As society struggles to come to terms with the implications of antropogenic climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that any adequate response will require not just more efficient machines and renewable energy sources but an epochal shift in the energetic and material relationship between humans and their environment. Researchers in industrial and social ecology such as Rolf Sieferle and Marina Fischer-Kowalski, have carried out detailed analyses of the different ‘socio-metabolic regimes’ that have underlain different forms of human society, and these can help us understand the nature of the challenge facing humanity in the twenty-first century.  Two of the main kind of metabolic regimes seen thus far in human history have been solar-based. Low-density hunter-gatherer societies engaged in passive solar energy utilisation by utilising the resource density of lightly-managed existing ecosystems, whereas agrarian societies more actively maximised useful solar energy by clearing forests and raising high-utility organisms such as crops and livestock.[1] The spread of this agricultural form of society enabled societies to slowly increase their populations and to support non-agricultural economic and cultural activity. But it did so by increasingly monopolising the land surface and coastal waters of the Earth, creating ‘anthromes,’ where natural systems are embedded in and shaped by human systems.[2]

The third major regime was rather different.  This was the industrial metabolic regime that allowed the growth dynamic that had been made possible by the agrarian regime to continue and even accelerate, by shifting its main source of energy from the solar flux to geological stores of energy.  One way to describe this was as a move from surface to volume.[3]  For the first time, energy needs were more or less decoupled from territory, a point that Sieferle emphasises by calling fossil-fuel reserves a ‘subterranean forest.’[4]  Going down into the volume of the Earth—and thus into the deep time of the Earth’s past—became not just a minor additional activity but absolutely central to the logic of society.  But we have seen that this regime has been deeply perverse in its effects, especially in terms of climate change and ocean acidification, and cannot safely be sustained. So what could come next?  Here we need to be imaginative. 

It seems likely that one way or another we need to shift to a new kind of solar regime – one that shares with the hunter-gatherer and agrarian regimes the utilisation of the massive constant flow of solar energy through the Earth system—rather than the mining of finite stocks of energy under the earth. Nevertheless a regime that can support the greatly enlarged human population that the fossil-fuel-based regime has produced.  The dominant emerging vision involves reducing energy needs through efficiency gains, and shifting from fossil-fuel use to the capturing of solar energy, either directly through photo-voltaic electricity or biofuels, or indirectly through harnessing the energy of the movement of air and water as the elemental media of the Earth dissipate the energy gradients created by the curvature of the Earth’s surface and the shifting relation between Earth and Moon. 

Going up

Yet shifting from fossil fuels to solar energy in the dominant ways that are being envisaged would involve restoring the link between energy and territory.  There is thus a danger that the way that we reduce the pressure on the capacity of the atmosphere and ocean safely to absorb CO2 will simply redirect that pressure onto the surface area of the Earth, with even less room for non-human nature.  Given that the current socioeconomic system has a structural need for ever-growing energy consumption, simply shifting back to a territory-based socio-metabolic regime without otherwise radically altering the organisation of society is likely simply to displace, not overcome, the contradictions of our current way of life.

So maybe a return to the surface is not the way forward.  Maybe the fourth major socio-metabolic regime should continue the industrial regime’s volumetric approach, but intensify it and switch it around by going not downwards but upwards. For more than a decade now, Tomás Saraceno has been using his art to explore the idea of inhabiting the air. In series of works such as Air Port City, Cloud City, On Space Time Foam, Museo Aero Solar, Becoming Aerosolar and now Aerocene, Saraceno’s enduring themes have been going not down but up, not fossil fuels but light and air, and not the deep past but the deep future— a vision of living spaces lifted up into a light, airy, green future, floating and casting their diffuse shadows over a land liberated for non-human life to flourish.  At the moment, Saraceno’s vision of cumulus cities and cirrus cities convening and dispersing in the air remains just that—a fanciful vision.  But maybe its sheer apparent impossibility should prompt us to consider it as something to be actively explored—as exactly the sort of radical revisioning of how we inhabit the Earth that is needed at this time.

Opening up

Tomás Saraceno’s work can also help us envision another aspect of how we might need to alter the way we inhabit our planet. The historical disaplacements of one socio-metabolic regime by another have always been accompanied by dramatic shifts in ideas of the human, and of the human body’s relationship with its environment and the wider cosmos. Yet the contemporary politics of low-carbon living is still closely tied to the enclosed forms of embodiment associated with industrial society and its fossil-fuel excess.  Saraceno’s art offers clues as to how we might break that link and find new ways of enacting and experiencing our being-in-the-world.

