To focus on reducing future emissions is no longer enough. In order to survive, we need to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it underground on a massive scale. To tackle this daunting task, Liam Young has produced The Great Endeavour. Working alongside a group of scientists and technologists, the film showcases the ambitious vision of constructing such gigantic infrastructure. In this interview, we talked about the biggest machines ever imagined, the urge of thinking in planetary terms and the benefit of understanding that the current climate crisis is no longer a technological one.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
KOOZ You define yourself as a “worldbuilder”. Could you expand on the term further?
LIAM YOUNG I’m trained as an architect but I don’t make buildings. Instead I make stories about the architectural, urban and global implications of new technologies. I'm interested in the way that architects make and shape stories through and with space, right? So for me, worldbuilding is a narrative process where we don't just think about the building as a singular object, but instead we think about the building caught within a massive network of flows and systems. It's no longer possible to think about buildings as singular points on a map or even a city as a single point on a map. To understand Venice or London or Los Angeles, you need to think not just about the city and the particular geography it sits on, but also all of the material flows and network of landscapes that produce and are produced by those cities. So in today's globalised, networked world, we need to reimagine what site is for architects. It's no longer just a site plan, a point on a map with a boundary and some immediate adjacencies. Now it is a planetary constellation of landscapes that produce that site. World building is a process where you not only think about the building as an object but also about the whole world that sits within it: its material flows, technological systems, as well as cultural contexts, societal frameworks and political contexts. The art of a world builder is to create that context.
World building is a process where you not only think about the building as an object but also about the whole world that sits within it.
I would hope that today, in order to operate in a meaningful way, architects would also be world builders because you can no longer take an empty plot of land and put some beautiful sculptural object on it. You need to think about all of the landscapes that are produced by that object and the landscapes that in turn produce that object. Because I'm really interested in the way that, for instance, the vibrating, glowing rectangles we have in our pockets are actually stacks of rare earth and they come from landscapes in Inner Mongolia, a hole in the ground in Australia, or from lithium in Bolivia. To do a drawing of an iPhone is actually a drawing of the planet, right? Conceptualising the design of that object is an act of world building, where product design and landscape design have kind of collapsed together to the point where they've become the same thing. So for me, world building in its most succinct form is imagining and creating the context in which something sits.
To do a drawing of an iPhone is actually a drawing of the planet, right?
KOOZ The Great Endeavour stems from the premise that to reach current climate targets, we cannot solely rely on slashing future emissions, but also develop the capacity to remove existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Through the short film, you explore the design construction visualisation of what it might look like to build this infrastructural imaginary. To what extent is the film a cautionary tale, and what is the power of exhibiting such a project within the context of the laboratory of the future?
LY The Great Endeavor is a film that chronicles what will be humanity's largest ever construction project, which is the design of a planetary network of carbon removal infrastructure. We have a whole lot of scientists and technologists that are collaborators on the project. And science says that our generation, in order to avoid extinction, needs to build this machine. What that means is that every oil rig, every pipeline, every gas plant that currently exists on Earth, we need to build again. Otherwise it's game over. And that amounts to a planetary collaboration at a scale never before seen. But we don't talk about it at all. We don't talk about it because it's hard and it's really daunting. We don't talk about it because our general visions of the future, our utopian visions of the future, are based on outdated environmental ideals that come from the boomer generation in the 60s and 70s. You know, their solutions to climate change are about local scale action, right? Like trees on rooftops, community gardens in Brooklyn. Grow chickens in your back garden, eat food that's locally sourced, buy an electric car and we're all going to be okay. But the scale of problem we're now faced with means that those local individual scale solutions are entirely insufficient for the problem that we've created.
The Great Endeavor is about humanity's largest ever construction project, which is the design of a planetary network of carbon removal infrastructure.
The alternative planetary scale action is, in popular cultural terms, always dystopian, right? Like the Bond villain is always kind of trying to engineer the planet, you know, the Marvel villain. Planetary scale action is always dystopian and destructive, the work of the Megacorporation. We don't have scaled visions at planetary scales that are aspirational. So, what The Great Endeavor is trying to do is to create what I think is a hopeful vision of a future. A future that is planetary in its scope, a future technology that is huge and enormous and confronting but that will save us. So I don't think it's a cautionary tale. I think it's a roadmap. It's a visualisation of what we need to do.The Great Endeavor is our generation's moon landing. And if we don't start building it soon, we're all going to die. It does look kind of haunting and confronting and a bit scary. But that's because our general visions of the future see us in Log Cabin returning to nature. But the world that we've created for ourselves doesn't rewind like that. There's no such thing as that as a local iPad, there's no return to local tourism.
We need to get used to these kinds of solutions. So a lot of people might see the film and go, “Wow, look at these giant technological machines. They are scary.” People don't see those visions as part of what a sustainable future is going to be, but they need to.
The Great Endeavor is our generation's moon landing.
In the film we use techniques and frame references and visualisations that come from the language of the sublime painters, because what we're trying to do is create a new kind of technological sublime, which is trying to bring audiences into a new relationship to these technologies, not see them as being antithetical to nature, but to understand nature instead as being always a product of technology. It is not natural anymore. Perhaps there never really was in the sense that we currently culturally define it. Technology has always been a driver for natural change and seeing technology and nature in opposition to each other at this point in time totally rules out the possibility for these technologies to actually help us. So seeing this giant wall of fans in the ocean isn't what we think of the natural world to be. But we should understand that we've already geoengineered the earth. That's the problem we've created for ourselves. So geo-engineering it back seems entirely reasonable.
