New book from Christopher Preston: The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

9780262037617I’ve long enjoyed reading Christopher Preston’s work on environmental ethics and look forward to this new book with MIT Press out later this spring.

The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

We have all heard that there are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. In The Synthetic Age, Christopher Preston argues that what is most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature’s most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. A world designed by engineers and technicians means the birth of the planet’s first Synthetic Age.

Preston describes a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth’s very metabolism: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; “molecular manufacturing” that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology’s potential to build, not just read, a genome; “biological mini-machines” that can outdesign evolution; the relocation and resurrection of species; and climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.

What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.


Harriet Bulkeley: Can we govern the climate?

James Wescoat on Climate, Energy, and Water-conserving Design

James Wescoat: Climate, Energy, and Water-Conserving Design

Harry Verhoeven: A short introduction to the water-energy-food-climate nexus

Geoengineering + State of the World 2014

41QLWubvX+L._AA160_Mike Hulme’s new book against geoengineering is going to come out soon and it has already been reviewed in Nature.

I’ve linked to debates between Mike and David Keith before on geoengineering and am looking forward to reading the sustained argument he no doubt makes in this book.

This is especially the case since about a year ago I worked on my first take on the governance aspects of geoengineering with respect to how we imagine our place among other earth systems in the Anthropocene.

9781610915410That work is set to come out tomorrow as a chapter co-authored with Peter Brown in the annual State of the World report published by Island Press.

Dipesh Chakrabarty on Beyond Capital: The climate crisis as a challenge to social thought

I was at this talk last week and it is quite interesting. Chakrabarty sets out three propositions to help us start thinking about the climate crisis without the typical sets of assumptions about the workings of capitalism or imaginations of what is “planetary”. Click here to go to the page where you can view the video.

Geoengineering: workshop and some recent posts

I’ve posted a bit about geoengineering before (here) and have mentioned Clive Hamilton’s new book Earthmasters here. Clive had an interesting post on his website recently about how geoengineering requires conceptualizing the earth as a whole and what Heidegger may have to say about that.

In response, Tim Morton tweeted that this geoengineering is “A desperate attempt to stop earth from jutting through world.”

And this got me thinking about how geoengineering is not a Plan B just in case global climate negotiations fail. Rather, geoengineering is more of Plan A – a way to keep us from challenging the basic ways of living that have led us to the (perceived) need for geoenginnering itself. As Tim points out, it keeps our understanding of the “world” safe by continuing to subdue the earth.

If you are interested, there is an upcoming workshop on geoengineering that will be streamed live on October 17th. Details below:





  • Johns Hopkins Washington, DC Center
  • 1717 Massachusetts Ave NW
  • Room 204


  • Lee Lane, Visiting Scholar, Hudson Institute
  • Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs, Climate Institute, Washington, DC
  • Simon Nicholson, Assistant Professor of International Relations, School of International Service, American University

About the Roundtable

Up until recently, climate change geoengineering, defined by the UK’s Royal Society as “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change,” was viewed as outside the mainstream, or as Professor David Victor has put it less charitably, “a freak show in otherwise serious discussions of climate science and policy.” However, the feckless response of the global community to climate change ensures that temperatures are likely to rise to levels during this century that could have potentially catastrophic implications for human institutions and ecosystems. This had led to increasingly serious consideration of the potential role of geoengineering as a potential means to avert a “climate emergency,” such as rapid melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, or as a stopgap measure to buy time for effective emissions mitigation responses. This roundtable will examine the ethical, legal and political issues associated with climate change geoengineering research and development and potential deployment.

Dr. Wil Burns, Associate Director
Master of Science, Energy Policy & Climate Program
Johns Hopkins University

Peter Gleick on the “grand challenges” of water and climate

Climate engineering – two views

I’d like to contrast two views of geo-engineering – of trying to secure a technical fix that would solve, or at least stem, significant climate change. Several ways of doing this are proposed, such as sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and burying it deep underground in empty aquifers. Or pumping up sulphates into the high atmosphere where they will reflect sunlight back to space – similar to when a volcano erupts.

View one:

A few months back I mentioned Clive Hamilton’s new book, Earthmasters. . Clive recently wrote this piece in the New York Times and gave this interview at Democracy Now.

View two:

Back in May I had a chance to hear David Keith speak. He is a climate scientist at Harvard and has a new book coming out with MIT Press that makes the case for climate engineering. In his view, the science is sound – so we know what will happen when we do certain things like put sulphates up in the atmosphere. But the solutions are imperfect, so we might not know all that happens. But that just means it is not a silver bullet. It is one part of our arsenal that cannot be avoided in public policy. Here is a talk Keith gave:

I bring up these two views because an article was recently published in Science that suggests sulphates are not as well understood as previously thought. Here is a lay summary of the article.