EarthMasters: The bottom line
Climate change is a big topic these days, but what do we really know about the topic? EarthMasters, The Dawn of the Age of Climate Change is one of those books which contribute to the debate by explaining some of the side aspects very few people talk about.
In short? The topic here isn’t climate change per se, but rather the idea that geoengineering – or the ability to use technology to treat the symptoms – is seen as a potential solution. Except that the author is very skeptic about the idea and provides an analysis of the situation.
This book is interesting, well written and enlightening, especially if you are curious about the topic without knowing much about it. Want to find out more? Keep reading!
Book review: EarthMasters, Clive Hamilton’s scary book on Geoengineering
I bumped into EarthMasters – The Dawn of the Age of Climate Change in my bookshop, whilst wandering around and picking books out of curiosity. The book cover was sort of weird and caught my eye, so I picked it and opened it.
The book was not very recent (2013) but it offered an analysis of climate change developments which sounded interesting, especially considering the fact that talking about climate change at the moment essentially consists in discussing President Trump’s decision to opt out of the Paris Agreement. Nothing very constructive, in sum, so I thought I would look at what a book published six years ago would say on the topic.
In a nutshell? I read that book in no time. Three hours tops. I was hoping to find some outside-the-box ideas in there, and I must say I got food for thoughts more than I expected. At the end of the day, people rarely have discussions on climate change beyond the good, bad, dangerous and worrying prism, so that book gave me plenty to think differently.
Want to find out more? Keep reading.
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author’s main topics explained in detail.
- The book’s main themes, questions, and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
EarthMasters: brief book review (for starters).
EarthMasters – The Dawn of the Age of Climate Change is one of those books written by academics with the mass market in mind. Said differently, this book was written with high-level research objectives in mind, but its plain English style makes it totally approachable.
The result is very mind-challenging and eye-opening because it explores and explains environment-related developments which we hardly hear about (and even less discuss).
Not a book on climate change.
Interestingly, Clive Hamilton’s EarthMasters is not a book about climate change per se, however, and it certainly doesn’t talk about climate change negotiations.
No. This book focuses one of the side aspects of climate change, i.e. the various efforts undertaken by engineers and investors of all sorts to try and find their own pragmatic (and business-friendly) solutions to fight the issue of climate change. That’s called geoengineering.
That sounds a little bit like playing gods with the environment, and that makes the topic controversial, yet the debates remain vastly unknown to the many. Which is a shame because, at the end of the day, the trend creates a variety of issues (technical issues, ethical issues, economic issues, political issues) which need to be addressed one way or another.
Mix and Match.
Whether we know it or not, those developments are already taking place so the need for awareness and answers is significant. So, EarthMasters offers a big picture on the issue.
Clive Hamilton explains what Geoengineering is and why the concept has been developed, for starters. And he gives tons of practical examples of what is really happening out there.
Sucking carbon dioxide and controlling the amount of sunlight are some of the technologies which engineers and scientists are working on, but there are more issues to talk about. Think stakeholders, for instance, but think also ethics and, at the end of the day, complications.
All in all, Clive Hamilton’s message is very simple: geoengineering is developing as an answer to the lack of public action against climate change, however the uncertainty surrounding those technologies is so important that implementing them is pretty much like playing a Russian roulette game.
Results might be satisfying at first, but no-one can predict what impact secondary effects those technologies will have on the environment in the medium and long-term. Which leads to one major question: should we let engineers gamble?
I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but in short, here is what the book says:
EarthMasters: The comprehensive book review.
Clive Hamilton explores the Geoengineering topic through eight chapters, but as usual on I’ll Make You Think Smart I’ll just focus on the big themes. One, what is geoengineering. Two, what on earth is going on. Three, why is the topic so sensitive.
As usual, this more comprehensive part of the book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Clive Hamilton explores these major topics:
- Geoengineering, or the opportunity to respond to climate change through technology.
- The ins and outs of geoengineering.
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- What is geoengineering?
- Why are such solutions being developed?
- What is the range of action being considered so far?
- Are there any risks and what should we think about the trend?
Sounds interesting? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
EarthMasters – Theme #1: What is geoengineering?
In case you were not exactly familiar with the topic, EarthMasters obviously explains extensively what geoengineering is.
