William James begins his classic philosophical work, Pragmatism, with remarks by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton says that the most important thing we can know about a person is their philosophy, their “theory of the cosmos.” He asserts that it is more important for a landlord to know a renter’s philosophy than income. That in war, while it is crucial to know the enemy’s numbers, it is even more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. James affirms Chesterton’s remarks; he comments that each of us has a philosophy and that “the most important and interesting thing about [us] is the way in which it determines the perspective in [our] several worlds”. The astonishing idea of geoengineering, that some group(s) of humans could attempt to intentionally manage the earth’s climate through large-scale technological means, has philosophical significance. As a leading scientific expert on geoengineering, David Keith, writes, “Deliberate planetary engineering would be a new chapter in humanity’s relationship with the earth”. How people interpret and react to geoengineering will largely depend on what James broadly terms their “philosophy.”
In its upcoming fifth report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will, for the first time, include assessments of geoengineering. This will raise awareness of geoengineering and move the debate to center-stage. Starkly conflicting philosophies of technology will play a role in shaping people’s reactions to geoengineering in conflicting ways. How this debate plays out will be a major factor in determining the future of geoengineering research, governance, and possible deployment. This chapter, then, takes seriously the idea that it is important to know the philosophies that shape people’s interpretations of, and reactions to geoengineering. More specifically, this chapter will worry about what philosophies will ultimately help shape our collective response to geoengineering. And, it will inquire into what philosophy, or philosophies, would best serve to undergird our collective response to geoengineering.
In an effort to gain a full view on these concerns, I will serve as a guide of sorts of a brief tour of philosophy of technology—to get the lay of the land, if you will. The landscape of philosophy of technology has been mapped in several ways, and it is far more detailed and complicated than this brief tour might indicate. This tour will look at three contrasting philosophies of technology, which I will term: (1) technological progressivism, (2) technological pessimism, and (3) technological “pragmatism”. From each of the three perspectives important questions are asked about geoengineering.
To briefly clarify important terms: for the purposes of what follows, Chesterton’s phrase “theory of the cosmos” is taken to mean something like what cultural theorists now call a “worldview.” While he doesn’t make this distinction, James’ more narrow term “philosophy” will refer to more specific philosophical ideas, principles, and interpretative schemas that play a key role in shaping a person’s worldview. The three philosophies of technology examined below play important roles in shaping worldviews. Individuals and groups with varying degrees of self-awareness, coherency, and self-criticism and who take positions on controversial technologies adopt at least elements of these three philosophies. Once again, one’s philosophy of technology is an important factor in determining how one interprets and reacts to controversial technologies, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and geoengineering.
Technological progressivism has the longest history of the settled territories in philosophy of technology. It is often traced to a history of philosophy that held that social progress was the inevitable outcome of scientific and technological development. For many people in Western societies, particularly in the United States, technological progressivism remains influential, even if its utopian dreams are now seen as an illusion.
From this perspective, the consistent application of science and technology is humanity’s greatest hope for improving human life. The philosopher Hans Achterhuis describes its essential assumptions as “purely instrumental, utterly neutral with respect to political and social choices. This social-political neutrality is said to result from the rational and universal character of technology”. The most important feature to keep in mind from this view is the universal and instrumental character of technology as a tool for making life better and more efficient.
While most academic philosophers of technology have long abandoned this territory, technological progressivism remains influential in social debates over technologies. Perhaps one of the reasons this philosophy of technology remains influential is due to tremendous institutional inertia. Many of Western society’s most powerful and wealthy institutions, research universities, national research centers, and technology companies, particularly in the United States, were created in the 20th century when this philosophy was in its ascendancy. These institutions have a vested interest in perpetuating this philosophy of technology, in whole or in part.
One of the most important thinkers who helped shape technological progressivism in the 20th century was Alvin Weinberg, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1955 to 1973. A memorial essay for Weinberg states that, “more than any other scientist of his generation he communicated the meaning and intent of Big Science”. Weinberg’s importance is found in his advocacy for the philosophy of technological progressivism through “Big Science” and “technological fixes”—Weinberg coined both terms. During the second half of the 20th century, Weinberg played the role as public philosopher of technology, writing and speaking on the relationship between technology and society.
