, Speculative Futures

Black Natures: Enframing the Natural as Technological

Author: George Papamattheakis

Breaking away from the common perception that identifies the technosphere with the synthetic, this essay reflects on certain enframings of nature as technology in the contemporary climate change discourse. Demands to de-technologize are interrogated, suggesting that our choice to return to nature inevitably turns us back to technology. Interrupting and complementing this line of thought, some parallel notes on Jules Verne’s 1889 novel Topsy-Turvy point to magical twists of his that challenge our imagination on technical artefacts.

“Black Natures” was written for and commissioned by Andrej Škufca, an artist and member of Šum journal’s editorial board, whose upcoming solo exhibition Black Market will debut at MGLC Gallery in Ljubljana in March 2020. The work will present itself as a complex system characterized by technological design, industrial fabrication processes, and synthetic materials. The constructed installation will not only combine technological and fictional elements but will also produce an immersive and seemingly animated environment, in which human agents are no longer central.

Were we to pile the physical infrastructures and artefacts of all kinds and scales that induce or support material, energy, and information flows around the world, we would get a jumble weighing something around 30 trillion tons. At least this is what Jan Zalasiewicz and fellow geoscientists found in a 2016 study after adding up anything from heavy machinery the size of a factory to the furniture of our house, our clothes, and our earbuds, all of which would be found in the debris of this pile among other future waste. This massive assemblage in its situated and scattered ubiquity comprises a thick layer that not only wraps up the Earth, but also has a major, and arguably lasting, role in defining its organization. This is also the reason why it’s called the technosphere and has been proposed as a geological paradigm to stand along with the four basic components of the geochemical model, namely the biosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, and the atmosphere. The name suggests that the defining characteristic of this sphere is the technological essence of both its components and of it as a whole. This in turn implies that the assemblage of these techno-products is not amorphous, but rather intricately structured, many times in ways that we still struggle to map and model in a holistic or coherent manner. It is exactly their direct or indirect interconnectedness through technical evolution, energy grids, or the Internet of Things (IoT) that make them useful tools, as they comprise technologies that are ecologies and in which we are enmeshed. In fact, Peter Haff, in his text suggesting that the technosphere may comprise a geological paradigm, uses the term interchangeably with technology.

Andrej Škufca, Black Market: Zero Hedge, installation, Karlin Studios, Prague, 2019. Photos by Tomáš Souček.

Andrej Škufca, Black Market: Zero Hedge, installation, Karlin Studios, Prague, 2019. Photos by Tomáš Souček.

More often than not, however, the general perception of the technosphere seems to encapsulate another underlying assumption, namely that its components are not only technological, but also fabricated, synthetic entities. “Humans … produce artefacts from materials that are either very rare in nature (uncombined iron, aluminium, and titanium) or unknown naturally (uncombined vanadium, molybdenum).” So observe Zalasiewicz and co-authors in their efforts to frame technological products as potential technofossil records of humanity. These projections of techno-products as potential techno-fossils point towards synthetic artefacts, consisted of manufactured materials that are engineered so that they will endure long enough to tell their story in the millenia to come. Consider for example the so-called “plastiglomerates,” a recent discovery by earth scientists Patricia Corcoran and Charles Moore and visual artist Kelly Jasvac: amalgams of melted plastic with various rock fragments, sediments, and organic debris. A lot of the technosphere is made out of synthetic polymers which, when mixed with substrata, have the potential to be preserved for the future sediment record. Highly possible technofossils-to-come—such as our favorite black, glossy, intricately fabricated but also clean-cut consumer electronic devices—serve as accessible, palpable representatives of the present technosphere too. The technological is suggested as being at once synthetic. Nevertheless, it may be as much useful as it is counter-intuitive to exercise our thinking beyond this seemingly obvious coupling of the technosphere and its technological nature with the synthetically artificial. But why do that? And even then, what’s there to see anyway?

The axis of the Earth has to change. This is the most practical solution the North Polar Practical Association came up with. The NPPA had just gloriously purchased the North Pole: it gained proprietorship over the surface of the globe spanning all 6 degrees over the 84th parallel, in a long-awaited, public, and very dramatic auction held in Baltimore. But it had yet to announce to its stockholders how exactly the North Pole would be of any use. It may have been known to some that there were thick veins of coal beneath the ice, but how would one approach that which has remained unapproachable even from the bravest of explorers? After months of preparation and calculations, the association’s council of administration had concluded that the most effective way to reach their newly acquired property and its treasures was to actually remove the severe Arctic regions and their ice. Melting the Arctic would be possible by way of changing the Earth’s relation to the sun. As the head of the NPPA declared in an agonizing moment, they had found the Archimedean leverage and they were in a position to change the axis of the Earth.

