Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: So, I’m back in Arizona. You’re still in San Francisco. Finally, we are both relo­cat­ed to places that we can at least nom­i­nal­ly call home.

Micah Saul: Yes. Exactly.

Anderson: Fourteen thou­sand miles lat­er. Fourteen thou­sand miles and sev­en and a half months.

Saul: Yeah, that’s… I did ten. 

Anderson: Not bad.

Saul: Turns out we put out a lot of car­bon in this project.

Anderson: And we could­n’t opt out of that choice. Which is an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion to a lot of oth­er con­ver­sa­tions. Now, today we’re talk­ing a lot about car­bon. We’re talk­ing about cli­mate change. We’re talk­ing about geo­engi­neer­ing. We’re talk­ing with David Keith, who is a Harvard pro­fes­sor. He’s got a joint appoint­ment in applied physics and pub­lic pol­i­cy. He’s been study­ing geo­engi­neer­ing for two decades.

Saul: Yeah. He’s also President of Carbon Engineering, research­es car­bon seques­tra­tion. Which is prob­a­bly a pret­ty use­ful thing for you and I to donate mon­ey to, just to off­set what we’ve done.

Anderson: Or we can just geo­engi­neer our way out of this all by shoot­ing some par­ti­cles into the atmos­phere or encour­ag­ing algae growth in the oceans.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: Some of our lis­ten­ers may not know what geo­engi­neer­ing is. David gives you a real­ly brief back­ground on it in the very begin­ning of our episode. But unlike a lot of episodes, this is one where we real­ly plunge right into the phi­los­o­phy, into the val­ues con­ver­sa­tion. It feels like you know, typ­i­cal­ly in these episodes I try to give us a pret­ty rich foun­da­tion of like okay, here’s some­thing tan­gi­ble we start with, and then we jump into phi­los­o­phy. But here we jump in. 

And so for those of you who are inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about geo­engi­neer­ing, I’ll have some links up on his page. You can watch his TED talk, you can read arti­cles about it. There’s a lot of infor­ma­tion. This is a real­ly con­tentious issue, so it’s worth read­ing about for any num­ber of rea­sons. But it will cer­tain­ly affect your life at some point. I’m will­ing to put…well, I don’t have any mon­ey to bet at this point. I’m dead broke. But if I had mon­ey to bet, I would bet that this will mat­ter in our lifetimes. 

Saul: Oh, absolute­ly. Which is inter­est­ing con­sid­er­ing our pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions and our sort of dis­trust of the idea of inevitabil­i­ty. This is one that actu­al­ly does feel inevitable in some form or another. 

Anderson: Right.

Saul: And that’s going to come up in this con­ver­sa­tion. So, think about that while you’re lis­ten­ing. Also while lis­ten­ing, keep Carolyn Raffensperger and Robert Zubrin in mind. Keith pro­vides an inter­est­ing sort of bridge between those two. Which is real­ly sur­pris­ing because on the sur­face, their ideas seem com­plete­ly irreconcilable. 

Anderson: Yeah. I mean, they would both hate each other.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: We talk a lit­tle bit at the end of this con­ver­sa­tion about how geo­engi­neer­ing bridges a lot of dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions. Now, whether or not you end up buy­ing that, I think it is fas­ci­nat­ing how this inter­view does bridge a lot of themes with­in this project. So, here we go.

Saul: David Keith.


David Keith: There are two essen­tial­ly inde­pen­dent and unre­lat­ed things that get labeled geo­engi­neer­ing. One is the idea that we could put reflec­tive par­ti­cles in the atmos­phere to make the earth a lit­tle bit brighter, which would reflect away some sun­light and cool the plan­et. And the oth­er idea is var­i­ous ways that we might remove car­bon from the atmos­phere, trans­fer­ring it to trees, or the deep ocean, or under­ground. And those ideas have both his­tor­i­cal­ly been called geo­engi­neer­ing, but in prac­tice they have sort of noth­ing to do with each oth­er respect with respect to sci­ence or the pub­lic pol­i­cy chal­lenged they raise. I mean, they’re both part of the broad set of things we might do about cli­mate change that ranges from just liv­ing with less, to mak­ing things more effi­cient, to decar­boniz­ing our ener­gy sys­tem, to adapt­ing to the change, etc.

Aengus Anderson: What’s the prob­lem that geo­engi­neer­ing is address­ing? Essentially, the why care about about any sort of cli­mate change,” opposed to just accept adaptation.”

Keith: I think that’s exact­ly the right ques­tion. I’m real­ly glad you’re ask­ing it. I think if peo­ple don’t have a clear idea about what prob­lem they’re try­ing to solve, there’s no way to make sen­si­ble deci­sions about what to do. And I think often, we have this kind of tech­no­crat­ic idea that it’s sort of obvi­ous what the prob­lem is. And so then we just should go ahead and do what­ev­er solu­tion is the right solu­tion for the problem.

But it’s not obvi­ous. So you know, should we care about it because we care about polar bears and the High Arctic melt­ing? Or because we care about New Yorkers who might be threat­ened by ris­ing sea lev­els? Or poor farm­ers in south­ern India who might have crop loss­es when tem­per­a­tures go up? And it’s very tempt­ing to sort of say that the right answer is oh, we should just care about every­thing. All of the above. But in fact, that’s a cop out. And unless you have some idea about what your pri­or­i­ties are, it’s impos­si­ble to say much about what we should do about cli­mate change.

And these are not tech­ni­cal ques­tions. These are val­ue ques­tions that can’t be answered tech­ni­cal­ly. There’s no way to say what’s the right answer. You know, I have lots of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge that an aver­age cit­i­zen does­n’t have, but my judg­ments about those things are no bet­ter than an aver­age cit­i­zen’s, in my opin­ion, because those are fun­da­men­tal­ly val­ue judg­ments, and I think in democ­ra­cy we should take the view that every­body’s val­ues count the same.

And the answers real­ly mat­ter. So, if you just care about say, pro­tect­ing poor farm­ers, you’ve got to ask whether mon­ey spent to do that would­n’t be much more effec­tive­ly spent direct­ly on help­ing them get crops that were bet­ter off, or address­ing the under­ly­ing caus­es of pover­ty. It might be that that real­ly is the issue. So unless you have some clar­i­ty about that, I think it’s very hard to even know why we should deal with cli­mate change. 

And I think… Let me address one oth­er answer. Another pos­si­ble answer to why we should deal with cli­mate change is that it’s an exis­ten­tial threat. That if we don’t deal with it, we’re all going to die. That is the answer that quite a lot of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty wants to retreat to. So, very promi­nent peo­ple like Jim Hansen have said you know, if we devel­op the Keystone Pipeline, it’s game over for the plan­et.