Weinberg’s belief in the power of Big Science to solve social problems leads to a pattern of thinking, captured by his influential and now infamous notion of the technological fix. Weinberg argued that while technological fixes cannot replace “social engineering,” (i.e., politics and political philosophy) they should be used as a “positive social action”. Weinberg characterizes a technological fix as the solution to a social or political problem that results from reframing it as a technological one. The major benefit of doing this is it reduces the seemingly insurmountable complexity of social and political problems to “beautiful and crisp technological solutions”. Weinberg lists the major benefits of technological fixes. First, as noted, technological problems are much simpler than social problems; it is easier to define and identify solutions technological problems. Second, technological problems do not have to deal with the complexity and unpredictability of the social world. Third, they provide policy makers with more options and additional means for addressing social problems. Finally, they can buy time until the problem can be dealt with on a deeper level.
Weinberg anticipates many of the contemporary criticisms of technological fixes. For example, in reducing the complexity of a problem by reframing it as an engineering puzzle, many important factors that can generate unintended consequences can be excluded. In “fixing” one problem, technological fixes often generate others. Also, as is commonly noted, technological fixes do not get at the “root causes” of a problem. However, from the view of Big Science, side effects involve risks and trade-offs, which can often be addressed with additional technologies. Further, it is often simply unrealistic to hope that some social problems can be dealt with through political means; technological fixes may be the best we can do at the time.
Another influential advocate of technological progressivism was Weinberg’s friend and contemporary, the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson. In his book, The Sun, the Genome and the Internet, it is clear that Dyson shares Weinberg’s paradigm of solving social problems through Big Science and technological fixes. Dyson writes that his purpose for considering the relationship between technology and society is to look for “ways in which technology may contribute to social justice, to alleviate the differences between rich and poor, to the preservation of the earth”. While acutely aware that modern technologies have a mixed record, sometimes generating unwanted social and environmental side effects, Dyson judges the overall trajectory of modern technologies to be progressive. He is convinced that “new technologies offer the opportunity for making the world a happier place”.
Geoengineering proposals are textbook examples of the Big Science-technological fix pattern of inquiry into social problems. Most discussions of geoengineering begin by stating that the reason scientists and policymakers are considering geoengineering research is due to the incapacity of political processes to deal with the climate problem. The overwhelming complexity within social and political systems have made global climate change an intractable problem. Yet when the climate crisis is viewed as an engineering puzzle numerous potential technological solutions emerge—solutions that will restore the earth’s solar energy balance to pre-industrial levels. In the late 1970s, Dyson published an article introducing an early geoengineering proposal. The merits of Dyson’s particular proposal are of little interest to the present discussion. What is important is to observe how a person’s philosophy of technology provides a perspective on geoengineering. Given his philosophy of technology, it is not surprising the Dyson readily considers a technological fix to acute, dangerous climate change.
Dyson asks a speculative question that is being taken much more seriously 30+ years later. He writes: “Suppose that with the rising level of CO2 we run into an acute ecological disaster. Would it then be possible for us to halt or reverse the rise in CO2 within a few years by means less drastic than the shutdown of industrial civilization?” Dyson speculates that it “should be possible in the case of a world-wide emergency to plant enough trees and other fast-growing plants to absorb the excess CO2 and bring the annual increase to a halt”. The purpose of his research was to provide rough calculations that demonstrate the economic and technical feasibility of such a plan. Dyson notes that this “climate engineering” plan would be a short-term emergency response that would buy time—a stated benefit of a technological fix—for the long-term solution of shifting away from a fossil fuel economy. The above discussion is not concerned with the merits of Dyson’s proposal; the point is to illustrate how one’s philosophy of technology provides a perspective on geoengineering. Further, it could be argued that many of the people proposing geoengineering schemes share this basic view of technology: that it is progressive, universal and instrumental. For some, this philosophy of technology leads them to look to geoengineering for technological fixes to provide at least a short-term solution for an entrenched, seemly insoluble social problem. Again, central to this position is the assumption that technologies are morally and politically neutral, that human intentions, good or bad, direct technologies.
