Spaceship in the Desert. Energy
and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi
(Note: The article is mostly machine-translated from Norwegian by Gtranslate)
I was actually taken to South Korea to write about a whole lot more – about transnational adoption, about art and politics, about the urban space under a tear down and building new regime – when in 2011 I was captivated by the concept of "green growth". At a company-sponsored exhibition in the political and financial center of Seoul, I learned, among other things, that the country's major rivers had to be rebuilt so that nature could behave more appropriately.
By uniting commercial interests and cutting-edge technological know-how, the ecosystem itself could be improved, the promise sounded so that the ongoing climate change would not threaten human freedom. Later, I returned to South Korea to write about this insane project and the connected strategy of making South Korea a central global force in the green growth paradigm.
At the same time, I began to read into the literature and attend seminars on this new ideology that South Korea had been central to launching on the world stage as a dual response to economic and ecological crisis. But I managed to overlook an earlier – and in some ways even more imaginative – project than the so-called river improvements in South Korea: the "futuristic eco-city" of Masdar City, drawn in London, but commissioned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which was launched already in 2006.
Not like on the drawing board
Ethnographer Gökçe Günel has followed the development of the planned carbon-neutral Masdar City financed by one of the world's most oil-dependent governments, producing to an extent comparable to Norway, but where oil revenues make up a much larger share of the overall economy.
Climate summits should fall under the UN category Clean Development
Mechanism – a battle where Abu Dhabi and Norway's delegations were
In a grand attempt at revenue diversification, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates began launching itself as a pioneer in sustainable energy – energy production and energy technology, energy neutral infrastructure and energy neutral architecture. Masdar City was supposed to be the flagship, but as is so often the case with promising visions, it did not go quite as on the drawing board.
What makes Gökçe Günel's analysis in the book Spaceship in the Desert so multi-tracked and thought-provoking, her conscious decision is not to look at Masdar City from a success / failure template. Instead, she goes sincerely curious and sympathetically humorous to the task.
The text leaves no doubt that Günel believes that climate change should give rise to fundamental rethinking of the political and economic order – and that Masdar City is an attempt to the contrary – but there is no moralist or raised index finger in the book.
It is the people and their ideas that are at the center, and through them the complex history of creation, adaptation history, abandonment history and rethinking history is the story of Masdar City.
The story is, from the first, saturated with madness, visions, cynicism and pragmatism, and the narrative moves seamlessly between the ultralocal – like a conversation in an SUV on the road between Dubai and Abu Dhabi – to the international, such as the UN climate summits and the battle over whether carbon capture and storage (ccs) should fall under the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (cdm) category; a struggle in which Abu Dhabi and Norway's delegations were close allies.
The purpose is to preserve the present in an era of ecological destruction.
Through Gökçe Günel's fieldwork, we meet the highly paid consultant Marco, who – inspired by esoteric readings of Inca and Maya culture – talks about the carbon's soul and how we are all connected by energy, like waves in the ocean. We meet the couple Susan and Jeff, who tour among green growth optimists with a vision of energy as a global currency – in their script for the creation of a sustainable and fair world, labor should be measured in joules and then rewarded.
We also meet students at the Masdar Institute who are being purged because they have registered as Shia Muslims: “While the Masdar project was often conceptualized as a context-free and fluid spaceship in the desert that closed the world, the event showed that this was an illusion, ”writes Günel.
The vision of the status quo
One of her key points in the book is that the attempt to convert society to climate change through «technological adaptations» is precisely deeply political.
The planners and engineers, as well as the political and financial forces behind Masdar City, wanted to "build and promote technological adaptations, thereby producing and offering a status quo utopia, by creating technological inventions aimed at preserving the present in an era of ecological destruction. Simply put: The future was a poorly disguised version of the present ”.
With a great sense of context as well as detail, and with a great sense of his fellow men in all their rarity, Gökçe Günel maps an unfinished fiction of how the status quo can continue despite all warnings that it is not possible.