Geoengineering the Sublime
China and the Aesthetic State
Geoengineering for aesthetic and utilitarian ends, this essay argues, is part and parcel of the banal operation of state power in contemporary China. In contrast with Kantian articulations of the sublime, turn-of-the-century thinkers like Zhang Jingsheng and contemporary Chinese politicians and scientists espouse an ecological sublime undergirded by mechanistic and utilitarian logics expressed through techniques of altering earth systems. Intervening in earth systems to produce an experience of the ecological sublime, therefore, operates as an aesthetic modality of power—one that positions the Chinese State as the mechanistic producer of beauty and utility in nature.
If you walked through one of China’s megacities in the past few decades, the sky was most likely grey. Air pollution reached record highs; haze was omnipresent. The skies over major cities, including Beijing, exemplified this banal aesthetic feature of urban life. Living with pollution became commonplace—in part because of China’s role as a global manufacturing centre. For decades, China has been a factory for the world. Processes of industrial production in China are inextricably interlinked with embodied emissions, consumption, and profits of the Global North, particularly in places like the United States and Western Europe (Bergmann 2013). These global relationships of production and consumption contribute significantly to China’s grey skies. In addition, coal has been the predominant source of energy in China’s cities, further darkening the dusky dome above.
Concerns about the effects of air pollution on human health crystalised in Chai Jing’s personally narrated 2015 documentary, Under the Dome. After its release, the film made waves, garnering hundreds of millions of views and rallying a public outcry for greater official efforts to mitigate pollution (Chai 2015). It was quickly censored. Grey skies and the adverse effects of pollution on human bodies, it turns out, are not only of concern to Chinese society, but also highly sensitive matters to the Chinese authorities. The documentary contributed to increasing the visibility of rampant pollution and the harmful effects of state-directed development on the natural world and everyday life.
In contemporary China, the politics of visibility are paramount. As such, the aesthetic forms of the sky—its colour and material consistency—have become matters of official government intervention. State weather-control systems routinely seek to transform the material nature of skies across China’s territory. When the Chinese authorities decide to turn the sky from grey to blue, bureaucratic levers are pulled and the clanking gears of technoscientific intervention and social control are put in motion—with more or less effect. When the Chinese Government desires precipitation, scientists and environmental engineers seed clouds (云种散播) with silver iodide (see Yeh’s essay in the current issue). Local officials demand the closure of factories. Environmental engineers control air quality in close contact with local authorities. The Beijing Weather Control Office, for instance, is tasked with controlling not only Beijing’s sky, but also the air over Hebei Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Nearly 40,000 scientists and bureaucrats work in this government office dedicated to the dream of geoengineering the sky.
Geoengineering entails deliberate, large-scale intervention in earth systems—often the introduction of a chemical element or technical device—to alter environmental conditions toward specific ends. I consider state efforts to beautify the natural world through geoengineering interventions in earth systems as geo-aesthetic engineering.
Examples of geo-aesthetic engineering in China abound. The 2008 and 2022 Olympic Games, as well as the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and 2016 G20 summits, are examples of international events that brought the levers of geo-aesthetic engineering into action to beautify the sky. These events, when the eyes of the world were looking at China, were accompanied by comprehensive campaign-style government intervention that halted construction, manufacturing, industrial production, and motor vehicle traffic, while scientific efforts to alter earth systems turned towards the aerial (Shen and Ahlers 2019).
Blue skies are fabricated through scientific techniques and the everyday exercise of state power. Sky aestheticisation, brought about through the marriage of science and state power, visually projects the politics of a ‘Beautiful China’ (美丽中国)—President Xi Jinping’s commonly used ideological phrase to describe the project of national landscape aestheticisation.
China’s Ecological Sublime
While most visible during high-profile events, geo-aesthetic engineering is part and parcel of the banal operation of state power in contemporary China. The tandem mobilisation of scientific techniques and government intervention over the economy, society, and beauty is the hallmark of the Chinese authorities’ Promethean ideology. Sociopolitical theorist John Dryzek (2005: 67) describes Prometheanism as the ‘belief that humans left to their own devices will automatically generate solutions to problems—and that an invisible hand guarantees good collective consequences’. The fusing of science and state power is fundamental to contemporary China’s ideological stance that technology in service of government will overcome environmental problems.
Problems like urban pollution—floating particulates blocking an otherwise blue sky—are considered problems addressable through techniques of state-led scientific intervention. Geo-aesthetic engineering bolsters the position that technological solutions backed by strong government intervention can remedy human-induced environmental problems and produce beauty. Aestheticising the sky is but one example among a panoply of commonplace bureaucratic processes aimed at beautifying China’s landscapes.
Since Xi took office, the ideology of constructing a Beautiful China has become a central pillar of the country’s political platform and state ideology. The Eighteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012 articulated the project of constructing a Beautiful China alongside the construction of an ‘Ecological Civilisation’ (生态文明建设). The forum describes the Beautiful China project as enhancing the beauty of the environment, society, and everyday people. Since Beautiful China became a key part of CCP ideology, the number of scientific papers and studies employing the concept has increased significantly. New evaluation systems, scientific methods of aesthetic measurement, and forms of spatial planning have been proposed by China’s scientists (Fang et al. 2020; Chen et al. 2020).
