Off the Cuff: Gökçe Günel, Anthropologist, Lecturer, Author


Photo Courtesy of Zeinab Abul-Magd

Gökçe Günel, author of Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Green Business in Abu Dhabi.

Kerensa Loadholt, News Editor

Gökçe Günel, Ph.D., is an Anthropology lecturer at Columbia University. Her articles have been published in Ephemera, Anthropology News, Public Culture, The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, the ARPA Journal, Avery Review, and PoLAR. She has written about climate change and sustainability and focuses on the renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in the United Arab Emirates, where Masdar City — meant to be completely sustainable — is being built. Günel spoke on her manuscript of Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Green Business in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

How did you become interested in writing about environmental sustainability and climate change?

I was really interested in large urban development projects happening in the Arab Gulf. I got there, and I started doing work there in early 2008. That was right before the economic crash. There were a lot of those projects happening, and I wanted to write about what it means to build a city from scratch for a population that’s not yet there, for a population that’s going to later move there for that city and for that space. Masdar City was really interesting because of its emphasis on renewable energy and clean technology. It was trying to foreground something that the other cities did not necessarily foreground, which was environmentalism, a new kind of environmentalism that they were pushing forward.

[The city] had a research institute inside that was set up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was also drawn to how these bigger universities are building branch campuses outside in other parts of the world. MIT’s presence in the city helped me gain access as a researcher, so that’s how I became involved in the project and started writing about it.

At the time, there was very little writing about sustainability discourse, or very little critical writing about what sustainability means or what sustainable development means specifically from an ethnographic, anthropological point of view. I thought the project would help me to develop that criticism and help me to understand how sustainability gets practiced in a place that is known for having very high carbon emissions.

The practice of building an artificial city as a model for sustainability doesn’t seem to be a sustainable method in and of itself.

It’s a very technocratic project. The premise of the city, in a way — this is not what the city advertises — but the premise of the city is that technology can solve environmental problems. That the right technology, the right design solutions, the right business models combined will allow us to overcome ecological challenges and extend our ways of living. So the city is an experiment conducted to see if that is correct, if that works. It is also produced as an exportable product, so if the city works as an experiment, it can be sold and replicated in other settings where it might be easier to replicate the city. It’s used as a model. It’s hard to decide whether that’s a sustainable model in itself because sustainability is all about metrics. It depends on what you’re measuring and what you’re not measuring, and how you’re deciding whether that’s sustainable or not. It’s almost like a math problem.

That question is harder to answer, but then [it also involves] thinking about the articles of the project and [what the premises of the project are] and what the reasons are [behind] investors, governments and developers being interested in these smart city or eco-projects.

Do you think your background in Anthropology changed the way you shaped your research?

Anthropologists follow ethnographic methods when conducting research. Ethnographic methods allow you to spend long periods of time with [the people you’re studying] and with the questions you’re asking. My research started in Cambridge at MIT. I was there for six months, and I was investigating how MIT funds institutions abroad, like research centers. Specifically, I was studying this group called the Technology and Development Program that has a long history of building infrastructures in other parts of the world as an MIT body. After doing research on their work, I moved to Abu Dhabi and started doing research on the construction of Masdar City and the construction of different kinds of experiments within Masdar City, such as the Personal Rapid Transit Pod experiments that I was talking about yesterday.

I was also interested in how Abu Dhabi and Masdar contribute to the making of global climate change policy. So I moved to look at how Abu Dhabi’s policy proposals are evaluated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. All of these are possible because ethnography allows me to follow my questions from one side to the other, so I can follow all of these objects as they mature, you know, as they circulate between all of these different locations. As they move, they change meanings, they allow new kinds of structure [and] they facilitate all kinds of social relations. Ethnographic methods allow you to follow all of these objects and see how they’re intertwined with each other. Beyond that, anthropological questions allow researchers to question underlying assumptions for these kinds of projects, and allow you to think about the context from which they emerge, and to see what kinds of social relations those projects are embedded in. Why does it make sense for Abu Dhabi to create a project like Masdar City, for instance?

In building Masdar City and working with the UN and MIT, Abu Dhabi has also created a relationship with the International Renewable Energy Agency. Could you speak a little more about IRENA’s involvement in the planning of the city?

IRENA has actually built their headquarters in Masdar City. It’s like the counterpart to IEA, which is the International Energy Agency. It was very important for Abu Dhabi to have the headquarters in Masdar City to become part of the renewable energy and clean technology industry. It’s both a gesture to show Abu Dhabi’s commitment to renewable energy and clean technology, [and] it allows Abu Dhabi to become an international diplomacy [and to be involved in making policy] as well.

Do you think that Masdar City will work to sustain the poorer countries surrounding it considering that it is built on a sustainability model?

The UAE has a population of 9 million people, and only about 1 million of those people are Emirate citizens. So 8 million people who live and work in the UAE are immigrant workers. Some of those immigrant workers are white collar workers that have jobs in industries like tourism, finance or construction, but most of them are immigrant workers from South Asia, South East Asia or Africa. All of these workers are there on temporary contracts and on visas. You can’t naturalize as an Emirate citizen, but you can have a 30-year visa. In response, Abu Dhabi is looking to build its own base of local experts. It’s creating this program called Emiratization and is investing in a lot of research at institutes like Masdar Institute, which is inside Masdar City. Emirate students can have a better education and can stay in the country. They are investing in Emirate, in the country’s institutions, and tak[ing] responsibility for different kinds of roles within the country. There’s a lot of incentives for Emirate citizens to engage with these institutions in different kinds of ways, but a lot of the projects that are built in the UAE are built because of the presence of such cheap labor. There are a lot human rights abuses happening in the UAE where the workers are mistreated — they live in very bad conditions in labor camps and they can be kicked out of the country whenever their contracts expire. They don’t necessarily have rights there. The cheap labor laws in all of the Arab Gulf experiment with different kinds of projects like that.

Everything in the Arab gulf has been built on cheap labor. Some of the producers of Masdar City would say that they were building a sustainable city, but not investing in human capital. They’re not really teaching the people who built the city to become better workers or giving them training programs or allowing them to develop themselves or build new skills. So, what kind of understanding of sustainability is this? This leads back to the critique, and part of what I am writing about [is the critique] from inside.

Have people had a positive reaction to the construction of Masdar City?

There was a lot of excitement for building a project that had a lot of global recognition and that [attracted] a lot of attention both internationally and domestically. I don’t know what people thought it would look like in the end, but the construction process was very illuminating for a lot of people. People really like to come and visit the city and shop at the organic grocery stores or take their kids to play. It is a project that shows respect to the founding father of the country.

Do you plan on continuing your research on this project? What is next for you?

I am interested in decentralized energy infrastructures. Masdar City was a way of thinking about energy independence so that it would be a space that can sustain itself and which can be insulated from the environment outside. It can produce energy and use that energy and therefore have some kind of independence. There’s a lot of writing on centralized energy systems versus decentralized energy systems and the different kinds of infrastructures. I’m interested in researching other kinds of decentralized energy structures like Masdar City and seeing how decentralization is understood by the people who are building those infrastructures and the people who are using those infrastructures and see the independence that it claims to grant.