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Tech optimism isn't a solution to the climate crisis
(Or, why we should worry about billionaires who treat Neal Stephenson books like an instruction manual)
It’s 2022. Another year of record heat waves around the globe. The United States government has once again failed to act on the climate crisis.
Joe Manchin is a 74-year-old coal baron. He spent a year and a half stringing the Biden administration and his fellow Democratic Senators along. It’s both a historic betrayal and utterly unsurprising. But it has left many of us searching for answers. As Leah Stokes put it in her (excellent) NYT essay, “What Joe Manchin Cost Us,” “The climate crisis is getting worse, and Congress is one vote short of saving us. We’re going to have to save ourselves.”
But what does it mean to save ourselves? Some people are openly embracing climate doomerism. (Don’t do that. I get the impulse, I really do. But hopelessness doesn’t help. At the very least, try to keep that shit to yourself, y’know?)
Others are leaning into techno-solutionism. Reasonable people who ought to know better are starting to sound like venture capitalist/tech evangelist Sam Altman, who tweeted in February that the solution to climate change is “technological breakthroughs that can deliver limitless, cheap, clean energy.”
Altman is part of the Silicon Valley elite. He managed to turn a failed startup (he tried to build a Facebook clone after Facebook had taken off) into a position as the head of Y Combinator, where he was granted first dibs on investing in the most promising companies. That made him a very rich man, which in turn has generated fawning coverage in the tech press. His unique strength is his boundless faith that Silicon Valley and startup culture are an engine of progress that improves the world while generating fabulous wealth.
Altman presents techno-optimism as the antidote to doomerism. The doomers are pessimists who think it’s already too late to prevent catastrophic climate change; the techno-optimists believe necessity is the mother of invention, and there’s still plenty of time for entrepreneurs, engineers, and venture capitalists to solve the climate crisis by cosplaying Matt Damon on Mars.
We obviously need investments in clean energy and new technologies. But the type of techno-optimism that the scions of Silicon Valley traffic in is just as corrosive as the bleakest of doomers. It’s a childlike faith in hero-inventors, bearing not even the faintest resemblance to how science and technology breakthroughs actually take place. (Repeat after me: “There are no Tony Starks.”)
What’s worse, it’s a faith that could inspire its richest adherents to take dangerous leaps that put us all at risk.
Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, imagines a world where engineers and billionaires just science the shit out of the stratosphere, geo-engineering a solution to the climate crisis. It is literally a silver bullet-solution – relying on the “world’s largest gun” continuously firing giant bullets into the stratosphere where they deposit payloads of sulfur dioxide, reducing global temperatures.
The book is a 700-page thought experiment, beginning with the premise “okay, well what if a few billionaires got antsy and just decided to do an end-run around all the political institutions and nation-states that are holding us back from engineering a solution to the climate catastrophe?” From there he plays out the likely geopolitical ramifications that would ensue if we started tampering with the global climate and everything went according to plan.
From that premise, he tells a tale that feels entirely real. Conservative climate-deniers would immediately “snap-around” and become proponents of aggressive geo-engineering schemes. Nation-states that are harmed by the scheme would seek to sabotage it. Nation-states that benefit would seek to build their own geo-engineering facilities. Climate modelers with limitless computational power would figure out what quantities of sulfur dioxide, injected in what locations around the globe, would mitigate the worst downstream consequences. It is less a story of brave-scientists-heroically-saving-the-world and more a story of billionaires-jumpstarting-innovation, followed by the rest of the world catching up and adapting. It is, in other words, a story that lets the reader imagine that the climate crisis is solved without overturning the existing, imperfect social order.
The book’s heroes and villains are all sophisticated actors – experts in their field. Every one of them has their shit together, and executes at the highest level. The plot doesn’t even begin until page 350. I could barely put the book down. It’s a really good Neal Stephenson book.
But it’s also a reckless book. We’d arguably be better off if he had never written it.
