Interview of Rachel Smolker ― Resistance Radio

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Jensen: Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Rachel Smolker. She’s a codirector of Biofuelwatch and works with the Global Forest Coalition and the Campaign to Stop GE Trees. She has researched, written and organized on the impacts of biofuels, bioenergy and biochar on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people, and the climate. She has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology. She is author of To Touch a Wild Dolphin. She lives in Vermont.

Thank you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program.

Smolker: Thanks for having me.

DJ: Today what we want to talk about is geoengineering. Let’s presume that readers are sympathetic but they might not know much about it. So first can you just say what it is and what’s wrong with it?

RS: Sure. Climate geoengineering refers to a garbage bin, if you will, of technologies that are being promoted or considered for dealing with CO2 overload in the atmosphere and either masking some of the symptoms of global warming or actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. There are a whole bunch of technologies that have been put in there, but it’s kind of defined in terms of the deliberate intervention with global atmospheric greenhouse gas and global atmosphere.

It’s an attempt to . . . people who have been working on this for a while say that the idea is that we could get our backs to the wall and have no other way out from dealing with the consequences of climate change. We might need some emergency measures, some technology that we can pull out of a hat and will either buy time or help us to solve the problem.

The technologies that are included in that are things that would block entry of sunlight into the atmosphere—solar radiation management it’s referred to a lot of the time. One of the main technologies there is to spew sulfate particulates into the stratosphere where they would reflect sunlight back out into space. That is somewhat analogous to what happens when we have a volcanic eruption. We know from looking at the historical record on volcanoes that that does indeed have a sort of chaotic effects of cooling and preventing sunlight. It also has other effects like halting rainfall in different parts of the globe and so on and so forth.

So this would be not relying on volcanoes but actually doing that ourselves, either delivering it by some kind of a hose or some kind of an aircraft or whatever. Now some people believe that this is already being done, but no.

So that’s one of the classes of technologies. The others are sometimes referred to as carbon dioxide removal. Those are things that would attempt to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere on a very grand scale. They include technologies like ocean iron fertilization, the idea being that phytoplankton are limited in their growth by the availability of iron, so if you dump a bunch of iron, you can stimulate blooms of phytoplankton, and the phytoplankton absorb carbon when they grow, and then they would die and sink to the bottom of the ocean and take all that carbon with them. There have been a number of experiments with that that people may be familiar with, the most recent one being in [Hayeda?].

The other kinds of approaches that are being discussed and one of the most prominent ones is Bioenergy with Carbon Cache and Sequestration, also called BECCS. That’s gained a lot of momentum recently. The IPCC incorporated that into models, basically saying that it was essential to have some way to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere, not just slow our flow of new CO2 but actually remove CO2 that’s already there. The only available technology they could put into their models currently that they felt might work would be BECCS.

I got involved in this specifically because having worked on looking at the impacts of large-scale, commercial-scale bioenergy for a lot of years, and being aware of the impacts of huge new demands for wood and crops for biofuels and so on, this raised my alarms because of course it would take massive, massive quantities of biomass material if you wanted to try to alter global CO2 by using that.

The other problem with that, of course, is that it assumes that if you do some kind of a bioenergy process, say burning wood for electricity, that there’s no CO2 emitted in that process. None. None. It’s carbon neutral. This is the term, the idea being that if you cut down a tree and burn it for electricity, a new tree will grow and the new tree will absorb the same amount of carbon back out of the atmosphere, which is very simplistic, lacks a holistic perspective on the world.

DJ: I think the technical term for the scientific problem with that is the word crap.

RS: Thank you. So yeah, it’s troubling, but that is the logic that has actually created a huge industry in bioenergy. We see coal plants converting to burning wood for electricity. They get subsidized as producing renewable energy, they can account for it as zero emissions, and this is a huge, emerging problem that we at Biofuelwatch have been working on and watching for some time, but the people in the climate geoengineering world say oh well, if it’s carbon neutral, what if we just attach a something to the smokestack and capture that carbon on the way out and then we can bury it somewhere? So any new tree that would grow after the one that we burned would actually be absorbing new carbon, it wouldn’t just be replacing the carbon from the tree that we burned, it would be absorbing new carbon out of the atmosphere. And if we do that on a huge, big, grand scale, we can somehow fix the global atmosphere that way.