So, I hap­pen to oppose the Keystone Pipeline like Jim Hansen does, and that’s a much more mean­ing­ful thing for me because I live part-time in Calgary, Alberta. And While I do believe we should close down the oil sands, I under­stand that that will crush the town I live in and prob­a­bly result in lit­er­al­ly parts of town being bull­dozed, and all the stuff that hap­pens in a col­laps­ing town, from sui­cides to all sorts of sad­ness. But I still do believe we should close down the oil sands. But I think it is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly unsup­port­able to say that it’s game over for the plan­et. I think that is just mean­ing­less, and I think he should be ashamed of mak­ing that claim. Because I do not believe it is a sci­en­tif­ic claim.

Anderson: I’m always intrigued by the places where sci­ence runs into democ­ra­cy, or runs into the world of pop­u­lar opin­ion. His claim may be in a way nec­es­sary almost for him to make a point or even be heard.

Keith: I think that’s what he and oth­ers like him might say. I’ve talked to him a few times over the years. But I think it’s end­ed up real­ly not help­ing the pub­lic debate. So, the idea that the way to get your mes­sage across is just to turn the vol­ume up to max, [inaudi­ble] a result of where we are. 

So first of all, let’s talk about real exis­ten­tial threats. There real­ly are things that could slaugh­ter a good frac­tion of the human pop­u­la­tion. And I think those things are real­ly pret­ty much all things humans do to each oth­er. Humans are fan­tas­ti­cal­ly good at killing each oth­er. It’s deep in our genes, and through bio­log­i­cal weapons or nuclear weapons or what have you, there’s a cer­tain frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion that seem to have the will to kill their fel­low cit­i­zens in large num­bers and the tech­no­log­i­cal abil­i­ty to do it. And that is, I think, the real exis­ten­tial threat we face.

You can imag­ine exter­nal threats like let’s say, that there was an aster­oid that was inbound and due to impact in 2050. If that [were to] real­ly hap­pen, that would be exis­ten­tial threat and it’s worth ask­ing the ques­tion, How would we react?” My guess is peo­ple would actu­al­ly focus pret­ty darn hard on that threat, and you’d be amazed how well dif­fer­ent coun­tries would work together.

But cli­mate change is just not like that. There are win­ners and losers. I cer­tain­ly spend my whole career on it and care very very much about it. But I do not think you can make a claim that is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly ground­ed that it is that kind of exis­ten­tial threat. I real­ly don’t. And I think that doing so is a way to short-circuit the actu­al con­ver­sa­tions about val­ues and trade-offs that are in fact the core of this issue. And it’s an attempt to side-step the real conversation. 

And I think the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in part has done that, and the result is part of what we’ve seen on the Right. So, why is it that so many peo­ple on the Right just say that cli­mate sci­ence is non­sense? For some of them, it’s real­ly sci­en­tif­ic skep­ti­cism. But I think for most of them, it is that they feel that when some­body says, If you believe this sci­ence, then you must act in this dra­mat­ic way,” and you don’t hap­pen to believe that we should act in this dra­mat­ic way…that if the ques­tion is posed that way, the only way that you feel you can respond, per­haps, is to say, Well, I don’t believe the science.”

And real­i­ty is of course in the mid­dle. The core sci­ence that says if we dou­ble or triple CO2 in the atmos­phere we’re going to see a fair amount of cli­mate change, that’s about as strong as any oth­er piece of sci­ence I’ve been involved in. It’s very, very strong. But that does not mean that we nec­es­sar­i­ly have to put a lot of effort into cut­ting CO2 emis­sions right now. That’s cer­tain­ly what I believe. But to get between those two facts requires some val­ues about how you val­ue the dis­tant future com­pared to today; how you think about the val­ue of insti­tu­tion­al action com­pared to col­lec­tive con­trol; how you val­ue the idea of kind of pro­tect­ing the world as it was com­pared to just direct, mea­sur­able, eco­nom­ic human benefit.

And those are things where peo­ple have legit­i­mate­ly dif­fer­ent views. And it’s not my posi­tion that you can accept the core of the cli­mate sci­ence as being sci­ence and still actu­al­ly not think that we should do very much about it, depend­ing on essen­tial­ly the set­tings of those knobs.

Anderson: Right. Right. Are you famil­iar with Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society?

Keith: Yeah.

Anderson: So, obvi­ous­ly he starts from a val­ue posi­tion that is extreme­ly anthropocentric. 

Keith: Yeah.

Anderson: I think he called envi­ron­men­tal­ism plac­ing an aes­thet­ic pref­er­ence above human needs.” And of course on the oth­er end I’ve had very strong biocen­trists who would say that no, we need to be just as wor­ried about the con­di­tion of the polar bear as we do about any­one else.

Keith: So they said they need­ed to be? Is that…why do they need to be?

Anderson: I think because there is a spir­i­tu­al belief that the polar bear’s exis­tence in its cur­rent state is innate­ly valuable.

Keith: Good. So, that’s the view I hold, too. But I think we real­ly need to dis­tin­guish claims that we should pro­tect nature for prag­mat­ic, util­i­tar­i­an rea­sons from claims that we should care about it, or that we do care about it. Environmentalism has become increas­ing­ly tech­no­crat­ic, so that peo­ple feel when they speak to pow­er, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, that they must argue that the rea­son to pro­tect rain­forests is because they’ll yield won­der drugs, or the rea­son we should pro­tect some beau­ti­ful marsh­land is because of its reser­voir water hold­ing capacity.

Anderson: Right. It’s the anthro­pocen­tric way of get­ting to biocentrism.

Keith: I think for many peo­ple who say those things, that’s not remote­ly the rea­son that they actu­al­ly care about it. So, there are biol­o­gists who’ve spent their careers work­ing on some species of bee­tle in the trop­i­cal rain­for­est, and they just love the rain­for­est in their bones. And they feel that when they go tes­ti­fy in Congress to some com­mit­tee, that they can’t just say, I love it in my bones and you guys will love it too, if you share it with me.” They have to say, Oh, we’ve done all this math and com­put­ed that there’s an ecosys­tem ser­vice here.” And I think that that has real­ly impov­er­ished our debate about envi­ron­men­tal issues. 

So, like many peo­ple that prob­a­bly talk about polar bears, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the High Arctic trav­el­ing on some long ski trips just on my own, with friends, and have seen plen­ty of polar bears, and looked down the bar­rel of a gun at polar bears and so on. And I real­ly per­son­al­ly feel the kind of bio­phil­ia hypoth­e­sis that E.O. Wilson has put for­ward that there is some­thing innate in us because of our genet­ic her­itage and where we came from that makes many of us love and respond to that world. And that’s some­thing that’s real­ly valu­able for rea­sons that aren’t mea­sured by ecosys­tem services.

