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Buried sun - a multimedia story about energy transformations

02 of December '20

the architecture of the climate crisis

It may seem that energy production is an airtight subject. Who would know about volts or watts, joules and amps? And the extraction of raw materials? There are mines. We know that they are unprofitable. We import oil. There was something about oil in the context of wars. Petrodollar? I flashed on the Internet, but a long time ago. Saudi Arabia's oil fields. That would be about it.

Such a string of associations appeared in my head when I was preparing for a project on energy revolutions a year ago. I started dabbling, asking people who are embedded in the topic, listening to podcasts, watching videos, and here's what I realized - energy is a key resource. Its production, distribution and consumption not only affect politics, economics and social relations. Energy produces a kind of culture, meaning meanings, values and symbolism. All of this is reinforced by various kinds of practices, such as daily rituals, the design of cities and the consumption of such, rather than other, everyday objects. Culture and the politics of energy are the main themes explored in the multimedia story "Buried Sun" prepared by me, in collaboration with Michal Dabrowski for the Warsaw Biennale(buried sun / burried sun). In it, we also trace the contexts of the emergence of successive energy transformations.

illustrations courtesy of the curators of the "Buried Sun" project.

Most people in the Global North live in a world of high-energy modernity. These are cities with lots of artificial light, heavy traffic. It's communication networks that allow us to call a friend in Ecuador. It's airplanes small, large and medium-sized. It's industry, which all the time produces not only masses of more and less necessary items, but also sends them out into the world to circulate and find an audience. It's also agriculture powered by engines and oil-based fertilizers, and finally it's our dryers and refrigerators, air conditioners and Christmas illuminations in the garden. Just do a little mental exercise about what would happen if we ran out of electricity. It's hard for most of us reading this to imagine, but not for the billion people living every day without access to electricity. She won't charge her phone at home. She won't study with artificial light. There are many ways to increase individual energy efficiency: turning off electrical appliances, keeping apartments and homes cooler, insulating windows well, using air conditioning wisely, or swapping your car for a bicycle or bus. However, most of the energy produced in the world is consumed by industry, primarily food, chemicals, minerals, metallurgy and paper, so a significant change could come from reducing consumption in these areas.

oil culture

Fossil fuels have shaped our reality. They created the world as we know it. Although their career is not that long, they have left something behind that we will not forget in our lifetime, nor will our children. What comes next remains to be seen. The climate crisis is a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide, which leads to an increase in the Earth's average temperature. Coal was used on a large scale as early as the 18th century in England, but in many places only in the 20th century. In China and India, it only then became an important energy resource. Oil, like coal, had been known for centuries, but it was the 20th century that saw its greatest popularity. European powers colonized areas of at least the Middle East, where there were large oil resources, entered into alliances with each other to control the price of the raw material. It was already known at the turn of the 20th century that oil was a strategic resource. In the 1940s, the first international oil cartel, the Seven Sisters, was formed, consisting of seven Western oil companies.

illustrations courtesy of the curators of the "Buried Sun" project

Europe became dependent on oil after World War II. The Marshall Plan, usually associated with a massive financial injection into Europe, also assumed that the European allies would agree to redirect their economies to the resource. The post-war boom in Western economies was largely based on oil. It benefited industry. It was increasingly popular and obvious to own a car. More items based on oil derivatives appeared on the market. Similar mechanisms were at work in agriculture. Western societies needed more and more fossil fuels to maintain their lifestyles. At the same time, behind the scenes discussions began about the problems with oil. An interesting example here is Pierre Wack, one of the executives at Royal Dutch Shell, who was the first to start using a method of planning the company's future through scenarios. Nowadays, strategic foresight is becoming more and more popular, i.e. the activity of predicting and evaluating future events over a certain time horizon. The goal of foresight is the emergence of a strategy that will minimize the risks associated with taking specific actions. Unsurprisingly, it is in the energy industry - as a key industry - that the new tool has attracted interest. Wack worked on future scenarios for Shell in the late 1960s, analyzing trends in oil sales. He came up with the idea that countries with oil deposits would sooner or later realize the value of the resource and start using it as a political weapon.

This also happened after the Yom Kippur War (1973), when OPEC announced an oil embargo on the United States. The consequence of the war was an oil crisis and supply problems. It didn't take long for another collapse to occur. In 1979, the revolution in Iran led to a surge in oil prices. The new leader Khomeini did not want to sell local "treasures" to the Americans. This sequence of events, which lasted nearly a decade, led to an increased U.S. interest in indigenous resources, to some extent renewable sources, but primarily shale gas and deep-sea mining. The opportunity to shift to renewables passed unnoticed, helped to some extent by Republican President Ronald Reagan, whose party preferred to support fossil fuels.

illustrations courtesy of the curators of the "Buried Sun" project

An important figure for "green technology" chanters in the US to this day remains Jimmy Carter, whose term in office coincided with the second oil crisis. At the time, the president gave a speech titled "The Crisis of Certainty," in which he urged Americans to conserve energy and treat this action as a patriotic duty. Carter is also known for putting solar panels on the roof of the White House. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan - his successor - got rid of them.

Revolution or transformation?

