Messing with nature?

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Studies of public perceptions of geoengineering have implications for the 'greens vs science' debate.

Nature – whether preserving, protecting, or even deifying it – is at the heart of much green thinking and much scientific work. But pinning down exactly what "nature" means is more difficult than it first appears, and over the course of millennia, the way that people have imagined and perceived the natural world has changed repeatedly and often dramatically.

So a central tenet of much green thinking – that humans should not damage or otherwise interfere with the natural world – is a very complex statement indeed, because the concept of "nature" is subjective, dynamic and culturally constrained. The classic example is smallholder agriculture: what was once, many thousands of years ago, considered the height of mastery over nature is now an archetypal image of humans living in harmony with their environment.

Both scientific research and new technologies have a habit of exposing and challenging the way we perceive the natural world.

As many in the green movement will argue, technologies are inherently political, especially if they involve "messing with nature". Geoengineering – intentionally intervening in the Earth's climatic system to counteract the effects of climate change – is no exception. But in a recent paper that my colleagues and I published in the journal Global Environmental Change, we found striking evidence of how important the concept of "messing with nature" is for understanding how the general public think about geoengineering too.

We conducted a series of public discussion groups (termed deliberative workshops) in 2012 around the UK. The aim of these workshops was to explore public attitudes to geoengineering, and one of the strongest themes to emerge was the question of whether geoengineering represented an unprecedented intervention into nature (and what the social and ethical consequences of this might be).

Some participants argued that the appropriate role for human technologies was to work in harmony with nature – and that any attempt to control the climate was therefore wrong. But others countered that this was naive, or even hypocritical, suggesting that we'd "messed with nature" in the past when it suited us, and that geoengineering could represent a way of giving nature a "helping hand" in fixing the problem of climate change.

Certainly, there was no consensus on what constituted the natural, or whether geoengineering was an inherently good or bad thing with regards to our relationship to nature. But the "messing with nature" theme proved fertile ground for discussion.

Some pointed to analogies – both real and fictional – to express their concern that geoengineering might lead to unintended consequences that we would not easily be able to foresee. Characters from literature such as Frankenstein's monster, and non-fictional examples such as rainforest degradation and the spread of myxomatosis among rabbit populations, were put forward as examples of scientific experimentation in the natural world going wrong. Many participants in the workshops argued that there were lessons to be learned from examples like these.

There was also a strong strand of cynicism among some individuals, who adopted a conception of nature as all-powerful, and perhaps even revengeful in a Gaian sense. The superficial nature of geoengineering as a solution to climate change – a sticking plaster rather than a treatment of the underlying problem – seemed to trigger quite fatalistic views, with some even going so far as to describe humans as a "disease" that the Earth would eventually cleanse itself of.

Certainly, geoengineering is not the first technology to provoke strong contestation about the relationship between humans and nature. But the central role that the idea of "messing with nature" played in the workshops we conducted suggests that there is something about the prospect of controlling the climate that triggers contemplation about our place in the world.

Over 30 years ago, the prominent green thinker Bill McKibben published a book titled The End of Nature, in which he argued that natural systems could no longer be considered independent from human influence. The impacts of the industrial revolution had grown steadily as they had become more globalised. According to McKibben, nature had become fundamentally shaped by human activity:

By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before. When I say 'nature' I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.

Geoengineering may take McKibben's argument one step further – where once human impacts shaped the natural world, now we seek to actively control it. And although it may not be possible to draw an objective line between humans and the "natural world", our findings suggest that "messing with nature" through geoengineering is likely to be met with a chorus of contestation.

This post is part of a series on science and the green movement following debate at this year's Science in Public conference.

Adam Corner is a member of the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals project. He holds a post in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and at the Climate Outreach and Information Network. You can follow him on Twitter @AJCorner