This announcement is described in the seventh chapter of Jules Verne’s 1889 novel Topsy Turvy (also known as The Purchase of the North Pole), from which point on, and for the following ten chapters, the author methodically mystifies the lever in question. “The machine has been invented,” brags the NPPA. It seems that the immense shock necessary will be induced by mechanical means. A recoil of a piece of ordnance fixed at a specific point of the Earth. Verne has the reader imagining all kinds of colossal cannons, oversized mechanical devices, and monster explosion engines. At some point he even makes the calculations to illustrate the immensity of the endeavor. The invented piece of ordnance should be at least a million times larger than ordinary cannons of the time, and be able to shoot a projectile with 5,600 times greater initial velocity than the rest. Verne does his best to convey how incomprehensibly difficult this was.

The footprint of the technosphere has expanded to the degree that it has become itself a marker, if not an emblem, of the Anthropocene. Pretty much the same people publishing in support of the concept that we are entering a new epoch argue that “the physical technosphere provides an alternative prism within which the Anthropocene phenomenon can be considered, that more clearly reflects its dynamic nature than does the chronostratigraphic Anthropocene Series” (Zalasiewicz et al 2016, 10). Indeed, on some occasions, the term “anthroposphere” is used in exchange for the technosphere (although the two differ in slight but crucial ways). Apart from the largely visible components that are machinic assemblages, fabricated artefacts, and processed materials, the 30 trillion ton pile includes a multitude of less visible traces, of which the greenhouse gases are the most commonly referred. Given these, the technosphere can be considered as the physical embodiment of the anthropogenic change induced to the Earth, which is tightly connected to climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental calamities. Here again, the binding of the technosphere with the synthetic and the fabricated is at play. If we think of plastics and other petrochemical derivatives, the technofossils-to-come are many times themselves re-articulations of fossilized matter of the past embodying the extractivist voracity of our time. Moreover, the high preservability of the plastiglomerates and the other novel minerals appears in tandem with the low recycling rates of the technosphere. In light of this persistent, highly synthetic technosphere being largely to blame for the current environmental breakdown, there are demands for greening the technologies at play—trimming global energy usage, reducing the overall techno-products population, etc.

Alipay Ant Forest—the largest private sector tree-planting initiative in China. Photos courtesy Ants Financial.

And while the interrogation of the technosphere happens for good reasons, the verdict is much less clear. Two interrelated actions seem to be outlined, both to be pursued at once: On the one hand to slim down the layer of the technosphere, and on the other to turn to more natural ways of pursuing prosperity. Both suggest to de-technologize in one way or another and, although they may be pronounced in good faith, both have their problems. As Benjamin Bratton puts it: “Staring upon the abyss of mass extinction, a drearily common refrain, variously explicit or latent, is to identify ‘modern technology’ as the main culprit, and to conclude that the most fundamental solution is to de-technologize the planet and to re-humanize ourselves, one presupposing the other in various measure. This is among the worst possible plans, both philosophically and practically.”

Of the two actions outlined, downscaling the technosphere essentially means to reduce the energy that it metabolizes. But as some theorists argue, the basic problem is not so much the amount of energy that it’s fed, but rather its ineffective waste recycling mechanisms. Indeed, as Peter Haff provocatively argues: “From the point of view of an autonomous technosphere, climate change is not a problem to be solved by using less energy, but by using more energy.” However, more than impractical, the plan to de-technologize is arguably also improbable; the technosphere seems to be inescapable, insofar as it is one of the means that a part of the biosphere has employed in order to survive and develop, resisting the entropy of the second law of thermodynamics. This does not (necessarily) mean that we are stuck in a techno-apocalyptic loop. For better or for worse, elaborating on the second of the two actions outlined in the verdict against the technosphere—that of looking at nature for our futures and solutions—it seems that with an interesting twist, turning to nature is actually bouncing back to technology.

The proposed modification of the axis of the Earth was not unreasonable in its scope, but insane in its magnitude. The North Pole would move no less than 23 degrees and 28 minutes to reach the 67th parallel of latitude. The Earth would imitate Jupiter in having the rotational axis perpendicular to the plane of its space orbit. What kind of technological means would succeed in accommodating the necessary earth-shaking explosion? After ten chapters of building up the imaginary of the largest possible technological means known to the world, Verne reveals the secret of the NPPA “It was not a cannon, not even a mortar, which they intended to make, but simply a gallery bored in the massive rock of Kilimanjaro.” Dug with a diameter of 27 meters, a 600 meter elongated gallery was the barrel. Mount Kilimanjaro itself was the cannon.

