Few ideas have been more influential (or controversial) in defining environmental thought over the last twenty years than the Anthropocene concept. First popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000(1)Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, The Anthropocene, Global Change Newsletter 42 (2000), 17-18., it suggests that we are living in a new geological epoch, one in which human activity has become a major geophysical force capable of enacting profound and lasting change on the Earth’s systems. Today, the term is widely used but remains hotly contested. For one, there is still no scientific consensus on the precise definition of the Anthropocene in geological terms, nor when to locate its exact start date—the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas have all been suggested—each with its own tacit implications of various military, capitalist, and colonial agendas that have contributed to the radical reorganization and destruction of life on Earth. Critics of the term’s etymology take issue with the way anthropos invokes a universal human subject and, in doing so, flattens and obscures differences in climate change culpability, erasing historic and ongoing power imbalances and the systems of extraction and exploitation they enable(2)See: Haraway, 2016; Chakrabarty, 2009; Yusoff, 2018; Klein, 2015; Demos, 2016. Others point out that the term is anthropocentric and narcissistic, perpetuating the very same notions of human exceptionalism and mastery over nature that gave rise to extractivist attitudes in the first place(3)See: Haraway, 2016; Barad, 2007; Tsing, 2017; Demos, 2016; Bennet, 2010.
Despite these unresolved disputes, the idea that climate change is a “human-made” problem has been largely accepted as fact, even by those who advocate for more specificity with respect to the humans in question. This has produced two major lines of thinking: one that calls for a rejection of modernist ideals and their attendant efforts to control nature, advocating for greater humility and a recognition of humanity's place among, not apart from, a complex, interdependent web of living organisms. And another that sees climate change as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved with a little sweat, ingenuity, and technological prowess. Shortly after introducing the Anthropocene thesis, Crutzen mused on its implications: “A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene. This will require appropriate human behaviour at all scales, and may well involve internationally accepted, large-scale geo-engineering projects, for instance to ‘optimize’ climate.” Crutzen followed up his own suggestion with a geoengineering proposal in 2006, calling for “Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections,” a plan to “optimize climate” by spraying sulfur particles into the stratosphere, creating a kind of sun shield that would partially block the sun’s rays and temporarily bring temperatures down. Crutzen’s article, as well as his standing in the scientific community as a Nobel-prize winning scientist, helped catalyze the current wave of research interest and debate around geoengineering.
The term “geoengineering” is quickly losing favor because it lacks specificity and lumps together a wide array of approaches with differential risks and potential impacts, but since it remains widely in use today, it’s worth defining. Geoengineering refers to a group of techniques for deliberately intervening in the Earth’s climate systems in order to manage the adverse effects of climate change. These are usually broken down into two categories: Carbon Dioxide Removal, which encompasses both nature-based and technological strategies for reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and Solar Geoengineering or Solar Radiation Management, which focuses on cooling the planet by regulating the amount of sunlight it absorbs. Proponents of geoengineering typically acknowledge that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of mitigation should be our first priority, but tend to have a pessimistic view about the likelihood of these kinds of preventative measures being implemented in time to make a meaningful difference (a perspective that is, sadly, supported by the general lack of transformative and binding global climate policy agreements). Instead, geoengineers advocate for the development of technological solutions that could offer an “escape route” from some of the more disastrous effects of runaway climate change, a means of managing and controlling the climate.
But what does climate control at a global level mean? After all, it’s not exactly as simple as adjusting the thermostat. The Earth’s climate is made up of different regional climate zones—from the tropical rainforest to the polar ice caps and everything in between—each with its own biosphere and weather patterns, which cumulatively comprise the global climate system. When we’re talking about the climate writ large, we’re talking about complex interacting flows of energy and molecules circulating between the ocean, land, ice, and atmosphere. A major change in one part of the world, like a volcanic eruption or massive forest fire, can cause knock-on effects that impact the whole, meaning that any form of intentional climate modification would necessarily constitute a global event. This raises questions about governance and power: Who should have the right to modify the climate? Who gets to decide which conditions to “optimize” for? Who should be responsible for any unintended consequences? And if we do decide to start modifying the climate, how do we stop?
Some would say that humans have been modifying the climate unintentionally all along, so we may as well take control of the wheel. Those who subscribe to this position tend to regard the Earth’s climate systems as somehow easier to regulate than the human activities that disrupted them. Yet many scientists warn that we simply don’t understand environmental systems well enough to confidently introduce techno-fixes, noting that the potential risks may be too great to responsibly attempt something like geoengineering. Others worry that geoengineering poses a “moral hazard” by reducing the political and social imperative to curb fossil fuel emissions today. Despite these concerns, various methods of climate intervention have been attracting increased interest and funding from governments, private investors and academia, as well as gaining political traction, particularly in oil-rich countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also been factoring large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal into its modeling projections since 2018, noting that keeping planetary warming below 1.5°C can no longer be achieved by lowering emissions alone. Even Solar Geoengineering, the more radical and risky approach, which currently exists almost entirely as hypothetical computer simulations, is now being touted as “inevitable.” How did geoengineering come to seem like our last and best resort?
In November 2021, delegates from over 200 nations convened in Glasgow for COP26, the UN’s annual climate change conference, where they took stock of the successes and failures of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. After two weeks of deliberation, the committee set new emissions targets that they hope will safeguard the world from impending climate catastrophe. Yet by the UN’s own estimations, the short-term commitments made by nations in Glasgow have put the Earth on track to warm 2.7°C by 2100, an overshoot of 1.2°C from the shared global goal of 1.5°C warming. If all the pledges made to reduce emissions to “net-zero” by 2030 are upheld, those projections fall to 2.4°C—a far cry from the outcomes we need if we want to maintain a planet that is hospitable to human life.