Simply put, geoengineering is the art of mitigating climate change symptoms through technological innovation, but Clive Hamilton has his own way of saying this. In his words, scientists are “investing in methods to manipulate the Earth’s cloud cover, change the oceans’ chemical composition and blanket the planet with a layer of sunlight-reflecting particles”.
Two major types of geoengineering processes are being developed, carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation reduction. The former is about cleaning up dioxide excesses, the other is rather about masking the issue by pushing the sunlight away from us.
Some talk about steering the oceans to make them absorb more dioxide, others talk about blowing asteroids to create dust clouds between the sun and us… Clide Hamilton referenced forty-five projects of all types and the stories he tells are worth a look.
An interesting point made by Clive Hamilton is that the various initiatives mentioned previously are grounded in a genuine dynamic.
Clearly, geoengineering projects are developed in marge of climate change negotiations, as a response of scientists and private investors to the lack of reactivity of global decision-makers. Technology developments, in other words, originate from the fear that in the absence of adequate policies, we will be too late. Since they don’t do anything, we’ll do it ourselves…
A favorable ecosystem.
Private actors are leading the dance, but Hamilton emphasizes that the ecosystem is favorable to their initiatives.
Needless to say, but strong voices express skepticism (or denial) as to the veracity of climate change, which implies that privately-run initiatives are seen by the skeptics (and the most liberal) as having more chances to succeed against climate change than public efforts. And the same goes for the lack of action with regards to fossil fuels which so far are too big to be failed. No policies mean private action.
What is climate change about?
In EarthMasters, Clive Hamilton also explains the theory and science behind climate change. Beyond recalling that climate change is mainly driven by an accumulation of carbon dioxide, he insists that the science points to a lot of uncertainty.
For instance, experts have established that the climate reacts permanently and that sudden changes have been recorded in the past. Since there is no way to alter those reactions and changes, however, the science community has launched a quest for alternatives which as progressively led to “the idea of engineering the climate”.
Geoengineering: some varying perceptions.
Hamilton emphasizes that geoengineering has not always been a trendy effort, however. To the opposite, the idea was seen as an unethical distraction in the 90s, until the inaction of global leaders eventually opened the floodgates and left no other choice to a community eager to intervene.
Interestingly, an important question appeared at the time: would geoengineering be considered as a mere B-plan, or would it become the plan? Soon enough, the B plan was integrated into the agenda, which brought funding in and launched an industry.
For Clive Hamilton, though, the very idea of trafficking the environment to mitigate climate change is a revolution which, in his words, exceeds all plans by humans so far, both in terms of ambitions and danger. Taking control of the weather is a lack of wisdom, he writes.
EarthMasters – Theme #2: The various geoengineering methods.
EarthMasters explains the methods in depth. At some point, the discussion becomes too complex for the non-aware reader, in my opinion. Nonetheless, the explanation has the merit to exist and it does help to understand what the hell is going on.
Technical stuff explained.
Hamilton explains the carbon-sucking and the radiation-pushing methods with two objectives.
One, he wants the reader to understand the role and capacities of each method. For instance, what is the role of trees? How do oceans help to capture dioxide? What measures could be taken to boost natural cycles and maximize their beneficial effects? Alternatively, what processes have been imagined to reduce the number of solar radiations which reach us? Oh, and with what impact?
The discussion is technical so I am not getting into the details here, but to be honest, the whole thing is reasonably easy to read (you can skip some pages) and very interesting. If you want to find out more, get your copy of the book and see for yourself!
Second, Hamilton wants the reader to understand all the ins and outs of the various possibilities. At the end of the day, he explains, men have the pretension to try and change the climate, but in essence, scientists have no way to tell how their actions will impact the environment, even if they succeed in hiding the symptoms.
Crazy or crazy?
Does that sound weird? Well, in EarthMasters, Clive Hamilton tries to help the reader understand what it would take to make things happen, beyond the hypothetical aspects of the experiments.
For instance, to illustrate the complexity of a project which consists in sprinkling lime over the oceans to activate biological mechanisms, he notes that we would need to consume the equivalent of a 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers lime quarry every year, not to forget the construction of a worldwide fleet equivalent to ten percent of the current world fleet. Oh, and effects would probably be visible around 2200.
Alternatively, building air purification systems (as those used in submarines) would require structures spread over tens of kilometers, to be constructed globally over a century in order to have some impact.