It sounds nuts when you talk to people about it, but this is seriously on the table and is seriously being discussed as one of the near-term, feasible means of doing this. So that’s one of the major climate geoengineering technologies. Others have been discussed. Some people are familiar with biochar. Biochar was in there among technologies for climate geoengineering although the recent National Academy’s report basically said, you know what, that’s not going to work, and we’re not even going to consider that as a viable alternative.

And then there are a lot of sort of more nutty ideas out there, like what if we cut down lots of trees and bury them, dump them out in the deep ocean and bury the carbon in those trees in the deep ocean where it’s far away from the atmosphere? And the new trees that will grow—it’s the same idea—new trees will grow and absorb new carbon out of the atmosphere.

So those are some of the technologies that are out there. That’s not an exhaustive list. People can look for the reports that just came out from the National Academy, two different reports, one on solar radiation management and one on carbon removal.

The bottom line is that there’s a bunch of people who are sitting around and trying to come up with schemes and plans that they think could potentially work to alter the global balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but the other issue about it is who are those people, and what are their interests, and what are the political ramifications—in addition to our concerns about the environment.

We know, for example, from modeling studies that solar radiation management, injecting sulfates into the stratosphere, would have serous repercussions on rainfall in the Global South, particularly in the Sahara. It depends on where you spew the particles where the impacts will be felt, but it’s a global system that we live in and tweaking one end of it on a massive scale with a deliberate intent of altering the global atmospheric balance is going to have unanticipated and unequally distributed results around the globe.

So there’s a lot of discussion about okay, if that’s the case, then how do we govern it, who governs it, who develops the technologies, who has access to that? There’s a lot of concern about the potential weaponization particularly of solar radiation management. It’s not expensive to do, spew sulfate particles into the stratosphere. It’s not expensive or even necessarily technically all that daunting, so there’s a lot of concern that it’s sort of easily available but has huge consequences, and it could become sort of a tool that people use, wielding it as a weapon.

The CIA was actually involved in funding these reports that were just released by the National Academy of Science, so there’s an awareness of the potential weaponization, and of course weather modification has been used in the context of military activities in the past—cloud seeding, for example, during the Vietnam War, to cause heavy rains to interfere with movement of troops on the ground and so on.

So there are a lot of different aspects to this whole issue. I think one of the most concerning is of course that it’s a very appealing political way out. The oil industry and other fossil-fuel industries, polluting industries, would be just delighted to see that there was a back door, trap door, that would allow them to escape from regulation and allow business as usual to continue. So that’s another one of the big concerns.

DJ: My friend Stephanie MacMillan and I have been talking about geoengineering ever since we’ve been friends, probably, gosh, ten years now or something. She was the one who first told me this, but I complete agree that really geoengineering has been the direction the capitalists wanted to go from the beginning. Basically just don’t do anything until it’s so dire, and then say okay, we have an emergency and by the way, we can make money off this emergency too.

It’s not in terms of conspiracy. I love my friend George Draffan’s line about how you don’t have to have a conspiracy when everybody thinks the same, that when you have this mindset that you can actually control the planet . . . actually instead of going that direction, the direction I want to go is I want to key in on two words that you said during your wonderful introduction. One of the words was chaotic, and one of the words was unanticipated. I guess the question I would have for anybody who supports geoengineering is if they can name any times that human supremacists in this culture have managed large-scale landscapes and have been able to anticipate all the results of their actions.

RS: Yeah. Well that’s a very good question, and I think we know the answer is no, but we can also anticipate that there would be people out there who would say yes, of course, we anticipated all of the possibilities and we are in control. There’s a huge different frame of mind out there that really does believe that technology can control nature, and that we are at the helm, if you will, and in control.

DJ: Let’s talk about specifically . . . I guess there are sort of three directions I want to go. One of them is—you sort of alluded to it—but what can go wrong? Let’s say that they do the sulfur particles, or sulfate particles? Let’s say that they spew those out there. We don’t have to have a disaster, nightmare scenario, but let’s talk about just some of the things that could go wrong with that.

RS: Sure. I mean what we already know just from doing modeling studies and from looking at the effects of volcanic eruptions is that yes, it does cause cooling in some places, and depending on how air moves and how the climate behaves, and weather patterns and so on, it can actually cause cooling in one place and more heating in another place. We know in particular that it affects rainfall. So after the previous volcanic eruptions, Pinatubo and others that we’ve seen, we know that they’ve caused severe droughts on other parts of the globe. So it’s a very dynamic system. People do not have control over it and do not understand it fully, but we do know from previous observations that there are unequal results.

