The Colonial Logic of Geoengineering’s “Last Resort”
As panic starts to set in about what little time we have to avert catastrophic climate change, elites have begun in earnest to drum up support for geoengineering fixes – including the fix of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.
The basic idea behind this relatively cheap, “cost effective” technique is that we could replicate the cooling effect of volcanic disruptions. Like the sulfur emitted by volcanoes, the aerosols would reflect sunlight back into space, and thus briefly spare us from the disastrous effects of rising temperatures caused by our fossil fuel emissions. This “last resort,” advocates say, could ultimately “save the planet” and thus “save humanity” while we figure out how to effectively and cheaply remove carbon from the atmosphere.
One could take great comfort in this aspiration to “save humanity.” After all, it seems we will not, in the time required, rise to the occasion of shutting down petrocapitalists.
However, advocates’ unspoken presumption that all humans would (of course!) want to pursue this “last resort” indicates that a more cynical aspiration is at work, for it is precisely the kind of presumption one makes when one is steeped in the colonial logic that produced our climate crisis.
Indeed, we should pay attention to how freely the champions of sulfur injections (and other equally radical geoengineering fixes) speak the language of the Universal Subject, that creature of colonialism whose benevolent claims about what was best for “humanity” – often framed in the discourse of economic as well as scientific objectivity and rationality – masked His exercise of brute power over non-western people and over Earth herself.
He is speaking to us again now, promising to save “us all” while intending primarily to safeguard western civilization, because western civilization is what He really means when He speaks about “humanity.”
In fact, He believes that saving western civilization is the same as saving Earth, and that Earth is not, in and of itself, worth saving if we are forced to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
That’s the implication, anyway, of His insisting that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels up to the point where “we” will eventually have to turn to the last resort for “our” survival.
It goes without saying that Others will need to be sacrificed to this greater good.
Indeed, it almost always goes without saying.
The men and women who are trying to sell us the solution of sulfur injections tend to be strangely silent on the fact that these injections would “disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people,” as Alan Robock and other scientists reported in a 2008 paper published the Journal of Geophysical Research (the authors of a more recent study published in Nature Geoscience indicate that while sulfur injections would likely cool the earth, they would also reduce global rainfall).
The effort to resolve our climate crisis in this manner is itself an extension of colonial logic. After all, as Heather Davis and Zoe Todd explain, “colonialism, especially settler colonialism – which in the Americas simultaneously employed the twinned processes of dispossession and chattel slavery – was always about changing the land, transforming the earth itself, including the creatures, the plants, the soil composition and the atmosphere. It was about moving and unearthing rocks and minerals. All of these acts were intimately tied to the project of erasure that is the imperative of settler colonialism.” If history is any indication, the last resort might very well be western civilization’s final act of colonial violence, exclusion and erasure – first, of the peoples and sentient beings it has always exploited and disregarded; then – and no doubt unintentionally – of western civilization itself.
Earth will survive this madness. It will rend and swallow and churn into fossils bridges and buildings and books and bunkers. It will heal and balance and produce new life forms. Hardly a trace of western civilization will remain, and what will remain, won’t matter at all.
To save ourselves, we cannot resort to technologies that are steeped in the logic of coloniality. Instead, decolonization – along with attendant Earth-healing technologies – must be both our first and last resort. We must be determined to live for one another, not at one another’s expense. We must let go of “humanity” altogether, and refuse to accept as well as live by the premise that western civilization must survive at all costs.
 See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014): p. 270.
This piece was originally published on 11/9/18 in Counterpunch.
Check out my Patreon podcast, The Wretched of Mother Earth, where I decolonize climate change.
On climate change and domination: Some thoughts on the Baton Rouge police protests, policing and rain
Many of us are no doubt familiar with the image, captured by photographer Jonathan Bachman, of Ieshia Evans as she faced Baton Rouge’s police during a peaceful protest this past July against the police killing of Alton Sterling. Clad in a light, airy sundress on that hot and muggy midsummer day, Ieshia stands her ground as the police move in to arrest her. A far cry from the riot gear in which the officers themselves are clad, the sundress in which Ieshia is clothed underscores both her vulnerability and her power. To stand against such a militarized force, knowing the violence with which it is capable, reveals an inner fortitude on her part that exposes the force’s own vulnerability, the kind unmasked when people resist injustice.