Also considered, a system designed to spray seawater particles into the sky to create clouds and reflect sunlight… which would require another fleet of 1500 ships guided globally by satellites. There, however, positive impacts on the North Pole would affect Australia negatively and, all in all, Hamilton describes the project simulation as being inadequate.
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EarthMasters – Theme #3: A geoengineering ecosystem.
After the what and the how comes the question of the who, and EarthMasters provides an interesting picture of the stakeholders’ landscape.
Actors of various types.
Hamilton describes the geoengineering world as an ecosystem. Individuals do the work, but research and development are supported by investors (such as Bill Gates) and financial institutions. On top of that, all the actors follow an agenda, which he defines as a matter of “planetary management”.
The question of lobbying.
Because research is funded by private interests, however, Hamilton writes that geoengineering creates a major conflict of interest. At the end of the day, the ecosystem is business-friendly but it is not philanthropic.
To preserve their findings, scientists and investors protect their intellectual property through patents which will confer them long-term rights to use their discoveries in a very exclusive manner. In other words, the main purpose might be to save the Earth from climate change, but some will be more equal than others when it comes to actually do that.
The issue of lobbies is therefore very relevant (and interesting) as, in the end, those who hold the rights would enjoy a de facto status of… earth masters.
The issue of awareness (or the lack thereof).
Talking about stakeholders implies talking about the public. According to Hamilton, however, as of the date of publication of EarthMasters (2013) only three percent of Americans had heard of geoengineering. Three percent!
In other words? There is an ocean (sorry, bad joke) of opportunities for influencing the public, whether through good marketing, scientific research or smart politics.
In reality, in fact, Clive Hamilton argues that politics and marketing efforts have led to a denial trend which has progressively legitimized the actions taken by geoengineers, with or without the public being aware.
The economics and the politics.
As the above suggests, the economics behind geoengineering are quite challenging, and Clive Hamilton has a simple way of explaining them:
System uncertainties x Outcome uncertainties = no way to guesstimate = crazy economics.
The politics are also omnipresent in Clive Hamilton’s book. Nothing surprising considering the topic, I know, but the point is important enough to be mentioned. Politics take over on multiple fronts! On the civil liberties front (more on that later), but also at the international and geopolitical level.
Hamilton talks about the politics from Washington’s perspective, from Moscow’s perspective, from Beijing’s perspective, not to forget the Europeans of course. He also talks about the issue of regulating geoengineering practices, which however creates impossible questions (what kind of regulation? Domestic? International? Comprehensive or constraining?). As for military conflicts, the question of preemptive actions also comes up…
You get the drill, the issue is both complex and fascinating. For more, have a look at the book for yourself it is worth your time.
EarthMasters – Theme #4: The (scary) big picture.
EarthMasters is not just describing current trends. As you probably understood already, Clive Hamilton is rather skeptical about the phenomenon and he makes a very clear point throughout: “The essential message is that when we mess with the ecological system things soon become much more complicated than they first seem”.
GeoEngineering isn’t enough.
While technology has become the A plan for many, Hamilton hammers that geoengineering isn’t enough.
As mentioned earlier in this article, technological solutions to climate change are being developed by scientists and investors convinced that the lack of public action forces them to act. By nature, therefore, those actions are a series of climate patches which tend to be applied here and there. The result, however, is that scientists so far seem to be testing the patches more than treating the disease, hence the results won’t be sufficient.
He uses a very easy-to-remember image, as a matter of fact: after decades of using fossil fuels, we are currently trying to find mechanical and energy consuming methods to push the genie back into the bottle, without however making much efforts to stop the genie from leaving the bottle.
Fundamental society questions.
The genie in the bottle allegory has another meaning: it suggests that the social model we live in goes fundamentally against the necessity to act against climate change.
EarthMasters is not an anti-capitalist manifesto (at all), yet Clive Hamilton has a point. At the end of the day, he says, the relationship between our capitalist model and the environment is flawed.
For many people, protecting the environment is necessarily business-adverse because it amounts to attacking personal liberties for the sake of nature preservation. As a result, all suggestions based on environmental protection sciences tend to be rejected as fundamentally destined to alter the American way of life.