So, for example, it could be possible for us here in the U.S. to say we’re going to spew sulfate particles over a certain area of North America in order to cool and improve our outcomes in terms of agricultural output, but it will come at the cost of, say—and this is just hypothetical—but it will come at the cost of rainfall somewhere else which could be, say, in South America or somewhere else. We know that sort of thing happens just by looking at modeling studies and previous volcanoes.

The other thing we know is that that sulfate particles in the stratosphere interact in different ways chemically, and we certainly do not know all about that. Far from it. But we do know that it will cause further degradation of the ozone layer. That’s another huge concern for people who are watching this.

DJ: Let’s talk for a moment about fertilizing with iron in the ocean. I’ve read—I think you know my perspective on all this stuff—but the accounts I’ve read of the ocean fertilization are that, gosh, this is win-win situation because it makes more phytoplankton, which ends up making more food for various fish, and it actually will, in the case of the Pacific Northwest, help the salmon tremendously. These are the accounts I’ve been reading.

Once again, I am of the opinion that nature always knows best and that when we meddle—the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the thing I always think about—that we meddle and we just mess things up. Can you tell me some of the . . . can you counteract that? Because the accounts I’ve read have been particularly glowing. Of course they’ve been written by boosters.

RS: One thing is that they have not found sequestering of carbon as a result of this. I don’t pretend to be an expert on ocean iron fertilization but there was the case recently in British Columbia where this company, plaintiffs, came in, and essentially from what it appears, they presented this as a salmon restoration project for the Native Americans that live there and then conducted a test with dumping iron into the water.

This did not go through any regulatory review or any permitting review or anything of that sort that I’m aware of. When it was found that this was being done, people were pretty upset, because in fact there are international conventions in place that are meant to prevent that kind of abuse, if you will. There’s the London Convention and there are conventions on ocean dumping and there are other international agreements that have been put in place to try to prevent that. This was kind of a rogue operation that should not have happened and is still being debated.

The tests that have been done have not been very glowing. I’m not sure which ones you’ve seen, but the ones that I’ve seen do not show that there’s been a huge plankton bloom. The plankton blooms happen, but the potential for carbon sequestration as far as I know has not worked out quite as planned.

DJ: Another thing that I want to bring into this is, do you know about Jevons Paradox?

RS: I think so. Would you refresh me?

DJ: Jevons Paradox is this guy, this economist, back in the nineteenth century found that when the price of coal went down or when there was some sort of advancement technology having to do with. . . actually instead of me doing this, I’m going to do a quick search as long as we’re using Skype anyway. Instead of me saying ridiculous things, I should just go ahead and say what it really is: the proposition that as technology progresses the increase in efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase rather than decrease the rate of consumption.

Basically there was a technological advancement associated with coal usage and instead of that meaning that people would have to use less coal it made it so it was cheaper and so they used more coal. And this has been happening again and again and again.

The reason I bring this up is because it seems to me that even if we ignore what could possibly wrong with these scenarios here, all this would really do is it actually would not decrease global warming as such, what it would do is give them carte blanche to go ahead and spew more emissions. Do you see what I’m trying to get at?

RS: Yes, I do, absolutely. The Jevons Paradox—I’ve heard that talked a lot about in terms of if people who buy a Toyota Prius then feel that because they’re driving a more efficient car, then they actually drive more, so that counters the savings they could potentially get. That’s one that people can relate to.

Absolutely, that’s the concern, that by introducing a way out, if you will, this climate geoengineering will perpetuate the mindset that we can continue to spew. And in fact, the models basically used by the IPCC and so on that are promoting, say, bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration, they just refer to it as negative emissions—in other words, producing energy while actually reducing emissions if you can imagine.

They actually incorporate into their models the idea of overshoot. So there’s a budget of how much carbon we can afford to still put into the atmosphere, according to those who believe that they are knowledgeable enough to figure that out or that we’re not already way past that point . . . but anyway . . . and that we can take our time a little bit more because we can allow a certain amount of overshoot to happen because policies and behavior haven’t changed fast enough. And we can then later on clean up that overshoot mess with these technologies. So that’s essentially related very much to the Jevons Paradox in some ways.

