Power and Responsibility in a Broken World


Monday, Jun. 18, 2018

Everyone knows that with great power comes great responsibility. Most also agree that if you break something you have to take responsibility for it. In the Anthropocene, it seems (a particular section of) humanity has broken the planet and has yet to take responsibility.

At the same time, a debate continues over whether, potentially world-shaping, geoengineering might not be better called ‘climate restoration’ or even ‘climate repair’. Recent examples include the Climate Restoration Foundation’s advocacy for marine cloud brightening, ocean fertilisation, and mechanical thickening of Arctic sea ice. Through such technological interventions, they argue, we can restore the planet, making earth systems look and function as they did before climate change.

Similar past advocacy made me think, “what would it mean to take the idea of climate repair seriously and ethically? When we repair things, what is important to us? What do we value about the repaired item or the process of repair? What ethical norms guide repairers in their work?”

So, I delved into the ethics and norms of repairers in a range of disciplines. I looked at the reconstruction of historic buildings and artefacts, the remediation of the human body, the restoration of ecosystems, the repair of relationships through reconciliation, and the rescue of cultural meaning in artistic reconfiguration. In all these areas, I found literature rich with ethical dilemmas and debates. Nowhere did I find simply naive ideas of visual and functional fidelity. Instead, I found such aspirations complementing more sophisticated practical ethics. The most widespread and significant of these were care, integrity, and legibility.

Whether dealing with historic buildings, works of art, ecosystems, human bodies, or relationships, practitioners of repair treat their subjects as individuals with their own agency and needs for care. They understand damage or breakage as part of the narrative of the subject’s identity. Practitioners respond to damage in ways that respect that history, not trying to hide it but to restore integrity while retaining a legibility of the narrative of the subject’s experience. Practitioners care for their subjects in ways that respect and enhance the subjects’ capabilities for self-directed functioning and fulfilment.

What might this imply for climate geoengineering? Can we begin to conceive of the climate as a subject with its own identity and needs that go beyond our instrumental needs? What might integrity and self-directed functioning constitute? How can climate restoration and a narrative of breakage and repair be made legible?

To begin to answer such questions, I suggest we need to understand and recognise the subject of repair in this case not simply as the climate but as the inter-linked natural-cultural systems of the world, including humans, ecosystems, and climate. We can’t care for the climate without caring for people, nor care for people without caring for the climate. Slowing the rate of climate change through stratospheric aerosol injection might be part of such a strategy, providing opportunities for both people and climates to adapt to the evolution of the system. On the other hand, seeking to design an ideal climate through modulation of aerosol deployment over latitudes and seasons would simply reproduce a form of human domination using geoengineering, not only as a powerful technology but also as a technology of power. Aerosol injection might also be legible – as long as we understand the whitening of skies and reddening of sunsets as symbols of the damage done, and the ongoing side effects of aerosol use.

Of course, different approaches to climate geoengineering might better, or worse, reflect the ethics of repair. Using soil carbon enhancement or peatland restoration to remove carbon or localised cloud brightening to protect coral reefs from overheating might effectively demonstrate care – at least within a broad strategy of accelerated mitigation and well-targeted adaptation. Yet, such efforts may no longer be enough to prevent dangerous climate change.

In an era where repair is perhaps unavoidable as a result of the accumulated impacts of humanity on the Earth and its systems, I argue that it is critical to bring repair out of the shadows. We need to be clear about its significance. Yet in much of the world, innovation and invention are lauded above maintenance and repair. For the future of the planet (as a natural and cultural system including humanity), repair cannot remain a discipline delegated to subordinates and minorities, nor should its aesthetic remain that of invisible mending. And in dealing with a planet knowingly harmed by anthropogenic climate change, our aim has to be reconciliation as much as it is restoration; guided by virtues of care.

Link for full article (unfortunately, paywalled).

Duncan McLaren 
is a Research Fellow at Lancaster, UK, working on a UK Research Council funded project on the implications of greenhouse gas removal techniques for mitigation. Previously he worked for many years for environmental NGOs and as a consultant and advisor on energy and climate issues. Amongst other roles, he served on the UK Research Councils’ stage-gate panel for the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project review and as a member of the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Potential (IAGP) project advisory group.