Printer Friendly Version Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies: cds005
Date Published: 5/13/2010
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Atmospheric Alienation, Carbon Tracking and Geo-Techno Agency

Anita Girvan

Climate change has forcefully emerged as the central planetary challenge for contemporary humanity. [1] As a quintessentially hybrid natural-cultural phenomenon, this emergent struggle exposes the limits to many current practices and institutions that seem debilitated in the face of unprecedented complexity. The urgency of the matter dictates that we clearly cannot do nothing; however, the opposite extreme -- that we have to do something, anything -- may be equally fraught, when considered through genealogies of technology, power and domination that haunt 'solutions' conceived and implemented in the twentieth century. Prevailing scientific approaches to climate change involve the modeling of a certain degree of complexity within bio-material feedback loops; however, the bio-physical apprehension of 'facts', has thus far been unable to permit a reflection on a full spectrum of loops of natural-cultural complexity within this phenomenon. Without critical reflection on ambivalent forms of technological, 'human' and biophysical entanglement, techno-solutions created in the name of climate change may not only exacerbate political tensions, but they may also produce new forms of planetary degradation.

I offer "atmospheric alienation" as one way of thinking through and flagging emerging concerns within the phenomenon of climate change. The hypothesis of atmospheric alienation builds on Hannah Arendt's notion of Earth alienation, which explicitly interrogates genealogies of 'modern science', uncovering the ways in which practices in science, cultural thought, and biophysical materiality enter into recursive feedback loops with political (and planetary) consequences. [2] Arendt's timely intervention in political thought during the mid-twentieth century insists on a politics of reflexive thinking and deliberative dialogue, against a seemingly inevitable techno-scientistic determinism in which technology is recognized to have outpaced a human capacity for understanding. Her imperative to "think what we are doing" [3] is of the utmost importance in the emerging high stakes politics of climate change.

Like Arendt, I use the notion of alienation not to signal a loss of originary "wholeness", nor to posit a permanent Earthly homeostasis, but to reflect on forms of estrangement that present novel rifts (or intensify pre-existing ones) in a constantly shifting socio-political-material fabric. To slow down and think about forms of estrangement that are intensifying or newly emerging and even to anticipate, with humility, how our recombinant techno-solutions to climate change create the conditions of possibility for future losses, seem essential to an always incomplete politics attuned to (atmospheric) alienation. In forwarding this notion, I do not claim that no losses will occur; according to paleo-climatological records, we are currently experiencing the sixth major extinction period in the life of the Earth [4]. A utopian or Edenic narrative of abundant biodiversity on Earth is precluded if we believe in these paleoclimatic stories of loss; however, attending to contemporary losses and creating reflexive participatory institutions to prioritize action may open the space for new forms of politics. This perspective does not reject an important role for science and technology in grappling with climate change. Crucially, technology enables us to apprehend this phenomenon as a planetary 'crisis'; further, as a node of joint kinship between 'human', 'machine' and 'nature', technology offers the promise of recombinant forms of averting the crisis. This joint kinship however, also appears to have constituted the crisis of anthropogenic climate change itself; thus, Arendtian-inspired reflexivity and participatory politics are necessary constitutive elements in the consideration of technological engagements. In order to illustrate such paradoxes, I will suggest two emerging trends of techno-engagement justified under the urgent banner of climate change solutions: carbon tracking and geo-techno agency. These trends demonstrate the need to keep proximal reflexive ways of thinking through frames of action to address climate change; it is in this spirit that I offer the notion of atmospheric alienation as one potential interpretive frame. [5]

Earth Alienation

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, contemplates the conditions of existence for humans in the middle of the twentieth century when the first satellite was sent to "move in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company" [6] she notes in modern science-driven moments of satellite launches, airplane travel, the test-tube production of humans, eugenic practices, and the attempts to prolong human life-span, a desire to escape from the confines of Earth-given existence. This desire for transcendence, or "Earth alienation" as diagnosed by Arendt, defines the contours of modern science at the middle of the twentieth century. Earth alienation features both techno-material and cultural-epistemological transformations; for Arendt, these transformations lead to losses within the life of politics, an activity that depends on an actively engaged citizenry of plural people in the world, rather than on a universalized and transcendent perspective of 'man' in the singular.

Earth alienation as the 'hallmark of modern science' [7] describes a set of interrelated features that condition life in the twentieth century. The first features a dominant drive to escape 'naturally-given' conditions/limitations of life. This drive has led to a privileging of the 'man-made', in everything from the test tube creation of life to the creation of the 'heavenly bodies' in satellite technology. Whereas, homo faber has always been a maker of human artefacts, the modern version of homo faber, with rapidly proliferating tools of technology and continuous processes of automated labour has expanded a repertoire of making that includes channeling forces of nature at ever larger scales. [8] This endeavor has been achieved through the centrality of 'modern science' and its prime mode of expression, mathematics, which "frees man from the shackles of experience & sensory perception." [9] No longer must we rely on the all-too-human subjective embodied senses to apprehend the world, rather numbers render an objective world with increasingly detailed grids of knowledge. The dual conditions of man-as-creator and the privileging of a mathematically-founded scientistic approach have led to the domination of the experiment as a key logic under Earth alienation. The experiment sets the stage for a human orchestration of apprehending objective truth, which leads to the human capability to play Cosmic-Creator. As Arendt notes, the object-orientation of the experiment as scientifically determined presents no necessary built-in ethical imperative or self-reflective principles that engage critical dialogue; the absence of dialogue and reflection in the constitution of modern science is the final and most problematic element of Earth alienation. A combination of scientific knowledge and authority, unprecedented experimentation with 'cosmic forces' such as atomic energy, and the lack of thought and deliberative dialogue about such experimentation threatens planetary life itself. A detached Archimedean perspective of the Earth central to modern science removes both the specificity of Earthly metabolism and the plurality of its inhabitants.

