Business

Businesses, especially green businesses, promote a peculiar optimism in the face of climate and energy crises. They supply environmentally friendly products that aim to supplant the demand for nongreen products, expanding their product portfolios to service environmentally conscious humans. Green businesses vary in form and shape. In the United States, we might think of organic grocery stores as an example. We look at technology companies, which promise smart homes as well as systems for monitoring and managing our consumption patterns. Some fossil fuel companies seek to reimagine themselves as green. Their marketing and communications campaigns address planetary-scale problems and highlight how protective, soothing technological innovations and design solutions will be available to those who can afford them.

In the United Arab Emirates, where I have been conducting research for the last nine years, green businesses promise a mark of progress different from oil exports:  they will resolve pressing energy deficiency and climate change–related problems, while at the same time generating a new economic vision for the region and the globe. My forthcoming book, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi, describes and analyzes this process in detail.

One prominent example is the multifaceted renewable energy and clean technology company Masdar. In responding to the dual problem of energy security and climate change, the Abu Dhabi government founded Masdar (meaning “source” in Arabic), investing $22 billion to start the project. The company is widely known for Masdar City, the futuristic ecocity master-planned to rely entirely on renewable energies. While the ecocity was central to Masdar’s development, Masdar also invested in green businesses through its other operations: Masdar Power, Masdar Carbon, and Masdar Capital. Masdar Institute, the energy-focused research center set up and supervised by MIT’s Technology and Development Program, operates on a growing campus within the ecocity site.

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Masdar City Master Plan, 2007–2010. Image by Foster + Partners.

The designers of Masdar City, the London-based architects Foster + Partners, have suggested that they borrowed from old Arab cities in thinking about the future, pointing to the Yemeni city of Shibam as an inspiration for their designs. Like Shibam, Masdar City would be dense and walled. Yet it would also be smart, and its hidden brain would know when residents entered their buildings so as to start cooling their apartments before they opened the door. In public areas, flat screens would broadcast uplifting news on the environmental performance of the complex, displaying how much energy is produced and saved.

Framed as a utopia or science-fiction project, Masdar relied on the backdrop of a world struck by climate change and energy deficiency. The marketing and communications campaigns put together by Masdar aimed at proving that the world needed Masdar City in order to survive these catastrophes.

This preemptive optimism is certainly not unique to the United Arab Emirates. Some businesses, such as General Electric and Siemens, propose that their inventions make the future happen, using slogans such as “Tomorrow is Today” or “Enabling the Future.” For them, climate change emerges as a business opportunity, endowing professionals with the capacity to sculpt a particular networked future. Climate change may trigger the breakdown of political and ecological systems, but the implication is that businesses will hold their ground in the face of these challenges.

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The Siemens Pavilion at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, January 2011. Photo by Gökçe Günel.

When I asked a Siemens representative what the company meant by its slogan “Tomorrow is Today,” he explained that at Siemens they had access to all of the technological tools that would be used “Tomorrow,” but unfortunately people were not ready to embrace what they had to offer. “We test our products at Masdar City,” he clarified, “which is also in the future.” The company was involved in a project called the Office of the Future, where they concentrated on optimizing office spaces. One of these offices would be situated in Masdar City. On the other hand, General Electric indicated that it would be “Enabling the Future” with smart appliances, as well as other technological gadgets that would become part of the energy mix. A GE representative stated, for example: “In the future everything will be smart and regulated, just as it is at Masdar City.” The future was both a time and a place.

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The GE Pavilion at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, January 2011. Photo by Gökçe Günel.

Green responses to future climate and energy crises have varied in form and shape, but this sense of optimism is pervasive. Take another well-known example, Tesla Motors, whose cars feature a so-called bioweapon defense mode. The button activates what is described as “a medical-grade HEPA air filtration system, which removes at least 99.97 percent of particulate exhaust pollution and effectively all allergens, bacteria, and other contaminants from cabin air.” In describing the button in 2015, the company’s founder Elon Musk said that Tesla is “trying to be a leader in apocalyptic defense scenarios.” Tesla cars equipped with these devices will be able to protect passengers from possible toxicity, while allowing them to observe their surroundings through the car’s all-glass panoramic windshield. The bioweapon defense button thus sets up a presumed apocalyptic future in which some passengers remain protected while others are left exposed, breathing in toxic air. Rather than seeking to resolve toxicity in a collective manner, the bioweapon defense button eliminates toxic air for individuals with enough cash.

Green businesses seek to create alternative environments of peace and rationality, standing in opposition to the destructive and irrational crises of Earth. Despite providing products and services to a small number of people who are experiencing the existing and future effects of climate change, these companies lay claim to the planetary-scale questions of survival in the unknown, the sustenance of the species beyond ecological disasters, and the preservation of an existing civilization. In all of these examples, businesses demarcate the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots upon whom the formers’ lives are predicated.

Yet the environmental changes brought on by a century of human industrial activity, induced by industrialized humans, are truly global; their effects cannot be contained inside a particular history or geography. By producing enclosed and enclosing solutions in the name of green business and then promoting these fragmentary spheres as the ultimate means for survival, humans fail to understand and confront the predicament of the Anthropocene. Given the unbounded complexity of the challenge, an adequate response may require a somewhat less happy and optimistic, but ultimately more inclusive understanding of our collective future.