Continued political failure to decarbonize economies and curb emissions has created a situation with irreversible consequences that grows more acute with every passing year. Part of what has made this deferral of action possible is the belief that some future “breakthrough innovation” will emerge to save the day. For those in charge, it is apparently easier to imagine a just-in-time moonshot solution than a world without fossil fuels. This line of thinking has made it increasingly likely that some form of technologically-mediated climate intervention will need to be deployed in the 21st century in order to help cool the planet and prevent the most dire consequences from taking place. Today, geoengineering is still mostly hypothetical, but as environmental sociologist Holly Jean Buck notes, “it’s a topic that’s unlikely to disappear until either mitigation is pursued in earnest or the concept of geoengineering is replaced by something better; as long as climate change worsens, the specter is always there.”(4)Holly Jean Buck, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (London: Verso Press, 2019), p. 25.
Despite its seeming “inevitability,” geoengineering remains a relatively obscure topic, encountered mostly through the lens of science fiction and scientific literature, largely hidden from public consciousness and scrutiny. A 2018 study on public perception of climate engineering in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand found that less than 1/5th of respondents had any prior knowledge of the topic and generally expressed negative opinions once information was provided. Our research interest in the topic was inspired, in part, by several recent popular science books like Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering, Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky, as well as the observation that artists are slowly beginning to venture into this space, exploring the history of human-designed climate interventions (Karolina Sobecka, James Bridle, Fragmentin), problematizing techno-solutionist approaches to environmental management (Tega Brain, Tue Greenfort, Andreas Grenier), investigating the implied material reconstitution of the atmosphere (Sean Raspet, Julian Charriére, Katrin Hornek), and raising ethical questions about who these interventions ultimately benefit. As art historian T.J. Demos points out, the Anthropocene thesis “appears to imply the necessity of geoengineering.”(5)T.J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), p. 25. It is therefore worth considering how this came to be, and how specific forms of representation, knowledge production, power, and desire have made the concept of engineering climate not only thinkable but something that seems within reach (for a privileged few).
As historian James Fleming recounts in Fixing the Sky, the history of geoengineering is located within a long tradition of religious rituals, folk myths and scientific pursuits dedicated to the “control” of nature.(6)James Fleming, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). Humans have been building shelters, cultivating crops, and studying the heavens to predict celestial phenomena since antiquity. But it wasn’t until the 1950s and the advent of digital computing and basic climate modeling that controlling the weather, and the general climate, began to truly seem possible. Computerized modeling gave humans the tools to understand the “hyperobject” that is global climate—a geologic phenomenon that exceeds the scope of the human sensorium, unfolding across spatial and temporal horizons beyond the limits of human experience and comprehension. It is only with the help of this “vast machine” of scientific instruments, sensors, satellite imagery, data visualization and computer simulations that we are able to grasp climate and therefore, climate change at all.(7)Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), p. 8. These tools, which evolved in a military-industrial context oriented towards prediction and control, give the impression of understanding, transparency, and agency over the environment. Even the visual representations of the Earth produced via this system, which are algorithmically composited from data collected by remote sensing satellites circling the globe, reinforce the impression that the planet is an object to be contemplated, studied, measured, and manipulated.
Our research proposal set out to explore the emerging discourses related to geoengineering and the logics, aesthetics, and beliefs that inform them. As curators, we are interested in the role art might play in bringing these to life, as well as teasing out some of the nuances and complexities of geoengineering’s fraught political, social, economic, and moral implications. Thanks to a research fellowship from Medienwerk NRW, we embarked on a month-long residency at Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site in Essen, Germany this past September, hosted as part of the NEW NOW festival’s artist residency program. The fellowship and residency period gave us an opportunity to delve deeper into the science of geoengineering and the critical discourses surrounding it, as well as to conduct interviews with scientists, researchers, artists, and curators whose work intersects with this subject area. We found ourselves situated in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s former industrial region previously known as the “land of coal and steel,” an area that has been shaped and defined by more than 150 years of mining and is presently in the midst of social, economic, and ecological transformation. The ambitious transition plan calls for investment in innovation: AI research parks, hydrogen production centers, quantum computing, new materials research and biotechnology, while the rusting former mines and coking plants are “re-natured” into public parks and cultural centers. It seemed like the perfect locale from which to contend with the legacy of modernism’s quest to remake the world in the image of our ideal and to consider what we can learn from the ghosts of those efforts.
The following essay represents an excerpt of work in progress. It takes a close look at four artworks, each of which opens up an engagement with a particular facet of geoengineering, offering a different frame from which to understand both geoengineering practices as well as the particular worldviews that propel them. Our hope is that we can eventually turn this research into an exhibition or public program, and this essay is a first attempt at sketching out what some potential organizing themes and approaches for this might be. The rest of the website compiles documentation of site-specific field research conducted in North-Rhine Westphalia during our stay in Essen, as well as a gallery of additional works by artists and designers that address geoengineering or touch on related themes of climate modeling and modification. This work is far from complete and we hope that this website can serve as a useful tool for sparking dialogue with a diverse community of artists, scientists, researchers, cultural institutions, and publics that can help advance our thinking and inform future projects.
ii. Measuring, Modeling, Manipulating
“All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.” - John von Neumann
Three larger-than-life projection screens and a supercomputer sit in a gallery. The images on screen show hi-res satellite footage of locations from around the world: the mountainous Pacific Ocean coastline in Silicon Valley, California; miles of yellow desert sands opening onto a deep blue sea in Dubai, UAE; stretches of blue-veined white ice caps in The Arctic; patchy green grids of soy crops in Rondônia, Brazil. The central screen serves as a kind of dashboard, displaying recent environmental data captured by the Landsat 8 satellite on its journey around the Earth. The nearby supercomputer uses this information to run simulations of the region’s past, present and future climate states, calculating how the ecosystem could be reconfigured to serve unknown human and non-human agendas. After running its calculations, the computer provides diagnoses for how the local ecological conditions can be improved—for instance, by straightening the coastline, moving the river, or relocating the city to a more advantageous location. On the left, we see a satellite image of the area as it exists today. On the right, a machine learning-generated rendering of how it might look if these improvements were to be carried out. It all seems so simple, rational and clear that it’s easy to overlook the absurdity of the proposed terrestrial modifications—just move the river, you say?
