Terraforming: Feminism and Technology in the Design of the Anthropocene.
This talk announced the call by the “Latin American Institute of Terraforming (terraforminglatam.net) and was carried out in the context of the International Seminar on Architecture and Design “Views from the gender perspective” of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile, on September 7, 2021.
Paz Peña O. is a consultant and activist who seeks to build bridges between digital technologies, feminism, and social justice. More information at www.pazpena.com
English translation: Natalia Tranchino Molina.
I would like to begin this talk by quoting one of my favorite thinkers, feminist Rosi Braidotti (2015), with a quote that I think captures very well the feeling of many of us. Particularly, those who grew up in the 20th century and were used to a world that now seems far away; the idea that this century and its immense complexity unsettles us, to the point of interrupting our daily lives.
Human hubris aside, unless one is comfortable with the current multidimensional complexity, no one can feel truly at home in the 21st century.
Without a doubt, one of the causes of this immense complexity is the unrelenting climate crisis. Reading the related news and witnessing the critical change of the local climate, it seems that, for some time now we are at home, yet we have lost the feeling of home.
What are the new rules of living in a warming planet? Can we design an Anthropocene from the logics of feminist theory?
In truth, I am here to make you a formal invitation to think about it. However, before I hand out the invite, I would like to provide you with some context so that you understand from what place I am talking about.
In early August 2021, a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is published with disturbing news: humanity is about to cross a red line. There is no more room for delay, no more time. We must act as humanity now. If we were to summarize what the IPCC states in this report, three facts should be highlighted:
- The scientific evidence is unequivocal: the temperature of our planet has risen by 1.1°C.
- If we are to limit warming to 1.5°C, greenhouse gas reductions must be immediate, fast, and large-scale.
- And a third conclusion – one of the most significant ones in my opinion – is that the scientific consensus confirms that global warming is not a “natural” cycle of the planet as was disputed not long ago; indeed, it is entirely attributable to the actions of human beings.
The confirmation of this fact, i.e., that we as a species are a geological force capable of changing the Earth's climate, implies a revolution in Western thought, to such an extent that we could compare it to the original “Copernican turn”. In other words, what the IPCC report has just done is, in a sense, to endorse the idea that we live in the Anthropocene; a concept that was coined in the year 2000 by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer. Essentially, this indicates that we have left the Holocene behind and are entering a new geological era in which we humans have become the geological agents of the planet.
Nevertheless, the Anthropocene is still a disputed term.
Perhaps one of the most important discrepancies is raised by Jason W. Moore (2016) who, without denying the Anthropocene, asserts that it is necessary to historicize it. He also goes to point out the need to prove that it is not necessarily the generic of the human species that has become a geological force, but rather, it is the practice of capitalism as an economic system the one that has warmed the planet through the use of fossil fuels. Indeed, according to Moore, rather than the Anthropocene what we face is the Capitalocene.
Focusing on the idea of “climate change,” architect Eyal Weizman (2016) reviews the colonial history of the 28th century and argues that the climate crisis is not an unexpected remainder of industrialization processes. Instead, it is an intentional project in which climate management came to be approached from a managerial, technocratic, profit-oriented perspective, as an object of design. Moreover, in its most racist considerations, change in climate was seen to mean change in humans as well.
From the Capitalocene line feeds the climate justice agenda, which examines the historical greenhouse gas emissions of countries on the planet and warns that the responsibility of the Capitalocene is not equal. The United States and Europe, in addition to other countries of the Global North, are the ones that for now appear as the major responsible for the planetary climate crisis.
Then again, if we are a geological force, we should review climate change in the history of geological eras, on the historical scale of millions of years. In that depth of time, we can understand that the planet is its own living entity, independent of us. For example, it is common to hear people say “the world is coming to an end” when talking about the climate crisis; however, the truth is that the Earth is not ending. It will survive without us, in its own deep time.
Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (2021) has a beautiful quote paraphrasing Indian feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The quote illustrates very well this idea of unrest that global warming entails:
The climate crisis is about waking up to the strong shock of the planet's otherness. The planet, to speak again with Spivak, “is in the species of otherness; it belongs to another system”. And “yet,” as she says, “we inhabit it.”
However, whatever the stream with which we name the climate collapse and the major ecological crisis in which we find ourselves, it should be noted – as many feminist thinkers warn – that the thinking and development model based on the anthropocentric exceptionalism and its hierarchy over other non-human species is a dying system.