What Ieshia is also standing against, however (though she cannot yet see it, nor can we), is an impending rain storm – and not just any rain storm, but one that will dump 7.1 trillion gallons of water over the Gulf Coast, displace nearly 30,000 humans, take the lives of thirteen, destroy tens of thousands of homes, and visit similar, if not worse destruction on the lives and habitats of untold nonhuman life forms in Louisiana.
Indeed, this was a special storm, for as climate scientists recently concluded, it was “made more likely because of climate change.” That is, it was made more likely because “humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere” through our “rampant use of fossil fuels.” Since the 1860s, we – or more accurately, the global North – have “spewed into the atmosphere” over 500 billion tons of “human-generated greenhouse gases” (primarily carbon dioxide) that are trapping heat near Earth’s surface and are thus causing Earth’s average temperatures to rise (between “1880 and 1990, the global North was responsible for 84 percent of all fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions and 75 percent of all deforestation-related carbon dioxide emissions”). This global warming is creating the kinds of conditions that increase the probability that weather events like the Gulf’s August three-day rainfall will occur more often – “40 percent more often” – than “in our preindustrial past.” We can now expect to see such “extreme weather events” in the Gulf region once every thirty years – maybe “even more.”
I offer the image of Ieshia Evans standing against the Baton Rouge police while she (and many others) simultaneously stands against the Gulf storm not only because it is crucial to see that both the policing of African Americans and climate change share a particular history; but also because that shared history requires us to see our carbon-laden atmosphere itself as domination – domination powered, to a great extent, by the pursuit of policies and practices (including unjust policing) done to (though increasingly by) people of color as well as to seen and unseen nonhuman life forms, all for the benefit of the few, but most especially for those of the global North.
Like Baton Rouge policing, climate change was, as Chris J. Cuomo reminds us, “manufactured in a crucible of inequality.” In particular, it is “a product of the industrial and the fossil-fuel eras, historical forces powered by exploitation, colonialism,” Jim Crowism, and “nearly limitless instrumental use of ‘nature.’” In other words, the colonial powers of the global North made the planet hotter as they transformed the “subsistence economies” of the global South “into economic satellites of Europe” and, in the process, “wreaked havoc on the peoples and environments of the colonized territories.”
Climate change, of course, continues to be manufactured within a “crucible of inequality,” for it proceeds unabated within and on behalf of a “’colonial power matrix,’” within, that is, the “‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism’” –“anthropocentric, androcentric, heterosexist, rationalist, Euro/Western-centric, modern/colonial, racialized, industrialist/developmentalist, capitalist, and ableist” – and to which the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is absolutely crucial. Powered by seemingly endless military adventures and neoliberal economic policies, as well as by policies embraced by elites in the global South to raise their societies’ standard of living, global warming proceeds apace. Carbon dioxide concentrations (currently a little over 400 parts-per-million) are “now greater than at any time during the past 800,000 years,” and Earth’s temperature is fast approaching 2°C, the surpassing of which will be catastrophic for the entire planet.
Considered in light of this history and this present moment of “coloniality,” i.e., a moment in which colonial forms of power persist, our “dramatically altered” global atmosphere is, in a very real sense, an atmosphere of domination, one that is intentionally imposed upon us all and that makes “extreme weather events” – whether rain or snow or heat or wind – the continued felt experience, by all forms of life, of human acts of exploitation and violence that produced, and continues to produce, a warmer Earth.
The colonial power matrix, in other words, is literally in the air.
Although we did not notice it, it was as much in the air as it was on the ground the moment Ieshia Evans stood against the police and against the crucial role that policing plays, all over the globe, in creating the crucible of inequality out of which climate changed is manufactured.
It was also in the air in that moment when G4S – the private security team hired by Dakota Access, LLC – set its dogs on the Standing Rock Sioux, who had been standing and continue to stand firm to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on their land because the pipeline (the tribe contends) will contaminate their drinking water, destroy or harm sacred sites, and ultimately contribute to climate change. It was in the air when machine gun-wielding and riot-outfitted local police descended upon and arrested pipeline protesters. And it was in the air during the military checkpoints conducted by the National Guard deployed “on the outskirts of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.”