Created by Tega Brain, Julian Oliver, and Bengt Sjölen for the Vienna Biennale 2019, Asunder (2019) is an artwork that cloaks itself in the guise of scientific expertise and computational authority, making use of real climate models and the tools, methods, and visual aesthetics of climate science in order to question techno-solutionist approaches to planetary challenges. The work responds to a growing interest in using artificial intelligence, computer simulation, and various technological interventions to fix environmental problems. The artists take this proposition literally, and the resulting “environmental manager” offers a fictionalized account of the kinds of terrestrial alterations—many of them comically ill-advised, impractical and ethically unacceptable—produced when ecosystems become computational.
According to Marshall McLuhan, the Earth became programmable the moment that Sputnik, the first satellite, was launched in 1957.(8)McLuhan, “At the Moment of Sputnik” as cited in Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Since then, remote sensing technology has migrated from its Cold War military origins into environmental science and become a critical tool for studying climate change on a global scale. Satellites like Landsat 8 have become key technologies for environmental monitoring, detecting changes in temperature, CO2 levels in the atmosphere, deforestation patterns, as well as identifying new resources for extraction. They have extended the bounds of human perception and helped us “see'' planetary systems and flows, making it possible for climate scientists to study climate change and make predictions about its likely effects. The aerial images in Asunder are striking, but they no longer inspire the same sense of wonder and awe that people felt when they first saw the “whole Earth” from space in 1968. Thanks to the proliferation of satellite imagery in science and media, and its widespread use in consumer technologies like Google Earth, we’ve become used to regarding our planet from this removed, detached perspective—a thing to be contemplated, analyzed, optimized and, perhaps, re-engineered.
In many ways, the history of modern computation is deeply entangled with the desire to predict and, ultimately, control the environment. As artist and writer James Bridle notes, “the very first digital computers were developed for two purposes: to calculate the yield of atomic bombs, and to predict the weather.” Following the end of World War II, weather prediction was among the first major applications of digital computing, and was heavily supported by both military agencies and civilian weather services. John von Neumann, a brilliant computer scientist who had spent the war working on the Manhattan Project, knew first-hand how effectively computational models of complex physical phenomena could be used to predict real-world outcomes. After the war, von Neumann decided to apply this technique to forecasting the weather. In 1946 he founded the Meteorological Program at Princeton and, together with his assistant Jule Charney, produced the first climate modeling software and the first numerical weather forecast a few years later.
This research led von Neumann to hypothesize that weather control, and the more ambitious goal of climate control, were not far behind. In a 1955 essay entitled “Can We Survive Technology?” von Neumann outlined several existing and hypothetical methods of climate intervention, from inducing rain by spraying chemical agents into rain clouds to changing the Earth’s temperature by regulating the amount of sunlight absorbed or reflected by the atmosphere and land surface. The essay reads almost like a blueprint for many of today’s geoengineering proposals and rationales:
“Microscopic layers of colored matter spread on an icy surface, or in the atmosphere above one, could inhibit the reflection-radiation process, melt the ice, and change the local climate. Measures that would effect such changes are technically possible, and the amount of investment required would be only of the order of magnitude that sufficed to develop rail systems and other major industries. The main difficulty lies in predicting in detail the effects of any such drastic intervention. But our knowledge of the dynamics and the controlling processes in the atmosphere is rapidly approaching a level that would permit such prediction. Probably intervention in atmospheric and climatic matters will come in a few decades, and will unfold on a scale difficult to imagine at present.”
von Neumann’s contributions to theoretical meteorology and global general circulation modeling helped lay the groundwork for today’s computer simulation models and would become the principal tools of climate science. Since then, climate modeling has moved in the direction of increasing its completeness with the addition of information on land surface, cryosphere (glaciers, sea ice, and snow cover), hydrology (lakes, rivers, evaporation, and rainfall), and vegetation—all of which interact to influence climate conditions. All models are inherently computational representations of physical processes and, by their nature, are simplified reflections of the world that they describe. Even as more comprehensive models give us a clearer picture of how environmental phenomena behave, there is always more just outside the frame. These kinds of data systems and the forms of knowledge they produce are often cast as neutral and objective but the question of what gets prioritized, measured, and included—in short, what actually counts—is deeply political. In this way, climate models, environmental data visualizations, and satellite imagery of the kind employed in Asunder perform what Donna Harraway refers to as the “god trick of seeing everything from nowhere.”(9)Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”; Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Autumn, 1988), pp. 581. They have a universalizing effect and, where it concerns global issues like climate change, obscure both the differential measures of (corporate, Western) culpability and the differential impacts experienced as a result of the accelerating ecological crisis.
