THE ATMOSPHERIC TURN
‘The present context of atmospheric disruption, and the correspondent collective alertness, calls for a meteorological turn in design, environmental aesthetics, and cultural theory,’ writes Peter Sloterdijk. But for highly visual creatures like ourselves, the non-visuality of the air presents a challenge. The unseen has to be invoked conceptually, and this requires distancing. The premise of our event is to come up with physical experiments on the material of the air which would allow us to bring the atmosphere into focus, to wrestle a bit of tangibility out of the vastness, invisibility and complexity of this abstraction.
The air is everywhere so we tend to ignore it for that reason as well. It is the ‘negative space,’ the background against which the ‘figures’ stand out. Focusing on the air, we can reform this figure-ground relationship, foregrounding the medium that connects us all to begin to map out some of the many points of our interaction with it. Our lungs consist of around 300 million alveoli – tiny air sacks whose combined surface, if laid out flat, would cover 75 meters square. This extensive area of our inside, our viscera, is in constant contact with the air, exchanging with it oxygen and carbon dioxide. It is perhaps no wonder that the concepts of air and life used to be conflated: the word ‘spirit’ meant both the gaseous substance and the soul that departs us with the last breath. Our bodies radiate heat that is transferred to the surrounding air, creating around us a narrow blurry boundary layer of our immediate thermal environment. Boundaries in the atmosphere are not discontinuities – they are areas of negotiation where two co-existing regions. Cloud banks can render visible such regions of negotiation between air masses. Many of our communication technologies rely on the medium of air through which the communication signals travel, from the sound waves propagating between our larynxes and our eardrums to the wifi signals. Technologies that allowed us to occupy the air influenced our positioning in relation to the earth: they gave us aerial perspectives and with them the gain of the god-eye-view and loss of the limit of the horizon.
Climate engineering is the ‘deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of limiting adverse climate change. It is an umbrella term for two types of measures: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management (SRM). Carbon dioxide removal addresses the cause of climate change by removing one of the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. Solar radiation management attempts to offset effects of greenhouse gases by causing the Earth to absorb less solar radiation.
Most experts and major reports advise against relying on climate engineering techniques as a simple solution to climate change, in part due to the large uncertainties over effectiveness and side effects. However, most experts also argue that the risks of such interventions must be seen in the context of risks of dangerous climate change. Interventions at large scale may run a greater risk of disrupting natural systems resulting in a dilemma that those approaches that could prove highly (cost-) effective in addressing extreme climate risk, might themselves cause substantial risk.’
The above definition is quoted from aWikipedia article on climate engineering, which is a good overview of the proposed strategies, as well as most commonly cited justifications and criticisms.
The Potsdam workshop focused on the SRM (Solar Radiation Management) experiments. The SRM schemes propose to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth, either by increasing cloud cover, or by delivery of sulfate particles into the stratosphere, thereby creating haze and blocking some of the incoming sunlight.
Field experiments, in contrast to the more controlled lab experiments, take into account their subject’s interconnectedness with the ecosystem it is a part of. The experimental system has to be broadened to include the parts of the physical system the subject interacts with. In the publicly performed experiments, the experimental system can be argued to also contain the politics, publics and the scientists themselves. Those experiments become social experiments as well, that test the reaction of the public to the emerging technologies and shape framing of this technology in the popular imagination.
Experimentalists, defining a range of potentially informative experiments, construct a range of futures. As Hans-Jorg Rheinberger writes, ‘experimental systems are vehicles for materializing questions, not simply for generating answers. They inextricably cogenerate the phenomena or material entities and the concepts they come to embody.’ Answering my question about the rules regarding throwing out experiments that might not seem ‘potentially informative’, the organizers of the Potsdam workshop said that there is no official rules but they suspect ‘there will be a form of natural selection for the experiment ideas. The participants will challenge the ideas, and throw out those that would not be useful or would be impractical.’ The invited participants meanwhile are ‘people with the right expertise in the matters at hand.’ The range of possibility constructed in the Potsdam workshop is narrowed by simply narrowing the group of people considering the experimental designs. That’s why another premise of the La Jolla workshop is to construct a parallel range of possibilities that, when considered next to the Potsdam list, can help us reflect on the roles and process of experimentation in different contexts.
The Potsdam workshop is explicitly not about governance, however it is already operating on the social imaginary of nature and the atmosphere, and on how we conceptualize the problem and the solution. To guard against the biases of the ‘engineering mind’ that imagines the atmosphere as controllable, and that designs the tools for that control, the mirror event is an attempt to construct a different imaginary – a different way of imagining the atmosphere that can orient material action and interaction towards it differently.