Q&A with Gökçe Günel, Author of Spaceship in the Desert

GOKCE_PORTREGökçe Günel is Assistant Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona and the author of the new book Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi. In Spaceship in the Desert, Günel examines the development and construction of Masdar City, a zero-carbon city built by Abu Dhabi that houses a research institute for renewable energy which implemented a series of green technologies and infrastructures as a way to deal with climate change and prepare for a post-oil future.

How did this project start? What brought you to the Spaceship in the Desert?

I visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time in 2008, hoping to learn more about the planned city projects burgeoning in the region. But after the economic crisis of 2008, many of these projects were on the verge of collapse. Masdar City was an exception in that it continued to exist beyond the economic crisis. In addition to offering insights about large-scale real estate development projects, this zero-carbon city proposed innovative ways of imagining energy and climate futures. To gain access to the project, I contacted faculty members at Masdar Institute— the energy-focused research center that was set up inside Masdar City by MIT’s Technology and Development Program. Between January 2010 and June 2011, I conducted most of the fieldwork for Spaceship in the Desert, focusing on the design and construction of Masdar City, while interrogating how oil-rich economies, like the UAE, prepare for a time with less oil.

What is Masdar City and what are the “technical adjustments” that it and similar projects generate?

Masdar (meaning “source” in Arabic) is a multifaceted renewable energy and clean technology company sponsored by the Abu Dhabi government. It is most widely known for Masdar City, a futuristic eco-city that was designed by the London-based architecture office Foster + Partners to rely entirely on renewable energies. According to initial plans, Masdar City would house fifty thousand residents and forty thousand commuters on a 600-hectare area. Masdar Institute, the energy-focused research center that was set up and supervised by MIT’s Technology and Development Program, started offering graduate degrees inside the eco-city in September 2010.

However, the Masdar City master plan was soon cancelled, along with many other innovative projects taking place on the Masdar City grounds. Today Masdar City is more or less a special economic zone for renewable energy and clean technology companies.

While the eco-city was central to Masdar’s development, Masdar also invested in renewable energy through its other operations—Masdar Power, Masdar Carbon, and Masdar Capital—in an attempt to ensure Abu Dhabi will remain a significant player in the energy industry, well after its oil reserves run dry.

In the book, I propose the idea of “technical adjustments” as a way of thinking more holistically about the business models, design solutions and technological fixes, which address climate change and energy scarcity. Broadly speaking, I understand technical adjustments as imaginative and wide-ranging responses to global climate change and energy scarcity, which open up certain interventions (such as extending technological complexity) while foreclosing others (such as asking larger-scale moral, ethical, and political questions regarding how to live). While producing innovative and at times fun artifacts, technical adjustments obfuscate the simple realization that humans cannot continue to live and consume as they do.

The adjustments I observed at Masdar City involved market-oriented technical fixes—such as green buildings, research into renewable energy and clean technology, novel ways of imagining exchange, innovative designs for vehicles, and new global governance mechanisms—that promote a belief in the possibility of sustaining the status quo and even improving life for certain segments of society. The book’s chapters look into these projects in detail.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that these strategies are not unique to Masdar City – we see them all over the world. Electric cars, biodegradable plastic bags, and energy-efficient light bulbs provide the piecemeal means through which humans seek to extend their lifestyles into the future while tackling climate change and preserving the status quo. These adjustments guide living arrangements and shape social possibilities in technocratic, typically anthropocentric, ways, along lines drawn by affluent nations. The future becomes a thinly veiled version of the present.

You have focused several of your chapters around metaphors and metonymy that people at Masdar used to describe Masdar City: “a technocratic dictatorship,” “an expensive toy,” and “spaceship and the desert.” What do these concepts mean in your work and how did “spaceship in the desert” become the metaphor that represents your project as a whole?

Metaphors help people see things in new ways. By tracing the kinds of metaphors people used to describe Masdar, I was able to observe how the producers of Masdar made sense of their worlds. What were some of the qualities they noticed about the project, but did not explicitly put into words? Some of these descriptions were forms of criticism directed towards the project (such as “technocratic dictatorship” and “expensive toy”), while others (such as “spaceship in the desert”) perhaps constituted praise.

