Could a Keynesian “pyramid scheme” establish a “viable planetarity” by re-orienting the forces of global labor to address the climate crisis? With a dose of irony, the design inquiry of building 138,462 Carbon Pyramids imagines what it would mean—for labor, economies, and landscapes—to translate an abstract figure into a real carbon management solution.
During a workshop on Negative Emission Technologies (NETS), a physicist colleague did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the volume needed to sequester enough atmospheric carbon to keep concentrations at 350ppm (after fossil fuel drawdown). Using the Great Pyramid of Giza as a scalar referent, he determined that humans would need to construct 138,462 of these structures, or roughly 3.79 great pyramids per day for one hundred years. The pyramid occurred rather spontaneously and the physicist might have chosen any number of iconic structures, man-made or natural, for purely heuristic purposes.
The pyramid, however, is not just any form. It is weighted with symbolism, calling to mind unsolvable prehistoric mysteries, oppressive caste systems, and human sacrifice. Countless television programs and documentary films have explored the meaning of pyramids. From the Olmecs to the Kushites, vastly different civilizations have constructed pyramids across great expanses of time. What purposes did they serve? Are they ancient astronomical devices or the remnants of necrophilia cults? How were they constructed? The ancient Greeks considered the geometric precision of the Egyptian pyramids as evidence of a fundamental order in reality, and in her exhibition catalogue Absolutes and Intermediates, contemporary artist Agnes Denes describes her sketches of pyramids as possessing a “meaning [that] spans all of human existence.”
And as it turns out, pyramids were also invoked by the “father of modern economics”, John Maynard Keynes. In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes suggested that during a time of great “involuntary” unemployment (such as our present), central governments should fund public works projects, ideally for public good, but, he notes, with a dose of sarcasm, “pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth.” From a Keynesian perspective, infrastructure is an ideal mechanism for stimulating economic activity because—unlike loans or other financial instruments—it has a comparatively direct relationship to job creation.
To be clear, Keynes’ advocacy for central government spending is not precisely intended to improve working conditions or to facilitate social mobility. In The General Theory, at least, employment is an end in itself. Full employment leads to social stability, social stability facilitates the smooth functioning of capitalist markets leading to wealth accumulation, and this in turn spurs consumerism. Consumerism creates jobs, thereby stabilizing the market and allowing this cycle to continue. Without certain guarantees, workers might strike or withdraw from the labor market altogether. “After all,” as Robert Lekachman in his Age of Keynes wrote, “the marginal product of unemployed men is zero. If the community puts the unemployed to work at totally useless jobs, such as the leaf-raking and ditch-digging which were the derided activities under the WPA in New Deal America, their marginal product will still be zero. But the income from this fruitless labor will be expended on food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and recreation.” Keynes’ obsession with mass employment is, therefore, not a means of empowering the working class, nor does it represent a revolution in the modes of production or in the politics of labor. We agree with those scholars who emphasize that Keynesian economics were crucially developed to bolster Western capitalism against the “disruptive” power of the working class as represented by the rise of the Soviet Union.
In the present, massive quantitative easing programs undertaken by the US Federal Reserve during the COVID-19 pandemic (as well as during the Great Recession) had the potential to directly reduce high levels of unemployment through jobs programs. Instead, these funds were used to provide specific private sector interests with low-interest loans and debt relief. To date, over 5,600 fossil fuel (or as they prefer, energy) companies have received at least $3 billion from COVID-related US government aid. At the same time, Keynesian fiscal policy has been mythologized with a sort of uncritical nostalgia by many on the political left. For example, a “jobs guarantee” is one of the foundational components of the Green New Deal, and the American socialist publication Jacobin proclaims that this intrinsically Keynesian program is “for the working class.” Moreover, “infrastructure” continues to be regarded as a middle-of-the-road consensus-building issue for American politicians. Early in the Trump presidency, The New York Times published the following:
Here’s how President-elect Trump could unify a bitterly divided America, provide well-paying jobs to many of the millions of disaffected workers who voted for him, and lift the economy, stock market, and tax rolls.
