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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 volcanos, 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 nonwestern 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).[1]

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 mustlet go of “humanity” altogether, and refuse to accept as well as live by the premise that western civilization must survive at all costs.


[1] See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014): p. 270.