Russ George is a geoengineer who has received quite a bit of attention this week for recently dumping hundreds of tons of iron sulfate into the ocean in an effort to encourage plankton population growth. He has been painted as a criminal, despite the fact that he is largely acting outside of the law. His case provides an interesting glimpse towards the future of environmentalism, as pioneers like Russ George use the tactics that were perfected by the environmentalist movement of the last 50 years against the movement.
While most of the articles about Russ George’s experiment were negative and critical, Michael Specter’s piece in the New Yorker, “The First Geo-vigilante,” contains some of the best passages for identifying the fault lines of environmentalism.
Fault Line #1: The only way to fix a problem is to control the behavior of billions of people
In the article, Michael Specter discusses global warming, then says, “The safest and most equitable way out of this horrific mess is simple: cut fossil-fuel emissions. Sharply.” The end game of practically every thrust in environmental activism in the last 50 years has been to empower the state to control the behavior of large masses of people. This is a fault line for the environmental movement that will eventually rupture as it is subverted by two forces.
- People have limits to how much state-sponsored exertion of power against their freedom that they will tolerate. The pendulum of environmental policy has been swinging left for fifty years, and the regulatory burdens that have resulted from this are resulting in a pressure-cooker-like situation for those on the receiving end. This group (that is quickly encompassing everyone) will quickly adopt any plausible new environmental doctrine that they are presented with as an escape valve from the status quo.
- Left wing environmentalism will quickly be made obsolete by a deluge of abundant information. Left wing environmentalism is built on the idea of scarcity – not just in its doctrines, but its own existence as a movement is predicated on scarcity. There are only so many trained scientists and policy experts that are qualified in the various fields of environmental science, and we are forced to make decisions based on this scarce body of information. This old model of scarcity made it easy for the environmental movement to consolidate control over the limited information sources, and therefore control the entire narrative of environmental policy. The explosion in information technology is going to disrupt this monopoly. This abundance empowers individuals and small groups to do extraordinary things that could only be done previously by large corporations and governments. As individuals are empowered by technology and abundant information, it becomes increasingly hard to control the actions of billions of individuals. It is one thing to punish an activity like energy consumption with a tax, but how do you stop information consumption? One only need to look at the online revolt that arose to protest the consideration of SOPA to get a glimpse of how this is a fight the environmental movement is going to lose.
Fault Line #2: Science is only useful to the extent that it furthers the agenda
For several decades environmentalists have been worshipping at the altar of scientific inquiry while at the same time chastising that those who don’t show a similar blind devotion to the cherry-picked scientific studies that they believe in. If you don’t agree with the dominant environmental dogma of the day, then you are anti-science. If you actually have scientific credentials and claim to be participating in the project of building scientific knowledge, then you tend to get the Galileo treatment. Consider this passage from Michael Specter’s article:
George told the Guardian that the recent dump is “the most substantial ocean restoration project in history,” and that he has collected “a greater density and depth of scientific data than ever before…. We’ve gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilization]…. And the news is good news. All around. For the planet.”
Well, gosh. That makes me feel so much more comfortable. Perhaps next, he can send a rocket into space, spread a few million tons of sulphur-dioxide particles, and cool the earth that way. Finally, a man capable—all by himself—of saving the earth.
It is hard to miss the point that Specter is concerned about Russ George’s actions. It is easier to miss his anti-scientific tone. Here we have a large-scale scientific experiment that has been conducted. We aren’t talking about an artificial experiment that manipulated modeling algorithm codes within the confines of a computer. This is an actual experiment conducted in the material world that actually furthered human knowledge. What Russ George did is science in its raw and unadulterated form. That Michael Specter bristles at George’s pursuit of knowledge instead of celebrating it reveals how deeply his allegiance to scientific knowledge lies.
Ultimately, Michael Specter is just the messenger. Left wing environmentalism and its artificial love affair with science will soon have a reckoning. As information continues on its path of exponential abundance, science will leave the current environmentalist priesthood behind. The future of environmental science belongs to men and women like Russ George, who are capable – all by themselves – of saving the earth, and who do it.
Fault Line #3: Governments are only useful/legitimate if they use the power of the state to further your agenda
This passage from Michael Specter’s article speaks volumes about his beliefs about the role of government in implementing environmental policy:
I may be wrong, but I am fairly certain that no village on earth should have the power to approve a project the consequences of which, for the entire planet, cannot possibly be foreseen.
Clearly Specter believes that governments should be the gatekeepers of scientific inquiry, and they should only be allowing the pursuit of knowledge for which, er… um…. the consequences cannot… uhhh… err be possibly foreseen. Yes. Why, yes, that is the standard. Dear scientists, if you cannot possibly foresee the consequences for the entire planet of your research, then the heavy hand of the state should prevent you from pursuing this knowledge. Yours truly, Michael Specter.
While governments might ultimately be able to censor large-scale experiments like the one performed by Russ George, it is unlikely that they will be able to censor every pursuit of scientific inquiry that doesn’t align with the agenda of the entrenched left wing environmentalists. Open source science is the future of environmental science and government will have to shift from a top down approach where it controls science through regulation and funding opportunities to a bottom up approach, where it simply aggregates and consumes the massive amount of scientific research that is available.
Also, that Specter believes George’s single experiment will affect the entire planet is on it face ridiculous. It would have the most immediate effects on the village that approved it. That George sought and acquired their approval should be all that was necessary. The knowledge acquired from George’s experiment could affect the entire planet, but the iron sulfate will dissipate into the ocean over time. Even an experiment of this size will only have limited temporary impact on the oceans, the climate, and other equally vast phenomena that Specter seems so worried about. Ultimately, those like Specter are most likely concerned about epistemic disruption as opposed to environmental disruption. If entrepreneurs like Russ George find ways to sequester carbon that also mitigate other negative environmental impacts such as declining fish populations, then those who want to use climate change to enact a political agenda will be stymied. A reasonable populace will embrace the pluck and drive of problem solvers who use science to fix problems and make the world better over the fear mongers who use science to scare the populace into submission.
Fault line #4: The tactics pioneered by the environmental movement will be used against it.
Russ George’s actions seem almost as if they came out of an Edward Abby novel. He performed his experiment in international waters to escape the purview of domestic laws that would prevent his actions. He also used the government (albeit a very small one) as a tool to give legitimacy to the project. He is also using his experiment to gather data to create the scientific body of knowledge to legitimize future experiments.
Ultimately, geo-engineering poses an existential threat to environmentalism. The environmental movement has sustained itself by identifying threats, and using the fear of these threats to enact a political agenda. Geo-engineering identifies threats and uses science and technology to confront the threats. Selling fear can be an effective force for selling a movement, but selling fear cannot withstand an onslaught of innovation, knowledge, and abundance.