Anthropocene | T.J. Demos | Wednesday, 13.05.2015

Geo-Engineering the Anthropocene

“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.”1Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (2002), 23;—Paul Crutzen, 2002
The Anthropocene thesis, as presented in the increasingly expanding body of images and texts, appears generally split between optimists and pessimists, especially when it comes to geo-engineering, the deliberate intervention in the Earthʼs natural systems to counteract climate change. As the Anthropocene appears to imply the necessity of geo-engineering—as Crutzen, one of the inventors of the term makes clear—the battle lines have been drawn between those who think “we” humans confront an extraordinary opportunity to bio-technologically remake the world, and others who opt for hands-off caution and would rather modify human behavior instead of the environment in addressing the climate crisis.
For instance, ethics philosopher Clive Hamilton, participating in “The Anthropocene—An Engineered Age?,” the 2014 panel discussion at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), breaks the world down into techno-utopians and eco-Soterians. The former are today’s “new Prometheans,” intent on creating a new Eden on Earth, and the latter, named after Soteria, the ancient Greek personification of safety and preservation, remain pledged to the precautionary principle, respectful of Earth’s processes and critical of human hubris, the very same hubris, they argue, that got us into the environmental crisis in the first place.2See the video recording of “The Anthropocene: An Engineered Age?,” (HKW, August 2014), including Bernd M. Scherer (Director, HKW); Mark Lawrence (IASS-Potsdam); Klaus Töpfer (IASS-Potsdam); Armin Grunwald (Office of Technology Assessment of the German Parliament); Clive Hamilton (Charles Sturt University); and Thomas Ackerman (University of Washington), moderated by Oliver Morton (The Economist), at: Other techno-utopians include: Mark Lynas, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans (London: Fourth Estate, 2011); and David W. Keith, A Case for Climate Engineering (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). For sociologist Bruno Latour, we must not disown the contemporary Frankenstein we’ve created—the contemporary Earth of the Anthropocene—but rather learn to love and care for the “monster” we’ve created. Meanwhile for activist Naomi Klein, arguments like Latour’s are dangerously misguided: “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”3Bruno Latour, “Love Your Monsters: Why We Must Care for Our Technologies as We Do Our Children,” in Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, eds. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (Oakland: Breakthrough Institute, 2011); and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Allen Lane, 2014), 279.
In fact, the visual culture of the Anthropocene, whether delivered photographically or via remote-sensing technology, is riven by exactly this tension. Its iconography both portrays the remarkable extent of the human-driven alteration of Earth systems (with ample photographic and satellite-based imagery of large-scale mining, oil drilling, and deforestation projects), and documents the dangers of the unintended consequences of such ventures. Ultimately, however, imaging systems play more than an illustrative role here, as they tend to grant viewers a sense of control over the represented object of their gaze, even if that control is far from reality.
In other words, Anthropocene imagery tends to reinforce the techno-utopian position that “we” have indeed mastered nature, just as we’ve mastered its imaging—and in fact the two, the dual colonization of nature and representation, seem inextricably intertwined. That is, even while these geo-engineering projects are generally done by corporations and heavy industry, certainly not identical to the “human” subject of the Anthropocene, a distinction that potentially pushes the neologism to its breaking point
Following up on this latter point, critics and commentators (including those taking part in the HWK discussion) have asked important questions about the ethical implications of Anthropocene geo-engineering. For instance, should humans undertake such projects when they acknowledge that massive geologically interventionist processes will inevitably involve unforeseen consequences and unanticipated effects? What system of ethics governs the use of such technology? And who has the right—which individuals, nations, or corporations—to conduct these experiments? If rights generally derive from nation-states, then what legitimate body can grant permission to geo-engineering projects operating on a global scale?
Yellow and brown colors show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulfate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. Satellite image: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA;
Consider the case of rogue American entrepreneur Russ George, who released around 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Canada in 2012 to catalyze an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometers. The goal of this pet-geo-engineering project—the largest of its kind worldwide to date—was to test the absorption of carbon dioxide by plankton who will then sink to the ocean floor, a sequestration procedure from which George, CEO of Planktos Inc., hopes to massively profit. In the process, he has transgressed various international agreements, including the UNʼs convention on biological diversity, and violated the trust of the Haida First Nations people who, allegedly deceived by George, regrettably approved the project.4See Martin Lukacs, “Worldʼs biggest geoengineering experiment ‘violates’ UN rules,” The Guardian (15 October 2012);, which also reports that “Scientists are debating whether iron fertilisation can lock carbon into the deep ocean over the long term, and have raised concerns that it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides and lifeless waters, and worsen ocean acidification and global warming.” Aside from the still-unresolved success or failure of the experiment, the case exemplifies how, with the Anthropocene, we confront a largely undemocratic project, following from the impossibility of representing—politically as much as photographically—the global citizenry that should be, and have every right to be, participants in current discussions of how our world is shaped.
The risks of future geo-engineering can be predicted, no doubt, on the basis of current industrial (mal)practice, which characteristically is both accident-prone and avoids democratic accountability. While the HKW panel also addressed the Anthropocene’s democratic deficit, supporting the need for more inclusive debate when it comes to geo-engineering—with which one can only agree—it was telling and deeply ironic that the panel was composed solely of white European and North American men of science—glimpsing, despite words to the contrary, exactly the kind of technocracy that is the governance structure of our current geological epoch. We should therefore look to the present and recent past to better understand the near future of the geo-engineered Anthropocene.
