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.
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.
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.
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?
Anderson: So, obviously he starts from a value position that is extremely anthropocentric.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.”
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.”
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—
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?
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 findtheconversation.com
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.