Anderson: There’s no way to quan­ti­fy what that polar bear brings to you in that expe­ri­ence in the Arctic.

Keith: Certainly not in the kind of nar­row, eco­nom­ic view. But you got­ta be care­ful. I don’t want to claim that my val­ues trump every­body else’s. And I think there’s a real wor­ry here that as—at least a wor­ry for me, but objec­tive­ly you might argue it’s not a worry—that as peo­ple grow up more and more in cities they see much less of the nat­ur­al world and there­fore care­less about it. Because peo­ple kind of care about what they grew up with. 

Anderson: Are you famil­iar with Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas?

Keith: Oh, dim­ly. Not in any sub­stan­tive way.

Anderson: He popped up in this con­ver­sa­tion ear­li­er. There’s a big theme here in terms of how much can we know and con­trol and pre­dicts out­comes in the world. And his argu­ment was if you start look­ing at the immense­ly com­plex sys­tems that we’re mov­ing through… We’re talk­ing about nat­ur­al, but also where the eco­nom­ic sys­tems merge with that, where cul­tur­al sys­tems bump into that, ener­gy sys­tems… You real­ly can­not fath­om the rip­ples that will go out from your motions. And to some extent, that should incline you towards think­ing very care­ful­ly about mak­ing any sort of choic­es that are that big. So rather than say, cre­at­ing a mono­cul­ture and then try­ing to con­struct a world around it that makes that mono­cul­ture work per­fect­ly, he would rather breed new plants that work in a poly­cul­ture on the prairie and yet are grain-bearing. Because he feels that is essen­tial­ly try­ing to work with­in an estab­lished nat­ur­al sys­tem more, and not try­ing to rebuild a man-made sys­tem from the ground up, which will have ram­i­fi­ca­tions we can’t understand.

And so I just kind of want­ed to throw that out to ask you how much you think we can know about nat­ur­al sys­tems? And does that ever make you appre­hen­sive with some­thing like geoengineering?

Keith: Um…I mean, to sort of extreme ver­sion this claim is that every­thing is con­nect­ed to every­thing else, and so any action you do has unpre­dictable con­se­quences, so you should be very loath to do any action at all. And I don’t find that par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful. So it’s cer­tain­ly true that we can’t pre­dict every­thing that the world will do. Certainly not. I think we nev­er will be able to. And parts of it are kind of inher­ent­ly chaot­ic and there­fore unpredictable. 

But the prob­lem with that argu­ment is it pulls you pro­found­ly to the cur­rent sta­tus quo. And that might be rea­son­able if the sta­tus quo was some­how equi­lib­ri­um. But it isn’t. I mean, the way to think about what’s hap­pen­ing in the mid­dle of this giant tech­no­log­i­cal and pop­u­la­tion tran­si­tion that we’re in, which is sure­ly way out of equi­lib­ri­um in all sorts of ways, the anal­o­gy we need to think about is going down rapids or ski hills and kind of try­ing to avoid the very worst of the bumps, and prob­a­bilis­ti­cal­ly hope we’re not going to crash. But we do not have the option to just stop.

Anderson: Ah, okay. [crosstalk] And that’s some­thing I’m inter­est­ed in.

Keith: Unless we’re real­ly pre­pared to you know, have a big frac­tion of the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion die. So, you might make an argument—it’s not one I’m nec­es­sar­i­ly sign­ing up to—that you pre­fer some kind of more prim­i­tive agri­cul­ture. But the fact is that the agri­cul­ture sys­tems we’ve devel­oped over ten thou­sand years and espe­cial­ly over the last hun­dred and some, with inputs of nitrogen-fixed fer­til­iz­ers and so on, are able to get fan­tas­ti­cal­ly high­er yields than we could get before. And those yields I think are broad­ly sus­tain­able. There’s not a sign that they’re slip­ping away despite what some extreme folks would say. And if we real­ly sud­den­ly went back to much more prim­i­tive kinds of agri­cul­ture with­out say, nitro­gen inputs, there’s sim­ply no way we could feed that many peo­ple. And also, we would have to expro­pri­ate much more land from nature, that would have a huge envi­ron­men­tal impact.

So I think talk like that is just real­ly thought­less. Unless peo­ple real­ly mean what they say, which is they’re hap­py to have a big frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion die off, and to have a big­ger impact on nature. But I’m not.

Anderson: Boy, that’s been one for the peo­ple who have espoused more prim­i­tivist ideas. And Jackson isn’t one among them at all—

Keith: Fair enough.

Anderson: I don’t want to mis­char­ac­ter­ize him. But it’s tricky, right? Because you’ve men­tioned anoth­er one of these things we don’t want to talk about, which is that we are car­ry­ing a giant pop­u­la­tion that’s only sus­tain­able through perfectly-working inter­con­nect­ed systems.

Keith: Well, no that’s too strong.

Anderson: [crosstalk] That’s too strong?

Keith: That’s way too strong. There’s lots of slack in the system. 

Anderson: [crosstalk] There’s lots of slack?

Keith: It does­n’t all have to be— Well, I mean if it was lit­er­al­ly true as you said, that it only works with per­fect sys­tems, we’d be all dead by the end of the day.

Anderson: [laughs]

Keith: Because, you know, it’s evi­dent that things aren’t per­fect. Not in my world, any­way. And yet my pre­dic­tion is that most of the same peo­ple who are alive this morn­ing will still be alive tomor­row morn­ing. And that’s despite enor­mous imper­fec­tion. So I think that state­ment is just real­ly, real­ly not true.

There may be ways in which there are insta­bil­i­ties that come from the very tight con­nec­tions now that could yield some kind of col­laps­es. But I think those col­laps­es will come fun­da­men­tal­ly through things that look more like wars.

Anderson: Okay.

Keith: That’s the way peo­ple real­ly can bring the sys­tem down fast.

Anderson: I guess what I was think­ing about—

Keith: Let me give you a sense. So, ear­ly on when I was work­ing on cli­mate, there were some peo­ple who would say that the impacts on North American agri­cul­ture could be gigan­tic and amount to many many per­cent GDP. And a very thought­ful guy who was my men­tor, [Hadid Dalarabari?], got me to think about real­ly what were the lim­its to decou­pling us from nature. That’s not—again—not what I want. But I think it’s impor­tant to be hon­est about where we actu­al­ly stand. 

So, where we actu­al­ly stand is that less than 1% of GDP is now tied up, not just in agri­cul­ture, agri­cul­ture plus all the kind of agro­forestry sec­tor. It’s real­ly tiny. And the basic thing that that says is that you could afford to 10× the cost of doing that and still basi­cal­ly be fine. If we did that in one year it would be very trau­mat­ic, but if we did that over thir­ty years, we’d be you know, a lit­tle poor­er than we oth­er­wise would have been. But it’s not like it would bring indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion to a stop. And we could, at that kind of price, if you actu­al­ly go do the math, put the whole damn thing under glass. You could iso­late your­self almost entire­ly from the envi­ron­ment in a civ­i­liza­tion this rich. 

