Dao Du Jour, Day 66: Dao-Engineering

Chapter 66

“All streams flow to the sea

because it is lower than they are.

Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,

you must place yourself below them.

If you want to lead the people,

you must learn how to follow them.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Geoengineering used to be one of the more fringy, sci-fi solutions to climate change, but it is gradually nudging its way into the Overton window and being looked at as a (potentially necessary) part of the solution. At one level, it presents as the endgame of human hubris, of the very way of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place: the modern project of controlling nature sanctioned by Francis Bacon, who deemed knowledge the power to bend nature to “relieve the human estate,” and Rene Descartes, who said we must become the “masters and conquerors of nature.” Taking the controls of “spaceship earth” seems like the logical extension of this ethos.

But at another level, geoengineering may be, bizarrely, congruent with the Dao. Counterculture icon Stewart Brand famously said, “We are as gods. We may as well get good at it.” His point, I think, is that we always have been. Nature issued beings able to consciously manipulate their environment; it is only in the modern age that the effects of that natural power have become planetary in scope and perilous in nature. To demonize human technology, as environmentalists often do, is to not only write off humanity and succumb to fatalism, but to reject the Dao. We, too, are a part of nature—including our ability to alter nature.

The problem is not engineering. People rarely make mention that the automobile, public emissions enemy #1, solved a serious public health problem in urban areas: horse manure. Every technology produces shit, just as every living organism does; and subsequent technologies clean it up and, in turn, produce a new kind of shit. Electric vehicles clean up the shit of carbon emissions. That is the dialectic of progress.

The problem is engineering that does not “place itself below” and “learn how to follow” people and planet. Engineering whose design is guided by the needs of the people who live there and the ecological contours of the place is the solution. Even Bacon recognized that to command nature, you must obey her.

And whether we want to call it geoengineering or not, intelligently and morally designed technology is our only hope. We must overhaul the parking lot we have paved over paradise so that it harmonizes with paradise. Through biomimetic technologies and design philosophies such as William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach, in which “waste equals food” and human production processes are seamlessly integrated into natural systems, we can build sustainable infrastructure.

The first part of history was the Great Escape from nature. The second part of history will be the Great Return to nature. And in a way, coming to our sense, coming back down to earth—which will require great humility on our part, acknowledgement that we are, in the end, human, of the earth—is what we have been doing for the entire life of our species. We began in the trees, and only the discovery of fire allowed us to come down, sleep on the ground, build settlements, and dwell on the earth. Only the reinvention of fire, to use Amory Lovins’ term, will allow us to stay here. If we can get good enough at being gods, we have a chance at becoming fully human—and keeping the sea literally lower than we are.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?