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The way it is – From Greta Thunberg to Aerocene in Salinas Grandes

The image on the cover of Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book is enough to gauge the scale of the disaster. A series of vertical stripes show the progressive rise in global temperatures from 1654 to 2021, in resemblance to what could be a colorful Agnes Martin, the collective work of humanity’s feverish growth over the past decades. Each of the stripes indicates the average temperature of a year, from the deep blue of the first, coldest years to the deep red of the last. These are the warming stripes, created by Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading to show at a glance the unmistakable progress of global warming. They can be downloaded for free from, including those of Argentina, an abstract picture of the disaster that we too, aided by the countries of the North, were able to achieve.

The image is irrefutable but only the trigger for a tenacious crusade that now comes in the form of a book, a “Climate Bible”, polyphonic howl of a hurting world. “We tell it like it is,” Greta writes in one of the forewords that open each section, because she believes that not only are we unaware of the emergency, but we have not realised that we are unaware, a double capital fault that can only be repaired with clear and accurate information. The story she wants to tell – “the world’s biggest story” – could start with a couple of alarming figures. Average global temperatures have risen by 1.2°C since pre-industrial times, and although in the 2015 Paris Agreement almost every country in the world committed to limit warming to below 2°C (ideally below 1.5°C), the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that, with current policies, it will reach 3.2°C by 2100. In defiance of expert warnings (by the late 1970s there was already scientific consensus on increasing global warming), annual carbon emissions since 1991 have exceeded those of the rest of human history. The explosive growth of the 20th century tripled the world’s post-World War II population, quadrupled water consumption, increased marine fish catches sevenfold and fertiliser consumption tenfold. And while the whole world suffers the consequences, we are not all equally responsible. The greatest population growth was in the global South and most of the consumption was driven by the United States and Europe. The richest 10% of the world’s population causes 50% of our carbon emissions, more than double the emissions of the poorest half of the world.

We do not know the end of the story, but science does its best to remind us that there have been five mass extinctions in the last half a billion years, each in turn wiping out three quarters of the planet’s species, and we are blindly heading towards a sixth, the first caused by a biological agent, humans, the drivers of “infinite growth on a finite planet”.

From this account, it becomes clear that in the light of a multidimensional crisis, solutions will have to be collective but also individual. The critical tipping point for changing individual behaviour, sociology points out, is a committed minority of 25%; popular protest, activism and environmental movements, especially of young people and women, are trying to reach it in defiance of the silence of the mass media. “If I were asked which industry is most responsible for the destruction of life on the planet,” writes George Monbiot, writer and columnist for The Guardian, “I would say the media”. Through their complicity, their blindness, or their idleness, “they are the engine of persuasion that allows the system of destruction of the Earth to persist”. It is therefore necessary to demand clear environmental platforms from political parties, but also to refocus the world’s attention, gaining space in the mainstream media and redoubling efforts in alternative media, seeking new channels and encouraging new collective enterprises. El gato y la caja, for example, a platform for scientific research and dissemination created by a collective of young Argentines to generate public communication content on science in digital media – “more science, in more places, for more people” – and a collection of books, also available free of charge. In tune with Greta’s initiative, the latest, Clima, made openly and communally, convened a group of scientists, economists and activists, to tell “the biggest design challenge of all time” from a regional perspective.

However, individual will alone is not enough to implement fair and equitable climate mitigation and renaturalisation. Environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer proposes “aligning economies with the laws of nature” and reminds us that “ecology” and “economy” share the same Greek root, oikos, meaning “house”. There will be no decarbonisation without a profound redistribution of wealth, Thomas Piketty asserts, and proposes creative solutions: “A modest global wealth tax on billionaires with a pollution surcharge could generate 1.7% of global revenues, which could finance most of the additional investments needed per year to cover climate mitigation efforts”. The proposal is sensible in an absurdly unequal world, but it will not be easy to stand up to the voracity and social deafness of the big corporations.

In the discourse of politics, economics and sometimes even science, a narrow pragmatism reigns, incapable of imagining what is to come, art does not conform to this impoverished version of realism; it gives material and visible entity to metaphors, reveals the limits of the imagination and makes realistic fantasies that at first sight are impracticable.

This is what happens in the practice of the Aerocene community who for years has been undertaking networked projects (“doing something”, Tomás Saraceno says, “that none of us could do alone”), in which the frontiers between science, technique, social theory and art are diluted like the horizon line of the Salar de Uyuni, where their first balloons flew, until they are recomposed in a fluid practice that is its own odyssey of space and perhaps its redefinition of art in the 21st century. In January 2020, a woman flew freely in a balloon for 16 minutes without the use of fossil fuels, helium or lithium, over the white sea of Salinas Grandes in the province of Jujuy. Fly with Aerocene Pacha broke 32 records with the most sustainable flight in human history, carrying the message proposed by the indigenous communities, who for more than a decade have been fighting for their rights in the face of resource extraction in the region: “Water and life are worth more than lithium”. The feat was documented in the film Pacha, which three years later, in mid-January, was screened in front of many of the protagonists in San Francisco de Alfarcito, a village of less than a hundred inhabitants, nestled in the clouds on the high plateau of Jujuy at an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level.

There, the Aerocene community brought together environmental lawyers, human rights and nature rights activists, geopolitical and commons experts, writers and academic specialists in the region’s conflicts with a large group of representatives of the indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, to strengthen the defence of the territory, subjugated by extractivism with a high environmental impact, doubly strengthened by the global demand for lithium that promises to implement electromobility. The way it is: with very little return for the country, a paradoxical “green colonialism” that will only benefit the energy transition of the North, depredates ecosystems and the dwindling resources of the people. It is time to imagine ways for our energy transition with fair and democratic strategic planning, attentive to environmental impact. On the parched football pitch in Alfarcito, one of Aerocene’s aerosolar sculptures took flight this time with a new message, epitome of the synergy of the debates: “In complementarity, we take care of water”. But can art really redesign the future?

A clear example of what the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui calls “cosmotechnics”, the work of the Aerocene community aspires to a historically, cosmologically and locally situated technology. It does not want to push the boundaries of art at the expense of technique, but the idea relies on encouraging a more ambitious and promising dialogue. Since modernity, we have been thinking about how new media has changed the languages of art, but their interdisciplinary projects have raised a more important question and some inspiring answers: how can the imagination of art transform technology? For example, by preserving that moving continuum of earth and air of the salt flats, fragile remnants of a sublime landscape that indigenous communities have preserved for thousands of years?

According to The Climate Book, Indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the global population and occupy less than a third of the planet’s territories, yet they are responsible for preserving 80% of the Earth’s diversity. On the thirsty altiplano of the Puna, they continue to guard the water and salt flats, in immemorial harmony with the starry sky, llamas, vicuñas, cacti and a few olive trees.