As Tega Brain points out, climate models both emerge from and reinforce a 20th Century view of the world that casts the environment as something that is “bounded, knowable and made up of components operating in chains of cause and effect. This framing strongly invokes possibilities of manipulation and control and implicitly asks: what should an ecosystem be optimized for?” In Asunder, Brain and her collaborators demonstrate the difficulty of answering this question, particularly when many competing human and non-human interests are at stake and so many lifeworlds are held in the balance. The artists orient their climate model away from maintaining and extending modes of human consumption and production, instead choosing to prioritize ecological needs over human goals. The gesture is an attempt at re-purposing technologies like artificial intelligence to represent the interests of non-human agents who cannot speak for themselves, an idea that has frequently been proposed by design theorists and practitioners in recent years. However, the weighting of parameters within Asunder’s model and what or whose interests they represent, as well as how those interests are determined, is never made explicitly clear, maintaining the “black box” of inscrutability that typically shrouds such tools from public scrutiny and deliberation.
iii. Materializing the Atmosphere
“We are as Gods and might as well get good at it.” - Stewart Brand
The ability to modulate and change parameters on the computer screen seems to suggest the ability to alter environmental conditions in real life, giving the impression that one can reconfigure the world at will. Humans have been deliberately intervening in atmospheric conditions since at least 1946 when the first cloud seeding experiments took place in the United States. The research initiative, known as “Project Cirrus,” grew out of General Electric’s study of ice formations on aircraft wings, which sometimes caused problems for pilots during World War II. The project’s atmospheric scientist, Vincent Schaefer, generated clouds in his lab by breathing into a repurposed home freezer and experimented with different methods and materials for getting the clouds to form ice crystals. One day, in an effort to bring the temperature in his freezer down, he added a handful of dry ice which, to his surprise, caused the air inside to suddenly transform, creating millions of ice crystals and resulting in a mini snowstorm. A few months later, Schaefer and GE test pilot Curtis Talbot boarded a small Fairchild airplane armed with “a camera, 6 pounds of dry ice, and plans for attempting the first large-scale test of converting a supercooled cloud to ice crystals”.(10)Quote cited in James Bridle, Cloud Index: http://cloudindx.com/history/ The plane flew into a cloud above Schenectady, NY where Schaefer emptied his package of dry ice into the slipstream. By the time Schaefer looked behind them, he was thrilled to see long streamers of snow falling from the cloud, giving birth to the era of weather control.
Artist and researcher Karolina Sobecka is also looking at clouds — three clouds in particular, each of which helped transform how we think about climate, technology and the human command of nature (one of these clouds is Schaefer’s). In A memory, an ideal, a proposition (2017), Sobecka presents three glass volumes, each rigged with a smoke machine that slowly pipes a fine mist into the vessel, forming swirling clouds that dissipate into fog and eventually disappear altogether. The artificial clouds are reconstructions of specific historical clouds—a cloud that formed in 1815 (the memory), the cloud that formed in Shaefer’s lab (the ideal), and a hypothetical cloud designed as part of a climate engineering experiment (the proposition). The project aims to examine the geological and social transformations enabled by each cloud and traces an evolving awareness of the atmosphere’s materiality. Sobecka pays close attention to the chemical composition of each cloud’s nuclei and attempts to replicate these in her reconstructions, including bits of volcanic rock, sulfates, or ice-nucleating particles alongside the water required for the clouds to form. She also considers the broader context in which each cloud occurred, what was mixed in with its particles and what was deliberately left out, as well as what each cloud rendered visible or invisible through its existence. Her meticulous, almost forensic attempts at reconstruction emulate the aesthetics of a science experiment. Even the glass vessels she uses are reminiscent of the glass bowls early 20th century climatologists used to fill with cloudy, viscous fluids to study atmospheric motion, laying the groundwork for later computational models of general circulation.
The first cloud Sobecka reassembles was formed on April 10, 1815(11)note: Sobecka dates the eruption as April 5, 1816 but all the historical records in our research have indicated April 10, 1815 as the correct date. by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, the largest volcanic event in recorded history. The volcano released an estimated 150 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of exploded rock and ash, which could be seen as far as 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) away in Borneo, Sulawesi, Java and the Maluku islands. Along with the ash, the eruption released millions of tons of sulfur into the stratosphere, which would spread throughout the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a “thin veil” that would block the sun for the next 14 months. This produced a global cooling effect that generated severe weather disruptions all over the world, bringing on summer snows and frosts, ruining crops and causing food shortages and famines everywhere from North America to China. As a result, 1816 became known as the “Year Without a Summer.” “In the cold and the haziness arose desolation and anguish,” Sobecka’s voice tells us in the accompanying video. “The geological fracture and rearrangement of minerals structured feelings and modalities of thinking.” Indeed, the atmospheric disturbance cast a dark gloom and eerie red glow that was captured by landscape painters like Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, and famously inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. In relation to geoengineering, the prolonged cooling effect generated by the eruption of Mt. Tambora and other volcanoes helped inform solar geoengineering proposals of the kind put forth by Paul Crutzen, whose suggestion of injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere artificially mimics the volcanic effect.