It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in China or India—

Anderson: Right.

Keith: —but the rich few bil­lion on the plan­et, if you sort of put a gun to their head and said, Okay, we’re going to essen­tial­ly force you to bring all agri­cul­ture inside over the next three decades,” the cost of doing that is you know, a per­cent of GDP but not 50% of GDP. And that gives you a sense of how fun­da­men­tal­ly we are break­ing our­selves free of the kind of core depen­dence on the nat­ur­al process­es of the planet.

That’s not an argu­ment not to care about them. I care about them a lot. But it’s an argu­ment that the util­i­tar­i­an view that we are so depen­dent on the nat­ur­al world that we must pro­tect it because if we don’t pro­tect it we’re killing our­selves… I think that’s back to the fact that I think those argu­ments real­ly don’t car­ry that much weight, and that the real argu­ments peo­ple have to make [are] the argu­ments than in fact are in a lot of our hearts, which is that there’s some­thing absolute­ly fan­tas­ti­cal­ly mar­velous about the nat­ur­al world, and it’s not just out there. We’re part of it. We evolved as part of it. It shapes our genes, which shapes our cul­ture in all sorts of ways. We respond to it. And we should trea­sure it, because we care about things like that. Not because we must. 

Anderson: I guess when I was think­ing about sys­tems work­ing per­fect­ly togeth­er, I was think­ing more in the sense of a his­to­ri­an and that now things work togeth­er pret­ty well com­pared to say, Medieval Europe or Medieval China, when you had real­ly slop­py sys­tems work­ing togeth­er. But the idea of putting agri­cul­ture under glass goes back to some­thing we were talk­ing about a moment ago with the idea that we can kind of know we could put it under glass and it would still work okay.

Keith: Yeah, and it’s impor­tant to say that there are lots of ways in which human envi­ron­men­tal impacts can and obvi­ous­ly are destroy­ing a bunch of beau­ti­ful, spe­cial­ized ecosys­tems and mark­er species and charis­mat­ic megafau­na, as peo­ple talk about. Tigers, and pere­grine fal­cons, although those are things we’ve brought back from the edge of extinc­tion. But those megafau­na are not the things that dri­ve the core, kind of chem­i­cal cycling on the plan­et. The things that dri­ve those things are real­ly archaea, these ancient bac­te­ria, microbes, and all sorts of kind of low­er, sim­pler parts of the ecosys­tem through which much more ener­gy flows. And it’s very very hard to imag­ine any­thing we’re going to do that affects that in a sub­stan­tial way. 

But let’s turn the ques­tion around the oth­er way. So, on cli­mate change, the thing I work, the cost of mak­ing real­ly deep cuts in car­bon emis­sions, which would get us out of a lot of the risk of dra­mat­ic cli­mate change (not all of it), that cost is on the order of a cou­ple per­cent of GDP. You know, over a big half of a cen­tu­ry, that’s a fac­tor of between five and ten. Less than we spend on med­ical care. Arguably it’s less than we spend on the waste and the med­ical care sys­tem. It’s less than we spend on the military.

There’s just no ques­tion we could do it. And what we would get for that is a chance to pass on to our great-great-grandkids a kind of an option for them. An option to have a plan­et that is a lit­tle less dis­turbed and car­ries more of the nat­ur­al her­itage of the planet.

And we can’t real­ly know what the val­ues of our great-great-grandkids will be. Perhaps they won’t give a fig about the nat­ur­al world and will be total­ly hap­py liv­ing in arti­fi­cial envi­ron­ments. And indeed maybe they’ll think that the views that I have are kind of an atavis­tic throw­back that is very prim­i­tive and con­nect­ed with a kind of vio­lent part of human cul­ture that they’d like to not think about.

But there’s a chance that they will real­ly, real­ly love that nat­ur­al world as we do. And if we can pre­serve it at a few per­cent of GDP, some­thing that might be that valu­able for them, I think we’d be nuts not to do it.

Anderson: Is the log­ic of the soci­ety we live, the sys­tem of growth, the econ­o­my, our cul­tur­al mind­set in terms of quan­ti­fy­ing things and mea­sur­ing things… Does that inher­ent­ly push us away from leav­ing that future? Say we could eas­i­ly afford it. But there’s some­thing that like…it’s a dif­fi­cult argu­ment, right?

Keith: So, I came out of a very left wing back­ground, and I have lots of gra­nola friends who believe that. But I think I believe the oppo­site. I have spent a fair amount of time trav­el­ing on the land with native peo­ple, peo­ple in the High Arctic, and in some Indian com­mu­ni­ties. And I am lucky enough to know some­thing about the envi­ron­men­tal his­to­ry of the way native peo­ple man­age their envi­ron­ment. And I think that in fact the kind of detailed and quan­ti­ta­tive knowl­edge that we have of the nat­ur­al world…which isn’t just num­bers, it’s how species do what they do and why they do what they do, even indi­vid­ual lev­el, is in many ways far far bet­ter than what native cul­tures had. It’s very un-PC to say that, but I believe it’s true. 

Not every case. And cer­tain­ly not every one of us, because the way our knowl­edge is dif­fused, lots of us have no clue. And that gives us the chance to make much bet­ter deci­sions about the future. I mean, if you think about the native peo­ple who arrived in New Zealand or Australia fifty thou­sand years ago who basi­cal­ly wiped out almost all of the big fau­na in an envi­ron­men­tal holo­caust. Partly maybe they were just hap­py to do it, and even had they known exact­ly what they were doing they would­n’t have done oth­er­wise. But I think prob­a­bly if they could have real­ly known what they were doing, they might not have done it. And in fact, prim­i­tive soci­eties caused extinc­tions every­where they went. And I think that we do know more and have a chance to act more sensibly.

Anderson: Though knowl­edge and val­ue, they’re sort of par­al­lel tracks in this con­ver­sa­tion, right? So, we have the knowl­edge. We also have part of that knowl­edge, part of our greater under­stand­ing of the nat­ur­al world, has also come with the abil­i­ty to change things in a way that gives us much more pow­er than they had. And so with­out the val­ue com­po­nent of that, do you think that the knowl­edge we’re devel­op­ing tech­ni­cal­ly is like­ly to be used in a pos­i­tive way?

Keith: No, I’m very pes­simistic. So I’m opti­mistic about knowl­edge and about the abil­i­ty of tech­nol­o­gy to accom­plish lots of these things. But I’m pro­found­ly pes­simistic about peo­ple’s inter­est in actu­al­ly accom­plish­ing them. And maybe there’s some­thing about the kind of com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of our knowl­edge, the way it all just gets thrown into text­books and the Internet that actu­al­ly makes peo­ple care less about it, or makes most peo­ple care less about it.