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010, near New Orleans, Louisiana. U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images;
Take the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an eco-catastrophe that is all-too-quickly receding in the public sphere’s short-term attention span. The event generated a slew of spectacular images of the industrial-apocalyptic sublime, including those of the raging oil platform’s fiery plume attended by coast-guard response crews dousing the inferno with water. Other shots depicted charismatic sea animals pathetically covered in black goo (untold numbers have died and will die from the spill’s “slow violence” unfolding for years to come5See the Center for Biological Diversity, reporting in 2011: “we found that the oil spill has likely harmed or killed approximately 82,000 birds of 102 species, approximately 6,165 sea turtles, and up to 25,900 marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, melon-headed whales and sperm whales. The spill also harmed an unknown number of fish—including bluefin tuna and substantial habitat for our nation’s smallest seahorse—and an unknown but likely catastrophic number of crabs, oysters, corals and other sea life.” They also point out that the toll will continue to mount for years to come. Also see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).). And of course there was the notorious “spillcam,” BP’s live video feed of the leak’s submarine coverage, made public only following congressional pressure on the corporation. The nonstop flow of images captured the uninterrupted gushing oil for nearly three months, during which approximately 260 million gallons, or ninety-five thousand barrels a day, were released into the Gulf’s waters. The webcam in particular made evident the cruel and unbearable impotence of viewers who found themselves, like myself, glued to their screens, mastering the image of the leak but not being able to do anything about it.
A remotely operated undersea vehicle works on the leaking riser pipe at the site of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in this video image taken from a BP live video feed;
Undoubtedly, these images have had a positive impact on public environmental consciousness, critically raising awareness at the time of the ongoing risks of extreme deep water oil drilling—risks that are currently being tested in relation to Shell’s and other corporations’ intent to drill in the Arctic in harsh, uncontrollable maritime conditions (and in fact the Obama administration just granted Shell permission to begin offshore drilling in the pristine and remote Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, an area prone to extreme weather and nearly impossible to reach in the likely event of disaster6See
Yet images of eco-catastrophe have also worked toward radically different purposes, granting supporting reassurance to the false claim that cleanup efforts following industrial accidents have been efficient and effective, as evidenced in the US commercial media conglomerate CBS’s report from 2013 on the aftermath of the BP Gulf spill, accompanied by many of the very images that initially helped raise the alarm: “Due to the extensive cleanup effort, early restoration projects and natural recovery processes,” they happily announced, “much of the Gulf has returned to its baseline condition; the condition it would be in if the accident had not occurred.”7Jessica Hartogs, “Three years after BP oil spill, active clean-up ends in three states,” CBS News (June 10, 2013),
Not only is it evident that mainstream media operates in league with fossil-fuel corporations,8See BP’s press release, which literally repeats the same words of the cited CBS report: “The large-scale cleanup effort, combined with early restoration projects and natural recovery processes, is helping the Gulf return to its baseline condition, which is the condition it would be in if the accident had not occurred.” but CBS’s manifestly false claim points to the uneven effects of eco-catastrophe visuality, where the same images can support multiple interpretations, with divergent, even opposing political implications. When the developmentalist, capitalist growth-obsessed petro-economy forms the unexamined and assumed economic ground on which conventional politics take place, then we can only expect the corporate media apparatus to direct the circulation and interpretation of these images in ways that suit their interests.
In their cogent reading of the BP media image repertoire, Peter Galison and Caroline Jones usefully call attention to the “invisibilities” that are part of “a system in which the seen is supported and enabled by the unseen,” which requires a politics that addresses this complexity.9Peter Galison and Caroline A. Jones, “Unknown Quantities,” Artforum (November 2010), 51. They point to the vast subsurface oil plumes that have formed and drifted far from their site of origin, equaling more than 75% of the uncaptured leaked oil that has mixed with the nearly two million gallons of “Corexit” chemical dispersant applied to the water surface to fragment the crude and make it sink. Thus invisible, the dispersed oil goes un-imaged, dispersing as well from public imagination. “The circuit—of drill, spill, ‘clean up,’ and drill again—relies on such systems of images and occlusions, in which the production of invisibility forms an aesthetic chiaroscuro to all the tragic, sublime, and subaquatic flows,” they write. “Our response must be to take what’s out of sight, and keep it well in mind.”10Ibid.
Yet how can we mobilize politically around catastrophe’s invisibilities, given our culture’s fixation on the spectacular production of images framed with Hollywood endings, leading to the seeming inevitable denouement: as “if the accident had not occurred”? And how to combat images that work toward assuring us of the controllability of climate change, even while they reinforce the idea that we—insofar as one is part of anthropos—are all responsible?
Of course ultimately it’s not even the industrial accidents that are of greatest concern, even though these events—oil spills, burning platforms, human death tolls, oil-drenched shores, and massive animal die-offs—are truly catastrophic and depressing. Rather, it’s the uninterrupted, accident-free normal running of the fossil-fuel economy that is the ultimate danger and should be the focus of our occupation, politically, economically, and ecologically. Images often contribute not so much to the responsible use of technology, but to an ideological mechanism of reassurance, framed within debates that appear to give balanced perspective to all sides. Ultimately, however, they form part of the very technological apparatus of advanced capitalism that has created the environmental problems in the first place. What would the visuality of a culture against the Anthropocene look like?