DJ: Another thing that that makes me think of is that . . . oh shoot, now I forgot what I was going to say . . . oh yeah, just a couple of days ago someone was saying to me that they think that one reason this culture needs to be kept around is because nuclear power plants are so dangerous that we need to keep the society going to maintain the. . . just a sec, I need to hang up the phone. We need to maintain this culture so that we can keep the nuclear power plants safe, never mind the fact that this culture is destroying everything else.

But there would be a similar thing, is my understanding, especially with the sulfate particles, is that once you commit yourself to that, then you have to maintain it, right? This is also committing ourselves. Because once you stop doing it, because you’ve continued to emit CO2 in the meantime, when you stop doing it, suddenly there’s this massive jump.

Even if everything goes right for them, we’re still committing ourselves to that particular path, right?

RS: Yeah, exactly. I always like to use the analogy of a drug addiction because, particularly with the sulfate particle injection technology, yeah, it just treats the symptoms. It does not treat the underlying causes of global warming and, yes, it would allow continued flow of CO2 into the atmosphere, and you’d have to ramp up how much sulfate you were spewing into the stratosphere as more CO2 gets dumped in there.

The other thing is that because it does not address the underlying causes, it doesn’t address the problem of ocean acidification, which is of course the other huge, catastrophic impact of rising CO2 in the atmosphere. So the oceans would continue to get more acidic, and, yeah, you can’t just one day decide to quit unless you want to cause incredible damage because you’re basically hooked into it. You would have a huge, very abrupt spike in warming if you were to quit.

DJ: So you mentioned the CIA, and do you know who some of the other major players are in promoting various geoengineering schemes? Are there notable players in it?

RS: Well, I wouldn’t really say necessarily that the CIA is huge player. They are interested in the question and did contribute funding to it. There’s kind of a small clique of people sometimes referred to as the geoengineering clique, and as you might imagine, they are all white men from the North like, for example, David Keith. They have funding from the Gates Foundation. They have some links with tar-sands money as I understand. There are conservative think tanks that are interested in it. Interestingly, some of the groups that have been, and some of the individuals, I should say rather, who have been involved in promoting it, are formerly people who are very much involved in the whole denial of climate change and then have suddenly become very concerned about it apparently.

DJ: Which is the point I was trying to make when I said that thing about my friend Stephanie McMillan. That’s sort of a classic . . . that’s what we’d precisely expect capitalists to do in their financial interest is deny there’s a problem and then when it’s time to . . . when they can no longer deny there’s a problem, suddenly provide the solution to the problem, which, not coincidentally, makes them money and does not affect the power structures or business as usual.

RS: That’s a familiar pattern for us in many different dimensions by now, and it’s true in climate geoengineering as well.

DJ: I wish I could find this. There’s somewhere I wrote about . . . you mentioned that guy David Keith, I believe his name is.

RS: Yeah.

DJ: I wrote about him somewhere, I can’t remember where, and there were some fantastic quotes by him. Even as he’s promoting geoengineering . . . I believe this is about the thing about decreasing how much sunlight gets to the earth, even he was saying, “Well if things go wrong, this could end life on earth.”

RS: Yeah, they don’t mince words sometimes. It’s interesting.

DJ: It’s kind of like . . . my friend, once again, George Draffan, always used to say that he loved reading the Wall Street Journal because there the capitalists don’t have to bother to lie—I mean this is for capitalists by capitalists—so they just go ahead and say, “Yeah, we’re go ahead and colonize this place and take over this place.” They make no bones about it.

RS: Yeah.

DJ: Before we talk about what you would prefer to geoengineering, let’s talk about, and I recognize the crystal ball is always cloudy, but what do you foresee happening vis-à-vis geoengineering in the next two, five, and ten years? This is not your happy scenario. This is your most probable political scenario.

RS: Well, shall I allow the pessimist or the optimist to take [inaudible]?

DJ: Do both. Give me both of them.

RS: The worst-case scenario is that things rapidly degrade. Agriculture collapses. People are hungry. Civil unrest is happening everywhere. The planet is in collapse.
Somebody says, “Well, let’s just try this. We don’t really know whether it will work or not, but things are so bad, it’s a last resort.” We all know that under dire circumstances like that, democracy and participatory decision making usually go straight out the window. And because some of these things can be done unilaterally, somebody might decide to do it and essentially set off a competition among nations to control the atmosphere.