Anderson: That makes me won­der, then, with con­ver­sa­tions about things that have glob­al effects but can be trig­gered cen­tral­ly, some­thing like geo­engi­neer­ing, do we even feel good about the idea of that being some­thing that is put up to a demo­c­ra­t­ic vote?

Keith: [Laughs] Well, we don’t have mech­a­nisms for glob­al demo­c­ra­t­ic votes. I mean, I think the only thing I can do is retreat to the Churchill state­ment that democ­ra­cy is the worst sys­tem in the world except for all the oth­ers. The short answer is that’s not the way it will be decid­ed. It will be decid­ed by a few big coun­tries mak­ing deci­sions. And those coun­tries are you know…crudely demo­c­ra­t­ic, or maybe…getting more democratic.

Anderson: I’ve talked to a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple about their ide­al visions of the future, and it’s always fun when you get into that. Because so many of them seem like there’s no way they could ever be demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly implemented.

Keith: Yeah.

Anderson: And yet that’s always one of our sym­pa­thies. Like, I think with every­one in this project, there have been very few who would say—maybe with one or two exceptions—that that they should just be imposed for every­one’s ben­e­fit from above.

Keith: Well, I think one of the fun­ny things about the geo­engi­neer­ing debate is that a lot of peo­ple who are very uncom­fort­able about it are real­ly con­cerned that it be a demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion. And I agree. But I think you can’t treat it in iso­la­tion. There are all sorts of deci­sions that are being made all around the world that have pro­found glob­al con­se­quences. From deci­sions about the archi­tec­ture of the Internet, to deci­sions about syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy, to big deci­sions about how trade between China and the US is managed. 

There are a myr­i­ad of deci­sions that are made in hideous­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic ways that have pro­found century-long glob­al con­se­quences. And I would like it if geo­engi­neer­ing deci­sions were made in some beau­ti­ful­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic way. But I don’t think we should use the hope of that to put off any deci­sion for the whole cen­tu­ry. Because the real­i­ty is, on the one hand we need as a species to get bet­ter at mak­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sions, but that does­n’t mean that until we get there we make no decisions.

Anderson: Do you think it’s more like­ly that we will use geo­engi­neer­ing tech­nol­o­gy rather than try to scale back our emis­sions? Is there some­thing in our psy­chol­o­gy that makes us want to try to use some­thing to fix rather than to cease a behavior?

Keith: Yeah, but I think it’s a sim­ple thing in our psy­chol­o­gy. People grew up in a cul­ture of scarci­ty over mil­len­nia, and peo­ple want stuff. And so they make deci­sions to get more stuff. And that’s a pro­found thing, but I don’t think it’s like an easy cul­tur­al fix.

Anderson: Right, so there’s—

Keith: Fundamentally it’s that desire for stuff, the con­sump­tion that’s dri­ving CO2 emis­sions, and it’s hard to restrain. 

But I don’t want to pre­tend geo­engi­neer­ing is just like all the oth­er deci­sions. I think that the fan­tas­tic and fright­en­ing pow­er, the fact that a very tiny amount of mon­ey, which is equiv­a­lent to say­ing a very small num­ber of peo­ple and hard­ware, can alter the entire plan­et’s cli­mate, poten­tial­ly in ways that are dis­as­trous— It does­n’t need to be dis­as­trous. My sense is that geo­engi­neer­ing can indeed pro­vide lots of ben­e­fits if used sen­si­bly. The fact that we have that huge lever­age I think forces some deci­sions about glob­al gov­er­nance, in the same way I think it’s a very tight anal­o­gy to nuclear weapons.

So there are lots of ways to think about what has hap­pened since the inven­tion of nuclear weapons. Certainly we’ve lived on a knife edge, and we still do. But it’s also true that the rea­son we haven’t had a real war since 1945 is because they exist. Many peo­ple will think, what is this idiot? not think­ing about a real war. But what war meant for a lot of say the sort of stan­dard European civ­i­liza­tion, war more or less meant that the dom­i­nant coun­tries of the day went at it with all they had. And with the advent of nuclear weapons, that won’t work. 

We’ve had a bunch of proxy wars which were absolute­ly hideous for the peo­ple in them. But by many objec­tive mea­sures, we’re much less bad than World War II. And we haven’t had a nuclear war. And I think the rea­son is that ulti­mate­ly, the polit­i­cal lead­ers (more than the mil­i­tary in many cas­es), when push came to shove real­ized that nuclear weapons made war unus­able. And as a con­se­quence we’ve had this long peri­od of peace of expan­sion, which I think is relat­ed to nuclear weapons. But we’ve also had a dri­ve to more glob­al­iza­tion of deci­sions. Which is won­der­ful, because nuclear weapons and nation states are incom­pat­i­ble. We can­not live on this plan­et with the old idea of the way nation states were and have a world of nuclear weapons. It won’t work. 

In the end, nuclear weapons force us to devel­op some sys­tem of glob­al gov­er­nance. Because it’s do that or die. And we could still fall off the cliff and die. And it’s not like some sin­gle moment where we sign a glob­al treaty and it’s all sweet­ness and light. But bit by bit, in all sorts of lit­tle ways, deci­sions are becom­ing more glob­al­ized in the world, and that’s a good thing because it pro­tects us from the ulti­mate catastrophe.

And I think that geo­engi­neer­ing is the same thing. So, the geo­engi­neer­ing tech­nolo­gies, in the end, can only sta­bly be decid­ed in a way that’s sort of glob­al and some­what demo­c­ra­t­ic. In the sense that if we make gross­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sions about them, that will cause ten­sions that could lead to war. And so they’re yet anoth­er spur for us to devel­op these meth­ods of glob­al gov­er­nance, and essen­tial­ly we have a race between tech­nol­o­gists devel­op­ing more and more poten­tial­ly ben­e­fi­cial and hideous things, and our abil­i­ty to gov­ern our­selves and make decisions.

Anderson: I mean, when I think about that race, that sort of ter­ri­fies me, right. And it also feels like a race that when I debate with myself, is this some­thing we can be opt­ed out of? And obvi­ous­ly fram­ing it as inevitable makes it inevitable.

Keith: Yeah. So that’s a great question. 

Anderson: But you know, there’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty. I think of Oppenheimer and the guilt of cre­at­ing the Bomb. Because you may cre­ate some­thing, and in the con­text of World War II. It may be won­der­ful. And then you may be liv­ing in the Cold War era and think, Good god, the politi­cians are run­ning away with this. The mil­i­tary is run­ning away with this.” I mean, do you ever wor­ry that you’re going to have that moment, as some­one who’s devel­op­ing geo­engi­neer­ing technology?