Though the Baton Rouge and pipeline protests concern different issues, the remarkable confluence of policing at both tells us a great deal not only about how the atmosphere gets constituted as domination; but also about the degree to which addressing and mitigating climate change is inseparable from confronting and dismantling the kind of structural injustices that we see in the policing of black and other communities of color.
So, for instance, if you look closely (with 400 parts-per-million of carbon in mind) at the pipeline confrontations, you just might see that the radically altered atmosphere in which they take place is actually a thing that G4S, the local police, and the National Guard defend. For it is not the mere construction of a pipeline that the private and state security forces hope to safeguard for Dakota Pipeline, LLC and other corporate interests; it is, more critically, the actual burning of fossil fuels and thus the manufacture of a chemically altered atmosphere – because therein lies the profit.
In other words, G4S, the local police, and the National Guard serve private interests (G4S also guards the BP pipeline in Colombia; the Basrah Gas Company in Iraq; “emergency vessels operating in the Niger Delta for Chevron” – you get the picture) in pursuit of a project that requires the exploitation of Native lands, the repression of the Sioux, the fouling of natural resources and, finally, the burning of fossil fuels. The Dakota Access pipeline, then, is a project in which global warming is the necessary end result.
But the damn Sioux are in the fucking way. Again.
The police in Baton Rouge – a force that is the legacy of Jim Crow – are not any less aligned with fossil fuel interests. They operate, after all, in a state committed (with federal support) to the drilling, extraction, and burning of fossil fuels – all with full knowledge that these activities will warm the earth.
Thus, in spite of the destruction that the Gulf rains caused Baton Rouge – a majority black city where almost 25% of the population lives below the poverty rate, and where the median household income is approximately $39,000 – the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nevertheless moved forward to auction off “for fossil fuel drilling and exploration” an area in the Gulf that is “the size of Virginia.” This auction occurred just a month after the rains. And although hundreds of outraged Gulf coast residents descended on New Orleans to shut down the sale, which took place at the Superdome (the very site where New Orleans residents sought refuge when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina), the sale proceeded. Protestors were arrested, leases were secured, and global temperatures continued to rise at record-breaking levels.
So what we witnessed in Baton Rouge on those three stormy days in August was rain, certainly; but it was also rain bearing the imprint of a politics of exploitation, such that it was the felt experience of a history of domination and of a present marked by the continued exploitation of Earth, of nonhuman life forms, and of the poor, especially those in formerly colonized nations. That same imprint is what we see in the photo of the police/Ieshia Evans encounter, where the police appear like an impending storm that will soon overtake a woman – defiant and unyielding – clad in an light and airy sundress.
What kind of justice can be achieved within a context – within a matrix, that is, where the state/police is aligned with corporations in their pursuit of fossil fuel profits and power at the expense of all life on Earth, and with little or no regard for the particular ways climate catastrophes – very likely produced by our radically altered atmosphere – impact communities of color the world over? Indeed, what is justice under a such a regime?
And to what degree is the state violence that is directed against African Americans and against the Sioux – the cold-blooded police murders of men like Terence Crutcher – a measure of our nation’s unwillingness to do all that is necessary to address climate change? How is it even possible to meet the demands of our climate crisis without undertaking a radical politics of decoloniality, without speaking everywhere and all the time of our altered climate – and even our “extreme weather events” – in terms that conjure (for example) conquest, colonialism, settlers, genocide, apartheid, indentured servitude, rape, Bantustans, Jim Crow, racial segregation, annexation, partition, national liberation, neocolonialism, western-propped dictatorships, proxy wars, neoliberalism, policing, regime change? Who living within our oppressive atmosphere can afford to be, or remain invested in, the murderous, nihilistic colonial power matrix that is driving millions of life forms to extinction?
And how can we not stand against it (and thus against our own complicity) by standing with the Ieshias and Siouxs of our warming planet, who by resisting those for whom the colonial power matrix is worth maintaining – even if it will destroy life on earth as we know it – increasingly face repression, displacement, imprisonment and even death? How?