Review of Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).
An ambitious eco-utopian planned city nestled between Abu Dhabi’s airport and the city’s rapidly sprawling suburbs, Masdar City subsists in a strange temporality. The project, established in 2006, was planned as a hub for “clean tech” research and development as well as a live-in showcase for state-of-the-art innovations in the field, including technologies inspired by traditional Arab methods for dealing with extreme climate conditions. At the time of its launch, climate change had yet to make a serious impact on public discourse anywhere, much less in the Middle East. Hence, the decision to establish a “zero-carbon” city on the outskirts of a metropolis built on oil wealth—and financed by that wealth—may appear cynical, but 13 years ago it was also undeniably forward-looking.
Yet today, as the region begins to reel under the effects of the unfolding climate catastrophe, the utopian dream of Masdar City lies partly abandoned, its mission downgraded to little more than “a special economic zone for renewable energy and clean technology companies,” as Gökçe Günel puts it in her new ethnography of the project, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (198). This uncanny temporality—the oddly rapid obsolescence of Masdar City’s shiny futurity—is central to Günel’s urgently important account of the project. Masdar and projects like it, argues the author, seek to cope with climate change through “technical adjustments” aimed at constructing a future very much like the present, one in which “humans will continue to enjoy technological complexity without interrogating existing social, political and economic relations” (10).
To understand Masdar’s relationship to time, Günel enlists the concept of “potential.” Grammatically, the potential mood belongs neither to the present nor to the certain future; thus, a project like Masdar City may continue to “possess potential” indefinitely, even as the precise outlines of that potential remain vague or shift subtly, like distant buildings on a hot desert day. Here, potentiality is a phenomenological category, a quality which “people feel” and which is also “negotiated, realized, limited or changed” (23). While the felt experience of potentiality is not discussed fully in this too-brief book, its discursive negotiation among a broad range of actors takes center stage. What emerges is a comfortable but claustrophobic world of air-conditioned offices and opaque, number-strewn spreadsheets in which diplomats, oil executives, and environmental consultants hammer out ways to conduct what Antonio Gramsci would call a “passive revolution,” the often-traumatic process whereby the powers that be absorb or co-opt emergent challenges in order that the fundamentals will not have to change.
Günel does not specify the precise nature of these fundamentals, but the legal, technical and diplomatic pirouettes undertaken by the actors she describes mark their outlines clearly enough. One salient example is the carbon capture and sequestering (CCS) project hatched at Masdar and enthusiastically promoted on the international stage by its parent state, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE and oil-rich allies like Norway are interested in CCS technologies, which remain mostly inoperative, because of their potential to enable the continued burning of fossil fuels while mitigating its impact on the atmosphere by injecting the resulting carbon dioxide gas back into the earth. Incredibly, oil producers even hope to use carbon injection as a tool for “enhanced oil recovery,” enabling them to pump even more petroleum out of maturing reserves (160). The dangers of CCS remain mostly unknown—an “uncertainty matrix” reproduced in the book is full of 4s and 5s, indicating high complexity and risk (173-4)—and stretch so far into the future that even the most unimaginative of bureaucrats are forced into philosophical reflection on the possibility that nation-states might no longer be around to take up the ensuing liabilities (165-6).
The fundamentals, to be blunt where Günel is discreet, are the conditions of possibility of what Andreas Malm has termed “fossil capital.” In his ecological history of the Industrial Revolution, Malm demonstrates that early capitalists preferred the “stock” of coal power over alternative “flows,” such as water and wind, not because it was cheaper—it wasn’t—but because it was amenable to being packaged, sold and moved over long distances and utilized wherever concentrations of under-employed workers could be used to keep labor costs down. In Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell makes a complementary case, arguing that Winston Churchill’s move to replace coal with oil as the motive power of the British Navy at the beginning of the twentieth century, was determined in part by the desire to break the political power of militant coal miners—a victory only finalized late in the century, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, by his ideological heir Margaret Thatcher.