Mikhael Bakhtin’s 1968 exploration of the ‘carnivalesque’ dimensions of medieval culture emphasised the openness of the medieval body to metabolic flows and enjoyments of matter and energy.[5] Teresa Brennan, in 2000, used Bakhtin’s analysis as the basis for a more general argument that people who lived under pre-modern socio-metabolic regimes typically conceived themselves not as closed off from the environment, but as opened to flows of energy, affect and mental content from their surroundings.  Yet with the Protestant reformation, which prepared the way for modern society, the body was progressively closed off.  Bodily engagement with the world, and with the divine, were increasingly devalued in favour of interior reflection, language and speech, and the close-contact senses of touch, taste and smell were de-emphasised in favour of those of vision and hearing.[6]

The transition to industrial modernity also involved developing very different ways of talking about energy and movement.  The word energy comes from the ancient Greek energos, meaning “being in action.”  This was a rich, qualitative concept that encompassed a broad range of different kinds of activity (poiesis and praxis), and relations between potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (energeia). The modern, quantitative concept of energy is very different.  It has made possible huge gains in human understanding of the universe, but has done so at the expense of an awareness of the qualitative dimensions of energy.[7] Defined as the capacity to do ‘useful work’, the modern idea of energy is very much a product of the industrial metabolic regime,[8] and has encouraged an alienation from the contingencies of creaturely existence. As Lewis Mumford put it, in the industrial system, “[p]ower was dissociated from its natural human and geographic limitations: from the caprices of the weather, from the irregularities that definitely restrict the output of men and animal.”[9]

Brennan also argued that the modern idea of psychic self-closure is inextricably linked with the technological domination of nature, and with the proliferation of commodities and characteristic of industrial, capitalist modernity.  In an echo of Latour’s 1993 argument that modernity’s attempt to separate and purify nature and culture has the counteracting effect of making hybrids proliferate,[10] she suggests that the notion of psychic closure from wider energetic flows has helped to drive the breathtaking energetic and material profligacy of modern society, and the incessant conversion of the energies of life into dead commodities.[11]

Yet the current way of thinking about low-carbon, sustainable living is still grounded in the modern, industrial ‘constitution’ of the body, one predicated on a minimisation of the material, energetic and symbolic exchange with the environment and the rational monitoring of behaviour.  A transition to a genuinely sustainable society might require not just a technological transition but also a more fundamental anthropic one, involving new ideas of what it is to be human, with very different understandings of energy and its relationship to life—and perhaps one that echoes those of pre-modern societies.

the aerocene vision

The Aerocene sculpture—along with all the wider social practices that convene around it—gestures towards such a new vision of the human.  The Aerocene vision is about going up, but also opening up.  The Aerocene sculptures gains its power to rise into and inhabit the atmosphere not merely from itself but from its openness to elemental media and cosmic forces.  They collect electro-magnetic energy from the sun and the Earth through its membrane; they use the weight of the atmosphere above it to rise, and pressure differentials in the atmosphere around them to move. They engage with the human bodies and collectivities that gather around them, becoming nodes in a network of bodies that make each other sensitive to the dynamics of the atmosphere. And the open body of Aerocene reminds us of the openness of our own bodies–that living things, like all dissipative systems,[12] depend on a constant flow of energy, matter and information across the boundary that at once divides and joins them and their environment. Aerocene points towards an anthropic transition that would open us up to the more-than-human world. 

Inhabiting the air and opening up to the elements would also involve us recognising contingency and hazard as a necessary part of creaturely existence, rather than something that can ever be eradicated.  As Tim Ingold puts it, life (anima) is not something carried by the wind; it is being carried by the wind (anemos): “life is not in things; rather, things are in life, caught up in a current of continual generation.”[13] We need new forms of solidarity and security, predicated not on closure and independence but on the recognition of mutual vulnerability and interdependence.[14] The Aerocene provides a framework for that vision, a metaphorical—and maybe literal—lifting and opening up into the constant becoming of airy being.

Bronislaw Szerszynski


[1] Smith, Crosbie (1998) The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain, London: Athlone Press.

[2] Ellis, Erle C. (2011) ‘Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (1010-1035).

[3] Elden, Stuart (2013) ‘Secure the volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power,’ Political Geography, 34, pp. 35-51.

[4] Sieferle, Rolf Peter (2001) The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution, Cambridge: The White Horse Press.

[5] Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich (1968) Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[6] Mellor, Philip A. and Chris Shilling (1997) Re-forming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity, London: Sage/TCS.

[7] Illich, Ivan (2009) ‘The social construction of energy,’ in New Geographies, 2: Landscapes of Energy, ed. Rania Ghosn, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 13-9.

[8] Smith, Crosbie (1998) The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain, London: Athlone Press.

[9] Mumford, Lewis (1934) Technics and Civilization, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company. 196

[10] Latour, Bruno (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, tr. Catherine Porter, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

[11] Brennan, Teresa (2000) Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy, London: Routledge.

[12] Prigogine, Ilya (1969) ‘Structure, dissipation and life,’ in Theoretical Physics and Biology, ed. MauriceMarois, Amsterdam: North-Holland PublishingCompany, pp. 23-52.

[13] Ingold, Tim (2007) ‘Earth, sky, wind, and weather,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(s1), pp. S19-S38.

[14] Szerszynski, Bronislaw (2010) ‘Reading and writing the weather: climate technics and the moment of responsibility,’ Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), pp. 9-30.