This view of technology does provide tools to criticize technological developments. It offers a specific set of important critical questions to ask about controversial emerging technologies. One can question the motives behind the technology and ask about potential side effects. For example, most of the criticisms of geoengineering proposals are lists of potentially impure motives and unwanted side effects. However, critical questions are restrained by this instrumentalist’s view of philosophy of technology. From this view, the technology itself is morally and politically neutral. The kinds of criticisms of geoengineering from the next region of philosophy of technology are much deeper and more sweeping.
Deep philosophical critiques of technological progressivism populate this territory of philosophy of technology. These critics paint a dark picture of the increasing role of technology in contemporary culture. From their perspectives, human history is now on a dangerous trajectory where technology is destined to become the “determining and controlling influence on society and culture”. One of the deepest critiques comes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger who “understands technology as a particular manner of approaching reality, a dominating and controlling one in which reality can only appear as raw material to be manipulated”. Rather than being a tool guided by human intentions for good or ill, technology has become a malignant dominating force of culture and nature.
Cultural historian Leo Marx provides a summary of this philosophy of technology. He notes that it is popular among modern intellectuals to dismiss technological fixes to social and environmental problems. However, their criticisms treat the habitual impulse as an isolatable error, a mistaken way of thinking that can be easily corrected. Marx warns that the problem runs too deep to be easily corrected. He writes: “Unfortunately, the dangerous idea of a technical fix is embedded deeply in what was, and probably is, our culture’s dominant conception of history”. The dangerous idea of a technological fix is part of a worldview that structures reality and how we interact with it. Marx calls the philosophical assumption of technological optimism a “logical abyss in our thinking,” and responds to it by asserting that, “few arguments could be more useful today than one aimed at persuading the world that science and technology, essential as they are, cannot save us”.
Another important source of this philosophy is environmental historian Lynn White’s famous essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”. White’s thesis is that the 20th century’s environmental crisis is the result of the enormous power created by the union of science and technology along with a worldview that justifies the use of that power to dominate and control nature. White aims to undermine the view that technological power is essentially a benign and progressive force and the idea that humans have the right to dominate the earth to satisfy our needs.
Looking at geoengineering in this light, Dale Jamieson argues that climate change, let alone geoengineering, “violates a duty of respect for nature because it is a central expression of the human domination of nature”. From this view, “geoengineering demonstrates a culpable attitude of domination and is quite probably a ‘paradigm of disrespect’”. Geoengineering is more than a bad idea; it is an expression of a misguided philosophy of technology and a dysfunctional worldview. From this view, the fact that geoengineering proposals are starting to rise into consideration must seem tragically predictable. Jamieson gives expression to this perspective in a survey of possible responses to geoengineering. He writes that, “even if [geoengineering] were successful, it would still have the bad effect of reinforcing human arrogance and the view that the proper human relationship to nature is one of domination”.
Philosopher Clive Hamilton has recently written several essays that are critical of geoengineering. These essays contain many of the themes of technological pessimism. In a 2011 essay, Hamilton takes direct aim at the instrumentalism of technological progressivism as part of the worldview that has lead to geoengineering. He writes:
The objectification of the earth means regarding it as a collection of resources that have instrumental value only, that is, values only as means to human ends. Viewing the earth in instrumental terms, so that the ethics of acting on it are to be judged purely by their effects, requires a certain wonderlessness and estrangement from the earth.
Hamilton provides several interesting arguments from earth science to discourage “thinking of the world as a systematic totality that we can know and control”. Echoing Heidegger, he urges us to abandon the technological thinking that sees the “world as comprised of resources at our disposal that can be grasped with our minds and manipulated with technology”. Rather than research geoengineering, Hamilton, voicing the positive vision of technological pessimism, urges humanity to adopt a humility that will allow us to live with nature.