Since humans are a geological force; that is, being human and non-human at the same time, the binary opposite “culture/nature”, highly dominant in Western thought, is called into question. In fact, the binary patriarchal opposites that are derived from it, “male=culture” and “female=nature”, are also contested.
In this new scenario, in this future that is projected but is also already present – it is enough to see the years of mega drought that much of the Chilean and Latin American territory suffers – we need to overcome the restlessness and return to make the Earth and our very daily life a habitable space. Collectively, we humans and non-humans must build a home together.
And, in this context, a concept commonly used in science fiction may help us undertake the project. It is the so-called “Terraforming”, which is born with the aim of transforming a planet -usually Mars- so that its conditions resemble those of Earth and human life can be sustained. It is a project of habitation as well as a project of colonization.
Sociologist Benjamin Bratton (2019) uses the concept Terraforming to contend that, given the historical and climatic fluctuations we face, rather than terraforming other planets the only choice we are left with is to terraform the Earth itself. Accordingly, more than scientific, the question also becomes political; in the urgency of climate change and ecological crisis, we must ask ourselves: what terraforming, by whom, for what purpose, in what terms.
Thus, as it becomes political, in this seminar I propose that all of us together simply ask ourselves: can we design a non-colonial Terraforming from Latin America that allows new conditions to live the Earth from the Anthropocene?
II. DESIGNING THE ANTHROPOCENE FROM A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE
At this point I would like to focus on the critical view that feminisms and, indeed, Latin American feminisms have given to the concept of the Anthropocene.
Braidotti argues that “no discussion of the Anthropocene can afford to ignore patriarchal power relations, colonialism or racism. This multidirectional approach will most likely engender tensions and disagreements, but these divergences are productive in themselves” (2015). In other words, we should approach our historical contradictions not as a heavy burden in this crisis as these complexities are productive for thought and politics, as feminist critical thinking has shown.
From our regional contexts, Colombian feminist anthropologist Astrid Ulloa (2017), mentions that in our continent it is impossible to understand the Anthropocene without including the practices of extractivism and neo-extractivism that are entrenched in our capitalism together with the political, environmental, social and cultural policies of global climate change policies. By way of synthesis, I remember that a few days ago, at the conference “Diálogos del Litio” (Worlds of Lithium, 2021), I heard the sociologist Sebastián Ureta affirm: “Tailings constitute, above all, the Chilean Anthropocene”. There, in the mining that is once again revisited for the production of new technologies of the Anthropocene, emerges the waste that will mark human extractivism as a deep scar, now, indeed, as a geological era in the national territories.
The Venezuelan ecofeminist research and action group, LaDanta LasCanta (2017) takes up extractivism as a concept and revisits the Anthropocene as Phalocene, because “the domination of nature and the domination of women are two sides of the same coin, so the transition to other worlds and other possible futures must challenge head-on the ontoepistemic formation embedded in the current dominant form of patriarchal and capitalist modernity”.
In the construction of other forms of life and in the context of the exhaustion of anthropocentrism, feminist thinker Donna Haraway (2019) speaks of the Chthulocene, an era where we must redefine the human / non-human relationship and build a “multi-species ecojustice”. In the same vein, Argentinian Maristella Svampa (2019) adds that the ethics of care and ecofeminism, in addition to the popular anti-extractivist feminisms of Latin America, help us rethink the link between society / nature, which is currently in crisis.
Nevertheless, feminist thinkers sound a warning: we must be cautious with the apocalyptic narratives of the Anthropocene. Furthermore, Braidotti (2015) points out that they propagate a sense of powerlessness and perpetuate Eurocentric thinking and individualism. In the same vein, Joanna Zylinska (Benítez, 2018) warns that, because today technological capitalism largely dominates the production of wealth in the world, that same elite of white males from the global North pose as heroes of the apocalyptic Anthropocene, dictating the rules as to what technology we must develop as humanity.
III. DESIGNING TECHNOLOGIES FOR TERRAFORMING FROM A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE
This reference to Zylinska gives me the cue to talk about a fundamental aspect in the Anthropocene and Terraforming: technology.