All he needs to do is what he presumably does best: build something. And I don’t mean a few miles of asphalt or a paint job on a rusting bridge. Build something awe-inspiring. Something Americans can be proud of. Something that will repay the investment many times over for generations to come.
Build the modern-day equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Lincoln Tunnel or the Timberline Lodge … All of these are Depression-era [i.e. Keynesian] public works projects that are still in use.
In the nearly four years since this article was published, we have sufficient evidence that infrastructure is not, in fact, a point of political compromise. Merging white nationalist identity politics and oligarchical opportunism, Trumpian infrastructure spending has been re-imagined as a tool to eliminate environmental legislation, perpetuate human rights abuses, and desecrate sacred tribal lands along the US-Mexico border. And yet, these same projects are still described as forms of job creation, as if they were, indeed, Keynesian in scope and intent.
Moving beyond this aspect of our dystopian present may require us to dissociate infrastructure from the utility of demand. When Keynes wrote in his General Theory: “Two pyramids, two masses for the dead, are twice as good as one; but not so two railways from London to York,” he opened up the possibility that the scale of an enterprise—not its purpose—could be the ultimate criterion for government intervention. Bearing this in mind, does the scale of the contemporary climate crisis present an opportunity for limitless employment in the same way that “pyramid-building” might? And how could a global public works program achieve the sort of “viable planetarity” necessary to sustain human life?
Nearly every plausible scenario to keep global average temperatures below a 2°C rise requires some form of carbon sequestration. Technologies for direct-air capture, CO2 injection into porous rock or via bio-remediation, have been proven to be viable in the present. However, the mechanisms for financing this industry at scale have either been delayed or failed outright. “Free market” approaches to reducing carbon emissions have been similarly ineffective, and so central government spending may be the most effective way to finance negative emissions technologies at scale. According to data from the UN Environment Program’s “Emissions Gap Report 2019,” the cost of mitigating catastrophic global climate change ranges between $1.6 trillion and $3.8 trillion per year. Although this figure may appear daunting, we should note that the US Government and Federal Reserve has spent nearly $6 trillion on COVID-19-related stimulus over an approximately six-month period in 2020.
The 138,462 pyramids calculated by our physicist friend presume a volume composed entirely of biomass. If constructed, each Giza-like pyramid would occupy thirteen acres (52,900 m²) and rise to a height of 455 feet (138.8 m). Absent any supporting infrastructure, these 138,462 pyramids would cover 2,839 mi² (7,353 km²), an area almost half the size of Beijing, three times the size of Moscow or Tokyo, or nearly ten times the size of New York City. The amount of biomass needed to construct this scheme would require wholesale shifts in existing land use practices, and we can imagine vast plantations of bamboo and other fast-growing woody plants, which might then be harvested by seasonal armies of government workers. Perhaps these harvested materials would be ground down into fiber for use as a modular building product. Cellulose megaliths might be stacked one upon another.
If we regard these 138,462 pyramids as a sort of public earthwork or land art intervention (and we do), we might realize that a biomass pyramid bears a striking similarity to a compost heap or landfill. Imagine 138,462 pyramids decomposing: innumerable microorganisms and trillions of invertebrates digesting the structure over the course of years or decades, generating a complex and unintended array of metabolic processes. Perhaps these structures would self-ignite from the heat of their own rot or collapse, destroying nearby settlements. Or perhaps they could generate energy through the methane emitted from their decay. And if the entropic qualities of these pyramids proved undesirable, we could explore the possibility of transforming them into a more durable material. Biomass itself is 44 percent carbon and so—through a process of thermal decomposition known as pyrolysis—our 138,462 pyramids could be rendered down into 60,932 pyramids of a pure, black charcoal. This decay-resistant material—often called “biochar”—would potentially add hundreds or thousands of years to the lifespan of our structures as carbon sinks.