For Arendt, Earth alienation also mapped onto cultural and epistemological coordinates; an Archimedean perspective similarly plagued the metaphysics of Western philosophy with its enduring attempts to locate 'man' in a singular and universal way; Arendt particularly critiques Descartes' quest for an objective metaphysics of man and his mathematical mapping endeavors that have contributed to a transcendent psycho- and geo-graphical cartography. Along with Galileo's confirmation of Copernican theory, Cartesian philosophy has posited an Archimedean point that can be located both extra-terrestrially and within man as transcendent human doubting subject. [10]

What is most crucially at stake for Arendt in her description of Earth alienation is the loss to the worldly activity of politics. Transcendent grids of knowing remove the particularities of individuals and their active participation in the world, which are the conditions necessary for political life. Arendt, writing after witnessing the magnitude of losses under Stalinist and Nazi totalitarian regimes, appropriately flagged this loss to political life.

A half century later, Arendt's words profoundly resonate within the continuing drives of reproductive lab sciences, genomics, and notably, the experimental attempt to create a closed 'Earth-like' system known as Biosphere 2, whose objectives included exploring the possibility of creating Earth-like domes of life-support for space colonization. A joint venture of two private companies, unified under the name Space Biospheres Ventures, Biosphere 2 was an experiment in creating nothing less than a mini-Earth, with representative species and topologies from five planetary biomes. [11] The project, located on three acres of land in Oracle, Arizona, was conceived, researched and tested during the late 1980's, and in 1991, eight 'biospherians' entered this would-be modern-day escape ark for an un-precedentedly long maiden voyage. The original eight stayed in the facility for two years, during which time attempts were made to grow all food, to metabolize all wastes and to produce the optimal atmospheric blend to support life. The failure to achieve this latter objective proved the Achilles heel of the system; all of the pollinators in the ecosystem died as did nineteen out of twenty-five of the vertebrate species. The human biospherians survived only through the injection of oxygen from outside of the closed sealed environment. [12]

Although Biosphere 2 experienced a number of serious glitches that demonstrated the difficulties in reproducing Biosphere 1, namely the Earth, space colonization remains an explicit, ultimate goal of space programs. Former NASA Administrator (2005-2009), Michael Griffin, goes so far as to say "a single-planet species will not survive", therefore, colonization in space is the only way to ensure longitudinal continuity of the human species. [13] Transcending the Earth, our bodies and other so-called 'natural' limitations remains as powerful an imperative in contemporary material and psycho-geographies as it did in the time that Arendt first suggested the notion of Earth alienation.

Atmospheric alienation

Coincidentally, in the year before Arendt's first description of Earth alienation, the climate scientists, Revelle and Suess spoke these prophetic words:

Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future...we are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in the sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years. [14]

I suggest that these two scholars, and indeed their forebears, including Joseph Fourier, Svante Arrhenius, John Tyndall, and Guy Callendar, [15] were foretelling the dawn of a new kind of alienation, -- what I call here, atmospheric alienation. Although modern science had offered a cosmic horizon as a new set of conditions for a transcendent humanity, the advent of climate change, by (re)inscribing atmospheric layers that condition planetary life, has catapulted humanity back within planetary horizons. As Arendt highlights, although there is a tendency toward cosmic pretensions, we "still and probably forever are earth-bound creatures, dependent upon metabolism within a terrestrial nature" [16]; this dependence is profoundly reflected within the phenomenon of climate change (and ironically confirmed within the atmospheric failure of the would-be planet-evading technology of Biosphere 2). Like Arendt's account of Earth alienation, atmospheric alienation is suggestive of material-cultural loops of estrangement. I propose four elements of atmospheric alienation below, though crucially, these elements are interwoven within climate change as a cultural-material phenomenon.

Material atmospheric variation

The first element of atmospheric alienation manifests in the atmosphere itself. Significantly, the advent of anthropogenic climate change creates the conditions for the atmosphere to appear as a matter of concern. Alfred Russell Wallace, who partnered with Darwin in the theory of natural selection first called the atmosphere "the Great Aerial Ocean", to appropriately describe the flows and currents of gases overhead that condition planetary life [17]. While the atmosphere goes largely unnoticed by 'humans' at large when the systems operate within a range conducive to life for our species, the emergence of a troubled atmosphere as a planetary concern demonstrates the return of our long-forgotten antecedents buried in the deep history of the Earth itself.

