by Rahul KumarOct 03, 2022
Most modern science fiction, even the kind that delves into time travel, seems to have firmly and squarely set its gaze upon the future. This continual extrapolation of time into unknown territory to conjure up visions of an attempted utopia or a resultant dystopia seems to be linked to the very foundation of using science fiction to narrate cautionary tales. Amongst these tales of caution, the most prescient of ailments among the many that have befallen the planet is the looming climate crisis, rising in proportions with every passing year, its effects more tangible with every passing season. There remain virtually no avenues to undo the damage; only to contain it. However, even in the face of this crisis, policymaking still seems far removed from the urgency of the situation, global conventions achieve little more than press, while a number of Third World countries are forced to look away owing to economic or social upheaval. This, while global corporate and industrial wealth has seen a startling increase in a period the world supposedly "slowed down," grappling with a pandemic, an extended impact of human encroachment into natural habitat. What then does one do in the face of irreversible damage?
Hope springs eternal even still in most science fiction, with the human race emerging from facing insurmountable odds. However and conversely, a different kind of science fiction echoes all hope to be lost in the future, with the intent to incite action in the present. The Planet After Geoengineering, conceived and designed by research-based practice Design Earth, led by Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, succinctly belongs to the latter, using speculative fiction to conjure up terrifying visions of our collective future, pointing to our shortcomings in realising, planning, acting, containing, and now, in the project’s timeline, facing the impact of the climate emergency - accelerated, if not birthed, by us. The Planet After Geoengineering also casts a critical eye on the practice of geoengineering - altering earth systems with a view to counteract the effects of anthropogenic climate change - and through it, our feeble attempts to manage a synthetised catastrophe. Through five “geostories”, spanning the realms of the underground, crust, atmosphere, and outer space, Design Earth’s speculatively fictionalised narrative, manifested as a graphic novel and an animation with voiceover, presents possible futures that we could very well be on our way to realise. Emerging from a magnification of current issues, and the very human tendency to radically rethink natural systems as acceptable in the face of machinic intervention, the project uses visual communication - a series of near monochromatic illustrations - to aid its narration of these scenarios.
To the book's credit, not many humans make it to Design Earth’s visions of the future. But the emotions it begets - of anger, confusion, helplessness, paranoia - are all essentially very human, with the hope to impart the 'urgency' in climate emergency. Every couple of illustrations composing each of its five cautionary tales are holistically structured, with the narrative broken down into acts that essentially round up our staple response as a population to any emergency, all ending with the same unfortunate conclusion. From visualising employing cold war military arsenals, to doubling space junk up as shade and incepting rainfall through cloud seeding, futile attempts to subvert the ghost of our deeds, the narrative and graphics succeed in grounding seemingly outlandish ideas. In that, the success of the undertaking lies in the dire, unexpected outcome of these promissory interventions, establishing these as efforts that were too little and too late. "Welcome to the climate emergency!," the text heralds towards its end.
The research-oriented pedagogy of the studio and its principals is reflected in every one of the meticulously devised drawings and illustrations, with the imagined scenarios each anchored in current crises as well as imagined in the future with fancy and whimsy, just enough to raise an alarm, complete with a dash of old world tech. The contrast keeps the graphics alive, almost as a conversation. Drawn from a rather distant perspective in a measured, near mechanical manner, the drawings subsume the character of architectural illustrations at points, broadening the appeal with doctored definition. With these observations, STIR launches an in-depth enquiry into the five tales of planetary geoengineering by Ghosn and Jazairy, attempting to understand their genesis, intent, and effectuality.
1. Petrified Carbon
The first chapter in the book's odyssey of proposing an environmental awakening for the planet begins with a scenario that sees the fossil fuel industry and oil companies developing technologies that use depleted oil and gas reservoirs as sites for carbon sequestration. Through years of exploiting planetary resources and the wealth they would have accumulated through that, they pump excessive CO2 into porous subsurface rock to squeeze every last drop of oil from the ground. Their attempts, amplifying the effects of climate change, prompt ingenious solutions from cities and urban centres: industrial vacuum plants to capture and break down environmental CO2, smog towers and carbon scrubbers running down skyscraper facades, and artificial open water algae plantations.
An underground city formed from a repurposed nuclear bunker becomes the dumping ground for excess carbon, converting it into diamonds that line the 'night sky' of this artificial city. As the skies and earth are both choked in attempts to sequester carbon, the oceans turn acidic, while the captive carbon globe lives in blissful denial - measuring time on a carbon clock - the diamonds it was studded with having lost their gleam, turning yellow.