We are already familiar with Victor Schaefer and the experiment that took place in his GE lab during the summer of 1946, which provided the blueprint for Sobecka’s second cloud, Cloud B (the ideal). For Sobecka, this cloud is important not only because it helped usher in an era of weather modification research that prefigured and laid the groundwork for much of today’s climate engineering ambitions, it is also important for the way in which it seemed to make tangible and reify age-old promises of mastering nature. As historian James Fleming reminds us, the desire to manage or control nature is long standing among humans and one that is very much linked to our quest for survival amidst often harsh and inhospitable environmental conditions. The inventions of clothing, fire, shelter, agriculture, and other technologies were all devised to help protect humans from the elements but these interventions were all terrestrial—the ability to control the heavens (i.e. the weather, the atmosphere, the climate) were always outside our grasp.(12)James Fleming, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 19. Schaefer’s cloud experiments seemed to change that, giving the impression that previously opaque atmospheric processes had become knowable and governable. Within the bounded system of the laboratory, the complexity of the planet's climate-systems and the interacting lifeworlds that produce them were reduced so as to become legible, transparent and tractable. Yet, as Sobecka points out, in contrast to the volcanic cloud of Mt. Tambora, what was “missing from the models were the traces of intricate relations of the surface soil, giant forests, animals and bacteria.” In short, the models left out the rest of the world.
The third and final cloud in Sobecka’s triptych is a hypothetical cloud that was supposed to form in Spring 2018 eight miles above the ground in Arizona as part of the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), a research project initiated by Harvard University’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. The SCoPEX project would have been one of the first outdoor experiments in Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI)—a process that aims to “dim the sun” by spraying chemical particles into the stratosphere. The field tests propose releasing small amounts of calcium carbonate (effectively, chalk dust), and then eventually sulfates, with the goal of seeing how the particles interact with the atmosphere. The data will be used to improve computer models and simulations in the lab, paving the way for more ambitious experiments in the future. Today’s simulations suggest that SAI is “likely to produce significant negative impacts and changes in weather and monsoon patterns” which would disproportionately affect vulnerable populations in the Global South. Because of these risks, as well as the fact that, once launched, SAI would have to be maintained for years to come (a sudden stop could cause a “termination shock,” a rapid rise in temperatures with catastrophic effects), many believe that sanctioning research on SAI is dangerous because it raises the likelihood of eventual deployment. After several unsuccessful attempts to initiate field tests in Arizona and New Mexico, the project was eventually moved to Sweden in 2020 and was scheduled to launch in June 2021. However, public outcry from environmental groups and the indigenous Saami population has deferred the project once more, with new plans tentatively in place for 2022.
In A memory, an ideal, a proposition, Sobecka traces the ways in which different atmospheres have produced different forms of knowledge and visibility/invisibility. Ultimately, Sobecka’s project is an exercise in comparative cloud studies, wherein each cloud is representative of not only a particular geochemical agglomeration but also of specific social, ecological, and technological relations. By attending so closely to the composition of chemical compounds in the three clouds, Sobecka underscores an emergent understanding of the atmosphere as material, as matter that can be molded, modified, reformulated, and reconstituted. The artwork, through its reconstruction of the three clouds, traces new material configurations of climate, as well as new possibilities for producing synthetic atmospheres. “Cloud is only a solid when seen from a distance,” Sobecka tells us in the video. “Up close, a cloud is an imprint of the earthly activity, a provisionality of the present, a unique chemical and mineral arrangement reflecting the organization of matter and energy below it.” Yet Sobecka shows us how geoengineering attempts to intervene in this manifestation of the relationship between earth and sky, to reorganize matter to suit human desires.
iv. Mining the Sky
"Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed." - Lavoisier’s Law
In the age of the Anthropocene, we are increasingly concerned with the molecular make-up of the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions and, more specifically CO2, have become key metrics for tracking and regulating our progress (or lack thereof) in the fight to curb emissions and mitigate impending climate catastrophe. We have known since at least the early 19th Century that a high concentration of CO2 traps heat. As early as 1824, French physicist Joseph Fourier hypothesized that the Earth’s atmosphere keeps surface temperatures far higher than might be expected given our planet’s size and distance from the sun. Fourier noted that instead of simply re-radiating heat back out into space, the atmosphere acts like a glass cover on top of a box, retaining heat and keeping the Earth warm. He coined the term serre, French for ‘greenhouse’ to describe this effect. By 1938, British steam and defense engineer Guy Stewart Callendar was able to use weather data from around the world to demonstrate a warming trend of 0.5C (0.9F) in the years between 1900 and 1935. Callendar linked the warming trend to the growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which rose from roughly 295.8ppm (parts per million) in 1900 to 309.4ppm in 1935, and corresponded with rapid industrial expansion and the increased burning of coal and other fossil fuels. Thus, Callendar was the first to demonstrate how the climate was changing as a result of human activities.
Last year, scientists observed a new high of 417ppm CO2 in the atmosphere — the last time the earth had this much CO2 in the air was around 3 million years ago, before humans existed on the planet. In Le Poids des Ombres [Weight of Shadows] (2021) artist Julian Charrière undertakes an exploration of former states of the atmosphere and their collapsing temporalities, centering the role of humans within these complexes, which are so vast as to escape our grasp. The project takes the form of an immersive installation that explores connections between the carbon cycle in its different forms and the relationship of CO2 to our current ecological crisis. Five oil well drill heads stand in the room like ancient columns propping up the crumbling temple of modernity. Their rusted forms are reflected in a mirror-like black floor made from polished coal, inverting earth and sky in a gesture that alludes to the displacement of carbon buried deep underground created through the burning of fossil fuels. Extracted fossilized remains of ancient life forms—plants and animals that roamed the planet more than 300 million years ago—now populate the air, haunting our present, and foreclosing the possibility of a future.
