Environmental Engineering: The Cure? Or Just a Placebo?

Climate Engineering

By Xu Qifei


| Does building shades around the earth to slow down global warming sounds like too ludicrous of an idea to you? Then you might be even more surprised to hear that according to environmental engineers, it’s in fact a feasible solution. Are the wonders of new technologies going to save the world once more? Or is it just another placebo which operates on our dogma that technology will solve everything?

Environmental engineering, along with subfields like geoengineering and climate engineering, is a relatively new area of study which attempts to achieve goals in environmental protection and energy preservation by manipulating the ecosphere with technology and our knowledge of the environment. It is a term most people have never heard of, and it hasn’t really been taken seriously as an alternative approach to environmental problems by most policy makers yet. However, with the resilience movement, a discourse which promotes the idea that preventative actions and technologies are the answers to our environmental problems, picking up its momentum in politics, we have reason to believe that environmental engineering might finally reach some popularity in the coming years.

Part of the reason why environmental engineering has stayed out of political spotlight so far is that many of the proposals that have been presented by environmental engineers sound far too expensive, difficult or simply ridiculous at first glance. Carbon capture or sequestration, which seeks ways to restore the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back into the soil and oceans, is actually among one of the most grounded solutions. Other proposals are much more ambitious and can seem very intimidating to the general public initially. One of these bolder proposals is building a space ring in orbit around the equator with sunlight-scattering particles or micro-spacecraft to combat warming effect of the sun. Environmental scientists also introduced the idea of using large pipes to stimulate the mixing process of water in the oceans, causing deep nutrient-rich water to reach the surface and triggering algae blooms that can efficiently absorb large amount of carbon dioxide. Other environmental engineers even suggested injecting sulfur or sulfur-like aerosols into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect that occurs after a volcanic eruption to slow down global warming.

Even though the sheer scale and cost of these solutions scare off some politicians from ever supporting them, it is very likely that environmental engineering will get picked up as a subject in political arguments in the next few years. Last year President Obama announced that he will include a proposal of a $1 billion “Climate Resilience Fund” in the new budget, the details of which are not specified. This signals the rise of the resilience movement in the political mainstream of the United States. Interestingly enough, many features of environmental engineering align with the political rhetoric of the resilience movement, which puts much more attention on preventive actions rather than adaptation and heavily relies on technological measures comparing to the sustainability discourse. Above all, the biggest appeal of the environmental engineering is that it doesn’t necessarily require any huge structural change or complicated international cooperation. Moreover, it seems promising on the economic front, as environmental engineers are by no means badly paid jobs. New college graduates with bachelor degrees who work as environmental engineers have salaries from $44,722 to $69,808. With all the large scale solutions being only proposed fairly recently, there are no accurate numbers on how the related industries will benefit from the proposals, but it’s not hard to imagine how such enormous projects will create many jobs and stimulate trade and production.

Nevertheless, we should still be wary and savvy about these proposed solutions, or perhaps even be more critical of environmental engineering in general. There is a massive amount of criticism and probably for good reasons. Even without considering the practicality of the matter, the philosophy behind these solutions, which is the dogma that technology will solve everything, is what got us into the trouble that we are in now. These solutions are just placebos which suppress the symptoms instead of diagnosing why symptoms emerge in the first place and curing the root problem. We cannot expect technological solutions to resolve the systemic failure of our society which left us the habits of irresponsible consumerism and exploitation, and our resolutions of pushing for comprehensive structural changes have to remain strong.

Image: Kiel Earth Institute




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