The great aerial ocean, indivisible and omnipresent, has so regulated our planet's temperature that for nearly 4 billion years Earth has remained the sole known cradle of life amid an infinity of dead gases, rock and dust. Such a feat is as improbable as the development of life itself; but the two cannot be separated, for the great aerial ocean is the cumulative effusion of everything that has ever breathed, grown and decayed. [18]

As Flannery highlights, we (not a globally collective we, but an asymmetrically developed one) have intensified the atmospheric effusion of the remains of these life forms by 'digging up the dead' in the form of the fossil fuels whose combustion has driven the engines of progress in these past few centuries. Only relatively recently have we understood that the atmosphere is a complexly-blended protective layer that absorbs some solar radiation and reemits some to produce a beneficial greenhouse effect; but the recency of this understanding has produced alienating effects. This protective layer is becoming compositionally unfamiliar within a human-species-time and the increase in carbon dioxide has had an impact on global surface temperatures.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century the average surface temperature on the planet has increased from 13.5 to 14.5 degrees Celsius; this seemingly insignificant one degree difference represents a quarter of the change in temperature between the last ice age and today. [19] Even minor changes in global average surface temperatures, differentially felt in specific regional climates may have a significant impact on agricultural production, and water availability, thus making certain regions inhospitable to the lives of many species. Crucially, the atmospheric carbon continues to surpass levels experienced within the past eight hundred thousand years. [20] Most climate scientists agree that while there have been times during which the Earth has had much higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, the life forms that flourish in these conditions are generally cold-blooded species. [21] In other words, the conditions of low atmospheric carbon, widely thought to create the conditions of possibility for a 'human' species, are becoming troubled and further, widespread expert consensus reveals that the unprecedented time-scale of the changes in the atmosphere is the unintentional consequence of the industrial processes dependent on fossil fuel extraction and combustion by our species. [22] A shared sense of crisis over these rapidly-changing planetary conditions leads to the second element of atmospheric alienation.

'Species' anxiety

Although paleoclimatic records suggest that the conditions for our survival as a species on Earth did not come pre-packaged with the 'gift' of the planet, we are more acutely and immediately reminded of this matter with the advent of climate change. Like Dipesh Chakrabarty [23], I employ 'species' as a placeholder here. Critical scholarly attention to the essentialist and colonial tendencies and histories caught up with this category appropriately warns against its unproblematic usage. [24] Despite these problems, it must be acknowledged that the species category is central to the discourse of climate change. Moreover, although many are able to think of climate-related loss of species, in the plural, the species most commonly evoked in the discourse of climate change is homo sapiens. The acronym for Al Gore's campaign/ movement that launched the Live Earth concerts -- "SOS: save our selves" strongly suggests an appeal at the species level. [25] This SOS call is symptomatic of a kind of species anxiety as a "structure of feeling" that pervades contemporary life in an age of climate change.

I use Raymond Williams' term, structure of feeling provisionally here as a way of indexing a kind of pervasive societal constellation that can be seen as historically and culturally 'emergent'. [26] Williams, finds within societal practices and artefacts the means of identifying common characteristics of a cultural consciousness within a given epoch; structures of feeling are not traditionally 'ideological' in that they do not map onto traditional Marxist class divisions, but rather can be shared across classes (and, I would add, across geo-political regions affected by climate change). His analyses are based on a "genetic structuralism" within cultural artefacts and practices that exposes not only a prevailing structure, but the historical processes that constitute these artefacts and the ways in which they emerge. Williams thus foregrounds organizing principles that constitute and structure ways of knowing about given events and phenomena.

I contend that a pervasive structure of feeling within climate change discourse demonstrates a species preoccupation with survival that is evident within the notion of S.O.S. and is reinforced within the highly prevalent global discourses of catastrophe. This species anxiety builds on previous (and on-going) material-cultural sources of anxiety such as nuclear annihilation. Climate scientist's Konrad Steffen's doomsday-clock warning, "the time is already five past midnight," [27] demonstrates this shared genealogy of species anxiety.

As well as using species provisionally in this essay, my occasional use of 'we' similarly reflects this tentative engagement with a shaky and uneven, but atmospherically-relevant collectivity. Because the atmosphere is a global commons with conveyor systems and circulation cells, greenhouse gases do not remain loyal to their place of production; rather, these gases are dispersed throughout the Earth's protective layer. Thus the atmosphere itself is, in part, complicit with the universalizing tendencies of the discourse of climate change. I am also aware however, that even as I attempt to 'pussy-foot' around a universal-subject position, those in sub-Saharan Africa and small island nations who are now feeling, or will soon be feeling the impacts of climate changes, may find my gesture (and significantly, the gestures of those at the table in Copenhagen) of collectivity inadequate. The inadequacy of unilaterally invoking a species collectivity as the singular relevant political category within the phenomenon of climate change reveals a third element of atmospheric alienation.