The central piece of the installation is the video Pure Waste (2021), which documents a hand throwing diamonds into a well-like ice shaft called a glacial mill, which carries meltwater down from the glacier’s surface into the depths below. Filmed in Greenland, the video is a distillation of ideas Charrière has been exploring in his work over the last ten years, spanning numerous artworks and expeditions to ice fields in Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic, Iceland and his native Swiss Alps. Charrière regards ice caps as a vital source of “celestial memory” because of the way they enshrine the unique geochemical compositions of different atmospheric epochs. Tiny bubbles of air trapped in the ice allow climate researchers to access an archive of data about how greenhouse gas concentrations have changed over time. As the ice melts, so does this critical source of knowledge about the Earth’s past and potential future. The sound of the melting ice permeates the installation with little drips and pops, each a frozen bubble releasing a time capsule from thousands of years ago.
The diamonds that Charrière casts into the mouth of the glacier are no ordinary diamonds—they were created using CO2 the artist harvested from the air surrounding the polar ice caps. Using a process known as Carbon Capture, Charrière was able to extract CO2 from the air, inverting the extraction process to “mine the sky” rather than the ground. The captured CO2 was then mixed with CO2 obtained from the exhalations of a thousand people from across the world before being transformed into the purest, hardest, and most valuable form of carbon known today: the diamond. Techniques like Carbon Capture are slowly being embraced by policymakers and organizations like the IPCC, who recently stated that we need to be pursuing strategies for removing CO2 from the atmosphere in addition to aggressively reducing future emissions. Current CO2 concentrations are so high that, even if the world were to end fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, we still may not be able to avoid further warming. Scientists often use the analogy of a bathtub to illustrate this problem—reducing the flow of water into the tub won’t keep it from overflowing unless we are also actively draining it.(13)Holly Jean Buck, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (London: Verso Press, 2019), p. 25. Carbon Capture increases the size of the drain by using industrial machinery to filter CO2 out of the air. This process typically occurs at power or chemical plants, where the CO2 can be intercepted and removed before it goes out the smokestack and into the air. Removing CO2 directly from ambient air is also possible but significantly harder, more energy intensive and costly because the CO2 is much less concentrated. Once captured, the CO2 is usually transformed into a liquid-like substance and injected deep underground, often into used up oil and gas reservoirs, creating a kind of “closed loop” where carbon extracted in the form of fossil fuels is returned to the Earth as CO2.
Today, Carbon Capture is responsible for removing over 30 million tons of CO2 every year, about the same as emissions from 6.5 million passenger cars. For comparison, the world currently emits about 43 billion tons of CO2 a year. In order to make a meaningful dent in the stores of CO2 that have accumulated in the biosphere over the last 200 years, carbon removal will need to become a massive industry—one similar in scale to the current fossil fuel industry, but with the molecules flowing in the opposite direction. Environmental sociologist Holly Jean Buck describes carbon removal as “analogous to waste control”—a massive industry, but one that is not sexy, transformative, or particularly lucrative.(14)Holly Jean Buck, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (London: Verso Press, 2019), p. 32. This poses a problem in a capitalist system organized around the wisdom of the market and growing GDPs where very little happens without a financial incentive. Accordingly, there is a big push to financialize carbon through mechanisms like carbon taxes, carbon offsets, carbon tokens staked on the blockchain, and other initiatives to turn sequestered carbon into a valuable commodity that can be bought, sold, traded and speculated against. Likewise, there are attempts to turn captured carbon into a useful and valuable raw material. Today, a burgeoning start-up industry manufactures a wide range of products made with captured CO2—concrete and cement, inks and paints, foam mattresses, plastics, biofuels, household products like bleach and antifreeze, even vodka. As well as diamonds like the ones created by Charrière.
Carbon comes in many forms but gram for gram, diamonds are by far the most valuable. Diamonds are also the hardest form of carbon and can famously cut through just about anything, which is why they are often used in oil drilling. Charrière’s installation also includes a glimmering new oil drill head affixed with one of his CO2 diamonds. It hangs suspended from the ceiling, pointed side down, almost threatening to impale anyone who comes too close. The sculpture seems to allude to the rather symbiotic relationship between Carbon Capture and the fossil fuel industry. In recent years, oil companies have received the largest number of Carbon Capture patents, leading the field in R&D, often with the support of generous government subsidies. Almost all CO2 captured to date is actually used to push more oil out of the ground in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. But the hope is that, as Carbon Capture begins to scale, enough CO2 will remain permanently stored in the ground to balance out new emissions, resulting in “net-zero” or even “net-negative” emissions. However, we are a long way from this being even close to a reality. For one thing, this kind of balancing act relies on renewable energy, as Carbon Capture can consume between 30-50% of a typical power plant’s energy output. For another, the infrastructure is costly to build, with some estimating an investment of around $1 trillion needed over the next 30 years. Some believe that enhanced oil recovery may be a necessary evil, that the only way technologies for CO2 removal can continue to develop and mature is if the oil industry, as early adopters, help bring down the cost to make it financially viable in the long term. Yet critics worry that technologies like Carbon Capture only serve to make it possible for oil companies to continue overshooting emissions targets, pulling focus away from the critical issue of keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
Charrière ends his video, Pure Waste, by throwing his CO2 diamonds into the glacial abyss in what he describes as a “gesture of reconciliation.” By removing the gemstones from the realm of productive value, he hopes to symbolically break the cycle of resource use and extraction. Yet in some ways, the gesture replicates and gives credence to claims of “closed loop” or “green” extraction, which enables the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual under the promise of eventual restitution. Charrière’s transformation of his captured CO2 into diamonds, an object that epitomizes luxury, status, wealth, and power, lends an air of alchemy and magic to technologies like Carbon Capture, potentially reinforcing notions of human mastery over nature. And while he negates the diamonds' productive value by disposing of them, that value is ostensibly transferred to Charrière’s artwork, which similarly serves as an object that signifies luxury, status, wealth and power. The installation highlights the role of the fossil fuel industry, science, technology, and an anonymous human collective in reorganizing the molecular distribution between earth and sky, as well as the ways this disruption has collapsed space and time, exemplified by the melting of the ice archive. Yet it does little to challenge these relationships, to consider alternative modalities and motivations and seems to only reinforce existing hierarchies even while assuming an ambiguously critical position on contemporary extractivist tendencies.