So there’s a sort of worst-case scenario. A better-case scenario is that some effective form of governance and decision-making might be put into place, but I’m not hugely optimistic about that. The fact is that we haven’t been able to get any kind of international consensus on what to do about the problem of climate change, so I’m not sure that I have a lot of faith in an international consensus on how to govern climate geoengineering.

There are some international agreements already in place but as we’ve seen, they sometimes get ignored—in iron fertilization most recently. So that’s a problem.

Right now part of the debate that’s happening in the very immediate [inaudible] is that these National Academy of Science reports came out. A few days before that, apparently timed to coincide, was a commentary in Nature authored by a woman, Jane Long, who has been a prominent figure in the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, which is a group including environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and some others who are trying to from their perspective get ahead of the game in figuring out how to get governance in place before this technology moves forward too fast.

In any case, her commentary, their commentary, in Nature basically was calling for more research on climate geoengineering, and the National Academy of Science reports basically said straight off the bat, “We should not be considering this as an alternative to reducing emissions. These are risky unknowns. We need to concentrate our attention on dealing with the root causes of the problem and addressing emissions, but we should be doing more research on these things.

And in particular because there’s a lot of squeamishness around solar radiation management, sulfate particle injection . . . there’s a lot of squeamishness around that. But there’s a lot more acceptance of the idea that growing trees and crops and plants and so on—it all sounds really good—and that some of these other, biomass, plant-based, very large-scale tree plantations, which is another carbon dioxide removal technique, if you will—it’s not really a technology, I suppose—or bioenergy with carbon capture sequestration that are a lot more benign. So there’s a lot more support for those, I think. They’re less contentious. And they can be done on a smaller scale. And they’re kind of already happening in many cases anyway.

So the call is really to focus more on those but also with the understanding that the potential for those to really address global CO2 concentrations is pretty limited. There are concerns, at least concerns given lip service, about the amount of plant biomass that we could burn or bury in the bottom of the ocean. So I guess we can be thankful that people are recognizing that it might not make sense to raze too much of the planet.

That’s the dynamic right now. There’s a lot more support for these carbon dioxide removal approaches than for the solar radiation management. The solar radiation management is worrying, though, because as I said earlier it’s inexpensive to do and it could be done unilaterally. There are a lot of unknowns. We know some things about it and they’re not very good, really.

I don’t know what to say about the ten-year scenario. I worry that a lot of time and energy and money gets dumped into researching these things, and that could be put to much better use. Also that it creates a certain momentum because academic institutions and so on get caught up in the whole thing of getting grants and studying this. And once that happens, their careers are built on it, and they have new initiatives in their departments and this, that, and the other thing, which we’ve seen happen in other domains. Then people want to perpetuate their livelihoods as career geoengineering researchers. Those are all various different concerns around the question of whether we should be researching this.

Another concern is that some of the questions that we really most need to know the answers to, which include things like what would be the differential impacts in different regions of the planet of doing something like solar radiation management—those are questions we can’t really answer with small-scale [inaudible].

As Naomi Klein says—she has a great chapter on climate geoengineering in her book This Changes Everything—she also commented on the Nature commentary that I mentioned, and she points that out again there. The real key questions that we need answers to can only be addressed by full-scale deployment. This is a global atmosphere. The questions are about how the impacts are distributed around the globe, and we can’t find that out by little small-scale studies. We can find out things about whether sulfate particles are better delivered to the stratosphere via hose or via airplane or what kind of nozzle should be on the hose, but why bother doing that until we have answers to some of the other questions about how this is going to affect people in different parts of the world?

DJ: I keep thinking about . . . this probably won’t surprise you, but it may surprise some people . . . the truth is that I’m actually very conservative. The reason I say that is because I just think it’s a terribly bad idea to foreclose future possibilities by, for example, wiping out passenger pigeons or salmon or whatever. One of my favorite lines I’ve ever read was written or said by someone . . . I believe one of the victims who did not die, obviously, of the Bhopal catastrophe. One of the people said, “No one should be allowed to make poisons for which there is no antidote.”