Geo-political estrangement

The unevenness of: responsibility for causes, felt impacts, and the ability to adapt to anthropogenic climate change suggests other kinds of relevant geo-political taxonomies of a non-Linnaean order. Some of these novel categories such as the global North and South, small-island nations, low-lying countries, and most transparently, 'winners' and 'losers' reveal alienating geo-political ontologies. Such geo-political unevenness and estrangement were evident in the events leading up to and including the Copenhagen conference whose attempts to create an international accord fell far short of the desired outcomes for many. The African delegation's protest and threatened walk-out on the talks and the negotiator from Tuvalu's impassioned speech on behalf of small island nations are just two demonstrations of a growing alienation between those who strongly and viscerally feel the need to act swiftly, in concert, but with an awareness of those who are already suffering, and those for whom climate change is not a priority. I do not mean to suggest reductively that there are/were only two positions at the negotiating table; the complexities that riddle the politics of climate change are, I believe, unprecedented. What I contend, however, is that climate change may exacerbate existing estrangements and present novel ones, with potentially devastating consequences.

As military documentarian, Gwynne Dyer, demonstrates in his book, Climate Wars, scenarios of climate change now being mapped by American and British military which use climate modeling to predict early 'losers' and 'winners' in climate impacts. [28] Military predictions feature:

... a world where people are starting to starve, but it is not always the familiar scene of helpless peasant societies facing famine with numb resignation. Some of the victims now are fully developed, technologically competent countries, and their people will not watch their children starve so long as there is any recourse, however illegitimate, that might save them. So the lucky countries in the northern tier that can still feed themselves -- but have little or no food to spare -- must be able to turn back hordes of hungry refugees, quite probably by force. They must also be able to deal with neighbours who try to extort food by threats -- and these desperate neighbours may even have nuclear weapons. Appeals to reason will be pointless, as it is reasonable for nations to do anything they can to avoid mass starvation. [29]

The anticipated security risks from global 'others' who are vying for scarce survival resources motivates military organizations to plan for worst-case scenarios. Dyer's documented evidence shows that military preoccupations with climate change feature not only resource protectionism and violent border control to secure national populations from the viral parasitic populations that threaten to swarm those inside, but also larger military interventions to prevent nuclear annihilation. From the perspective of totalizing military regimes, the world may be evacuated of plurality and construed along green zones and red zones in militarily-predicted climate wars.

As military organizations in their tireless operations of securitization attempt to predict the unpredictable, an alienating sense of uncertainty paradoxically both evades and reifies military intelligence (as in the military logic that partly underwrites 'carbon tracking' discussed below). This pervasive sense of uncertainty about what is to be done defines the fourth aspect of atmospheric alienation.

Uncertainty about institutions, mechanisms

As a quintessentially ecological phenomenon that occurs at multiple scales simultaneously and through socio-material loops of complexity in ways that flagrantly defy human political structures, climate change exposes the limits of our dominant institutions. At the global level, the lack of consensus on how to move equitably to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has resulted in the grand failure of both the Kyoto Protocol and more recently, the Copenhagen Accord. Part of this failure stems from the outward projection of responsibility from key international players. Especially problematic is the nation-bounded discourse of "If they don't do it, why should I?" that dominates discussions around the reduction of greenhouse gases. Thus far, reduction targets largely express aspirations, but not regulations. Many target dates set by various levels of governments come and go, but nobody knows exactly what 'carbon neutral' means and how to achieve it. Further, targets of greenhouse gas reductions, steeped in the discourse of statistics, reductively render a narrative of linear simplicity. The implication is that 'if we achieve this goal, then we will have mitigated greater warming and destruction', but the mechanisms for reaching the targets (social, political, technological, etc) still lag behind the relatively empty numerical aspirations. Institutional uncertainty similarly challenges every scale of politics from the municipal to the regional to the national and all of the more recently conceived recombinant forms.

Although uncertainty plagues attempts to deal with climate change, certain emerging trends reveal how this phenomenon is recursively taken up within pre-existing formations. I suggest that the logic of "tracking" is one such formation that constitutes a trend of engagement within atmospheric alienation.

Carbon tracking

Jordan Crandall's seminal essay on contemporary real-time perceptual grids within human-machine interfaces of technology highlights a dominant cultural preoccupation with 'tracking'. [30] According to Crandall, who builds on Heidegger, Kroker and Virilio's insights into the implications of militarily founded technology moving information at the speed of light, embodied vision is no longer the key locus of perception. Tracking rather than seeing becomes the contemporary mode of locating objects, or what Virilio calls 'trajects' to highlight constant rapid movement.

Tracking arises as a dominant perceptual activity in a computerized culture where looking has come to mean calculating rather than visualizing in the traditional sense and where seeing is infused with the logistics of tactics and manoeuvre ... Such processes of calculation ... are distributed and shared in a larger field of human and technological agency. [31]

This field of shared perceptual agency is pervasive. In an obvious example, the airport, the traveler is constantly hailed by disembodied machinic voices to become part of the security loop by tracking suspicious behaviour (even one's own). As Crandall highlights, however, tracking, as a circuit of military and capital loops, extends well beyond such explicit fields of security: "We aim to detect, process, and strategically codify a moving phenomenon -- a stock price, a biological function, an enemy, a consumer good -- in order to gain advantage in a competitive theatre, whether the battlefield, the social arena, or the marketplace". [32]

Following Crandall, I argue that a dominant form of perceiving and apprehending carbon is caught up in a computerized techno-military-market calculus. Under pressure from the biospherical return of a spectral 'nature' within climate change, technology begins to take up carbon anew, not only as the material basis for nanotube transistors in advanced computing circuitry, but also as an object to be tracked, targeted and eliminated in the war for the earthly survival of a threatened human least at the surface, it appears as though the goal is to eliminate carbon. Because of the circuits of complexity into which carbon enters, paradoxically carbon really cannot disappear, but must appear as a supplement within other orders. Emerging cultural-material perceptual grids are targeting carbon as a traject that produces both 'carbon subjects/citizens' and 'capitalized carbon'.

