A critical examination of geoengineering: Economic and technological rationality in social context

Ryan Gunderson, Brian Petersen, Diana Stuart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Geoengineering-specifically stratospheric aerosol injection-is not only risky, but supports powerful economic interests, protects an inherently ecologically harmful social formation, relegates the fundamental social-structural changes needed to address climate change, and is rooted in a vision of a nature as a set of passive resources that can be fully controlled in line with the demands of capital. The case for geoengineering is incomprehensible without analyzing the social context that gave birth to it: capitalism's inability to overcome a contradiction between the need to accumulate capital, on the one hand, and the need to maintain a stable climate system on the other. Substantial emissions reductions, unlike geoengineering, are costly, rely more on social-structural than technical changes, and are at odds with the current social order. Because of this, geoengineering will increasingly be considered a core response to climate change. In light of Herbert Marcuse's critical theory, the promotion of geoengineering as a market-friendly and high-tech strategy is shown to reflect a society that cannot set substantive aims through reason and transforms what should be considered means (technology and economic production) into ends themselves. Such a condition echoes the first-generation Frankfurt School's central thesis: instrumental rationality remains irrational.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number269
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 20 2018


  • Albedo modification
  • Carbon dioxide removal
  • Climate engineering
  • Critical theory
  • Environmental sociology
  • Marcuse
  • Science and technology studies
  • Solar radiation management
  • Stratospheric aerosol injection
  • Stratospheric sulfate injection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment


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