2. Arctic Albedo
The second geological zone the graphic novel turns its attention to is the Arctic, definitively amongst the most threatened habitats in the current climate onslaught. The opening graphic in this section is a particularly strong and evocative one, with the curvature of the planet’s seams towards the top signifying the scale of the catastrophe we collectively face. The scenario visualised in this part also doesn’t seem entirely farfetched, or extendable into the far future. Owing to the accelerated melting of the sheath of ice over the arctic, implying a reduced albedo effect for the region and greater absorption by the ocean bed, the authors imagine beads of glass in alternating bands employed to slow the meltdown.
The relatively monochrome palette in these illustrations breaks into blue in the next, but the heralding of colour is not accompanied by good news, as the planet seems on the brink of experiencing a blue ocean event - an ice-free arctic summer. Post the minuscule lament, a territorial race to lay claim over the now freed up sea-routes and oil-mining sites begins. The thawing of millennia of permafrosted mass releases bottled up carbon and fossil DNA for earth scientists to replicate. Subsequent efforts to restore the Arctic’s frozen status and to rewild its lands lead to the devising of artificial hemispherical glaciers and snow-biomes, while the emerging forests are caught in wildfires owing to the reduced albedo, leading to excessive methane expulsion into the atmosphere. The segment closes with an Alaska-based transmitter facility ionising the excessive methane using high powered beams, leading to a rainfall of particulate diamonds instead of the aurora borealis, in a statement of profound irony.
3. Sky River
The third segment is potentially the most human of the five, and that notion in the context of this project isn’t entirely affirming. Closer to the life giving elixir than the previous one, Sky River sees the commercialisation of cloud seeding - used as a weapon by the US in Vietnam to cause untimely rains, disrupting supplies. This meddling with the water cycle to induce precipitation came to be seen as a solution in the face of unprecedented droughts. This is achieved by melting snow and channeling moisture bands from the Tibetan Plateau to irrigate desert habitats, along with blasting crystals of silver iodide from fuel burning chambers into the atmosphere.
In the illustrations of this section, the recurring cycle of cloud seeding is skillfully contrasted against kings and tribe leaders praying to rain gods, probably signifying a sense of lament and a return to faith from science in an increasingly dastardly sequence of events. The increased chemical composition of the rain, along with the imbalance in the water cycle induced due to increased rainfall and the resultant missed moisture elsewhere has direct implications for life. The section ends with a startling graphic of dead fishes emerging on the surface of a water body, arranged almost as if in a Fibonacci spiral. The remnants are termed "juvenile fish", while the water cycle, "a zero sum game".
4. Sulfur Storm
To counter the increased exposure to solar radiation, the scientists peruse dispersing sulphate aerosol into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the earth. This is a phenomenon similar to the aftermath of a volcano, wherein the shroud of particulate matter mimics the formation of a kind of solar shield. The sulphur is 'sourced' from detonating magma chambers of tropical volcanoes. However, as is the narrative flow of the book and the fallacy of human endeavour, clouds of ash not only cast the skies, but also deplete the ozone layer and UV shield, reversing the effects of the volcanic cooling. With the air unfit to breathe, crystal vivariums, the architectural manifestations and equivalents of nuclear refuge shelters and escape spaceships to Mars - Noah’s ark for the multibillionaires - are created to house a fraction of the population, while the rest are left to fend for themselves.
The pale yellow tint on the pages of this section, akin to the shade of acid-burned paper, contrasted against entirely monochromatic illustrations perfectly complements the fire elemental this section deals with, along with its chemical proponent. In a rather direct takedown of environmental rating systems and sustainable architecture, the authors birth the Continuous Conveyor Drywall City in black ink - an urban centre that converts excess sulphur dioxide into synthetic gypsum, wallboard, plasterboard, and the likes. Buildings using these are ironically awarded green ratings.
5. Dust Cloud
The final section of the book along with its set of illustrations and the scenarios it proposes is also probably the most dire and hard hitting, even while being thematically linked to Sulfur Storm. The imagined scenario here involves a giant space shield, floating in orbit at a point of equilibrium at a Lagrange point between the earth and the sun, and composed of asteroid dust. Shooting stars too are now synthesised in this vision of ruin, with entire swarms of capsules of asteroid dust launched into the Lagrange point, conflicting and colliding with scores of satellites already in orbit. The comprehensive assembly, earlier intended to cool Venus' climate, was repurposed to create a huge solar plant for the planet that now ends up focussing a heliobeam on the earth, "enough to make an ocean boil or a city burn".
The planet chokes, but is lent a final breath by the Respirator Goddess, visualised as a being of absolute beauty. The lungs of the planet too are manifested beautifully in human form - as two separate beings of a Gaia like systemic god. The respite is short lived, while the narration ends with a warning over a foghorn, complemented by images of the planet in dusty ruin. "The terror of geoengineering is to be forced to live intimately with the death of the atmosphere contemplating suffocation as a real possibility,” the text says.