A talk by Holly J Buck – Why Climate Engineering and Sustainable Agriculture Need to Be Part of the Same Conversation

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September 21, 2015

Holly J Buck, FCEA Faculty Fellow and PhD candidate at Cornell University gave a brief talk this afternoon on her recent work investigating the cultural, practical, and conversational binaries that imagine geoengineering as distinctly, problematically separate from agriculture. She argued that the false dichotomy between issues of food security, land reform, and progressive farming must be deconstructed and replaced with a language of cooperation.

That conversation would require thinking about the ways techniques of each influence one another. The two issues are inextricably linked. Food systems as they exist already impact the planet on massive scales. Reciprocally, climate engineering would fundamentally challenge the status quo in terms of social organization and power distribution. Competition for land itself as well as for the means to tend, sow, develop, or redefine that land would be a disruptive force within communities. Land tenure changes would challenge conventional social roles, responsibilities, and notions of ownership. Some climate intervention schemes would directly employ cultivation and agricultural initiatives. Ultimately, the potentiality of a food crisis could be an economic, humanitarian, and geopolitical rationale for turning to climate engineering.

Holly depicted the current conditions in which this debate are occurring as rife with deep divisions created by a binary perspective: agroecology on one side and the industrial agricultural system on the other—a conflict further simplified to mean traditional vs modern, pluriethnic vs Western, resilient and flexible vs rigid and restrictive. This model of thought structures and limits the interactions we are able to have regarding any progress in this area. It speaks to how deeply entrenched our thought patterns are when it comes to economic development and land reform. The “centuries long domination” of colonial powers over indigenous populations have had (sometimes) inexplicit but (often) irremovable influences on international policies. Such frameworks are embedded in the potential implementation of reformative environmental technology; in what she referred to as “green grabbing,” we must recognize the tendency to alienate, appropriate, and financialize a space (and thus—a people). Models of engineering similarly approach the subject matter scientifically, often at the expense of thoroughly evaluating any number of other unforeseen obstacles and repercussions. It’s likely, she posited, that a major reason we have made so few actionable declarations thus far is that we’ve been unable to navigate this fraught web of responsibility-assignment and social-structure-reordering.

So how to move forward? A dialogue must occur at the nexus of academia, policy, and civilian engagement. Interdisciplinary voices must contribute to a broader, less reflexive conversation. Educational practices should begin to encourage creativity, addressing the training and incentivizing that typically encourages participants to stay in compartmentalized spheres. Specialty knowledge could then speak to the expansive implications of geoengineering—instead of simply noting that such factors weren’t considered within the model. Finally, the inescapable presence of the media means that if effective public communication on this controversial issue isn’t a priority, predictable storylines pitting one monolithic side against the other will continue to prevail. These patterns must be challenged, producing a new narrative that reckons with historical human-environmental relations as well as exploring a novel—but not new—frontier.

Find slides from Holly’s talk here.