Spaceship in the Desert

Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 31 illustrations Published: March 2019

Author: Gökçe Günel

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Middle East Studies, Science and Technology Studies

In 2006 Abu Dhabi launched an ambitious project to construct the world’s first zero-carbon city: Masdar City. In Spaceship in the Desert Gökçe Günel examines the development and construction of Masdar City's renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures, providing an illuminating portrait of an international group of engineers, designers, and students who attempted to build a post-oil future in Abu Dhabi. While many of Masdar's initiatives—such as developing a new energy currency and a driverless rapid transit network—have stalled or not met expectations, Günel analyzes how these initiatives contributed to rendering the future a thinly disguised version of the fossil-fueled present. Spaceship in the Desert tells the story of Masdar, at once a “utopia” sponsored by the Emirati government, and a well-resourced company involving different actors who participated in the project, each with their own agendas and desires.


"Spaceship in the Desert is the fascinating story of a 'zero-carbon eco-city' that demonstrates the stark difference between vision and reality. . . . Günel’s first-hand reportage is insightful and objective." — Barry Silverstein, Foreword Reviews

"The book is not only a rich ethnographic description of Masdar in all of its intricacies, but also a larger reflection on how global risks are framed according to the beliefs and situated actions of various interest groups." — Gerardo del Cerro Santamaría, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

"The global climate crisis is serious, but Günel shows that our attempts to tackle it are less so. . . . Our contemporary moral mess, from the GCC to Massachusetts, can be seen all too clearly through the pages of Günel’s account." — Deen Sharp, Public Books

"Günel’s deft ethnographic sensibilities and creatively designed fieldwork further distinguish her contributions to anthropological studies of climate change, governance, knowledge production, infrastructure, materialism, and futurity more broadly. . . . Through fascinating and critical ethnographic descriptions, Günel offers a piercing glimpse into the front-lines of global climate change action." — Gebhard Keny, Ethnos

"Spaceship in the Desert deserves special credit for presenting a multifaceted inquiry into the prospects of an energy transition in a fossil fuel-based economy, along with the dilemmas experienced by various actors within this context." — Kutay Kutlu, New Perspectives on Turkey

"Günel is right to conclude that so long as it possesses potential, Masdar is neither a success nor a failure, neither a utopia nor a dystopia. The heavy ironies of the project and the brazen cynicism of many involved in it deserve to be lampooned, but not ignored." — Matan Kaminer, MERIP

"Spaceship in the Desert is a timely contribution to a growing field of anthropological scholarship on energy. . . . This book has the potential to attract readers from across the social sciences, not just within anthropology. The richness of ethnographic detail drawn in connection with the work of key thinkers may satisfy some readers." — Idalina Baptista, Anthropological Quarterly

"Compelling and thought-provoking. . . .  Günel encourages us as academics and as persons to rethink, renegotiate, and recreate our imaginations of the future through climate change technologies that do not preserve the status quo, but rather, alter it in the present." — Hai Ri (Sophia) Jeon, Anthropology Book Forum

“[Günel’s] brilliant ethnography of Masdar reminds us of the limits of the third pilot of Spaceship Earth—the market.... Gu¨nel’s study also shows how the scope of climate change demands administrative bodies beyond corporations and states.”

— Troy Vettese, Viewpoint Magazine

“The text leaves no doubt that Gu¨nel believes that climate change should give rise to fundamental rethinking of the political and economic order—and that Masdar City is an attempt to the contrary—but there is no moralist or raised index finger in the book. It is the people and their ideas that are at the center....” — Nina Trige Anderson, Modern Times

“This absorbing and beautifully researched book is about the technopolitics of environmental resource management in an unlikely eco-site: Masdar City in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. But it is also about the dreams, cosmologies, and technical skills of the people who made Masdar City. Based on compellingly recounted ethnographic work, this theoretically sophisticated book shows how instead of questioning the fundamental tenets of capitalism which hurl the world toward environmental degradation, the ‘technical adjustments’ of such ecological interventions accommodate consumerism and capitalism while donning the mantle of progressive eco-politics." — Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle East Politics, SOAS, University of London

“In this inventive, original, and readable book, Gökçe Günel explores the line between the visionary and the folly, examining the planning, execution, and imagination of the first post-oil, renewable energy, carbon neutral smart city in the Middle East. Folding together urbanism and energy politics, climate change and spectacle, knowledge economies and the end of oil, Günel is alive to the ambitions and the contradictions of creating a city so unique it is a ‘spaceship in the desert.’” — Brian Larkin, author of Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gökçe Günel is Assistant Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. The Soul of Carbon Dioxide  1
Part I. Knowledge
1. Inhabiting the Spaceship  37
2. Beautiful Buildings and Research Contracts  65
Part II. Technology
3. Ergos: A New Energy Currency  101
4. An Expensive Toy  127
Part III. Governance
5. Subsurface Workings  157
Epilogue. The Potential Futures of Abu Dhabi's Masdar  183
Notes  199
References  237
Index  249
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0091-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0072-3
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