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A Technological Fix for the Environment: The Virgin Earth Challenge

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Last February Al Gore and British billionaire Richard Branson presented the Virgin Earth Challenge. It operates on the assumption that there is a technological solution to the climate change crisis. Technology materializes a particular relationship to the world. Does modifying our technology change this relationship? And how do technological innovations help or hinder our attempts to stabilize, or even reverse, climate change?

Clean air – Galerie Mysunsun
Roxy, Clean air – Galerie Mysunsun, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

What kind of technological innovation did British billionaire Richard Branson and former US Vice-president Al Gore ask for in February of this year when they announced a $25 million dollar prize to be awarded at the conclusion of the Virgin Earth Challenge? According to the contest guidelines, the prize-winning design will not only capture and store greenhouse gases prior to their release into the atmosphere, this innovative wonder will actually remove climate-changing gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that have been collecting there since the Industrial Revolution (1). The prize will be awarded to anyone who can create a technology that will “demonstrate to the judges’ satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate(2)”.During a press conference for the Virgin Earth Challenge, Gore stated that, « This is a very new and different way of thinking(3)”. He is also noted to have observed: “We’re not used to thinking of a planetary emergency… It’s a challenge to the moral imagination of humankind to actually accept the reality of the situation we are now facing(4) ». Branson and Gore’s well publicized Challenge implies that the invention of new technologies can lead to a stabilisation, or even a reversal, of climate change. Gore’s rhetoric also implies that new technologies, new ways of thinking and a changing moral imagination are linked.

Even so, the Virgin Earth Challenge emphasises “commercial viability” as an important criterion for evaluating the winning design. Only the “ability of the Design to achieve the Removal Target” and “technical viability” rank higher than commercial viability (5). The Virgin Earth Challenge will reward a technical solution to climate change that will, nonetheless, function within existing market structures. Despite Al Gore’s calls for a “different way of thinking” and a “challenge to the moral imagination of humankind”, the Virgin Earth Challenge conforms to a conventional capitalist logic of financial reward and intense entrepreneurial competition (6). In other words, the Challenge is based on the assumption that human ingenuity can help to “fix” the environment while also promoting its business sponsor, Virgin Industries (7).

Technology as a Prosthetic Relationship

Technology is a relationship. The technologies we embrace shape our humanity as well as the environment in which we live. Technology is an extended prosthetic organisation of the material world, including both human and non-human resources. For instance, as you read this online journal, imagine the computer and its very material construction of silicon, metal and plastics, the extensive electrical and communications infrastructures that support this technology, and the fabricators and participants that make a digital culture possible. Computer networks are commonly thought to facilitate communication. Therefore, although the computer does not fully predetermine the content of the communications, it is built around certain assumptions: the users of computers will be human and literate with access to a technology that must be purchased (8). Every technology embodies a set of organising relationships that subsequently influences all beings and things involved in its use — be they material, economic, political or environmental.

It is for this reason that technology must be considered within a philosophical context. Prevailing assumptions about nature and culture determine the way that we understand the environment and technology. Nature is external to humanity; it is the objectified environment. Culture is human; it is associated with the symbolic and physical ordering of the world. Again and again Western cultures have opposed nature to culture to explain how humanity fits into the world and how we relate to de-humanized others and the non-human environment (9). Contemporary Western culture still places humanity against a background of the non-human. Therefore, the environment is still popularly constructed as a passive and reactive system – an object and a thing – to be managed and stabilised by human stewards. Environmental morality, or the “moral imagination” identified by Al Gore, leans towards the conservation or restoration of the environment. This explains why many current efforts to address climate change, such as the Virgin Earth Challenge, aim to stabilise the environment so as to indefinitely support humanity in all its cultured imperfection.

This binary of cultured human subject and natural non-human object is not all pervasive. The sophisticated understandings of experts in climate change, systems theories and philosophy, among many others, have long moved beyond this dichotomy. However, it is only recently that corporate culture has even begun to register the environmental impact of business activities as anything more than an “externality”. Addressing environmental concerns is now considered good business practice – at least in the promotional literature.

At the forefront of the thinking that has indirectly led to the re-evaluation of “externality” in business culture, philosopher Elizabeth Grosz provides an integrated perspective on technology and our relation to the material environment. She proposes that technology is where human culture and non-human nature overlap:

“Technologies involve the invention of things that make things, second-order things. It is not that technologies mediate between the human and the natural—for that is to construe technology as somehow outside either the natural or the human (which today is precisely its misrepresented place) instead of seeing it as the indefinite extension of both the human and the natural and their point of overlap, the point of the conversion of the one into the other, the tendency of nature to culture, and the cleaving of culture to the stuff of nature. Rather, the technological is the cultural construction of the thing that controls and regulates other things, the correlate of the natural thing.(10)”

According to Grosz, technology is a cultural construction overlaid with and onto the natural. Furthermore, through the imperfect attempts at organising non-human and human materials into technological systems, human cultures take shape. To refer back to the dichotomy of object and subject, technology, by this definition, is something that joins the object to subject, thus hybridizing the computer with its human operators, or – in the case of the Virgin Earth Challenge – linking human activity to the state of the atmosphere through a yet-to-be-invented device that removes greenhouse gases produced as long ago as the Industrial Revolution. In the latter case, technology becomes an attempt to erase the results of a relationship humanity has fostered with the world in its daily and industrial activities for centuries.

Despite the rhetoric about a “different way of thinking”, competitions such as the Virgin Earth Challenge have not moved beyond the binary of human culture and non-human nature, and instead reduce climate change to a problem of isolated mechanical actions and reactions. If the Virgin Earth Challenge is successfully met with a device that can remove billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere each year, the complex problem of where to store these billions of tonnes safely still remains to be addressed (11). Most significantly, in consideration of environmental issues, technology in fact erodes any simple boundaries between “nature” and “culture”.