Günel’s informant Steve is the executive director of an academic program run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Masdar Institute. Without invoking Malm’s terms or coming to his anti-capitalist conclusions, Steve succinctly reproduces his distinction between “flow” and “stock” with regard to solar and oil power, respectively: “Oil is exportable, while the sun is not … the former is easily capitalized upon while the latter cannot contribute to the production of goods immediately” (82-83)
Most of Günel’s interlocutors, like Steve, take a sanguine view of the potential for changing some things—making “technical adjustments”—while leaving the fundamentals of fossil capital accumulation intact. Optimism emerges from the ethnography as an unofficial requirement for participation in the Masdar City project, whether as an environmental consultant, an architect, or a graduate student at the Masdar Institute. (This worldview is apparently not required of the South Asian migrant “man with a brush” photographed cleaning desert dust off the solar panels at Masdar [59-60], although we do not get the opportunity to hear his opinion of the project).
Quasi-compulsory optimism about the economic prospects of a place or activity, which up to a point may justify and fulfill its own prophecies, might be called “boosterism” after the nineteenth-century US-American practice described by William Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis. As in the “Great West,” so also in the Emirates, there appears to be a close connection between such “boosting” ideologies and financial speculation.
The UAE which emerges from Günel’s account—the first full-length ethnography of contemporary Abu Dhabi (14)—is a society suffering from an extreme version of the “resource curse”: a state which has handed out too much oil money to its citizenry and is now wondering how additional money might be put to use in order to ensure a more stable future for said citizenry. Such “easy money” situations open up great scope for speculation—that is, investment expected to render profits through appreciation in an asset’s value rather than through the production of commodities.
Though Günel does not use the concept of speculation to analyze her findings, the economic activities she describes at Masdar—real estate, academic institutions, risk mitigation (also known as insurance)—are classical loci for speculation. As a temporal phenomenon, moreover, speculation is closely connected to Günel’s analytic prism of “potential”: an asset will appreciate in value so long as it is seen by interested buyers as having the potential to render further profits (speculative or otherwise) sometime in the future. Once an asset is perceived as having realized its potential, investment in it might still be profitable but will no longer be speculative. The potential mood in which Masdar perennially operates is thus tied to a particular, speculative mode of capital accumulation.
Anxieties about speculation and the rift between the movement of money and the so-called “real economy” motivate one of the Masdar Institute projects investigated by Günel, a prospective energy-based currency named “ergos.” Energy currency is likened by its adherents to a new gold standard, but one that is better than the original, since “the poor dig [gold] up and the rich bury it under the ground,” whereas energy can “serve as a means of exchange, while maintaining a use value in the real world” (113). Ironically, though, it was precisely gold’s uselessness that constituted its only redeeming feature in the eyes of that fiercest critic of the gold standard, John Maynard Keynes. And as leading Keynesian economist Ann Pettifor argues, rather than representing amounts of commodities, like gold, in reality money and credit are abstractions used to direct investment into the avenues deemed advantageous by those who hold social power.
Ergos, like other schemes which endeavor to tie the value of money to a real-world commodity and like monetarist ideologies more generally, does not impinge on the ability of banks to “print” their own money by extending loans without holding currency in reserve; indeed, such schemes only propose to restrict the powers of governments and individual worker-consumers. Thus, argues Pettifor, these policies are hugely conducive to the interests of the financial sector, which explains why bankers are happy to finance their propagation. This argument may also go some way toward explaining the interest of the heavily financialized Masdar conglomerate in such schemes, alongside the more obvious interest of oil producers in making the commodity they control the touchstone of a currency system.
The Final Frontier
Space is tied to time by the key metaphor of the “spaceship in the desert,” coined by an American student blogger and enthusiastically taken up by many Masdaris. Some of the book’s most incisive analysis is folded into Günel’s exegesis of this image. Though they exist in the present, spaceships are associated with science fiction and seem to come from the future, much like Masdar. Like nautical vessels, spaceships depend on the “maintenance of strict boundaries between interior and exterior” if they are to evade disaster (41), and the need to maintain boundaries at all costs often serves as justification for a hierarchical regimentation of onboard society.