Technological pessimism is a largely critical philosophy. It is highly influential among many environmental thinkers and, in general, is more prominent in Europe than in North America. Philosophers and humanists in this territory of philosophy of technology see their task as shaking people from the entrenched view on reality as shaped by technological progressivism. Their goal is to point out the dangerous blindness and distortions created by instrumentalism and progressivism that lead to the domination of nature through scientific technology. If we are to be saved we must envision a world where humans live humbly as a part of nature. This will call for new political, economic and technological systems.
This dark perspective of technological society does provide important insights. The most significant is the challenge to take a deeply self-critical perspective by questioning the intellectual foundations that have led to a seeming addiction to technological fixes. However, the wholesale rejection of technological fixes, such as geoengineering in an acute climate crisis, may cause great human suffering and loss of biodiversity. Moreover, when this perspective becomes the exclusive view on these issues, it can create an ideological fanaticism.
The final stop on this quick tour of philosophy of technology and geoengineering is technological “pragmatism.” This territory has been carved out over the last three decades by thinkers who saw limitations and distortions in the earlier views. The thinkers in this area are diverse and have yet to have the widespread cultural impact of the two previous views. In this region, philosophers provide more specific analyses of a range of particular technologies using a variety of philosophical approaches.
There are several philosophers in this area whose works could be used to shed light on geoengineering and philosophy of technology. However, for the sake of space, I will discuss just one issue in light of the ideas of one philosopher in this final section. The philosopher is Albert Borgmann and the issue is the common criticism that technological fixes, like geoengineering, do not target an issue’s underlying cause. The purpose of this brief discussion is to provide an illustration of a new perspective for asking important questions about geoengineering that go beyond the familiar, if important, questions that can be asked from the perspectives of technological progressivism and pessimism.
One standard criticism of technological fixes like geoengineering is they do not get at the “root” of the problem. Most problems have multiple causes and the cause people identify as the root cause to address is generally a choice based on various criteria. It is hard to say that there is an ultimate cause to any problem. However, the root cause criticism is not making a point about causal theory and strategic action. It is not saying that technological fixes are ineffective; they often are as good as can be done given the circumstances. Rather, the moral intuition behind this criticism is that in using technological fixes we are avoiding important engagements in the world that ought to be required to solve a problem. Technological fixes can unburden us of efforts and interactions in the world that are morally significant, whether by developing virtues or promoting justice.
One of Borgmann’s important insights is captured in his notion of the device paradigm. An essential feature of modern technologies is they tend to make things available for us without imposing burdens. Borgmann writes that, “something is available in this sense if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe and easy”. An important consequence of making things readily available is it lessens our engagements with the natural world and others. Borgmann uses the example of central heating to describe the tradeoffs that come with the device paradigm modern. To be warned, the point of the analysis is not to advocate going back to an earlier time when homes were heated with wood but to introduce a pattern of analysis that allows one to become aware of important engagements that are lost when new technological devices are introduced. With the advent of central heating, many laborious, time consuming, and sometimes dangerous tasks involved in heating a home with wood were taken over by devices. It is easy to imagine the numerous interactions with the natural world and others required by gathering wood and tending the fire. Moreover, the hearth created a focal point that gathered the family together for warmth through a common activity. This is in sharp contrast to the absence of engagement required by the technological system— from the thermostat in the home to the power plant in some unknown location—that keeps modern homes at a constant, comfortable temperature.
Again, Borgmann is not counseling that we give up the convenience of central heating. Technologies can allow for civilizations to advance by reducing our daily burdens and free us for other worthwhile activities. Rather, the loss of the warmth of the hearth as a focal point for family life demonstrates the kinds of losses that can be experienced because of the device paradigm. Devices bring many benefits, but we must be circumspect about how they lessen our engagements with others and the world. For Borgmann the task of “philosophers of technology is to point out what happens when technology moves beyond lifting genuine burdens and starts freeing us of burdens that we should not want to be rid of”. This perspective allows us to ask a new set of questions about specific technologies. In looking at various geoengineering proposals, then, one of the many questions to ask is: Is this particular technology lifting us of burdens that we should not be rid of?
