Review of Experiment Earth in Journal of Responsible Innovation

Review of Experiment Earth in Journal of Responsible Innovation


Review of “Stilgoe, Jack. 2015. Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering. Abingdon: Routledge and Earthscan”

Raffael Himmelsbach


In the Japanese film Godzilla (1954) nuclear testing resurrects a prehistoric monster from the deep sea to wreak havoc with Tokyo. The film raises the ethical question if one evil may be mobilized to combat another, for the only means to stop the monster is a weaponized technology of awesome might. On one hand, the technology in question, the fictitious oxygen destroyer, is such a super-weapon that its inventor does not trust humanity to make wise use of it and therefore tries to keep it a secret, albeit unsuccessfully. On the other hand, there is an acute emergency since Godzilla is unstoppable. Ultimately the scientist succumbs to social pressure and agrees to the weapon’s deployment. It is not hard to read the Godzilla story as an analogy to climate change, the monster unleashed by the carbon age to wreak havoc with the Holocene only to be stopped by a technical fix called geoengineering. This is precisely the narrative that proponents of researching geoengineering perpetuate to make their case: finding a political solution to climate change, plan A that is, has proven ineffective, making it reluctantly necessary to investigate a technical fix as plan B (Crutzen 2006; Keith 2014; The Royal Society 2009).

Jack Stilgoe, senior lecturer at University College London, specializes in issues of scientific governance and is the author of a framework for responsible innovation. His book “Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering” addresses the dilemma of how to responsibly govern geoengineering research without taking promises and plan B narratives at face value. In chapter 1 Stilgoe introduces geoengineering and inducts it into the science in society debate. In opposition to governance approaches premised on the what- if of promises, Stilgoe develops a framework for technoscientific governance that construes technology as a social experiment (chapter 2). Chapter 3 unpacks different narratives about geoengineering that circulate among the relevant research communities. Then the book presents empirical cases. Chapter 4 is an account of the British Royal Society’s reluctant assessment of geoengineering, which produced definitions, assumptions and policy recommendations that became common currency in the academic geoengineering debate. The governance of outdoor experiments and the halted balloon experiment of the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering program (SPICE) is the topic of chapter 5. Chapter 6 attends to the uses and consequences of computer modeling in geoengineering research. Chapter 7 shows how the interactions between climate scientists and engineers within the SPICE project exposed important uncertainties, which, in Stilgoe’s view, destabilized rather than strengthened the Royal Society supported claim that cooling the atmosphere by spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere was cheap and easy. Stilgoe wraps up the book in chapter 8, presenting several suggestions of how technoscientific governance, construed as the governance of a social experiment, might work in practice.

Geoengineering as a thing

The book’s core task is to shift the object of geoengineering governance from speculation to social experiment. Advocates and critics alike are prone to talking about geoengineering as if it was an actual technology, despite being little more than design speculation of how naturally occurring phenomena could be reproduced and controlled through technological intervention into the earth system. In other words, geoengineering is primarily a discursive object and Stilgoe carefully deconstructs the historical narrative and deliberate framings that hold geoengineering together as a thing (chapter 3). He describes how over the course of several workshops and assessment reports, geoengineering researchers have steadily worked towards the distinction between technologies of carbon dioxide removal and albedo modification, respectively. The Royal Society’s report “Geoengineering the climate”, which Stilgoe discusses in chapter 4, has been instrumental for this process that ultimately branded stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) as effective and efficient, albeit risky.

As for the historical narrative, SAI has commonly been portrayed as a taboo from the cold war era, a taboo that Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen helped to lift when he called for its reconsideration amid the failure of international negotiations to deliver emission reductions (Crutzen 2006). Returning to the Godzilla analogy above, Crutzen made it OK to talk about the oxygen destroyer. Stilgoe rightly argues that geoengineering lacks the concreteness of an object, which, like the hydrogen bomb (or the oxygen destroyer for that matter) could be uninvented if the transmission of tacit knowledge were to stop (the oxygen destroyer’s inventor heroically dies setting off his contraption against Godzilla). Rather than an awesome weapon, geoengineering is an incarnation of the kind of technoscientific determinism that sits quite comfortably with the science-before-policy thinking embraced by large parts of the climate and earth systems science communities in their imagination of climate change as a policy problem.

Governing geoengineering research

Grounding lofty governance discussions concerned with scenarios of rogue states deploying SAI as an instrument of terror requires the help of theory. In chapter 2 Stilgoe introduces the problem of speculative ethics (Nordmann 2007) that arises when technoscientific promises (like portraying SAI as effective and efficient, if not entirely desirable) become the taken-for-granted basis for technoscientific governance. Devising governance arrangements for the what-if scenario of SAI deployment may seem responsible and well-intentioned, yet it unwittingly contributes to closing down rather than opening up opportunities for democratic engagement with geoengineering research in the present. Finding inspiration in the writings of STS scholars like Bruno Latour, Stilgoe suggests that considering technology as a work in progress and a social experiment is an effective way of preventing premature closure of governance debates. Now governance no longer concerns the hypothetical implications of a not-yet technology, it concerns the social experiment that technology has become. More accurately, since an experiment is about answering a question, technoscientific governance ought to ensure that the latter comes to be defined in an open and democratic a process as possible. As tools for such experimental governance, Stilgoe suggests public engagement and the “mixing of disciplines previously considered separate, if not in competition.” (p. 49). He also advocates for taking things slowly and resisting demands for big money for geoengineering as this would inevitably work against reflexivity and the friction-laden, yet productive, process of public engagement.