You probably recognize this image. It is of the billionaire owner of the e-commerce tech giant, Amazon, Jeff Bezos and his crew, who traveled for 11 minutes into space. It all happened amid a disturbing coincidence: just days after global billionaires were fighting to launch space tourism, the latest IPCC report was released and that red line was drawn on our horizon. After being in space, Bezos declared:
“We need to take all the heavy industry, all the polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep the Earth as the beautiful jewel of a planet that it is. That's going to take decades, but we have to start. And big things start with small steps” (Musumeci, 2021).
Bezos proposes an obviously technological Terraforming based on human supremacy, on the heroic conquest of space by the white male to throw away the debris of our capitalist civilization, without even thinking about the spatial environmental consequences that this implies. I draw on his example because it illustrates how the capitalism of the big technological companies today feels called upon to act in the face of the climate crisis; however, that action is nothing more than doing “less of the same” or “doing the same, but in a different way”.
As Franco “Bifo” Berardi (2017) already argued, one of the problems of the working class giving up technology as a field of development implies yielding the technological field to a capitalist elite that, as David Graeber (2015) asserts, rather than investing in new possible emancipatory futures, only invests in promoting labor disciplining and social control. Let us consider today, for example, how teleworking is facilitated by technological tools that break into working people’s homes, previously considered a space for rest, repair and imagination.
In order to move forward, Benjamin Bratton (2016) states that all the technology created by humanity -software, artificial intelligence, satellites, etc.– is a planetary-scale computational apparatus that forms a sort of cognitive layer on the planet. Today, this planetary-scale computational apparatus has been occupied by so-called “surveillance capitalism” to track people's personal data. Bratton goes to assert “as if humans were the most interesting thing”; nonetheless, this planetary-scale computational apparatus has also allowed us to understand climate change and the Anthropocene.
In a sense, technology has put us in this problem, but it also has the ability to get us out of the mess. In other words, Terraforming will be, among other things, technological; otherwise, it will not be.
Hence, if we are to design a Terraforming and we want it to be feminist considering the whole Latin American context, it is imperative that we critically and creatively review the technologies of the Anthropocene. Nowadays, for example, we know that we need technologies on a planetary scale for at least three objectives:
- Lowering carbon emissions.
- Extracting carbon from the atmosphere.
- Living in new climatic conditions.
On each of these goals, I would like to pause briefly to reflect on the social challenges of technology and how the feminist perspective, which we have partly examined, helps us think critically but also creatively. For that, I just want to clarify that we are going to understand technology as Sciencie and Technology Studies (STS) do. That is, as sociotechnical systems composed of artifacts, social practices and knowledge systems.
Regarding the urgency of lowering carbon emissions, I want to focus on the example of transportation. It is extremely important to reduce emissions from transportation, especially in countries like the U.S., which is one of the main carbon emitters. One of the keys to this is to turn to the production of electric cars to move away from fossil fuels. However, there are several socio-technical problems before this happens, ranging from infrastructure, people's habits and one that affects Chile, Argentina and Bolivia in particular: lithium extraction.
Lithium is crucial for the energy transition to clean energy. Since sunlight and wind are not continuous, storing the enormous amounts of energy they produce is crucial. Moreover, as lithium is highly reactive and relatively light, it is an ideal material for conserving energy in batteries. Chile is one of the world's leading producers of lithium thanks, for example, to the Salar de Atacama, where it is extracted by hydraulic mining. That is, the saltwater deposits beneath the salt flat are accessed and the brine is pumped to the surface and distributed to evaporation ponds to produce lithium carbonate, which is collected and transformed into lithium metal. Mining companies also access the scarce freshwater supplies of the desert, as they need it to clean their machinery and produce a by-product of the brine, potash, which is used as a fertilizer.
However, the extraction of lithium through hydraulic mining in the desert so that the countries of the global north use it for electric vehicles means drought for the indigenous human settlements and, therefore, their displacement, as well as a serious ecological crisis. The photo you see is a record of a mid-twentieth century protest in Tocopilla, in the Chilean desert, about the use of water in the copper mining industry. This is to point out that we are in a historical continuum; the extractivist logics of colonial capitalism is repeated to produce the technology that will take us out of the climate crisis. As the feminist critique also denounces, the question is who pays for the energy transition? Or, to frame ourselves in the questions we originally posed in this seminar: which Terraforming, by whom, for what, on what terms?
Now, in addition to lowering carbon emissions, we urgently need to use technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, we need to be carbon negative; that is, we need to remove more carbon than we produce. Technology, again, can be a great ally, this time in the form of geoengineering, a highly debated idea and practice.