Spaceship in the Desert became the overarching metaphor for the book, because it encapsulates many aspects of Masdar City, and many aspects of climate change mitigation today. As I say in the book, the spaceship signifies enclosure, archiving, selection, hierarchy, movement, and—most importantly—the maintenance of strict boundaries between interior and exterior spaces. It promotes a technocratic and exclusive universalism, a kind of Noah’s ark that will help save a select few, and produces the outside as a vacuum that should not be inhabited. In this context, the desert becomes the ultimate empty space upon which new ideas can be imposed (though as we all know it is not empty). Many colonialist and settler colonialist projects have framed the desert as this blank or ruined space, which can be fixed with the help of technology and proper governance. And if you think about space movies, you will see that many of them employ desert terrains. Just yesterday, I was reading about how in the movie Star Wars: Episode IV— A New Hope, the Tunisian desert doubled as the landscape of a distant planet called Tatooine. In such spacefaring movies, characters often plot out scenarios that prioritize enclosure for some over collective survival. In this imagination of the future, what happens to those who are left outside the spaceship? By unpacking the metaphor of a spaceship in the desert, I show what kinds of perceptions this praise inheres and renders invisible. Broadly speaking, by thinking through the idea of spaceship in the desert, I’m trying to interrogate why, how and if humans have abandoned the possibility of collective survival at a time of climate change and energy scarcity.

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Spaceship in the Desert contains many interesting moments of irony and contradiction. For example, in your introduction you mention that this book project on renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures is in large part built on ethnographic research conducted inside SUVs driving the highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. What is your favorite contradiction that emerged in the course of researching or writing this book?

When the Masdar City project was publicized, many thought it was ironic that an oil-rich state was venturing into renewable energy and clean technology initiatives. But for decision-makers in Abu Dhabi, this made sense. They were embedded in energy sector networks; all they had to do was to retool these networks to employ them for these new purposes. It wasn’t necessarily paradoxical. I’m sharing this, mainly because it was the original irony of the project, but for people in Abu Dhabi, it wasn’t a contradiction. I think this realization alone made me understand how renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures were ways of maintaining the status quo, especially for those who imagined the status quo as a best-case scenario. For some people, today is a utopia, which needs to be stretched further into the future with the help of technical adjustments.

You describe a focus on the future, rather than the present, in the technology, strategies, and appearance of Masdar City. What were the consequences of this focus for Masdar City?

Many of the people I met at Masdar City enjoyed contextualizing their projects in multiple scales at once – say, the immediate space of Masdar City in conjunction with the space of the planet or the universe. They went back and forth between these scales, and this spatial imagination also had temporal equivalents. They could talk about the future, which comprised an undefined stretch of time, the same way they talked about the universe.

But it wasn’t only the people at Masdar City who had this fascination with the future. Renewable energy and clean technology companies everywhere share this disposition. In one part of the book, I discuss how renewable energy and clean technology companies embody a messianic promise, seeking to liberate humanity from its guilt-ridden consciousness of the twentieth century. Perhaps the twentieth century was a time of decadent pleasures, but the future would be characterized by responsible consumption of resources (under the tutelage of these companies).

In this framework, the present mattered for its perpetual potential, prompting renewable energy and clean technology companies to refer to the abstract planetary-scale transformations they could one day trigger and implement. In the book, I explore how people at Masdar City experienced this potential. How exactly do people feel potential, and feel that they can rely and act upon technical adjustments to confront climate change and energy scarcity? How is potential negotiated, realized, limited, or changed? I demonstrate that switching scales and talking about the universe and the future are methods for ensuring such potentiality.

Did your views on climate change, and the strategies for addressing it, shift in the course of completing Spaceship in the Desert? In what way?

Yes, definitely. The project showed me how climate change requires humans to go beyond piecemeal solutions, such as the technical adjustments of Masdar City. These piecemeal solutions are crafted with the goal of ensuring economic growth. Given current climate change scenarios, we need to reevaluate these expectations, and imagine a future that does not prioritize growth. Humans need to drastically reduce their production and consumption, and think about altering the status quo, not preserving it.

What future do you see for renewable energy and green living projects based on your research? What lessons or reflections do you hope readers will draw from Spaceship in the Desert?

In some ways, I would like readers to have a sense of the wide-range of innovations that respond to energy scarcity and global climate change, such as building an eco-city, replacing national currencies with energy-based currencies, or implementing personal rapid transit. It is great to see so many smart people working on significant environmental issues, especially in a context that is not known for breakthroughs in science and technology. But at the same time, I would like readers to be aware that while these innovations are important, they are not necessarily solutions for the climate crisis. The only way human can mitigate that problem is by rethinking the main tenets of capitalism.

Pick up your paperback copy of Spaceship in the Desert for 30% off using coupon code E19GUNEL on our website.

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