v. Repairing the Metabolic Rift
“...Focusing on care draws attention to glimpses of alternative, liveable relationalities, and hopefully contributes to other possible worlds in the making…” - Maria Puig de la Bellacasa
Stepping into Asad Raza’s installation, Absorption (2019/2020/2021), the first thing you’ll notice is the overwhelming scent—earthy, rich, and seductive with the aroma of cacao beans. The soft soil yields easily underfoot, freshly turned and almost pillowy, and it stretches from corner to corner of each room, 200 tons of it piled several inches thick across the floors of the Allbauhaus building in Essen’s commercial Pfedermarkt area. Passersby look in through the large glass windows at the curious scene as ‘cultivators’ tend to the soil daily, diligently watering, raking, digging, adding nutrients and compost, and testing the PH levels. The ‘cultivators’, recognizable by their shovels and reflective gray vests, are assembled from members of the local community — artists, students, retirees, scientists — selected by Raza to perform this “public ritual” of caring for the soil, a mixture of locally sourced sand, clay, and compost, as as well as materials collected from the region: coke from the local Hansa coking plant, sewage sludge, hair from local salons, shredded paper from the Folkwang Museum, bird droppings. As they tend the soil, the ‘cultivators’ also attend to the visitors, answering questions, explaining their process, offering small burlap satchels so people can take a bit of soil home for their window plants, garden plots and allotments. The soil in this region of Germany, North Rhine Westphalia, has been ravaged by more than 150 years of coal mining and industrial activity. It has been dug up, stripped of its minerals, and turned into a dumping ground for the waste. With Absorption, Raza engages with the metabolic process of soil and through the addition of various organic and inorganic matter seeks to make it fertile again, creating an "Anthropocene soil” a kind of “soil [that] can only be created through human intervention." This “neosoil,” as he calls it, is distributed amongst the local community, and donated to the Botanical Garden of the Ruhr University Bochum.
Regenerative practices of the kind employed by Raza in Absorption seek to repair damaged ecological landscapes by actively working to improve soil health, nutrient density, and increase overall flourishing. Soil remediation is not technically a form of geoengineering, though it is discussed alongside other natural and technological methods of Carbon Dioxide Removal. The Earth’s natural systems for removing carbon from the atmosphere, collectively known as the carbon cycle, draw CO2 from the air and store it in the form of trees, grasses, wetlands, and other biomass. The ocean, too, absorbs tons of carbon, both in its waters and via photosynthetic organisms like algae and kelp. As Holly Jean Buck points out, “Soils are vast reservoirs of carbon: they hold three times the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere, or almost four times the amount held in living matter. But over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50-70% of their original organic carbon.” Regenerative, nature-based methods for carbon sequestration like soil remediation reflect a relationship with the environment typical of indigenous communities, one that is predicated on holistic land stewardship and an affinity towards kinship with the non-human life forms that help us maintain the ecological conditions necessary for human survival. It is no coincidence that places where indigenous communities still practice traditional methods of land management are sanctuaries for 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity.
Nature-based carbon sequestration is essential, but it is not a panacea. Changing agricultural practices to improve soil health, planting more trees, and protecting forests and wetlands are vital mitigation strategies and are obviously far less risky than spraying chemicals into the sky, but they are also potentially less stable than industrial forms of Carbon Capture and Storage. Forests, especially young ones, are vulnerable to wildfires and could send their stored carbon up in smoke in an instant, a risk that is only exacerbated by climate change. In 2021, scientists found that the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the Earth,” now emits 1 billion tons more CO2 than it absorbs due to fires, many of which are caused not only by hotter temperatures and droughts, but also by humans who set them deliberately to clear land for beef and soy production. This points to some of the tensions that emerge when land- and water-intensive nature-based carbon sequestration efforts collide with local socioeconomic conditions. In order to sequester climate-significant quantities of CO2, nature-based solutions would have to be deployed on a massive scale, one that would essentially amount to a planetary terraforming project that would compete for land use with local food production and biodiversity. Therefore, today’s tree planting campaigns, which are typically funded by wealthy Western countries and NGOs and deployed in the Global South, must be administered with the participation of local communities or risk enacting what political philosopher Olúfẹmi Táíwò describes as a new form of neocolonialism. All of this is to say that while regenerative, ecosystem-based approaches are an absolutely fundamental part of the solution—and there is much work to be done to reverse the damage caused by centuries of destructive, colonialist land cultivation practices—nature-based solutions are also complicated, and they alone may not be enough to achieve the scale of carbon removal needed within the necessary timescales.