Meanwhile, the 1970s in Denmark turned out very differently. At the time, the country underwent a wind revolution related to the oil crisis. First of all, the Danes began to buy oil and gas sourced from the North Sea, and subsequently diversified their energy sources. The experience of the crisis enabled a smooth transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources. It was successful thanks to state support, good grassroots organization and friendly regulations, encouraging, for example, the formation of energy communities. In Germany in the 1980s, on the wave of anti-nuclear movements, the idea of Energiewende emerged - an energy transition that, as in Denmark, was supported by various institutions and animated by civic communities. This very idea of their implementation only confirms the diagnoses of energy analysts and anthropologists (e.g., Harold Langford Wilhite, Vaclav Smil, Chris Nelder), who emphasize that technological change is only part of the transformation. What is most enduring is the transformation of human behavior and ways of life.

In the context of the climate crisis, we are looking for quick and effective solutions. The green revolution is, according to some, the answer to the ills of modern times. The enthusiasm of the proponents of such thinking is dampened by Vaclav Smil, a charismatic energy expert of great age, author of countless books and articles in which he analyzes the dynamics of such changes. According to him, they do not happen in the blink of an eye. Energy transformations take time. At best, it can be twenty years, as was the case with France and its construction of nuclear power, but these are exceptions. Most energy transitions have taken half a century or more. There has also never been any talk of the need for global change, as is happening now because of the climate crisis. Transformations in smaller countries have succeeded more often. Just look at Denmark, for example. It is more difficult to make such changes in countries such as the United States or China. In countries that, in addition, still have resources of their own energy resources. Quite a complication is caused by an already developed energy system, as one of the most important sectors of the economy is transformed during the transition. This requires not only swapping mines for wind parks or solar farms, one technology for another, and so working with infrastructure, but also figuring out what to do with workers and how to do it. Another point, perhaps the most important one that Smil points out, is that we don't need any new technologies for the energy transition. All we need is to reduce consumption. Savings.

illustrations courtesy of the curators of the "Zakopane solar" project.

What about renewable sources? Will they save the planet? First of all, it is pointed out that "green technologies" are largely based, unfortunately, on non-renewable resources. Silver is still used for solar panels. Batteries need lithium. Your smartphone cobalt. In addition, significant amounts of copper, aluminum or rare earth elements are consumed. The extraction of these resources is usually done the way it is in other types of mining industries. The main determinant is low price, not environmental or human costs. "Slow violence" against the environment and people is sometimes difficult to grasp. Many of the mines needed in the "green industry" are located in poor or developing countries, where there is inadequate control over the mode of production and attention to labor rights, let alone environmental issues. Some solution could be recycling of minerals, but this is not very developed. This brings us back to the issue of consumption again.

Its reduction is the main thread of the narrative. The very title of the multimedia story "Buried Sun" refers to it, reminding us that fossil fuels are organic remains trapped underground for millions of years, without access to air. In turn, before that, the sun's rays were responsible for their vitality. We associate the sun's energy with energy that has no limits. That's why the dream of finally inventing a technology to make maximum use of it is so ingrained in the culture. In the film, we bring back the idea of nuclear fusion. This is a process in which atomic nuclei collide with each other, undergoing fusion and releasing energy in the process. Fusion promoters claim it is the holy grail of energy, enabling a "solar harvest." It is supposed to be an inexhaustible source of energy. It doesn't require much space, is safe, doesn't release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and doesn't produce radioactive waste.

Scientists in various places around the world are working on creating an "artificial star". Unfortunately, energy extracted in this way will probably have to wait for decades more.

illustrations courtesy of the curators of the "Buried Sun" project.

Construction and the challenges posed by the climate crisis

Construction plays an important role in thinking about slowing the consequences of the climate crisis. Reading the reports of international energy agencies, we came across the concept of "deep transformation" proposed by the International Energy Agency. It requires the commitment of ambitious policy measures at the state and international levels. This means the need for large investments in the energy sector, withdrawal from fossil fuel financing, a significant increase inCO2 emission allowance fees and reforms in energy markets. Most cars in 2050 should be electric, and the construction market must be revolutionized. Changes would have to be implemented quickly and comprehensively. Even if this happens, we have only a 66 percent chance that the Earth's temperature will not rise by more than 2 degrees1.

In the context of architecture, IEA experts write, direct and indirect emissions from electricity and building heating should be taken into account. Rising air temperatures are driving the popularity of energy-intensive air conditioning. Besides, technological solutions from the area of the "internet of things" are increasingly used in architecture, i.e. systems allowing to supervise the operation of lighting, ventilation or monitoring systems, which also increases energy consumption. At the same time, measures to green buildings, such as the use of renewable sources, heat pumps or attention to energy efficiency in the design of the architectural structure, are insufficient.

The end of capitalism is hard for some to imagine. Perhaps even for most of us who have lived a good part of our lives under this system. It can be similarly difficult to visualize what our homes, offices, cities might look like in a reality where energy consumption would have to be drastically reduced. The most banal image of a modern city is of skyscrapers illuminated by their own lights and strings of cars lining the streets. The climate crisis and its increasingly violent consequences may not only encourage us, but even force us to invent new archetypes of communal living.


Aleksandra JACH

illustrations courtesy of the curators of the "Zakopane Sunshine" project

The November issue of A&B was dedicated to the architecture of the climate crisis. You can find the freee-publication here.

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