Keith: Oh, yes. I mean, I already have in some ways. I’m one of the peo­ple who—not so much as a devel­op­er, maybe—but I’m one of the peo­ple who argued peo­ple should take this seri­ous­ly. And I was one of the rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly ones to do that over twen­ty years. And now that peo­ple have tak­en it more seri­ous­ly, not nec­es­sar­i­ly because of my action, I def­i­nite­ly am ter­ri­fied there’ll be a rush to do it and the con­se­quences could be very bad. And so I wor­ry about that a lot. On the oth­er hand, I think that it’s bet­ter to talk about these things than to not talk about them when they’re fun­da­men­tal­ly there.

But I do wish there were ways to slow down. And I think we should look for things that actu­al­ly do delib­er­ate­ly slow down deci­sions and add kind of…inertia to some of these deci­sions, because I think that means less chance of real disasters. 

Anderson: Perfect world sce­nario, what does a bet­ter future look like?

Keith: Yeah… I don’t feel cre­ative enough to try. [both laugh] I have trou­ble say­ing any­thing that’s not going to sound kind of trite and incre­men­tal. You’re a lit­tle bit bet­ter at democ­ra­cy, and a lit­tle bit bet­ter at mak­ing these deci­sions, and a few less peo­ple get killed. And we’re a lit­tle bet­ter on the envi­ron­ment. But that sounds real­ly kind of painful­ly foolish.

And I think I appre­ci­ate more than I used to that a bunch of the ways that humans are is prob­a­bly genet­i­cal­ly shaped. And it’s not very real­is­tic to imag­ine some sorts of dra­mat­ic changes.

Anderson: Is that a cop out?

Keith: No… [Aengus laughs] Well, one thing is we could poten­tial­ly change our genome…

Anderson: And that’s been a big theme in this project. [crosstalk] I wish we had more time I don’t want even want to open the tran­shu­man­ist can of worms.

Keith: Yeah. So, I’ve had these kind of fun­ny debates with peo­ple about what you would do if you real­ly want­ed to cut con­sump­tion. And obvi­ous­ly my answer’s you change the genet­ics of peo­ple’s desire to have con­sump­tion. But I mean, I don’t real­ly think that that’s a plau­si­ble thing to do.

Anderson: I was going to say, how do you square that with this sort of biocentrism? 

So, here you are try­ing to artic­u­late a posi­tion that real­ly encour­ages a lot of think­ing that involves nuance, that involve data sets, that involves a type of knowl­edge that a lot of peo­ple may not have. And I’m sort of curi­ous, just based on your expe­ri­ence, do you think con­ver­sa­tion is one of these things that changes his­tor­i­cal moments? Or is it just sort of coin­ci­dence, or force or…marketing?

Keith: No, I think con­ver­sa­tions are fun­da­men­tal. I think they are what change and shape peo­ple’s views about things. One of the things the social sci­ence com­mu­ni­ty has real­ized when you try and poll peo­ple about what do they think about geo­engi­neer­ing, and which I’ve done, is that peo­ple don’t have well-formed views about things they don’t rou­tine­ly inter­act with. And so those polls are to some extent mean­ing­less, includ­ing our own work and we freely admit that. And that peo­ple only real­ly form their views about geo­engi­neer­ing or whether they like a cer­tain new kind of Internet phe­nom­e­na once they’ve engaged with it and con­versed with it. And so I think con­ver­sa­tions, the social net­work that peo­ple have with oth­er peo­ple, are absolute­ly the cen­ter of how our views are shaped, and there­fore what deci­sions we make on these topics.

So I mean, one of things I have real­ly enjoyed about work­ing on geo­engi­neer­ing is the strange bed­fel­low nature. So, there are the strange ways in which it cuts across the tra­di­tion­al right/left divide in ways that are very sur­pris­ing. It’s cer­tain­ly not true that every­body in the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty’s against. There are plen­ty of peo­ple in the core of the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty who are very very sup­port­ive. And then on the flip side there are peo­ple in the Right who on the one hand would like to say cli­mate change is real, but then they kind of love to stick it to peo­ple on the Left, and they kind of like a tech­no­log­i­cal fix. So the fun thing is it kind of reshuf­fles the deck in an inter­est­ing way and gets peo­ple to talk to each oth­er in a way they might not have.

And the cli­mate con­ver­sa­tion, after all, was pro­found­ly stale. It kind of devolved into a kind of trench war­fare. And so I think one of the fun things about this top­ic is it helps to move things around a lit­tle bit in a way that might actu­al­ly be help­ful in not just mak­ing bet­ter deci­sions about geo­engi­neer­ing, but in mak­ing bet­ter deci­sions more broadly. 

You start­ed with a ques­tion about val­ue. Those are ques­tions I spend a lot of time think­ing and talk­ing about it. And I think geo­engi­neer­ing forces peo­ple to get seri­ous about what val­ues are at the root of deci­sions about cli­mate change that they can often oth­er­wise ignore. And I think that even if we do noth­ing about geo­engi­neer­ing, hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion about val­ues in a seri­ous way is the only way we’re going to get to sen­si­ble deci­sions about cli­mate change.

Anderson: Do you think the con­ver­sa­tion is hap­pen­ing now, in a broad­er way?

Keith: Not… I don’t know. I care about it immense­ly, so it’s easy to wish that it was. I think these con­ver­sa­tions tend to hap­pen more in times that are trou­bled. So I think that when the mon­ey’s rolling in, most peo­ple’s incli­na­tion is just to par­ty. And I think that in times where the world seems stuck or at a cross­roads, then peo­ple are more will­ing to think about what these future choic­es are. And so in some ways, we’re in such a time, but but only part­ly, I think. And that may mean peo­ple are more will­ing to have these conversations. 

Anderson: So, a lit­tle bit of an eco­nom­ic kick to the stom­ach and we could be more will­ing to have those conversations.

Keith: Yeah, prob­a­bly. But it’s not sim­ply eco­nom­ic. It’s some sense that we real­ly don’t know where to go. I mean, I do won­der about American democ­ra­cy, and in gen­er­al democ­ra­cy in the West. Ultimately, what are peo­ple in Washington sup­posed to do, or the oth­er Western cap­i­tals? They’re sup­posed to man­u­fac­ture deci­sions. And I feel that increas­ing­ly, it’s become dif­fi­cult to make any big deci­sions. And I think in that sense our democ­ra­cy isn’t work­ing very well. And my ques­tion is what hap­pens as more peo­ple become con­vinced of that view?