Sites of geoengineering governance

Less by (research) design than chance, Stilgoe witnessed the making of the Royal Society report on geoengineering and also became involved in the process governing the SPICE project, funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The book’s empirical chapters document these processes and use them as stepping stones to problematize different processes by which posing the question at the heart of technology-as-social-experiment are opened up or closed down.

The message of chapter 4 is a bit ambiguous: The Royal Society took up geoengineering quite reluctantly (The Royal Society, 2009), fearing that conducting an assessment might be mistaken for an endorsement. The Society proceeded very cautiously, deliberately broadening the disciplinary scope of its assessment committee as well as providing center stage for societal concerns by putting the word governance in the report’s title. But the same report also bears responsibility for the plan B narrative, courtesy of the Society’s then president Lord Rees, as well as for fueling the promise of SAI as cheap and effective. Yet Stilgoe does not want to indict the Royal Society for the crime of speculative ethics: somewhat arguing against his own theoretical argument, he concludes the chapter by insisting that “[g]eoengineering is less like a monster unleashed and more like the fairies in Peter Pan, which exist only as long as people believe in them.” (p. 124).

The other chapters are more consistent with the book’s objective of overcoming geoengineering governance based on speculative assumptions. The SPICE project is Stilgoe’s case for discussing experimental governance (chapter 5). SPICE stirred public controversy with a proposed, and ultimately canceled, outdoor experiment that sought to test a small scale model for aerosol delivery by a hose tethered to a balloon. The cancelled balloon experiment is not the only outdoor geoengineering trial to spark controversy; a series of ocean iron fertilization trials conducted by other projects engendered similar reactions. The SPICE balloon experiment failed to pass a stage gate review process, which the research funding council EPSRC imposed, and couldn’t move forward. Having deliberately sought publicity, the proposed experiment also generated much controversy. Stilgoe argues that the enforced slowing down, as well as the controversy, are positive for research governance, as they enabled reflexivity and provided a space for informal technology assessment. Other approaches to experimental governance are more problematic in Stilgoe’s eyes. He, for instance, criticizes the line drawing, based on physical thresholds, between experiments that are small enough in their environmental impacts to entirely fall within the remit of scientific self-regulation, and others that require political approval (Keith 2014), because this process would exclude small scale experiments from legitimate public concern.

Most geoengineering research takes place in silico. Reappropriating climate models, researchers conduct experiments on how albedo modification – which, at its simplest, consists in modifying the solar constant – affects the global mean temperature and local weather systems, such as the Indian monsoon. Stilgoe explores these modeling activities in Chapter 6 through interviews with researchers that are part of the geoengineering model intercomparison project (GeoMIP). Such modeling work is not without caveats, as there are issues with the reappropriation of models for purposes they were not designed for. Moreover, climate models are inherently uncertain in their predictions, a problem vastly exacerbated by taking into account human feedback from geoengineering governance decision-making. Yet the biggest issue ofmodels as an instrument of experimentation is that models don’t just represent the world, they are performative in that their assumptions about the world inspire particular courses of action. For this argument Stilgoe draws on the recent financial crisis and the role modeling had played therein. Transposed onto geoengineering, there is the danger that models are not just a tool for geoengineering assessment, but that they actually become an intrinsic part of geoengineering technology.

In Chapter 7 Stilgoe substantiates his introductory argument that clashing research cultures may be healthy for responsible innovation. The SPICE project is a site of interdisciplinary collaboration between engineers and climate scientists. The involvement of engineers not only made SPICE the first project to go beyond ‘geo-speculation’, it raised doubt about the claim that SAI is cheap and easy to implement. Engineers and climate scientists have very different ways of constructing problems so that they become ‘do-able’ for their own disciplines. In what is a key passage, Stilgoe observes:

“The climate scientists working on geoengineering look at the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and express astonishment that a relatively small amount of material has such a dramatic effect on global climate. The engineers focus not on the small amounts of dust but on what one described as the ‘huge amount of energy’ required to propel it into the stratosphere. These two disciplinary views of the same phenomenon lead to very different research questions.” (p. 182).

This passage highlights how Stilgoe speculates that SPICE may have done more for the destabilization of geoengineering as an idea than to produce enabling knowledge.


Experiment Earth is a rich book. It is superbly informed on the geoengineering research and assessment community. It is also the first book to bring an STS perspective to the discussion; this has been long overdue and adds a new quality to the debate. While the book is elegantly written, its richness sometimes comes at the expense of narration, which at times leaves the reader guessing how a particular section relates to the broader argument. There’s plenty of problematizing going on, yet not too much coherent arguing. The status of the empirical material is a bit ambiguous, not quite case study, but definitely more than illustrative example, partly because Stilgoe moves from laying out the empirical material to the problematization of an aspect of scientific governance without clearly saying so. The treatment of geoengineering as an idea is also ambivalent at times. “The big danger is not geoengineering but the fatalism, born of technological determinism, that is allowed to frame debates about emerging technologies” writes Stilgoe in the conclusion (p. 199). Yet a similar fatalism, clearly evident in the Royal Society’s narrative of geoengineering as a plan B, is excused. This does not invalidate Stilgoe’s claim that ideas have agency and that responsibility entails questioning them rather than taking them at face value. Promises are ubiquitous and inevitable for the organization of politics, but maybe we can strengthen democracy, technical and otherwise, by moving upstream, past the debate over policy alternatives, to more systematically investigate the questions animating the social experiments.


Dr. Raffael Himmelsbach, Aarhus Universitet, Denmark


Crutzen, P.J., 2006. Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma? Climatic Change, 77(3), pp.211–220. Available at:

Keith, D., 2014. A Case for Climate Engineering. The MIT Press, pp.1–224

Nordmann, A., 2007. If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics. NanoEthics, 1(1), pp.31–46. Available at:

The Royal Society, 2009. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty


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