A considerable share of the discourse around near-future planetary undertakings in the face of the climatic emergency follow this line of thought toward “de-technologizing.” While millions of people in thousands of places around the world were striking for the climate, the realization that passive mitigation strategies like cutting down on current emissions is insufficient was becoming all the more apparent. When the UN was asking for action plans, Conservation International—advocating through Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot—released a video to inform us that: “There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself; it’s called: a tree.” They added that “mangroves, peat bogs, jungles, marshes, seabeds, kelp forests, swamps, coral reefs, they all take carbon out of the air and lock it away.” In all its banality, the video statement that went viral detaches and abstracts a sole function of these natural entities, framing them as carbon absorption instruments. It is in this light that Thunberg and Monbiot conclude that “nature is a tool we can use to repair our broken climate,” suggesting the end toward which the means should focus: climate change mitigation. Their claims are based upon recent surging research and commentary around so-called natural climate solutions, the name of which is self-explanatory enough, and which were summarized in a seminal multi-cited paper by thirty-two earth scientists, ecologists, biologists, and geographers. Following the rationale of these “natural” solutions for the climatic condition, the UN prepares to initiate an unprecedented ecosystem restoration scheme, while a number of researchers propose different planetary design afforestation projects, and landscape architects in the West hype strategic ecological engineering interventions. Paradoxically, the “natural” of the “climate solutions” is chosen to contrast the “artificial” and consequently the “technological” of other large-scale climate mitigation proposals, like what are summarized under the term “geoengineering.” However, the former seem to be no less technological and no less artificial than their counterparts. How is it not technological to frame forests as contrivances for carbon removal and call them “negative emission technologies?” Or how natural is it to artificially sustain ecosystems that would otherwise perish, as many times is the case in conservation parks, or even to artificially grow forests where there were none, as many of the afforestation projects propose? And how is it not technological to perform any of these in climate-significant ways, which will most likely require utilization at industrial scales? This, however, is not to suggest that so-called natural paths make less (or more) sense than the various techno-fixes, but rather to highlight that they too are techno-fixes, just masqueraded in greenish florals.

Andrej Škufca, Black Market: Zero Hedge, installation, Karlin Studios, Prague, 2019. Photos by Tomáš Souček.

Failing to accept these enframings of nature as technological and as artificial is failing to recognize and confront the problems that such enframing entails. If, following Heidegger, technology is a way of revealing, it is crucial to ask what these carbon removal technologies reveal for the forests, mangroves, and coral reefs around the world. Apart from the long known fact that plants decompose carbon dioxide from the air, as Gabriel Popkin writes in Nature, scientists have been recently measuring a lot of other aspects related to climate change, finding for example that tree trunks emit methane and isoprene among other greenhouse gases, or that there are specific parts of the world where forests don’t really make sense climate-cooling-wise, since their dark leafage reduces earth surface albedo, whereas bare ground or snow would reflect much more sunlight than absorb. If so, do we choose to replace dark foliage forests in specific latitudes where snow would function as an efficient reflector? Or do we abandon natural parks that conserve high methane emitting plant species? The enframing of nature as a tool that can help us repair our broken nature is bringing up a number of issues which at first seem of some kind of ethical nature but become technological through this very enframing. “Rendering a natural object artificial leads to the opposite results to that of the technical concretization,” argues Simondon in his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. By “concretization” he means the development of the technical object towards coherency and synergy. Embracing this line of thought, the natural elements employed in the fight against climate change are technologically primitive and there is no way of changing that than going all the way to consciously progressing towards their concretization. This may actually mean that we will need to employ even more artificially introduced or supported, controlled, and monitored natures. In the end, the actual problems to consider and solve are no less than that of de-tilting the axis of the Earth, or other geo(graphic)-engineering schemes, while tinkering and steering natural ecosystems not only needs to be techno-fixed, but may not be so far from the other, demonized, techno-fixes.

To be sure, the NPPA’s effort to wipe out the seasons and bring forth an ever-ending temperate climate failed, due to farcical miscalculations. However, beyond numerical errors, whether the failure was a matter of laboratory control or of natural limits remains contested. Verne seems to tend toward the latter, when in the closing paragraph of the novel he reassures his audience that even boring over the whole planet would not be enough to carry out a plan as ambitious as that of the North Polar Practical Association. The Earth would not be a big enough cannon to displace itself.

Andrej Škufca, Black Market: Zero Hedge, installation, Karlin Studios, Prague, 2019. Photos by Tomáš Souček.

Jan Zalasiewitz and co-authors accounted for what they considered to be technological natures in their 30 trillion ton sum: nine of them are pastures, croplands, and plantation forests. But should we also add all the conservation and restoration, terrestrial and marine parks, rainforests and waterlogged soils, in light of their new enframing as our natural solutions for the climate? Adding anthropogenic natures to the technosphere is not only a matter of weight. These natural environments that are technologies remind of their multiple revealing and multiple purposes, helping us to make technologies that are environments: the IoTs and other platform infrastructures and apparatuses to come will be ecosystems of multiple purposes. Undoubtedly, seeing through the black, highly processed technological artefacts we will find natures; all the resources wrapped to shape the technosphere. But increasingly the inverse too is true: parts of nature are themselves becoming embedded in the technosphere. Thus, instead of mumbling about green technologies, this peculiar inversion may be more crucial to contemplate on—black natures.

Acknowledgements

This text is influenced by discussions with and texts of Benjamin Bratton, whom I would like to thank for this indirect contribution.

George Papamattheakis

George Papamattheakis is an Athens-based architect and geographer. Sitting on the fence between research and design, he is interested in infrastructure space, where the built environment is encoded and manifested. He also has a fascination for planetary scale systems and networks, both of which are key forces in contemporary geopower. He studied architecture and urbanism at NTU Athens and ETH Zurich, geography in HU Athens and graduated from Strelka Institute’s The New Normal research program in 2019. His writing has been published in Footprint, Log, Clog, Cartha, and Strelka Mag.

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