Geo-engineering: A wétiko experiment on the planet

By Elizabeth Robson / Art for Culture Change

In the preface to Columbus and Other Cannibals, Derrick Jensen asks: “why is the dominant culture so excruciatingly, relentlessly, insanely, genocidally, ecocidally, suicidally destructive?” [1]

The author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Jack D. Forbes, goes on to answer Derrick’s question in the chapters of his remarkable book, pinning the main cause of our suicidal destruction on a virus of the mind, wétiko. Wétiko was first identified by Native Americans and other indigenous people, when they saw how white colonizers so disrespected the natural world, women, and all people who were not yet colonized, they needed a name for the sickness in the colonizers’ minds that allowed them to commit such acts of aggression, hate, and conquest.

Colonizers are still colonizing today, now more than ever. Colonizers take whatever they think they need from the natural world to feed the global machine of capitalism and consumerism, without a care for the living beings who need what is now destroyed, and so the living beings themselves are now destroyed, too. These colonizers know the destruction they are causing–the loss of life, the loss of biodiversity, the loss of habitat, the loss of a stable climate–and yet they continue taking and destroying anyway. This is pure arrogance.

We in the early 21st century are the most arrogant humans to ever have walked the face of the Earth. Mr. Forbes identified this arrogance as one of the major traits of wétikoism:

“There are many psychological traits that help form the wétiko personality. Greed, lust, inordinate ambition, materialism, the lack of a true ‘face,’ a schizoid (split) personality, and so on are all terms which can be used to describe most wétikos. But one of the major traits characterizing the truly evil and extreme form of wétikoism is arrogance.”

This is not new, and it’s not news. Mr. Forbes argues wétikoism first originated in Egypt, and over time infected all peoples who reigned via colonialism and imperialism, including of course the Romans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Europeans, and the Anglo-Americans in the United States.

The wétiko virus is now more virulent than ever; we become more arrogant by the day, as we use science and technology to discover and invent whole new ways to pollute and destroy our one and only home. Mr. Forbes writes:

“Scientists in many fields recognize no societal obligations restraining their experimentation, least of all any restraints imposed by ‘the lower classes’ or less powerful nationalities. … Many modern scientists are the precise counterparts of Christopher Columbus, and not merely by way of analogy. They will pave the way for new imperialism and new systems of coercion and will themselves economically, participate in the fruits of the new ‘discoveries.’”

I cannot think of a more perfect example of wétikoism than the emerging research field of geo-engineering. Scientists working in this field are hoping to invent and understand ways to reduce the impacts of climate change via chemical and technological means. One of these research areas, solar radiation management, also known as albedo modification, is proceeding to the experimental phase at Harvard University, where scientist David Keith heads up an experiment named SCoPEx, a powered balloon that will release chemical particles into the stratosphere, and measure how those particles affect the reflection of sunlight away from the planet. Solar radiation management is widely regarded as the cheapest and easiest way to cool the planet in case we do so much damage to the climate, we find ourselves in need of such extreme and drastic measures. Inspired by volcanoes–which release reflective particles when they erupt–solar radiation management would, in theory, cool the planet with just a few applications a year, costing in the millions or low billions of dollars. Of course, we have no idea what this would do to the temperature or the weather on a planetary scale, but, scientists argue, it’s better to have a fallback idea that’s already been researched and tested, than not have one at all.

Do you or I or anyone but the scientists at Harvard have a say in whether the SCoPEx experiment goes forward? Does it matter?

Scientists tend to use the argument that it’s better to know, than not to know. Maybe. But research can lead us down a path that, in hindsight, we might wish we’d never taken. Some of the scientists who developed the hydrogen bomb, which has led us into a nuclear arms race that threatens all life on earth, regretted their participation in creating that weapon of mass destruction. Without the benefit of hindsight, how might we feel about inventing new ways to change the atmosphere of the Earth?

Of course, we already are changing the atmosphere of the Earth, so perhaps one might argue that more experiments are necessary to counteract the planetary-wide experiment we are currently running with CO2 in our atmosphere.

The thing is, these scientists at Harvard aren’t asking you, or me, or anyone else if they should go forward with their research and their experiments. They aren’t asking the millions of other species on this planet if they want more experiments on the only planet we know of that sustains life. In other words, as Jack Forbes put it, these scientists “recognize no societal obligations restraining their experimentation.”

What do the scientists get out of this research, other than satisfying their need to know? Are the scientists paving the way for “new imperialism and new systems of coercion” as Mr. Forbes writes? Are these scientists participating in the fruits of their discoveries? Are these scientists wétikos?

David Keith, the main researcher on the SCoPEx experiment at Harvard founded a company in 2009 named Carbon Engineering, of which he is executive chairman. Carbon Engineering creates technology that captures CO2 from the air. The company announced partnerships with the fossil fuel companies Chevron and Occidental in January 2019.

Why are Chevron and Occidental partnering with Carbon Engineering? Because, as Occidental stated, “the deal would complement the company’s enhanced oil recovery business, where CO2 is pumped in fields to release more fuel.”[2]

In other words, the oil companies use the captured CO2 to get more oil out of the ground.

So think about it: David Keith is the founder of and receives direct monetary benefit from a company that sucks CO2 from the air. And he is the primary researcher behind the Harvard solar radiation management experiment that would reflect more sun in our atmosphere, cooling the planet and thus allowing us to burn more fossil fuels and continue creating CO2 emissions, that his company can then capture and sell to oil companies to “enhance” oil recovery.

Yes, these geo-engineers are wétikos.

One can easily imagine the day that humanity realizes it has so utterly failed to stop the relentless and insane extraction and burning of fossil fuels, that in order to survive, in order to keep this ecocidal, genocidal culture going so that the rich and powerful can maintain their positions of power for just a little while longer, someone somewhere decides to spray reflective chemicals into the stratosphere. Will you or I or anyone who is not rich and powerful have a say in that decision? It is highly unlikely.

Will any of the other millions of species on this one planet we all call home have a say in that decision? Of course not. Wétikos forgot how to listen to the Earth a long, long time ago.

And so what is geo-engineering if not a wétiko system of planetary imperialism and coercion?

[1] Columbus and Other Cannibals, by Jack D. Forbes, 1979, 1992, 2008
[2] https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060111481

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