Nowadays this way of thinking is largely impersonated by President Trump but, at the time of writing EarthMasters, Hamilton referred to arguments similarly held by G. W. Bush. The outcome is the same, though, and the tendency to reject protective environmental policies leads to opening a wider door to geoengineering, which accordingly gains in legitimacy as ‘the’ solution against climate change.
The moral landscape.
All in all, beyond politics Clive Hamilton describes a system in which what he calls “the moral landscape” is nonexistent.
Since the starting point is the failure of global leaders to act, ethics have become secondary. What matters is to do something, and the “climate emergency argument” means that the doers have no boundaries to respect.
So far, therefore, the moral side of things would seem limited to accepting that some are trying to play gods and that we ought to let them do because the “technological promise” is worth it.
This obviously leads to another fundamental question: are we insane? EarthMasters describes a world in which the environment is barely more than one factor among others. Tricking it is a means to an end, and whatever happens in the middle doesn’t seem that relevant.
If we think about it carefully, however, Clive Hamilton is right to suggest that the whole picture is seriously fucked-up. Excuse my French here, but whatever the way you want to describe the trend, all it seems is indeed that the priority is to manipulate the environment to suit our needs. Hamilton calls it a problematic “optimization problem” in which there would be “surpluses” such as sunlight. Hence sunlight could be freely tempered with, if only because personal freedoms are more important than saving the planet.
Hamilton also draws an interesting parallel with militarization here. With cash and muscles, geoengineers are working on making their business omnipresent, as weapon manufacturers have done it over the past decades. When the industry is normalized as a legitimate response, he says, the outsiders become the rule-makers or, in this case, the earth masters…
EarthMasters: The main conclusions
Clive Hamilton comes to the following conclusions.
- Geoengineering is the “art” of using technology to trick the environment to try and curb the symptoms of climate change (instead of acting to treat the disease).
- There is a genuine ecosystem involved, with stakeholders, a scientific community, financiers and lobbies. Yet, less than 5% of the population knows what the industry does.
- We have no idea about the actual consequences of geoengineering projects, however.
- Positive impacts seem unrealistic, while the unforeseen consequences are, well, totally unforeseen.
- The trend overall creates a major ethical question, starting with the issue of whether unaware citizens should let some ‘innovators’ play gods with the environment.
EarthMasters: Food for thought.
As usual, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
Thinking about it as I write this commentary, I realize that EarthMasters provides two layers of food for thought.
The first layer is descriptive, as the book explains in simple terms a complex trend which very few know about. To this extent, and as I’ve written before, Clive Hamilton’ book is eye-opening and cannot leave you untouched. You’ve got to think “oh, dear, what on earth…” sooner or later.
The second layer of food for thought is reflective. Yes, you can read EarthMasters as a bedside table book and not pay too much attention to what it has to say. At the end of the day, though, the conclusions you will end-up making after reading you cannot leave you insensitive.
This is what makes a good book, in my opinion. Things start with one big question, i.e. what is geoengineering about and how did we get to try and trick climate using chemicals and blowing asteroids. And, later on, things end with another question, even more fundamental: between those who say that there is no climate change, those who fail to act, and those who think technology will solve the issue without any change being necessary, where do we stand and where do we go?
One option could be to trust the magicians. In this case, though, we might have to let lobbies decide what’s right and let the technicians take over from political leaders (which so far do not seem very committed, one must admit).
Another option could be… I’ll let you figure that out, actually.
The issue of radical thinking.
Reading EarthMasters also gave me some food for thought on the issue of radical thinking. In a book called ‘Radicals‘, Jamie Bartlett wrote extensively on the way new ideas, doctrines, and methods make their ways into our societies, and EarthMasters actually seemed like a great companion book to Bartlett’s.
>> Related reading: Why You Should Read Radicals, outsiders changing the World by Jamie Bartlett.
You don’t have to agree, though.
To finish, and to avoid those nasty emails from those who love geoengineering, you don’t need to agree with what Clive Hamilton says to read that book.
My point here is not to convince anyone that geoengineering is bad. My point is to talk about a mind-challenging book and to create some out-of-the-box thinking opportunities. I liked reading that book but I also write about books I didn’t enjoy. At the end of the day, the goal is to get you some food for thought. You do the rest!
A well written, challenging, eye-opening and thought-provoking book which you should read if the climate change topic is of interest to you.
Your turn now, get the book!
That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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