Raza’s focus on the metabolic processes of soil highlights another important dimension of the environmental crisis and the need to evaluate proposed responses within a broader socioeconomic context. “Metabolic” here refers to not only the flow of energy and molecules among the biosphere but also to the “metabolic relations” between human and non-human natural systems, in which materials and energy extracted from nature circulate through human cycles of transformation, consumption and waste production. Raza points to this relationship through the production of what he terms “Anthropocene soil,” which incorporates both organic matter that contains vital soil nutrients, such as bird dung, with the waste products of modern civilization, like sewage sludge. Soil has long been anthropogenic, particularly as efforts to increase soil productivity and crop yield have transformed agricultural practices since the 1840s, giving rise to the modern fertilizer industry. Yet even during the 19th century, Marx wrote about the “metabolic rift” that occurs when the conditions of capitalist production result in the alienation of human society from its environment.(15)Foster, John Bellamy. "'Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology'". The American Journal of Sociology (1999). p. 379 Capitalist production and economic growth center the activities of resource extraction, transformation, and consumption, but the question of waste production, and waste management, is usually discounted as an “externality,” as someone else’s problem. This has enabled what design curator Justin McGirck calls a “culture of waste,” wherein waste has become “the defining material of our time.” Today, human trash is estimated to be greater in mass than all land animals and marine creatures combined. In Absorption, Raza brings waste into the fold, no longer something to be shipped off to distant landfills or spewed carelessly into the atmosphere, but something that must be incorporated into regenerative rituals.
Absorption seeks to model new forms of relation between human and non-human worlds. Though its methods are inspired by ancient and traditional practices, its techniques are founded on contemporary soil science. It does not disavow responsibility or create moral divisions between natural materials and industrial waste, but rather facilitates an intimate, relational, materially engaged encounter that sets in motion a process of remediation designed to celebrate and cultivate complexity while simultaneously shifting our conception of the landscape from something to be mined for resources and commodified, to something that is alive, that “contains worlds and forms the medium out of which our world grows.” The project sets in motion dynamic processes that radiate outward into the local community as the neosoil finds its way into the landscape and gives birth to new life. The goal is not to create a finished object, “but a substance with a ‘life coefficient’: the ability to foster metabolic growth.” Absorption seeks to re-assert the importance of soil, bringing it and all the different lifeworlds it supports into the contemporary cultural imaginary, and doing so in a way that manifests soil’s complexity rather than attempting to reduce it. Perhaps more than anything, though, Absorption helps us conceptualize ways to reabsorb ourselves, and especially our waste byproducts, into the way we understand metabolic relations.
“Coal is a portable climate” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
North-Rhine Westphalia, both because of its mining past and its focus on industrial innovation, seemed like a rich terrain in which to situate this research into present-day technological solutions to climate change. We spent four weeks in the region, getting familiarized with the area’s legacy as the former “land of coal and steel” and the processes of structural transformation that have taken place there over the last 40 years, and continue to this day. Zollverein, where our residency was based, is a perfect example of this transformation. After serving as one of Europe’s most productive coal mines for 135 years, Zollverein ceased mining operations in 1986 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Today it houses two museums, a performing arts center, several restaurants and public recreation areas, and, thanks to the NEW NOW festival, hopes to become an important home for digital art in the region. With one foot in the past, it turns to face the future, and draws on the imaginative power of art and culture to mine ideas instead of coal.
One of the most interesting and affecting concepts we encountered during our field research was that of “Eternity Tasks.” The German word is “Ewigkeitslasten” or “Ewigkeitsaufgaben,” which translates as “perpetual obligations” or “perpetual tasks.” The literal translation for “Ewigkeit” is “eternity,” alluding to the fact that dealing with the after-effects of mining is an endless process. In the case of post-mining, these perpetual obligations focus on managing mine water drainage which, if left untreated, threatens to pollute local water reservoirs and flood areas that have already sunk up to 25m from the effects of mining. These factors threaten to turn North-Rhine Westphalia, one of the most densely populated regions in all of Germany, into a large lake landscape. Since 2007, when the German government ruled to end hard coal production, the responsibility for managing the Eternity Tasks of post-mining has been taken up by the RAG Foundation, the non-profit arm of what used to be the country's largest mining corporation. The foundation spends some 200 million euros a year to deal with these perpetual obligations and has made a commitment to continue doing so indefinitely.
The concept and practice of Eternity Task management is still new and poorly defined—it even lacks an officially agreed-upon name with “Ewigkeitslasten” and “Ewigkeitsaufgaben” often used interchangeably. But the idea resonated with us because of the way it acknowledges and assumes responsibility for the ecological damage caused by industry, as well as the irreversible changes to landscapes and ecosystems, and the permanent, often adverse, impact on both human and non-human life native to that environment. These consequences have always been present but, until recently, were largely unaccounted for by corporate actors. In most parts of the world, they remain unaccounted for, and long-term commitments to maintenance efforts are shockingly rare. For us, the concept of Eternity Tasks seemed to point to one possible way to re-frame and re-orient our relationship to our environment away from one of domination and control to one of care-taking, stewardship, and long-term milestones. Thinking along the time horizon of “eternity” seems better suited to thinking and acting in accordance with geological timescales than quarterly or annual benchmarks. Perhaps this sense of duty or obligation to the environment can produce more ethical relations between human and more-than-human communities? Doing so would require valuing and investing in acts of maintenance, care, and repair rather than simply reaching for increasingly complex technological solutions to address technological problems.
Approaching the climate crisis from the perspective of care and repair (and reparations) stands in stark contrast to the heroic visions of control, invention, risk-taking, and the relentless pursuit of progress and futurity that animate approaches like geoengineering. They present an entirely different frame through which to consider the problem of climate change, how we relate to it, and what is to be done. Regenerative land management and ecosystem-based strategies for carbon removal may be insufficient on their own to tackle the magnitude and speed of the climate crisis, particularly if fossil fuel emissions aren’t drastically reduced immediately, but they offer an opportunity to re-orient our relationship to the environment. Repairing this relationship is a crucial prerequisite for any form of intentional climate intervention, be it nature-based or technological, especially if we hope to ensure such measures are undertaken in environmentally just ways. At the end of the day, the models we use to understand the world and our place in it may be what matter most of all because the way we understand the world affects the ways in which we care for it.