Hence, while Masdar is heavily implicated in global capitalism, much like the state to which it belongs, its commitment to the liberal ideology ostensibly associated with capitalism is extraordinarily brittle, as the following incident reveals:
In August 2010 six individuals who were about to enter into their second year as master’s students [at the Masdar Institute] received an invitation to a confidential meeting. In this meeting, a high-level Emirati security officer informed them that they had been expelled from the institution and would not be allowed to sign up for classes in the fall of 2010. They had one month before they would be deported from the UAE. No one explained to the students why exactly they were being asked to leave.
Like their classmates, these six students – two Lebanese and four Iranians – had registered their religions and their sects upon applying for visas and enrolling at Masdar Institute. In the process, they had disclosed that they were born Shi‘ite, a decision they would later regret. After the meeting, the students quickly started making connections: in the spring of 2010, two Iranian faculty members in Masdar Institute had left with no explanation. This must have been the beginning of a purge, one of the students later told me, where Masdar Institute was being cleansed of Shi‘ite Muslims. Slowly, they started learning that other Shi‘ites in the UAE were having trouble receiving visas, and realized that this purge was not unique to Masdar Institute. When they tried to find work in the UAE, they could not acquire work permits. (93-94)
Besides raising serious questions about the culpability of Western educational institutions cooperating with Masdar (and with other academic institutions in the region which practice ethnic discrimination, including in Israel) this incident demonstrates that the “spaceship,” though staffed by a diverse crew worthy of Star Trek’s multicultural Starship Enterprise, was in no way shielded from the exclusionary sectarian politics of its host state.
In addition to “spaceship,” Günel also carefully dismantles the “desert” conceit in this metaphor. She points out that in science fiction extra-terrestrial environments are often represented as deserts, and that sci-fi habitually reproduces the colonial romance of the frontier, most classically embodied in the Western genre, but also in Orientalist narratives such as that of Lawrence of Arabia. Though the Middle East’s most prominent settler-colonial movement is not discussed in any detail, the narrative tropes of Zionism are also pertinent here. Zionists have traditionally perceived the environment surrounding their settlements as a desert, and the Arab (particularly the Bedouin) as the “father of the desert.” At the height of its historical confidence, the Zionist “labor settlement” movement aspired to expand outward and “make the desert bloom,” but in its latter-day realist incarnation Zionism has entrenched itself in the idea of “separation,” re-imagining Israel, in former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s words, as “a villa” in that ecological mirror-image of the desert, “the jungle.”
But while great swathes of Palestine are not actually desert, the physical environment surrounding Masdar is hyper-arid and extremely hot for most of the year. In dealing with concrete realities—buildings, for example—the literal significance of the image comes forth. Around the Middle East, modern buildings are hermetically sealed and equipped with airlocks, not primarily in order to satisfy sci-fi fantasies, but for a more prosaic reason: to keep the AC in. In the Persian Gulf, air conditioning has made it possible to establish “global” cities with all modern conveniences where previously only tenuous seasonal habitation was possible, and as the region heats up we can expect to see the middle and upper classes retreating more and more into climate-controlled spaces while the poor languish outside in weather made even worse by the heat pumped out from these spaces. “Eco-apartheid” of this sort is already underway, and threatens to accelerate the destruction and privatization of public space that has been taking place in the region for the past several decades, with grave political consequences. Would such mass mobilizations as the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, for example, be possible in 45-degree heat?
Of course, the eco-city of Masdar was planned with the drawbacks of dependence on air conditioning in mind, but Günel’s subtle irony comes through in her discussion of the means utilized to minimize this dependence. The world-famous British firm in charge of planning the city, Foster + Partners, claimed to take inspiration from regional exemplars such as Shibam in Yemen, but “no one…including the architects, seemed to have experienced Shibam firsthand” (53). The wind-tower erected in Masdar, supposedly in emulation of a traditional Arab technique, was boosted by chief architect Norman Foster as producing “a breeze that gives one a chill” (57), a claim mocked by a postdoctoral researcher on-site: “Has Norman Foster even been here and seen that the wind tower does not work, or did they make [it] operational just for the moment that he was standing there?” (58).