The first discourse presents a subject whose carbon emissions are to be tracked and managed. One of the primary technologies to track such subjects will be the 'smart meter', a device that is poised to enter each household in most developed and some developing countries within the next five to ten years. [33] Key to this technology is the ability to track, in real-time, the energy consumption of households and to communicate 'the numbers' to a central body/machine. In more sophisticated technologies, the smart meter will be part of a 'smart grid' system, a two-way digital interface that enables the system to turn off and on appliances in households to help manage demand during peak load. The smart meter will not only be able to give each carbon subject a reading on energy consumption that can easily be converted to greenhouse gas output, it will also enable more robust data for use by nations on per capita emissions calculations. Further, these technologies offer the means to mitigate increasing greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways. Individuals who monitor their emissions through smart meters and attend to the specific energy impact of certain appliances may be empowered to adjust their behavior vis-a-vis these appliances. In dealing with the transformation of energy regimes from fossil fuels to 'renewables', smart metering and smart grid technologies provide key ways of understanding and, more importantly, managing both 1) peak load issues (enabling the system to deliver power during the times of greatest demand) and 2) the unreliability or 'intermittency' of renewables issue (the problem that wind and sun for example are not 'constant', but must be fed into transmission systems that are built for a constant input of fossil fuel). [34] In other words, this technology is touted to be integral to the transformation of energy systems that will ultimately be a key solution to climate change; however, this solution is steeped in other 'cultural solutions' that impact its constitution. An uncritical acceptance of this planet-blanketing technology is founded on an assumption that we are all in this fight against climate change together and forgets the 'constitutive role of conflict' that animates the real-time perceptual grids of tracking technology. [35]

When we speak about the formation of real-time perceptual agencies -- which, again, manifest a distributed processing and storage capacity among humans and machines, enabling increased efficiency and accuracy... -- we often assume that cooperation reigns...And yet, competition plays an equal role. We do not necessarily want to see on a level playing field alongside everyone else. We need to see faster, better and more precisely -- whether in the name of convenience, profit, or protection -- in order to outwit competitor and combatant alike. We are driven equally by such acquisitive and aggressive impulses. They are the stuff of our cultural dramas. They derive from the production demands of both consumerism and warfare -- to the extent that these become mutually reinforcing components of the same economic engine. [36]

Crandall reminds us to uncover how competitor and combatant emerge as integral to the loops of smart grid projects. Smart grid tracking technology is emerging as a new frontier for capital accumulation and companies are vying for market shares in this competitive market. Significantly, many for-profit companies on the forefront of smart metering networking technologies are those that have already mastered the machine-to-machine (M2M) digital systems of closed-circuit TV (CCTV), the tracking surveillance grid that has virally proliferated in Britain. One of the leading British CCTV companies provides M2M technologies for everything from commercial alarm monitoring to ATM security to environmental monitoring, including smart-grid technology. [37] Thus, smart-grid technology is commensurate with what Caroline Bassett calls a 'total surveillance trajectory', a material and symbolic cultural formation whose many different instantiations (including technologies, governing structures and consumer drives) aim in one way or another to reconcile 'bodies' to bodies of data [38]. In thinking through the relevance of the production or reification of competitors and combatants, smart grid technologies open up a field of critical questions. What will be the effects of this new form of energy/carbon monitoring, intermediated by and through the circuitry of bodily monitoring for surveillance? In a post-9/11 war-on-terror logic, how could a real-time carbon/energy footprint provide a perceptual grid that may re-enact or produce new forms of geo-political alienation? And given that the CCTV business is a highly lucrative 'arms-race', how does the advent of atmospheric alienation provide the means to extend the market to include an increasingly relevant and profitable monitoring of carbon? [39]

A second discourse of carbon tracking reveals that not only are these carbon-monitoring technologies themselves sources of new capital for companies in the surveillance business, but carbon itself is emerging as capitalized 'nature' within a nascent carbon economy. Whereas climate change could be interpreted as a challenge to a free-market metabolism that externalized the atmosphere, an emerging solution is to reconcile a newly-internalized carbon within global trading schemes. Many articulations of the carbon footprint metaphor, a key expression of a new form of carbon citizenship, rely on this market. In entering this metaphor in a Google search, what appears immediately is a direct connection between a carbon footprint maker and a carbon offset, a means of buying a 'dispensation' for carbon guilt. [40] Off-sets, cap and trade, and carbon credit systems have created a multi-billion dollar business sector. Within this network, the tracking of carbon and carbon citizens presents opportunities for mega-projects that address a capital-atmospheric perceptual grid of carbon while ignoring all other 'Earthly metabolisms'. The pretense of transcending climate change through investment in man-as-cosmic-creator plays to the hopes of a species anxious about its own demise, but still caught within the same loops of experimental expansionary cosmic forces that unleashed the original crisis. Atmospheric alienation and a tendency toward carbon tracking thus bring forward another emerging tendency toward perceiving 'man' as ambivalent geo-techno agent.