At some point, we have to make more deci­sions on these big top­ics, and if our democ­ra­cy isn’t work­ing, we have to fix it in some way that isn’t about one par­ty win­ning. It’s about deep surgery. And I think we’re not there yet, but I can imag­ine us get­ting there in a decade or two, espe­cial­ly if America real­ly begins to stag­nate and kind of vis­i­bly fall behind on account of its inabil­i­ty to make decisions.


Aengus Anderson: So, before we start any­thing I think it’s worth not­ing that this is one of the short­est con­ver­sa­tions I’ve record­ed. It was prob­a­bly fifty min­utes. Knew that at the out­set. As a gen­er­al rule, I’m real­ly wary of record­ing con­ver­sa­tions that short, espe­cial­ly now that we’re lat­er in the project and there’s a lot of stuff to talk about, and we kind of need wig­gle room to explore dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al alleys. So, giv­en that I am real­ly hap­py with how this con­ver­sa­tion turned out. There’s a lot of mate­r­i­al in here.

Micah Saul: Yeah, I think ideas per sec­ond, this is one of the highest-density con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had.

Anderson: Yeah. And it’s fab­u­lous because David is an incred­i­bly orga­nized thinker, and a very clear speak­er. You can tell that he’s spo­ken pub­licly a lot, because he’s just real­ly good at it, and there’s no wast­ed time with him.

Saul: So, because there was no wast­ed time let’s not waste any more time, and just jump into this.

Anderson: So, util­i­tar­i­an­ism, innate val­ue. This is a big dif­fer­ence between a lot of oth­er con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had. When we’ve talked about jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for pre­serv­ing the nat­ur­al world in one state or anoth­er, a lot of peo­ple we’ve talked to have giv­en us util­i­tar­i­an argu­ments. Even thinkers who are bio­cen­trists and may have spir­i­tu­al rea­sons for pre­serv­ing the nat­ur­al world? They’ll often say, Look, you don’t have to be behind that. Here’s a rea­son why sav­ing the nat­ur­al world helps you as a person.”

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And I think what I real­ly like about David is he’s will­ing to go you know what? That is not a com­pelling argu­ment. If we’re going to talk about pre­serv­ing the nat­ur­al world, there’s one val­ue ques­tion, and that is Is there some innate val­ue that pos­ter­i­ty might want?”

Saul: Right. I think that’s huge. To real­ly chal­lenge the pre­sumed way to win or to con­vince peo­ple that some­thing is worth sav­ing. To chal­lenge that as being non-scientific, and say­ing, No, lis­ten. There maybe isn’t actu­al­ly a sci­en­tif­ic rea­son that we need to pre­serve the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. But we need to pre­serve the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment because it does have this innate val­ue, and I tru­ly believe that,” he says. And you know, this is not the stereo­typ­i­cal sci­en­tist per­spec­tive at all, is it? 

Anderson: Well, it feels like he’s fear­less­ly going into a con­ver­sa­tion about val­ues, and I real­ly like that he says you know, I have this tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, but that does­n’t make me any more or less good at ques­tions of value.”

Saul: Right.

Anderson: You know, this is a con­ver­sa­tion every­one can have and every­one needs to be hav­ing. And he’s will­ing to pub­licly say that. Which I think is some­thing that I don’t know, I real­ly respect that in sci­en­tists. And I feel that some­thing that’s real­ly impor­tant for them to do.

Saul: Yeah, no. I agree com­plete­ly. I men­tion­ing on the out­set, I saw a strong Raffensperger echo through this con­ver­sa­tion. And this is real­ly where it comes in. What’s inter­est­ing is that unlike Raffensperger, David Keith is very much embed­ded in sci­ence the insti­tu­tion. And so to have that cri­tique of util­i­tar­i­an­ism from with­in sci­ence I think is a very pow­er­ful thing.

Anderson: And you know, when we record­ed Raffensperger’s episode and we talked about util­i­tar­i­an­ism, we cri­tiqued her and said well, util­i­ty is a wide open thing, is she crit­i­ciz­ing the right cat­e­go­ry? And in this, case I think we could still actu­al­ly say the same thing. You know, if we want­ed to be strict and real­ly get down to what is util­i­tar­i­an­ism as a philo­soph­i­cal con­cept, if util­i­ty is pro­tect­ing the innate val­ue of nature? util­i­tar­i­an­ism maybe kind of a straw man here. What we may be going after is anthro­pocen­tric values—

Saul: Right.

Anderson: —that are being achieved through a util­i­tar­i­an frame­work. Utilitarianism real­ly is a big tent.

Saul: Yeah, it’s too vague of a word. Really what we’re talk­ing about here is not just anthro­pocen­tric val­ues. It’s quan­tifi­able anthro­pocen­tric value. 

Anderson: Explain that a lit­tle more to me.

Saul: I would argue that pro­tect­ing some­thing because we believe it has innate val­ue is also still in some ways an anthro­pocen­tric view. And this may just be a prob­lem with the anthropocentric/biocentric divide, which I think has come up before.

Anderson: Right. You can nev­er get away from being anthro­pocen­tric. Sure.

Saul: Because we are in fact just people.

Anderson: Yes. Actually, that leads us into anoth­er point that I think is real­ly impor­tant that has been a big­ger themed recent­ly. As we’ve been talk­ing about quan­tifi­a­bil­i­ty, what can we as peo­ple know, what sort of choic­es do we make as we attempt to man­age and reg­u­late the nat­ur­al world. Whether it’s for our ben­e­fit or for some­thing else’s ben­e­fit. It’s Wes Jackson and Robert Zubrin that real­ly sort of set the para­me­ters of the what can we know” con­ver­sa­tion. And I feel that we return to that here, and kind of com­bine bits and pieces of both, don’t we?

Saul: And in var­i­ous places through­out the con­ver­sa­tion we get dif­fer­ent sides, I think, of real­ly what Keith thinks about what is know­able. But right off the bat, I would say that he feels that we may not be able to know every­thing, but we can know a lot. We can know most.

Anderson: Yeah, that sense of drop­ping agri­cul­ture under glass…

Saul: Right. I think it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly explic­it here that he thinks we can ful­ly know a sys­tem. But that seems a pret­ty strong indi­ca­tion that he does. The idea that we can cut our­selves off from the nat­ur­al world, com­plete­ly, and still main­tain an agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem. That seems to me to sug­gest he believes well, agri­cul­ture is a solved sys­tem. Biology is a solved system? 

