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  • Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi by Gökçe Günel
  • Idalina Baptista
Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. 272 pp.

Spaceship in the Desert is a timely contribution to a growing field of anthropological scholarship on energy. Günel engages Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City as a site for exploring intersecting concerns over climate change, technology, knowledge production, and uncanny moral paths pursued in the name of sustainable futures. It is full of ethnographic detail based on the author’s time spent in Masdar, as well as attendance at conferences, events, and other insightful conversations related to the experiment. The book seems to integrate expanded versions of a number of previously published articles in its core five chapters, which are brought together by an Introduction and an Epilogue with further reflections on Masdar City’s experiment as a whole.

The Introduction familiarizes readers with Masdar City, expands on the book’s key contributions and methodological approach, and provides an outline of the book. It opens with ethnographic vignettes that capture the market-oriented approach that prevailed throughout the (then short) life of this experiment. This much is encapsulated in the chapter’s subtitle— “The Soul of Carbon Dioxide”—a reference to an informant’s attempts at making visible the “soul” of CO2 through monetary terms. Furthermore, the chapter outlines one of its key analytical foci and contribution of the book: what the author calls “technical adjustments.” These consist of experimental tweaks to the energy status quo that foreground technological fixes over a moral and ethical consideration of a future without oil and pervasive consumption. Each subsequent chapter focuses on a different “technical adjustment,” although the narrative does not always return to this broad idea or its theorization. Instead, each one engages with key [End Page 1309] thinking relevant to historicize the “technical adjustment” under analysis. This is quite useful as it contextualizes Masdar’s experiments and their path-dependencies, showing how these are shaped over time by flows of ideas and policies through various networks. Ultimately, Günel seems less concerned with adjudicating on the successes or failures of each “technical adjustment” than she is in exploring the productive tensions found in their potential for invoking an oil-less future.

Chapter 1 explores the language of choice to describe Masdar in the years that followed the project’s launch in 2006. It draws on futuristic imagery from science fiction and space utopia/dystopia, as well as the idea of the frontier, all tempered with allusions to the vernacular Arab city. Here, we learn of the origins of the book’s title, Spaceship in the Desert, used less as metaphor than as metonym, neatly depicting Masdar as a bounded, self-sufficient, high-tech, futuristic experiment in the Emirate’s desert. The notion of experiment comes through strongly in this chapter, although it is also present throughout the book. The chapter (and the book as a whole) may have benefitted from engaging with literature on energy experiments being developed in other social sciences (namely in geography—work by Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castán Broto come to mind). Instead, Günel shows how the experiment presents itself as a frontier for performing novel livelihoods that could be adopted elsewhere. In the eyes of its promoters, Masdar’s relevance—as prototype, potential, and promise—stands not on how it actually works, but on the bodily performance of what Masdar may become by those who live in it or visit it. The author argues that it is through the performance of a hi-tech prototype that the success of Masdar is anticipated, although not without being confronted with the everyday idiosyncrasies of its experimental technology. In the end, the futuristic language and imagery used for Masdar is largely an asocial and apolitical stance on sustainability, seldom acknowledging looming concerns over social justice.

Chapter 2 delves into the politics of how Masdar, as an energy experiment, is made appealing through beautiful buildings and research contracts. It focuses on the role played by the establishment of Masdar...

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