Technology has always been a driver for natural change and seeing technology and nature in opposition to each other rules out the possibility for these technologies to actually help us.
KOOZ In this sense, you talk about engaging with scientists. A lot of the time scientists have the data, they have the papers, but it's hard for them to communicate it. So how do you then deploy? How does the medium of film seek to bridge this language gap, if we want to call it as such?
LY I use the phrase data dramatisation as opposed to data visualisation. Like in the world of data science and especially climate science, artists might come to that challenge by looking at the data set and trying to identify patterns and trying to visualise those patterns to make them legible to audiences. But in a way that doesn't go far enough. We all know, for all intents and purposes, that we're fucked, right? We all know climate change is a thing and temperatures are rising, but we still do what we do. We're still flying on planes and buying cars and wearing clothes and throwing them away when we shouldn't need to.
We all know, for all intents and purposes, that we're fucked, right?
Data dramatisation takes that same data set and imbues it not just with visualisation, but with drama and emotion so that we become complicit and involved and connected to that data. We see its consequences and we see its possibilities and that forces us into action. It is not just another rising red line on a graph that we can kind of ignore. When we watch a film and we're emotionally connected to what we're seeing on the screen, it encourages us to act in a different way.
So The Great Endeavour is somehow inspirational. At the very least, I hope it's moving and forcing us to have a conversation like this one, where we're talking about whether or not large-scale technological intervention is something we should be doing as a culture. We can see what it looks like if we were to really just follow the science, and The Great Endeavour is built entirely from scientific papers.
Just proposing these two massive carbon removal sites in the ocean, one in the desert, we're literally just visualising what the science tells us and we're encouraging people to sit with that and to be a part of that and to decide what that means to them. Is this something we want to be doing? Is this something we don't want to be doing? Something we need to be doing? So either we get moving quickly or we think of another very radical solution instead.
KOOZ Along with the Antarctic, the deep sea and space, the atmosphere is one of four Global Commons, international, supranational and global resource domains in which common pool resources are found. From a security perspective, the primary concern is safeguarding access to these domains. How does the film position itself in relation to their governance? Who has the right to remove CO2 and how?
LY CO2 is everywhere. These machines don't need to be located near a city or near a power plant to be effective. The CO2 disperses very readily in the atmosphere. So these machines can be anywhere. The requirements for them are not based on the carbon and where it is, but rather based on access to cheap energy, cheap land. These things are big and require a certain type of rock where you can inject the carbon for it to mineralise and be fixed essentially in geology for eternity. And there are a few places on earth where that happens: Iceland, Oman, the ocean floor and so on. So this is where these sites would go. At the same time, what we need to be mindful of in selecting from this group of sites is that what we don't want to do is repeat the mistakes of the current phase of industrialisation, where infrastructure has always been a tool of colonialism and the sites of consumption of resources that are extracted are very far removed from the sites of extraction and the sites of waste. So typically in the West we consume and then the sites that are producing what we consume are often on the African continent, or in Asia, they're off in the distant margins, in countries that we're not supposed to care about.
Typically in the West we consume and then the sites that are producing what we consume are often on the African continent, or in Asia, they're off in the distant margins, in countries that we're not supposed to care about.
And the waste that is produced from that consumerism is then dumped back in those same places. And carbon in the context of the Great Endeavour Project is just such consumption waste. The vast majority of carbon emissions have come from nations in the West. The vast amount of consequences of climate change is going to happen to the nations that aren't producing that carbon. So the temptation would be to repeat the process where the West pays for these carbon machines. We stick them in the country, the same countries where the mines are, the same countries where we throw our waste. We treat carbon like another waste product and we just perpetuate this system. But the opportunity now is to reimagine that and to actually site these carbon machines in places where we should be bearing the responsibility for the carbon cleanup. So the proposal isn't to stick it out of sight and out of mind, but rather to stick it in both a really efficient place where it's going to work well, but also to put it somewhere that isn't perpetuating the current inequalities that infrastructure brings about.
Climate change is not a crisis of technology, it's a crisis of the imagination.
KOOZ Is there anything you want to add?
LY I think one of the important projects to realise within The Great Endeavour is that climate change is no longer a technological problem. The technologies involved in The Great Endeavour are already here. They've proven to work, they're just not operating at scale. Similarly, the energy systems required to power them—the renewable systems, the fans, the wind turbines, solar panels—that technology is here and it's been here for 10 or 20 years. Climate change is now a cultural and political problem. It's not a crisis of technology, it's a crisis of the imagination. So this future vision is an attempt to engage with that cultural landscape to get us willing to embrace these technologies and willing to invest in them so that we can roll them out at scale. These future visions are to encourage us to embrace and see nature and the natural in a different way, not to be precious about some kind of nostalgia for a nature that never existed.
Liam Young is a designer, director and BAFTA nominated producer who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures. As a world builder he visualises the cities, spaces and props of our imaginary futures for the film and television industry. His films have been collected internationally by several international museums and he has been acclaimed in both mainstream and design media. His fictional work is informed by his academic research and has held guest professorships at Princeton University, MIT, and Cambridge and now runs the Master in Fiction and Entertainment at SCI Arc. He has published several books including Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post Anthropocene (2019) and Planet City (2020).