It just strikes me as a tremendously bad idea to conduct open-air experiments, whether those open-air experiments are bathing the world in endocrine disruptors or neurotoxins or carbon dioxide or sulfate particles. It just seems like . . . okay, I live right next to a little pond. When I first moved here, somebody suggested that I put in some goldfish, just have nice little goldfish in the pond. And I didn’t because it’s a lot easier not to put goldfish in than it is to take them out when they mess up the local habitat for the frogs.

It just seems with all this stuff . . . I keep thinking of the first rule of medicine, “Do no harm.” Or we can talk about this in terms of precautionary principle. Anyway, sorry, I’m just rambling. Go ahead.

RS: No, I think those are all very relevant points. The precautionary principle is a beautiful thing, at least in theory, and in practice it often gets overlooked, unfortunately. But yeah, I totally agree.

I think, for example, endocrine disruptors—people didn’t consider that that was an experiment, just as people don’t consider an oil train blowing up in their backyard to be an experiment. It’s just something that somebody decided was a good idea and they went out and did it. And people didn’t really have a say in how that was going to play out and what the consequences were going to be. I know nobody ever asked me if I thought endocrine disruptors in my plastic kids’ toys were okay. So there’s a little bit of a difference in the way things are presented, whether they’re presented as an experiment and a grant and government funding and we’re doing research as opposed to a commercial venture.

DJ: For what it’s worth, I think that the way geoengineering is going to go, my guess, is the same way that nanotechnology and drones or basically almost any technology goes, which is we have discussions where some people say this is a terrible idea, and other people say this is the best idea in the world, and then we have some discussions about whether it should be regulated and some discussions about how it should be regulated, and the next thing you know basically there are a handful of us who are just begging for there to be at least labeling when it does happen.

My point is that there seems to be a sort of momentum or seems to be a pattern that I’ve seen with a lot of these technologies where a robust discussion happens for a little while and then all of a sudden . . . this happened with nanotechnology. We’re having this discussion about whether it should happen in the real world, and the next thing you know they’re making pants with nanotechnology in the pants. When did this transition occur? I don’t remember the place where it moved from theoretical experiments to a standard part of my life.

RS: That’s because we don’t have any mechanisms in place for doing really valid and real technology assessments where people get to make those decisions. It’s too often just driven by commercial interests or other forces. I totally agree.

Synthetic biology is one that we’re watching right now, like nanotechnology, where the commercial uses and releases of synthetic biology products and so on are galloping along while the discussions in the background about whether or how it should be regulated or whether it should even be done are trailing along a million miles behind. So it’s almost like it’s a done deal, and why are we sitting here talking about regulating it?

That’s a bad attitude. We’ve got to do what we can do. But the thing, I think, is that we need to recognize that just because we can develop some technology does not mean that we should. We need to have policies in place at some level or other. I mean, we need the awareness of that issue, but we also need some policies in place that will really put participatory, democratic decision making behind these technologies before they have galloped along a million miles into commercial release.

I mean another one is just in the last few days. I work with a campaign to stop GE trees, and we’ve been following developments of field testing and the USDA regulatory processes and so on and so forth, especially around GE eucalyptus, which was moving quickly. And then a few days ago suddenly we discovered that a GE loblolly pine was permitted by the USDA without any regulation whatsoever because the way the gene was inserted, the USDA thought didn’t require them to regulate it the same way they would if it was potentially a plant test.

So it fell through this loophole—they just allowed it right through—and now we have a GE tree that’s been right through the regulatory process while we were there, trying hard in the background to insure that GE trees were very rigorously regulated and hopefully never commercially released. So these things happen all the time in technology development. We need different ways of relating to technology.

DJ: Right. I completely agree. We have about three or four minutes left, and before I ask you a couple of wind-up questions, I want to surprise you by saying that I am actually . . . I’m going to come out in public right now as a huge fan of specific, very particular types of geoengineering. Do you want to hear what they are?

RS: Sure.

DJ: This did not surprise me at all. I just read an article a couple days ago. The headline is “Wetland swamps ‘hold great potential’ to store carbon, fight climate change.” And, “’Wetlands can store approximately 50 times as much carbon as quite high carbon sequestration ecosystems such as tropical rainforests,’ said one of the academics.” So here is my geoengineering proposal: I would strongly support restoring forests, prairies, and wetlands because they can all sequester such great carbon—also for other reasons too. Not to store it then cut it down and bury it but instead, let the plants, actually . . . like the grasses could bury it in their roots, and the swamps could bury it the mud, and the trees could hold it in the trees. What do you think of that geoengineering idea?

