    You are right that I believe that in the immediate future there will be a continued increase in the human impact on the Earth, resulting from a combination of the size of the human population and the average resource use per human.

    However, I think that even if there was an immediate collapse of economic activity/fossil fuel use/resource use that this wouldn't alleviate the need for geoengineering. For, the damage has already been done, the horse has bolted, the cat is out of the bag. By transferring the fossil fuels from their 'permanent' storage areas under the land (where they were acting as a force to keep the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere much lower than would otherwise have been the case) to a temporary home in the thermohaline, massive upwards pressure on the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere has been created (the pressure exists but the effects of this pressure have yet to become manifest). Permaculture is great, but the problem seems to require a much greater solution.

    The certainty of geoengineering in the future applies in the more distant future if life is to survive on the Earth. There can be no doubt that as one extends into the future that geoengineering is the friend of life on Earth; without it there will be no complex life; with it there can be complex life. The interesting question, the question which is debatable, is how soon geoengineering is required. There are no easy answers; the precautionary principle leads to the conclusion that we should seek to take action as soon as possible.

    I envision a future of localisation and permaculture. However, this future also entails human geoengineering at the planetary level.