How to Imagine the Environment

Many religions imagine the environment as a paradise; and almost always it is lost. Eden, heaven or nirvana is always long ago or far away in an enlightened future. These religious constructions of ideal landscapes link environmental qualities to human actions and morality, although secular, international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol may also be understood as an imagined relationship between moral human subject and non-human environment.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is one of the scientific organisms whose data supports the politically complex negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol. The Virgin Earth Challenge was announced very shortly after the IPCC declared their near certainty that human activities and technologies have altered the Earth’s climate. Perhaps the environmental imaginary implicit in the mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol can finally begin to help us recognize our deep entanglement in the material world.

Although Grosz does not directly address the environment, her expansion of a technological imaginary necessarily suggests a similar expansion of the environmental imaginary. In redefining the parameters of technical interventions we reinvent our relation to the environment. Grosz reminds us of the creative and destructive possibilities within technology by asking:

“What in us is being extended and prosthetically rendered in technological development? … And what might it be like to invent machines, things, objects, not for what we can do with them, but for the ways in which they transform us, beyond even our own control? (12)”

Although she writes of a speculative future, considering the rate at which our climate is changing, she could just as easily be describing our present and our past. If our relationship to the material world is embodied in ordinary (technical) objects, we should carefully consider the technologies that we choose to embrace. As Grosz notes: “While technology is in a sense made by us and for our purposes, it also performs a transformation on us: it increasingly facilitates not so much better action, but wider possibilities of acting, more action (13)”.

Keeping in mind that technology facilitates more, but not necessarily better action, the net removal of climate-changing gases called for by the Virgin Earth Challenge is an action of denial. It wishes to reverse the effect of humanity’s past actions on the atmosphere – like walking through the sand backwards in an attempt to sweep away our messy traces while constantly making more. Indeed, as mentioned above, the Virgin Earth Challenge asks for a technical innovation whose superficial and mechanical treatment of the environment may simply create other environmental difficulties.

How then can we consciously move towards technologies that lead to better actions and a more sophisticated environmental imaginary? One example is immediately within reach: we can consider this online journal that is based in Montreal but is able to serve an international audience via computer and networking technologies. Any technology depends upon materials that necessarily breakdown and eventually need disposal or recycling. The material and technical infrastructure that supports an online journal encompasses the built-in obsolescence of computer equipment and the heavy metals employed in its manufacture – both of which negatively impact the environment. Moreover, each time a piece of equipment malfunctions, we are acutely reminded of its unruly materiality. Where material decay is inevitable, built-in obsolescence is an economic concept that could be significantly revised. It is this kind of change that may most radically transform technology and the environment (14).

Technology is never neutral nor transparent. From the most banal to the most extraordinary, technical objects and systems express and bias our relations to the material environment at all scales. The actions involved in producing and reading an online journal is material, biased, and cyborg (15). Inventing a device to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere seems like an excellent idea, until this proposed action is examined more closely within its profit-driven and short-sighted parameters. Technology is always a collaboration between human innovation and non-human materiality. The technologies that we wield on a day-to-day basis become our relationship to the world thus shaping the environment in which we live.


(1) More than one kind of gas can cause a de-stabilizing “greenhouse” effect in the atmosphere, but carbon dioxide is the gas considered the most prevalent and culpable currently. “Anthropogenic” describes something that originates in human activity. See [on line] <http://www.virginearth.com>, 20 June 2007.
(2) The “Removal Target” in further detail includes: “the net removal of significant volumes of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least 10 years without countervailing harmful effects. The removal achieved by the Design must have long term benefits (measured over say 1,000 years) and must contribute materially to the stability of the Earth’s climate.” See paragraph 2 in clause 1 of the competition guidelines, [on line] <http://www.virginearth.com>, 20 June 2007.
(3) See also: Kanter, James, “Gore and Branson announce a $25 million prize for reducing global warming”, International Herald Tribune, 12 February 2007. [on line] <http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/02/09/business/climate.php>
(4) Gotkine, Elliott and Alex Morales. “Gore, Branson, Set Greenhouse Gas-Reduction Prize(Update2)”,[online] <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601085&sid=ac0o8loT053w&refer=europe>, 9 February 2007.
(5) <http://www.virginearth.com>. See clause 7.1. of the competition guidelines.
(6) Arguably, technical innovation, ardent market competition and vigorous entrepreneurial spirit powered the Industrial Revolution that is the implicit beginning of human-initiated climate change.
(7) The Virgin Earth Challenge’s impact on current research may at best help to draw attention to research that began as early as the 1990s in the capture and storage of atmospheric “greenhouse” gases. In the larger picture of research efforts $25 million dollars does not go very far. See: Chang, Kenneth. “A New Strategy to Help Capture Greenhouse Gas.” New York Times, [on line] <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/17/science/17CARB.html?ex=1181448000&en=7fc0041941de3405&ei=5070>, 17 June 2001.
(8) See, for instance, the idea of the “digital divide.”
(9) “Us against them” is only one of the more popular examples of human-to-human interaction. “Man versus the world” is another well-known relational model.
(10) Grosz, Elizabeth. Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005, 138 p.
(11) The competition only rewards the removal of greenhouse gases. There is no explicit mention of how or where these greenhouse gases will be stored.
(12) Ibid. 143-144.
(13) Ibid. 139.
(14) Clearly, technologies are also shaped by social, political and economic forces. See alternate approaches to manufacturing, such as the idea of “Cradle to Cradle” production described by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, [on line] <http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm>
(15) See Donna J. Haraway’s, “The Cyborg Manifesto”, The Haraway Reader, New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

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