RS: Yeah, I know, I know, that’s exactly how I think about it all the time. Why are we not having serious discussions? And why are we not dumping this research and development funding and everything else into halting deforestation, for example, or restoring depleted soils, or any of the other obvious things? It’s very frustrating. They’re not technologies. People are fascinated by technology. Nature just doing its thing is just not as fascinating. There’s not money to be made in the same way. There’s not control to be had in the same way. I think those are big factors.

And there’s also, for example with bioenergy carbon capture and sequestration, part of the whole issue of bioenergy is that we can make energy. We would argue that you could do a better job of sequestering carbon by allowing a forest to grow than you could by burning the trees and offsetting some fossil fuels, maybe, but the point is you don’t get energy that way. You get a forest. People want energy, not forests, in many cases.

Of course, I’m totally with you. Obviously there’s huge potential if we just stopped destroying the planet and allowed it to heal, we would have made a huge lot of progress, and there would be all kinds of other associated benefits—water, food, and everything else, biodiversity.

DJ: So the rule here is you can’t bring down capitalism or civilization within the next two months or something, but you are put in charge of all processes associated with combating global warming. You’re the Queen of Stopping Global Warming. What would you do? What would be your immediate policy? The reason I say you can’t bring down capitalism or civilization is because I want to know immediate policy changes with the understanding that wild nature has to take over in the middle term. But what would you do immediately? What would you do tomorrow? What would you want to have happen?

RS: Of course, I think it’s absolutely right that we need to cease burning fossil fuels. There are two things. We need to cease burning fossil fuels, and we need to not pretend that we can continue destroying ecosystems. And that is often a tension because people want to stop using fossil fuels and instead use biofuels. To me, that’s kind of the key thing, to say, okay, we do need to stop using fossil fuels and we also need to recognize that there just isn’t an alternative form of energy. And that unto itself is likely to bring down civilization.

DJ: Right.

RS: Those are the things that we actually need to do. And I think it’s really key that we have voices willing to just say these things. Because it’s not very common. You see even groups, Greenpeace and so on, saying let’s just switch to 100% renewable energy as if there is some form of energy out there that is just going to satisfy all these demands and we can just sort of plug it in and keep on with business as usual, just using a different form of energy. That’s simply not the case.

We need to realize that the whole way we live and relate to our use of energy has got to dramatically shift. People need to be saying that and understanding that, and understanding that we need to work and live in harmony with the forces of nature and with biodiversity and not imagine that we can somehow have control over it and have it all bend to our will and satisfy our every desire.

That’s sort of it in a nutshell, I guess. “System change not climate change” is the call that climate activists always say. And the question is what do you really mean by that? Well, a lot of different things. The thing is that the entire system—we’re all bound up in it. Racism is part of the solution. I mean, sorry, ending racism is part of the solution. Tackling the issue of the inequity of distribution of wealth, making sure that people have health care and their basic needs met—all of these things are all part of the system that needs to be changed.

And we can’t do it as just “climate activists” because the issue of climate is too abstract and too sort of meaningless because it’s rooted in all these different issues. The thing for us is to try to bring people together who are working in different silos of activism, to recognize that we have a common vision and a common goal, and that our interests are common, and try to move forward as a more united front.

The oil companies have an incredible stranglehold on everything. They believe in complete disregard for all of what we know about climate change. They will say, as the Shell exec said just a couple of days ago, there will be a market for our oil, so we’re not concerned about divestment and regulation and all of that, because there will be a market. The only way to address climate change is if you figure out some way to make our oil emissions-free.

They just take it as an assumption that all the oil reserves that are known about will be accessed and sold on the market somewhere. And you know, they may be right. We’re really up against something quite monumental, but I believe as I think you would say, that the more we can understand and live in harmony with nature, as people have been saying for decades, the better options will be in the long run.

DJ: I want to really thank you for that whole last little speech you gave in response to my last question. I think that’s just so fantastic, and not enough people are saying it. Thank you so much.

We’re out of time. Thank you for being on the program. Thank you for listening. Our guest today has been Rachel Smolker. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on March 29th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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