Geo-techno agency

Extending Paul Crutzen's thesis of the contemporary age as 'anthropocene,' [41] Dipesh Chakrabarty and Naomi Oreskes have suggested that this era highlights the human as 'geological agent'. [42] This notion draws attention to the fact that, as a species, we have become a force strong enough to disturb the boundary conditions for life on Earth. Whereas conventional environmental frames recognize humans as biological agents, creating impacts on a bodily and localized geographical scale, the notion of geological agency represents a fundamental shift in thinking:

To call human beings geological agents is to scale up our imagination of the human. Humans are biological agents, both collectively and as individuals. They have always been so. There was no point in history when humans were not biological agents. But we can become geological agents only historically and collectively, that is, when we have reached numbers and invented technologies that are on a scale large enough to have an impact on the planet itself. [43]

Echoing Arendt's diagnostic of the profoundly nature-making capacity of modern homo faber, Chakrabarty reads this intensified and scaled-up species agency through the climate impacts of 'civilizing' forces enabled by fossil fuels. Whereas former conceptions of climate theory ranging from Hippocrates to Jean Bodin to Montesquieu referred to the climate as a fundamental determinant of humans, [44] contemporary anthropogenic climate change theory overturns such an assumption by insisting that humans are now the force driving climatic conditions. In fact, prior to the anthropocene, the term 'geological agent' was used to refer to the atmosphere as a conditioner of the Earth. In the 1890's, climate scientist, Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin first evoked the atmosphere as geologic agent in describing the feedback loops between atmospheric CO2 levels and the relative cooling or warming of the planet. [45] Following the work of foundational climate scientists, Tyndall and Arrhenius, Chamberlin developed a fairly robust notion of a carbon cycle incorporating oceanic cycles of carbon dioxide and water vapour. He ultimately recanted on his theories as they fell out of favour in the two decades following his description; however, he made some fundamental contributions to the discipline of climate science in his observations and theses on glaciation, oceanic currents and atmospheric agency. [46] Although his thesis bracketed the impact of humans on the atmosphere, Chamberlin's work on climatic feedbacks and geologic conditions informs an understanding of the recursivity of planetary boundary conditions. Arguably, his implicit notion of recursivity could productively temper a dominant relational understanding of climate change that posits humans as the stronger of 'geological agents' who, through our uniquely human innovations, may be able to win in the ultimate battle against 'nature'.

As well as producing an unprecedented kind of species anxiety, an awareness of our humanly geological agency through climate change has urged us to scale-up our technological interventions to 'correct' a climate that may become hostile to human survival. Proposed remedies of an experimental-cosmic nature reveal a certain geo-techno agency located among techno-elites who are capable of conceiving and crucially, unilaterally implementing global carbon solutions.

According to Ken Caldeira, a prominent senior scientist with the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution and a Professor in the Department of Environmental Earth System Sciences at Stanford University, geo-engineering schemes that were easily dismissed two decades ago, are now being more widely considered in scientific circles. [47] One particular solution suggested within such geo-engineering research is the re-creation of the 'Mount Pinatubo' effect. In the months following the eruption of this volcano in the Philippines, global temperatures decreased by more that .05 degrees Celsius due to the amount of atmospheric particles which filtered the sun's rays. In order to recreate such global cooling, certain scientists propose to shoot two cubic metres of sulphate aerosols per hour into the atmosphere. The attraction of such a techno-fix, Caldeira claims, is that it is "relatively cheap" and can be done by a "small group of actors or countries". [48] That this kind of geo-techno agency could be accorded to a handful of people on behalf of the planet is truly a chilling proposition.

Another serious contender in such schemes is seeding the ocean with iron to produce algal blooms. These blooms increase the number of phytoplankton which will extract more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the ocean. [49] Although this solution may 'fix' the carbon dioxide problem, the bacteria created as a result of the dying phytoplankton will also create dead zones in the ocean that will be inhospitable to species other than jellyfish. There are many known by-products of geo-engineering schemes, but perhaps more threatening are the non-linear outcomes that cannot be known in advance; these are the cosmic forces that Arendt warns will threaten the survival of an Earth-bound species with transcendent pretensions.

How to proceed?

What does adapting Arendt's theory and positing the notion of "atmospheric alienation" offer to on-going efforts to think about and institutionalize the politics of climate change? I would argue that, first, Arendt's notion of Earth alienation presents a way of understanding how seemingly disparate material and cultural events and practices co-produce what we know of as 'climate change'. A simple linear problem-solution account of climate change that short circuits from climate science to policy forgets the highly relevant recursive cultural-material loops that constitute the phenomenon. As a thinker of dominant historical-cultural-material loops that condition life itself, Arendt evokes a notion of complexity that would productively enrich thinking on climate change.