The farce takes a darker turn when Günel delves into the drama surrounding climate control on the campus of the Masdar Institute. Quarrels about optimal temperature, one of the trivia of office life, are shown here to have serious consequences. At the Institute, the line of conflict was drawn between the foreigners and the Emiratis. The architects came down firmly on the side of the foreigners, since “stabilizing the temperature at the desired 21 degrees Celsius level would increase the Masdar Institute building’s energy demands significantly” (119). The position of the Institute’s facilities manager, Martyn Potter, was summarized in a Time article quoted by Günel:
…Abu Dhabi citizens are used to keeping their air-conditioning as low as …15.5° C…—it helps that electricity is heavily subsidized—but in Masdar, AC needs to be set closer to… 25° C to keep within its efficiency targets. …Potter can keep citizens in line. “It’s name and shame,” he says. “I’m a green policeman.” (119-120)
The “green policeman,” moreover, is a potential trickster: another executive at Masdar told Günel that he favored the introduction of dummy thermostats, which would make residents feel that they had power over the temperature though in fact it would remain centrally controlled (120).
In addition to the exclusions it practices on the basis of political criteria which have nothing with ecology and everything to do with ethnonational politics, this episode also exposes the command of the “spaceship in the desert” as being in the hands of men who have no qualms about unleashing repression and deception against their “crew,” the lucky ones accepted as participants in the air-conditioned adventure. At Masdar, as Günel attests chillingly,
The future of humanity was…conceptualized as a trade-off between privacy, or the freedom of choice, and the ability to mitigate energy scarcity and climate change. …the technocratic dictatorship promised that it would protect the collective from experiences of existential threat. …this societal fear had already fueled many science fiction narratives, such as George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four…with Big Brother—a powerful, all-seeing leader whose existence is questionable—in charge. (107-8)
But the mention of Big Brother also calls to mind the contemporary incarnation of Orwell’s nightmare, the globally syndicated reality television format Big Brother. The concrete reality of heat and cold notwithstanding, the spaceship in the desert which emerges from this ethnography is primarily an ersatz, sort of Potemkin-village-cum-panopticon in which “students…pretended to exist in the future” (56) for the benefit of visitors while their hosts planned to mine their energy consumption data for sale to utility companies (107). To view the students in their library-aquarium, visitors could walk a short distance from the parking lot, but most preferred to queue in huge, ultra-modern stations to ride snazzy-looking but highly inefficient transport pods into the station (144-147). “For some,” as the author suggests wrily, “the future of Masdar is a ruin that operates as an amusement park” (25).
But we dismiss this amusement park at our own risk. Günel is right to conclude that so long as it possesses potential, Masdar is neither a success nor a failure, neither a utopia nor a dystopia. The heavy ironies of the project and the brazen cynicism of many involved in it deserve to be lampooned, but not ignored. Masdar is certainly not the future of humanity under climate change, but it represents a future, one which has the backing of some very powerful actors despite its obvious shortcomings and absurdities. If other, better futures are to be incubated, we had better pay close attention to those that are already stirring among us.
 Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016).
 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2011).
 William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
 John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013 ), pp. 130–31.
 Ann Pettifor, The Production of Money: How to Break the Power of Bankers (London; New York: Verso, 2018).
 Matan Kaminer, “A Lonely Songkran in the Arabah,” Middle East Report 279: 34–37 (2016).
 Eitan Bar-Yosef, Villa in the Jungle: Africa in Israeli Culture (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute, 2013) [Hebrew].
 Bryan Walsh, 2011. “Masdar City: The World’s Greenest City?” Time, January 25, 2011.