The trouble is that tech billionaires take Neal Stephenson entirely too seriously. Snow Crash was the inspiration for Second Life and the Metaverse. Jeff Bezos hatched his idea for Blue Origin over a cup of coffee with Stephenson. Cryptonomicon was an inspiration for a lot of the cryptography community that went on to become early bitcoin enthusiasts. It feels sometimes like Neal Stephenson books ought to come with a warning label: “this is a fictional dystopia, not an instruction manual.” (H/T Cyd Harrell)
The problem with Stephenson’s story is that, in real science and engineering scenarios, you never have everything go according to plan. The premise underlying the book asks the reader to take a leap of faith behind two types of science and engineering. First, we have to believe that the science of geoengineering is rock-solid. Second, we have to believe the science of real-time climate modeling and forecasting has been basically perfected. You need your climate models to be extremely good in order to forecast what the effects of geoengineering will be. And you need the geoengineering not to have any surprising downstream consequences that the engineers couldn’t predict. You particularly need this because “termination shock” is itself a warning – once you start this process at scale, you cannot end it without disastrous consequences. You had better be right.
Actual science is just a lot messier than it looks in Stephenson’s books. It is far too easy to put too much faith in precision computer models. We have built an entire digital economy atop the fiction that the data fueling surveillance capitalism isn’t mostly garbage. None of it works as well as its evangelists claim. We privatize the rewards and socialize the risks, resulting in a tech billionaire-class whose most abundant gift is their unearned confidence.
Can climate modelers really offer precision-accurate predictions of how sulfur dioxide “acupuncture” on the stratosphere would work? It’s a fun simplifying assumption for a novel, but a terrifying risk to take in reality. Never once in Termination Shock’s 700 pages do Stephenson’s characters have to deal with the assumptions of a model being wrong.
Geoengineering would absolutely be a minefield of unintended consequences. It has never been attempted before. We are incapable of testing it at scale without, y’know, actually pulling the trigger and trying. The degree to which we just don’t fucking know what the unintended impacts of geoengineering would be is off the charts here. The models are based on two major volcanic eruptions, with limited contemporaneous data collection. We’re starting from an N of TWO! Model it all you want, but those models will be based on assumptions that can only be refined once we’ve pulled the trigger on the giant silver bullets.
Neal Stephenson just has too many diehard fans who roughly match the profile of the rogue billionaire in his story. Is Termination Shock going to lead some ex-Googler to launch his own rogue geoengineering scheme? Probably not. But… yeah, it might.
And even if they don’t pull the literal trigger, their faith that technology will fix everything (so long as politics gets out of the way) makes it harder for the type of mass collective action that we desperately need right now. If the Tony Starks of Silicon Valley are going to work everything out, then there’s no cause for alarm, no need to make sacrifices, no demand for institutional reform or challenges to the existing power structure.
We’re going to have to save ourselves. That includes all of us… you and me, together. We don’t live in a world run by sophisticated players who have all their shit together and are engaged in some grand global n-dimensional chess match. We live in a world without wizards. Everything is a mess, because no one has it all figured out.
To my knowledge, Sam Altman isn’t a major geoengineering proponent. Instead, he and his buddy Peter Thiel (yes, that Peter Thiel. The outright fascist.) have invested in a fusion energy company called Helion. Altman posted last week that Helion is on track to finally crack fusion energy and usher in a new era of cheap, abundant, limitless energy. Sure, scientists have been trying to push this boulder up the hill for over 30 years (It was the premise of a terrible Val Kilmer movie in 1997). But Altman and Thiel are sure that this time will be different.
It would be great if Helion succeeds. I hope they do. But we ought to view Altman’s confident pronouncements with serious skepticism. Altman is a venture capitalist with no technical background and a vested interest in convincing people that the company is on the verge of a major breakthrough. He has faith in Helion because he has faith in technologists and entrepreneurs as the genius creators of a better future.
There’s a line from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949): “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts.” This is also called the precautionary principle. Proceed carefully when making changes to a system that you do not fully understand, especially if they will be hard to reverse.
We’re going to need science and technology breakthroughs in response to the climate crisis. But we’re going to need so much more than that. We’re also going to need policies and social support and activists who exert pressure on powerful people, forcing them to make hard decisions they’d rather put off a while longer.
I get the instinct to resist the inaction that stems from climate doomerism, but we ought to be equally suspicious of the inaction that comes from placing our faith in the tech barons’ ability to “disrupt” their way to a better world (one where, as usual, we privatize the rewards and socialize the risks). That’s just not how science works. It’s a comforting myth, meant to assuage the comfortable.
We aren’t going to solve the climate crisis with a silver sulfur-bullet. We aren’t going to be saved by cowboy billionaires.
We’re going to have to save ourselves.