GÖKÇE GÜNEL: I see the project as a status-quo utopia, because it imagines a future where the earth is devastated and where we miss 2019. We want to have 2019 in 2099. And so it’s a status-quo utopia because it tries to preserve current social, political, and financial relations for a time when those social, political, and financial relations might not be available.
My name is Gökçe Günel. I’m an anthropologist, and I wrote the book Spaceship in the Desert.
So I was really interested in large-scale real estate development projects happening in The Gulf, especially in the mid 2000s. I wanted to see the kinds of urban spaces that were being constructed there, and the kinds of social promises that were made through those urban spaces. I traveled there for the first time in the summer of 2008 and tried to start interviewing people; but many people were kind of absent and didn't really respond to my requests for interviews. Later on, I realized that was because all of those real estate development projects were slowly collapsing.
It was the time of the financial crisis and people were canceling projects and postponing projects. Masdar City was one of the projects that was able to withstand the pressures of the financial crisis because it was supported by Abu Dhabi’s oil capital. The idea for Masdar first came about in the year 2006. Foster and Partners was selected as the master planner for the city. The intention was that it would house 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters, and it was going to be a special economic zone for renewable energy and clean technology companies. So it was also going to have a sort of financial function. And the reason why the emirate of Abu Dhabi wanted to invest in Masdar City was because they were looking for solutions as to what they were going to do once the oil runs out or becomes less valuable.
In September 2010, Masdar Institute started offering classes and residencies to students at Masdar City, which is when I started doing my fieldwork project. And so I was able to spend time with the students who were living in Masdar City, and who were actually experiencing the initial stages of the project as well. They saw themselves as test subjects.
I just moved to Abu Dhabi hoping or thinking that I was going to live in the dorms. But I wasn't given the permission to live in the dorms at the end, and I just had to find a quick solution to my problem. I called up a very close friend of mine from college who worked in Dubai, and I was able to live with her. But the problem is, I don't know how to drive and I didn't have a car. So I made a list of all the people who were commuting from Dubai to Masdar City, and many of the better conversations I had about the project happened inside the car, because the closed space of the car both liberates you from all the pressures of the outside world and also gives you this kind of intimacy.
Once the masterplan got canceled in 2011, the discourse around the project transformed drastically. The media started covering it as a failure—as the first green ghost city. When I started working on the book, I didn't want to frame the project in terms of those binaries. I wanted to sort of show what else was happening there. And I wanted to understand how the project looked from the perspective of the people who built the project or who inhabited the project. That’s why I found the idea of potential or incompleteness very useful: because I was able to ask, how do people feel potential in a space like this, and why do people invest their time and energy into a project like this? What do they seek to achieve both personally and professionally? Do they share the kind of utopian fantasies that the project came with, or that the marketing of the project sort of promised? Or are they there for different purposes? I mean, those are some of the questions that I want to ask.
So, for instance, the first chapter of the book looks at the metaphor of the spaceship and the idea of the spaceship in the desert. It tries to unpack why and how people understood Masdar City as a spaceship and why it was important for them to understand it as a spaceship. So by asking a question like this, which doesn’t necessarily make a claim about whether the spaceship model is a successful model or a failed model, I think I’m able to show what people prioritize in designing the future. So I can say that, in this context, having a spaceship—which is a sort of very technically sophisticated, insulated environment that can open up new frontiers—is a dream that all of these people share. And I think it's important to be able to really mark that dream and analyze that dream.
Someone from Masdar Power took me to one of the projects and while we were walking around, he told me, “You know, Abu Dhabi is often perceived to be this space that’s great for solar energy.” “But,” he said, “we encounter a lot of problems. And one of the problems is dust and humidity; the sand sticks onto the solar panels and reduces the efficiency of the solar panels.” So all the engineers there were actually looking for ways in which they could resolve this problem. And so he said, “We found a solution for this problem. We call it a ‘man with a brush.’”
I thought this was very surprising, because this is a space that’s claiming to be known for technological innovation and is claiming to be a spaceship. I had imagined that there would be a sort of automated response to this problem; that there would be a sort of technological response, a technical adjustment, found for this problem. And there were experiments toward that goal. But for the time being, the man with the brush seemed to be the most efficient way of cleaning dust and mud from the solar panels. Of course, the man with the brush was not seen as one of the astronauts on the spaceship. The man with the brush was seen as sort of a disposable tool. Although he’s fundamental to the functioning of this ecocity, he’ll never be able to become one of the residents of this ecocity.
It seems like there needs to be a paradigm shift in terms of thinking about how we engage with climate change and how they understand the urgency of climate change and its impact on humanity. And I think one of the things that that paradigm shift needs to generate is a new definition of humanity, maybe. Because in the kind of understanding of humanity at Masdar City, the humanity constitutes the astronauts that are going to get to live in the spaceship, and all those who are left out are not necessarily part of this conversation or seen as being part of this conversation. So how do they actually think about a collective project of mitigating climate change or adapting to climate change? And how do we actually manage to involve as many humans as possible in this project, rather than sort of stick with these Hollywood science fiction scenarios, taking for granted that only a hundred people are going to survive this crisis, and so let's just have our goal be deciding who those people are going to be, right?
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Duke University Press
Gökçe Günel is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Rice University. Her first book Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Duke University Press, 2019) examines the development and construction of Masdar City's renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures, providing an illuminating portrait of an international group of engineers, designers, and students who attempted to build a post-oil future in Abu Dhabi.
Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy.
Sabine Höhler's book analyzes the emergence of technocractic thinking about the environment during the Cold War era. With the metaphor of Spaceship Earth, humans, mainly in the West, began to see earth as an external, enclosed object awaiting human management. While this kind of thinking recognized that resources were limited, it also overemphasized human's capacity to administer resources in the appropriate manner. Interestingly, according to Höhler, the idea of Spaceship Earth collapsed with the end of the Cold War. This book has been invaluable in helping me historicize the work towards building a "spaceship in the desert," demonstrating how the producers of Masdar City seek to extend this technocractic conception of the planet.
Mandana E. Limbert
Before the discovery of oil in the late 1960s, Oman was one of the poorest countries in the world, with only six kilometers of paved roads and one hospital. By the late 1970s, all that had changed as Oman used its new oil wealth to build a modern infrastructure. In the Time of Oil describes how people in Bahla, an oasis town in the interior of Oman, experienced this dramatic transformation following the discovery of oil, and how they now grapple with the prospect of this resource's future depletion.