To illustrate this point, it will be helpful to compare two geoengineering proposals that are in sharp relief. It is important to keep in mind that these example technologies are chosen solely on the merit of providing ready contrast for the purposes of quickly illustrating this type of analysis. The first example is marine cloud brightening. An artist’s depiction commonly accompanies articles that illustrate this proposal. In that illustration there is a fleet of automated, sleek, futuristic ships with large vertical cannons. The cannons are spewing atomized seawater into marine clouds to increase the number of water droplets and their albedo, or reflective capacity. The point of brightening the clouds is to offset some of the increased solar radiation being trapped by greenhouse gases. The contrasting example is the brightening of dark urban surfaces, particularly roofs and roads. One article on this proposal is accompanied by a photograph of two workers standing on a flat roof in a dense urban landscape rolling white paint onto the black roof. The point of painting the roof white is the same as brightening the marine clouds. Of course, in order to be geoengineering, both proposals would have to be intentionally aimed at changing the earth’s climate and at a scale large enough to effect measurable change. To be warned, these two proposals may or may not be quantitatively comparable: that is a scientific question. However, these quantitative issues do not affect the point being made in terms of illustrating how the devise paradigm might be used to discuss the moral and political significance of various geoengineering proposals. So, a more qualified question is: All things considered, does this particular proposal take away burdens we ought not to be rid of?
The failure of politics is most often cited for justifying geoengineering research. And, to a significant degree, the lack of engagement by citizens in democratic societies contributes to the lack of political success. The inability of politics to deal with an issue is a classic justification for a technological fix. This justification may be convincing; dangerous climate change seems eminent. At present, politics do not seem up to the task of acting in time to avoid very serious consequences for the earth’s poor and tremendous loss of the earth’s biodiversity. However, no geoengineering proposal can ultimately save us from this political failure: at best geoengineering proposals are technological fixes capable of buying time until effective action can be taken. Moving economies away from fossil fuels while allowing developing economies to grow will involve hard social and political work. If we were to research geoengineering, it would be wise to put our effort toward technologies that do not worsen problem of disengagement. To repeat the question: All things being equal, which of these two technologies, marine cloud brightening or the brightening of urban surfaces, would increase people’s engagement with the issue?
On the one hand, the unmanned ships that would implement marine cloud brightening would do their work far from people’s consciousness. The fleets of cloud brightening machines would be invisible to all but a few technicians. While implementation would be controversial and generate discussion for a time, once implemented it would require no engagement by a great majority of people. Moreover, marine cloud brightening would be far from politically neutral. Arguably, it would lend itself to centralized, technocratic governance. It is likely that initiating this technology would create a political fight that could have the positive result of engaging more people in the climate issues. However, once implemented, for all intents and purposes, the public could ignore it unless things went wrong. On the other hand, the brightening of urban surfaces could lend itself to more consistent immediate engagement by people. The activity of lightening roofs and roads would require a high degree of public engagement at the personal and local levels. On a personal level, one could imagine some people willingly buying more reflective roofing material while others complain bitterly. Either way, people would be directly engaged in the issue. On a civic level, one could imagine contentious city council meeting as citizens debated brightening public surfaces. These changes would be no doubt highly contentious, generating numerous discussions between citizens on the climate issue. Moreover, brightened surfaces would serve as a more immediate reminder of the climate issue than marine cloud brightening could. Many questions could be raised from this terse illustration. However, it is clear that marine cloud brightening would more closely follow the device paradigm than would the brightening of urban surfaces.