In another iteration of this exercise, our pyramids are composed of gaseous CO2, captured from the surrounding troposphere in modular devices like those designed by the Swiss company Climeworks. Perhaps the gas could be injected into prefabricated pyramid shells lined with some leak-proof material. Despite their considerable mass, the gaseous contents of each pyramid would be functionally invisible, and given that carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, we can imagine that these structures would rest upon the ground. Their volume might expand or contract based upon ambient temperatures, and the resulting structures might call to mind the “inflatable architecture” movement of the 1960s or contemporary works by artists such as Tomás Saraceno. Yet—from carbon capture to construction—this process would almost certainly be highly automated, employing few workers. These gaseous pyramids might then be re-imagined as proxies for the value created by human labor, and a universal basic income scheme could be internalized into the cost of their construction. Communities might look upon these diaphanous structures as their benefactors, similar to how Constant Nieuwenhuys’ (admittedly anti-capitalist) city of New Babylon was intended to liberate humans from labor and lead to the era of Homo ludens (“man at play”).
Perhaps, instead, captured CO2 could be injected into porous rock, such as subsurface basalt, similar to a technique pioneered by Carbfix in Iceland. Over a process of several years, carbon dioxide would solidify into calcite crystals and this bedrock could be quarried for use as a building material. As in ancient Egypt, monolithic slabs of stone could form pyramids, either built in situ to help bolster tourism in Iceland, the African Rift Valley, and other areas rich in malfic rock; or conveyed over unfathomably long distances for reasons that might seem obscure to future generations. Such structures would be durable and their construction would likely employ large masses of people, but the process would be extremely energy-intensive. Moreover, the majority of these pyramids’ volume would be taken up by the host rock, not sequestered carbon, meaning that we would need to construct far more than our original 138,462 pyramids.
Beyond providing employment and sequestering atmospheric carbon, these pyramids would “do” nothing. They would simply exist, taking up more horizontal space than vertical. And so, in the present, we might understand them as monuments to their own creation. Yet, each of these schemes—biomass, biochar, gaseous and injected stone—possess a radically different timeline and call forth a disorienting array of potential outcomes. Would our scheme even be successful, or would the project be abandoned as human civilization collapses from an increasingly stochastic biosphere? We can imagine a future in which Earth beings ascribe no meaning to our structures—or like those of ancient Egypt, regard them as (in the words of art historian Richard Brilliant) “remote, very ancient, abstract, and eternal.” Perhaps our structures will outlast the Great Pyramid itself or perhaps future humans will believe that—in the words of Jorge Luis Borges—”the original is unfaithful to the translation.” Will the spatiality of these 138,462 forms be debated (“they correspond to per capita GDP during the twenty-first century,” or “they were erected along supernatural ‘ley lines’”)? Or will they be interpreted as natural geological anomalies, something akin to the Philippines’ Chocolate Hills? How would extraterrestrial geologists, such as those imagined by Anthropocene Working Group member Jan Zalasiewicz, “read” the records of these pyramids in relation to our planetary past? Would such visitors possess the vocabulary and scientific acumen to understand the chemical transformations and economic mechanisms that led to the creation of our carbon pyramids? Or would they see these structures as some sort of enigmatic provocation and dismantle them, thereby releasing stored carbon dioxide and re-igniting a climate cataclysm? In this case, should they be surrounded by indications of danger? And then, might we have to call on multidisciplinary teams to devise ancillary earthworks or signage in iconic languages to warn future beings away, as in the case of the Waste Isolation Plant Project or the Onkalo nuclear storage facility in Finland? What images could convey the fact that while these pyramids contain the fundamental element of life, this very element should be left alone for deep periods of future time to restore a balance that will sustain life as we knew it?
None of these questions will be asked and none of these futures will come to pass, however. Any one of the conceptual schemes outlined above would likely emit more carbon than it sought to sequester, and the logistical complexity of this undertaking would likely take decades of planning to execute. Our 138,462 pyramids would require an unprecedented global economic consensus and require collaboration between wildly dissimilar political systems. And yet, in as much as we understand this scheme cannot be built, we suggest that it must be—and very urgently so. A total of 3.79 pyramids (or more) every day, for the next one hundred years.
Cover image: A solid carbon pyramid under construction. By Hans Baumann