Second, Arendt's attention to the conditions of plurality that animate politics underscores the need to keep alive a lens for particularities, even as a collectivity is also necessarily evoked within this phenomenon. Given the extent to which we now recognize our species' role in (largely) irreversibly shaping the Earth and its systems, there is clearly little place for a politics based on a purely romantic-nostalgic/utopian vision of living harmoniously as one of many species within an Earthly context. We are world-makers and will continue to be for as long as we populate the Earth. The question is what or who is going to shape our world-making actions and what will be our (particular and collective) aspirations in the world(s) we create. The action that is called upon within climate change falls short of an Arendtian politics if it assumes a planetary collectivity whereby certain forms of unilaterally-imposed geo-engineering are seen as the only solutions through the foreshortening of dialogue. Paradoxically however, a collectivity needs to be posited in order to shake free from a shared libertarian perspective of an individual's right to expand and emit at will. Further and on-going consideration needs to be given to how collectivity can be evoked without an appropriation of multiplicity or the blatant disregard for asymmetrical relations.

I am aware that, just as Arendt was criticized for attempting to dismantle an Archimedean transcendent perspective by reinscribing another kind of classical transcendentalism based on Greek politics, my own attempt to posit a cultural 'hypothesis' of atmospheric alienation (though not nearly as eloquent or extended as Arendt's) may fall victim to the same critique. Atmospheric alienation presents a narrative of a planetary natureculture [50] in a way that often veils particulars; this narrative is not sufficient on its own, but rather needs to be constantly interrupted by other narratives. [51]

Thus, the notion of atmospheric alienation is troubled as it should be; I believe, nonetheless, that this story offers some explanatory potential that may inform dialogic political responses to climate change. Grappling with emergent estrangements and the tensions between particulars and universals -- in mitigation and adaptation strategies, climate justice, technological 'solutions', and political institutions -- may present some of the greatest challenges of the next few decades in a time of climate change. This phenomenon challenges current scientific practices and political institutions in ways that require a re-awakening of pluralized imaginative horizons. Arendtian politics do not offer a way of overcoming climate change (not least because change is already presently occurring with varying degrees in different geographical regions), but rather they may present alternative ways of constituting political thought and action on climate change involving flux and negotiation in natureculture; this constitution would privilege a politics of living among populated on-going climate changes, rather than living against or escaping from a chronically alienating transcendent version of both 'man' and climate.


[1] Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2007); IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Michael Mann & Lee Kump, Dire Predictions (New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2008); Naomi Oreskes, "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How do we know we are not Wrong?" In Climate Change: What it means for us, our children and our grandchildren. Ed Joseph Dimento & P Doughman (Cambridge: MIT, 2007); William Smith, "Presence of Mind as Working Climate Change Knowledge: A Totonic Cosmopolitics" In The Social Construction of Climate Change: Power, Knowledge, Norms, Discourses, Ed. M. Pettenger (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 217-234; Andrew Weaver, Keeping Our Cool, (Toronto: Viking, 2008).

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 248-280.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Weaver, 116-118.

[5] Although the term, "alienation" is heavily determined in political thought by the writings of Hegel and Marx, I will bracket these thinkers here in favour of Arendt's version, which firmly lends itself to a discussion of climate change. Conventional political theorists may not be satisfied with the absence of the founding fathers of the political theory of alienation, but I suggest the notion of alienation is more usefully open to interpretation in the interdisciplinary circles that are discussing climate change. While bracketing these thinkers does not preclude the relevance of a Hegelian and/or Marxist analysis, such an exploration is beyond the scope of this piece.

[6] Arendt, 1.

[7] Ibid, 264.

[8] Ibid, 148-149.

[9] Ibid, 265.

[10] Ibid, 273-284.

[11] See official description of the project (accessed on 30 April 30 2010); Dan Vergano, Dan. "Brave new world of Biosphere 2?" Science News 150, no. 20 (November 16, 1996): 312-313.
(accessed on 2 May 2010);

[12] Joel E. Cohen & David Tilman, "Biosphere 2 and Biodiversity: The Lessons So Far" Science, New Series, Vol. 274, No. 5290 (Nov. 15, 1996), 1150-1151. (accessed on 30 April 2010). A second mission was attempted in 1994, but was aborted due to funding, management and interpersonal issues originating in the factions created in the first mission over whether the project should be cast primarily as a business venture or a science experiment. The project was officially terminated and management of Biosphere 2, no longer a closed system, was transferred to Columbia University who used it as an Earth sciences research facility. The site was sold by one of the original owners in 2005, and since 2007 it has been a research facility for the University of Arizona under the ownership of a private development company. Sabine Höhler presents a compelling critique of the project by highlighting how the environmental preoccupations during the 1960's-1990 blended with Cold War military concerns and techno-scientistic attempts to re-make a 'better nature' in closed, self-sustaining systems, Sabine Höhler, 'The environment as a life support system: the case of Biosphere 2', History and Technology, 26: 1, 39-58 (accessed on 30 April 2010).