In sum, when viewed from the device paradigm, research into proposals that strongly reinforce this paradigm should be avoided, as they would likely make it harder to create the necessary moral resolve that will ultimately be required to power the political will to address the climate problem. Those that do more to increase engagement and understanding of the issue would be better choices for research. Furthermore, proposals that naturally favor technocratic, centralized governance should be avoided, while those that favor more democratic, decentralized governance would be better choices for investigation. One could easily imagine taking the simple illustration above as a model for discussing other geoengineering proposals. In particular, it would be interesting to contrast various proposals that remove carbon from the atmosphere with those that attempt to block or reflect solar radiation.
The purpose of this brief tour of philosophy of technology is to demonstrate, in a very broad way, how these three philosophies of technology provide perspectives on geoengineering. The instrumentalism of technological progressivism would likely cause people to look past the moral and political significance of geoengineering proposals. From this view, the discussion would focus on side effects, efficiency, and efficacy. On the other hand, the determinism of technological pessimism would reject geoengineering proposals as a colossal instance of the domination of nature. From this view, geoengineering only furthers a dysfunctional worldview that needs to be abandoned. At the beginning of this chapter, I asked: What philosophy or philosophies of technology will ultimately help shape our collective response to geoengineering? Unfortunately, it is highly likely that these two highly limited philosophies of technology will dominate the geoengineering debate. I also asked: What philosophy or philosophies should shape our collective response to geoengineering? It would be wise to focus on more recent trends in the philosophy of technology. Borgmann’s philosophy provides just one example how this can be done. What I am suggesting is that an important component of the debate over geoengineering research should be over specific proposals and their moral and political significance. The view of geoengineering from technological “pragmatism” adds a fuller perspective by going beyond discussions of efficiency, effectiveness, potential side effects, or sweeping condemnation. Unfortunately, it has yet to have the culture and worldview shaping affects of the previous views. Further research on philosophy of technology and geoengineering is needed to have a well informed debate over geoengineering.
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Wood, D. 2003. “Albert Borgmann on Taming Technology: An Interview”. The Christian Century, August 23, pp. 22-25.
 James 1981, 7
 Keith 2007
 Hamilton 2011
 Hanks 2010, 2
 Achterhuis 2001, 68
 ORNL Review 2002
 Weinberg 1969, 2
 Teich 1993
 Dyson 1999, 49
 Ibid, 56
 Ibid, 61
 Dyson 1977
 In his contrarian essay on climate change in 2008, Dyson updates this technological fix to dangerous climate change. He predicts that in just a few short decades biotechnologists will be able to create “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” (Dyson 2008). Dyson speculates that these “carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals” (Ibid.). This geoengineering scheme would require replanting one quarter of the world’s forests in carbon-eating varieties of the same species that exist naturally in these locations. This would be a win-win technological solution as the genetically engineered “forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years” (Ibid).
 For example, while some geoengineering schemes might address the problem of rising temperatures, they would allow the associated problem of ocean acidification due to rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase in severity. In addition, there are some worries that stratospheric aerosols would have the unintended consequence of contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer. Also, geoengineering projects will not act uniformly on the climate; they will likely change precipitation patterns, which in turn impact agricultural production. This could benefit some countries while harming others (Robock, 2008).
 Verbeek 1992, 11
 Ibid, 10
 Marx 1983, 7
 White 1967
 Jamieson 2010, 441
 Preston 2011, 462
 Jamieson 1996
 Hamilton 2011, 13
 In the scholarly literature this new area has been labeled the “empiricist turn” (Brey 2010). I am using the term “pragmatism” to mean more realistic. The idea is that the earlier philosophies of technology, while containing many important insights, were either too optimistic about technological progress or too pessimistic about its negative social consequences. The general idea is that the more time thinkers have spent considering the social, ethical and political implications of technology, the more realistic those considerations have become.
 Ihde 2003
 The cause of illness we choose to address is often an implicit or explicit social choice. For example, much illness can be attended to at the level of public health, preventative measures, or at the level of biomedicine, pharmaceuticals.
 Borgmann 1984
 Ibid, 42
 Wood 2003
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