Geoengineering is understood as the set of techniques and technologies designed for the deliberate, large-scale modification of the Earth's climate to combat global warming. Holly Jean Buck (2019) divides these technologies and practices into two: those of cultivation (biological techniques) and those of burial (mechanical methods of carbon capture and storage), such as, for example, extracting CO2 from the air, concentrating it in gas or liquid form, and then burying it. For Buck, in addition to the challenge of the scale of the infrastructure they require, these technologies also demand social intervention; for instance, many of these methods require large amounts of land to implement them, as in the controversial Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), i.e., bioenergy production with carbon capture and storage. Who is going to put that land in? Whose lands are going to be taken? Who pays for the Anthropocene?
Feminist scientists of the stature of Vandana Shiva have seen in geoengineering a new patriarchal project, where Western science and technology are used for human dominance and supremacy (Terra Futura, 2013). Additionally, understanding the urgent need to take carbon out of the atmosphere and thinking that in the best case scenario these are the technologies we must occupy, Buck, Gammon and Preston (2014) suggest we start looking at how we incorporate economic injustice into geoengineering and democratically massify that debate, today locked in the domain of an elite, to thus exploit the potential to start rebuilding society in a more just and compassionate way.
Again, with these technologies we turn to ask which Terraforming, by whom, for what, on what terms.
Finally, we are going to need planetary-scale technologies to live/inhabit in the new climatic conditions. We depend on technologies to be invented, but also on the expansion of technologies we already know. Thus, a key issue today is also to change our industrial production matrix and dematerialize our economy; that is, moving from the production of products to the production of services. And, for that, the digitalization of our lives is key. Think, for example, of the music industry and how it has gone from the materiality of radio recordings to streaming services. Still, the dematerialization of the economy is a misleading concept; digitalization has a real materiality and, all too often, an extractivist one.
One of the basic links for digitalization is “the cloud”, but the cloud is a building, the so-called data centers. These mega-infrastructures, increasingly common in the outskirts of our cities, will be even more common in the Anthropocene. The one in the image is the data center that the technology giant Alphabet (owners of Google, Gmail and Youtube, among others) has in the district of Quilicura, in Santiago, Chile. On the right, you can see a map presented by Alphabet about the new data center they want to build in the district of Cerrillos, also in Santiago.
Among other environmental effects, activists from Cerrillos grouped in MOSACAT (Movimiento socioambiental comunitario por el agua y el territorio), have denounced that the Google data center will extract 169 liters of water per second (the equivalent of filling an Olympic-size swimming pool every four hours), necessary for the operation of the cooling system towers that will work continuously 24 hours a day, all year round. The water will be extracted from the Central Aquifer of Santiago, a reservoir that has been under water stress for several years; in fact, since 2005, there has been a restriction decree on the aquifer and, since February 1, 2020, another ordinance prohibiting new groundwater extractions.
In the context of the company's green advertising announcing the use of clean energy for all its data centers, one cannot forget that David Mytton (2021), researcher of the use of water in data centers, contends that Google considers its use as a trade secret. In a country affected by mega drought, who decides who runs out of water to allocate to the technological solutions of the Anthropocene? Or, to frame ourselves in the questions we originally posed in this seminar: which Terraforming, by whom, for what, on what terms?
IV. TOWARDS A FAIR TERRAFORMING
The question is, then, whether we can design a feminist technological Terraforming from Latin America that allows us – paraphrasing Braidotti – to create sustainable futures in an affirmative collective practice (2015). That is, beyond the necessary critical glance, to recompose the creative look in the design of socio-technical systems for a fair Terraforming.
From the tradition of Latin American feminist technological activism, we believe that it is possible to consider this project. There is an advanced path in that activism which has turned all our countries to work on autonomous feminist technologies, in obtaining data from gender, in rethinking the Internet infrastructure, resisting gender violence and looking at other types of possible technologies. But we need more people.
After this myriad of possibilities – and I have finally come to the invitation I originally set to make – I would like to invite you to the Latin American Institute of Terraforming. We invite all professions and trades that want to feel at home in the 21st century, to paraphrase Braidotti, to think, understand and design together. This is a space for feminist reflection that seeks, in the collective and transversal discussion, to think critically about technologies in the context of climate and ecological crisis in Latin America, thus generating narratives that allow us to build new possible futures; in other words, a feminist technological Terraforming.
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