[13] Washington Post "NASA's Griffin: 'Humans will Colonize the Solar System'" September 25, 2005., (accessed on 27 February 2010).

[14] Roger Revelle & Hans Suess, "Carbon Dioxide Exchange between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 During the Past Decades," Tellus 9: 18-27, 1957.

[15] Weaver, 71-80.

[16] Arendt, 268.

[17] Flannery, 12-13.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mann & Kump.

[20] Flannery; Weaver.

[21] Flannery, 72.

[22] For a representation of some of the expert consensus see: Flannery; IPCC; Mann & Kump; Oreskes; Smith; Weaver.

[23] Dipesh Chakrabarty 'The Climate of History: Four Theses', Critical Inquiry, Winter 2009.

[24] See, for example, Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 76-78; Cary Wolfe, Animal Rights, American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 169-189, 191.

[25] See for the documented images of Al Gore launching this campaign with Kevin Wall and Cameron Diaz.

[26] Raymond Williams "Structures of Feeling" in Marxism & Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 75-141.

[27] Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (London: Bloomsbury, 2006) 58.

[28] Gynne Dyer, Climate Wars (Toronto: Random House, 2008).

[29] Ibid, 4

[30] Jordan Crandall, "Precision + Guided + Seeing" In A. & M. Kroker Eds. Critical Digital Studies: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 87-105.

[31] Ibid, 90.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Google Smart Metering Program maps for a flattened image of the Earth blanketed in smart meter/smart-grid trajectories
(accessed on 10 March 2010).

[34] For more on the grid-connections issues of renewables, energetics and peak load demand, see: Vaclav Smil, Energy, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 169-171.

[35] Crandall, 89.

[36] Ibid, 89-90.

[37] See Wyless UK's corporate website whose descriptions of products and graphic images describe a 'total surveillance trajectory' with obvious Archimedean pretentions. (accessed on 20 February 2010)

[38] Carolyn Bassett "Forms of Reconciliation," Cultural Studies 21/ 1 (2007): 82-94.

[39] See some of the press on the top 5 smart meter companies in the U.S. who are currently fighting for the market share -- especially in light of the Obama's economic stimulus money for smart meter implementation. Katie Fehrenbacher, "Who Will Win Big in the Smart Meter Rollout?", earth2tech website, (accessed on 20 February 2010).

[40] See for example, the website of Carbon Footprint Ltd, a carbon management company, (accessed on 26 April 2010); and Clean Metrics (accessed on 26 April 2010).

[41] Paul Crutzen, "Geology of Mankind," Nature, 415/23/3, January 2003.

[42] See Oreskes; Chakrabarty. Another relevant text for thinking through geological agency, although from an earlier conventional frame of geology as rock or 'inanimate' nature is: R. L. Sherman's Man as Geological Agent: An Account of his Action on Inanimate Nature (London; H.F & G Witherby, 1922)., (accessed on 26 April 2010). This text deals mostly with mines and quarries, so the boundary conditions for life are considered quite literally as the foundational rock, rather than the atmosphere.

[43] Chakrabarty, 206-207.

[44] J.R. Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 11-12.

[45] Ibid, 83-92.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Canadian Broadcasting Corporation "The Current" November 13 Edition, 2009, Guest host David Suzuki. Part 3: Geo-engineering. (accessed on 20 November 2009)

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] I borrow Donna Haraway's term here to draw attention to the ways in which nature and culture are chronically and impossibly held apart in discourse (and disciplines). As Haraway insists, cross-boundary ways of being and constructing worlds have always existed; I use natureculture here to foreground a responsibility to the recursive effects of 'human' agency that are evident within the phenomenon of climate change, though not always explicitly attended to in disciplinary silos that take up climate change. See Donna Haraway, The Haraway Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[51] See Julie Cruikshank's Do Glaciers Listen? (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006) for accounts of indigenous elders in the glaciated spaces of the Mount St Elias region of the Pacific Northwest. Given the ways in which glaciers are singularly 'read' factually as thermometers red-lining geologic 'tipping points' within a contemporary epistemology of climate change, this collection of voices represents an important alternative story of cultural-material life in glaciers. Elders' stories show how glaciers are taken up and shaped by natural-cultural encounters just as they, in turn, shape such encounters. A key feature of these stories is their ability to conjure collective and even somewhat prescriptive ways of being that demonstrate the necessity of humility against a dominant form of geo-techno hubris. See also "Transition Town" initiatives, a community-based approach, founded in the U.K whose aims are to create radical shifts in energy regimes in order to avoid complete dependence on fossil fuels. Initial successes in many communities suggest momentum for a bottom-up, proactive approach to what seems like a problem that can only be addressed at a 'cosmic' scale. This following website describes the first Transition Town in Totnes, (accessed on 20 February 2010).


Anita Girvan is an interdisciplinary PhD student with a concentration in Cultural, Social, and Political Thought. Her PhD project focuses on the mediating role of the metaphor of the 'carbon footprint' in responses to climate change, and her broader interests are in the cultural and geo-material loops of language, narrative and ecology. She is also a Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) Fellow at the University of Victoria.

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