Anderson: Maybe? And that was what I found real­ly intrigu­ing. Because we’ve had peo­ple on this project who would say that is patent­ly wrong. And I think some of our thinkers who are root­ed in biol­o­gy would say, Well, that’s the think­ing of a physi­cist. That’s the think­ing of some­one who deals with per­fect, clean sys­tems very often.” And of course, David is work­ing with atmos­pher­ic things that are not per­fect or clean and are very nuanced and com­pli­cat­ed. But, I can eas­i­ly imag­ine Jackson point­ing that out and say­ing, You drop that sys­tem under glass, there are a mil­lion exter­nal­i­ties.” Like, David Keith talks about the chem­i­cal process­es. We don’t need the megafau­na for these under­ly­ing sys­tems of the nitro­gen cycle to be work­ing. But…what if we do, you know? And I think that’s kind of the ques­tion Tim Morton would ask us. Eh, he would­n’t ask us. He would say, Look, every­thing’s con­nect­ed to every­thing. Until you put it under glass, you have no idea what strange rela­tion­ship the polar bear might have to that.”

Saul: Right. That’s the big one. And here we get to that big bio­log­i­cal sys­tem which I don’t think he’s real­ly giv­ing it enough cre­dence here.

Anderson: I agree with you, and I won­der if part of my… I can hear Wes Jackson going, Hubris!” And I won­der how much of this in my part like, is tap­ping into a dif­fer­ent sense. A sense of well, val­ues and moral­i­ty. We’re talk­ing about hubris in a sci­en­tif­ic way. What can you real­ly live with­out in terms of parts of the ecosys­tem. But part of me just thinks god, the con­ceit to think that we could put agri­cul­ture under glass. [laughs] You know, maybe that’s some sort of like 17th cen­tu­ry Puritan in me think­ing that.

Saul: So, while we’re on the sub­ject of the agri­cul­ture under glass thing, this actu­al­ly brings up one of my biggest prob­lems with the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s all well and good for us to say we can put agri­cul­ture under glass. But then he’s got that lit­tle aside. Maybe not China, maybe not India.

Anderson: I can hear you chan­nel­ing the spir­it of Ethan Zuckerman, actu­al­ly.

Saul: Absolutely. If we can ignore a quar­ter of the world’s pop­u­la­tion… And grant­ed this is a hypo­thet­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion about putting agri­cul­ture under glass, you know. He’s just try­ing to show that we’re sep­a­rat­ed from the nat­ur­al world. But the same argu­ment, if at least a quar­ter of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, and I’m assum­ing even larg­er than that, can’t afford to do this, if we can ignore them when talk­ing about the fact that we are sep­a­rat­ed from nature… I mean, are we talk­ing about big sys­tems at all, then?

Anderson: Well, I would say, are we sep­a­rat­ed from nature? Are we tru­ly sep­a­rat­ed from nature if—and I’m going to try to antic­i­pate where you’re going with this—if the social and eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al pres­sures from these oth­er coun­tries actu­al­ly make it impos­si­ble to put these things under glass, right? 

Saul: Right.

Anderson: So, maybe you aren’t real­ly sep­a­rat­ed from nature, because the rest of human­i­ty, which is part of nature, is out there and prob­a­bly does­n’t want you to put it under glass. Or will prob­a­bly break your glass and try to get in. And obvi­ous­ly we’re we’re play­ing with a hypo­thet­i­cal built on a hypo­thet­i­cal here. And of course I know that David would nev­er advo­cate the first world putting agri­cul­ture under glass and he was just doing that to illus­trate a point. But I think this is… Yeah, I think you bring up some­thing real­ly impor­tant, which is, is that point real­ly illustrated?

Saul: And this actu­al­ly in some ways has an echo, very ear­ly in the con­ver­sa­tion, when he con­demns the idea of cli­mate change being an exis­ten­tial cri­sis. But

Anderson: But Bangladesh?

Saul: Pacific islands?

Anderson: And this is some­thing we’ve talked about before, too. With Alexander Rose, with Jan Lundberg. What’s your time­frame? Who is includ­ed in exis­ten­tial?” And some of that was obvi­ous­ly time. There were roads that we could­n’t go down.

Saul: Yeah, no. Exactly.

Anderson: You know what’s fun­ny, we’ve just had this enor­mous con­ver­sa­tion about this episode, and we have bare­ly talked about the moral­i­ty of geo­engi­neer­ing, or some of the oth­er parts of geo­engi­neer­ing, the con­ver­sa­tion it sparks. How did we get this far with­out talk­ing about geoengineering.

Saul: It’s indica­tive of what a big ques­tion geo­engi­neer­ing is. And what an impor­tant ques­tion geo­engi­neer­ing is. And I think that’s some­thing that David Keith does very very well, is point out the big ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this. You know, I’m cri­tiquing it on one hand for not rec­og­niz­ing sys­tems, but on the oth­er hand he very much rec­og­nizes that con­ver­sa­tion about this is going to affect every­thing. His com­par­i­son between geo­engi­neer­ing and nuclear tech­nol­o­gy I think was very apt. The idea that the nuclear bomb sud­den­ly changed the con­ver­sa­tion about war. I think he’s absolute­ly right. I think geo­engi­neer­ing is going to change the con­ver­sa­tion about how glob­al gov­er­nance works.

Anderson: You know, there’s an odd con­nec­tion, a real­ly cool con­nec­tion, with John Fife right there, in terms of mak­ing the nation state obso­lete. Fife gets to that idea through the notion that all peo­ple are equal under God, and so the nation state is this arbi­trary divi­sion of them. And here we are with David Keith get­ting to that notion through the idea of we have cre­at­ed tech­nol­o­gy so big and so pow­er­ful that the nation state is utter­ly insuf­fi­cient to deal with it. You could­n’t have more eclec­tic ways of get­ting to the idea of the nation state being obsolete.

You know, as we’re talk­ing about geo­engi­neer­ing and the nation state and decision-making, David leaves us with, are we frozen polit­i­cal­ly? Can we even make big deci­sions any­more? But ear­li­er, he does men­tion maybe it would be bet­ter if we made slow­er deci­sions. And I won­der is there a con­tra­dic­tion there? Are those things apply­ing to dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions? Is one sci­en­tif­ic and is one polit­i­cal? Because at first when I heard that I thought oh, he’s real­ly con­tra­dict­ed him­self. And then when I went through again and I edit­ed more and I lis­tened a lit­tle bit more deeply I began to won­der, is the first one kind of a pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple throw­back? Do we need more sci­en­tif­ic drag? And is the sec­ond one specif­i­cal­ly polit­i­cal? I don’t know, what you think of that?

Saul: So, I don’t know. In some ways I think it’s fair­ly clear through­out the con­ver­sa­tion that this is one of the ten­sions that he’s just strug­gling with. How much tech­nol­o­gy, how fast of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion can we real­ly han­dle? Can gov­ern­ment real­ly handle?

Anderson: Can moral­i­ty handle?

Saul: Can moral­i­ty han­dle. We’re just peo­ple. Can peo­ple real­ly handle?

Anderson: Well, that’s a small ques­tion. Let’s leave it there.

That was David Keith, record­ed at Harvard University, October 25th, 2012 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.