This coalescence of state aesthetic ideology and scientific techniques and practices, while formidable, is not unprecedented. In fact, while the current campaign is new, the notion of building a Beautiful China did not originate with the changing of the guard from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. In the transition from the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911) to the Republican era (1912–49), many schools of thought emerged with their own prescriptions for forging the ‘new’ China. Among the ideas advanced was that of the ‘aesthetic state’—a state with the express purpose of fostering beauty in society and across the national landscape. One of the key progenitors of this vision was Zhang Jingsheng (1888–1970), a Chinese intellectual and aesthetician.
After studying in France at the University of Lyon, Zhang returned to China to take a teaching post at Peking University. In the early 1920s, he delivered a series of lectures on the notion of the aesthetic state, which he termed a ‘government of beauty’ (美的政府). Melding Confucian Classicism with German Romanticist philosophy, Zhang described an aesthetic state as a government that teaches how to appreciate beauty to guide society toward ultimate happiness and personal attainment (Zhang 1998; Lee 2006). The role of the government, in Zhang’s theoretical formulation, is to foster a commonsense appreciation of beauty in the world by shaping society and nature through ‘science’—whether it be the science of life cycles, commerce, sex, or everyday life.
Zhang even went as far as to detail numerous aesthetic duties to be undertaken by specific government offices. He imagined an entire bureaucratic system organised around the aestheticisation of society and national space. Indeed, science, state power, and aesthetics are interwoven in Zhang’s articulation of the aesthetic state—much like in the contemporary discourses of constructing a Beautiful China and an Ecological Civilisation.
It is useful, at this point, to differentiate ecological articulations of the sublime in China from the sublime as conceived in Western contexts. In Western countries—particularly in Europe—the sublime is often associated with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which connotes qualities of greatness in an object via modalities of the noble, the moral, or the splendid (Kant 2003). ‘Part of the sublime experience for Kant’, literary scholar Christopher Hitt describes, is the ‘realization that we mortal creatures … are entirely dependent on forces greater than we are’ (1999: 607). In this context, the predominant forces to which humanity is subject are often construed in relation to the divine or abstract external forms of ‘nature’.
In Chinese articulations of the sublime, however, whether at the turn of the twentieth century or in the present, the state is paramount. The state inhabits a key role in engineering society and nature, thereby shaping the sublime experience in relation to government-sanctioned utility. Moreover, in contrast with Kantian articulations of the sublime, turn-of-the-century thinkers like Zhang Jingsheng and contemporary Chinese politicians and scientists espouse an ecological sublime undergirded by mechanistic and utilitarian logics. According to these logics, if the appropriate application of science and technical intervention is applied and backed by a strong state apparatus, a desired outcome will result in a predictable, mechanical fashion. For instance, the state can turn the sky blue. Or it can literally make it rain. The geoengineered results elicit awe in the capacity of the government to transform the natural world, thereby advancing socio-environmental governance. Intervening in earth systems to produce an experience of the ecological sublime, therefore, operates as an aesthetic modality of power—one that positions the Chinese State as the mechanistic producer of beauty and utility in nature.
Intervening in Earth Systems
A resurgence of the aesthetic state in China has come at a time when societies the world over are grappling with questions of how to live in the Anthropocene. How can states help prevent our most dystopic projections of climate crises? How can they intervene? Such questions underlie China’s climate geoengineering programs.
China leads the world in financing, researching, and developing geoengineering technologies. Geoengineering, it must be stressed, is not about mitigating climate change or adapting to a low-carbon energy future—elements common to the green transition. Rather, geoengineering entails counteracting socionatural processes through deliberate interventions in earth systems.
While until recently on the fringes of science, geoengineering has exploded into mainstream global discourse over the past few decades. Scientists the world over have proposed spraying chemicals into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, seeding clouds to induce rain, and dumping iron sulphates into the ocean to spur ocean fertilisation. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has forwarded millions of dollars to fund national geoengineering research programs. While the efforts of this research largely centre on modelling the effects of geoengineering on sea levels, polar ice, and human health, there are also several ongoing government-orchestrated projects to alter the climate through techno scientific interventions.
For instance, in 2018, China’s state-owned Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation launched the world’s largest weather-control system across the Tibetan Plateau. Thousands of machines strategically placed along the plateau and ridge of the Himalaya release silver iodide particles into the sky. These particles induce weather manipulations across an aerial region of more than 1 million square kilometres. The state suggests that these weather-altering measures will increase precipitation by as much as 10 billion cubic metres per year, thereby contributing to ameliorating drought in parched regions of China’s west (Chen 2018; Watts 2020).
China, which is among the most water-poor nations in the world, must quench the thirst of the globe’s largest population. Moreover, as the world’s largest consumer of water, China is a net virtual water importer (Hou et al. 2018). ‘Virtual water’ refers to water hidden in the goods and services traded between places. But virtual water imports are not enough. Seeding the sky to induce rain is an intervention in earth systems that the state supports to address chronic water shortages. Another intervention, introduced in 2016, is the Sky River (天河) Project—an initiative discussed in detail by Emily Yeh in her contribution to the present issue of the Made in China Journal. This project aims to utilise existing geoengineering infrastructure to redirect up to 5 billion cubic metres of water vapour towards water-starved regions of the Yellow River Basin (Zheng 2016).
Climate geoengineering is not only well under way but also has become institutionalised within Chinese state approaches to socio-environmental governance. In addition to the interventions in aerial systems discussed above, ecological expressions of state power in terrestrial contexts are widespread. Land zoning initiatives, such as ecological redlining, have become national policy and are routinely portrayed as central to building an Ecological Civilisation and a Beautiful China. Central government mandates to zone 20 per cent of land for ecological protection have introduced conservation planning techniques that extend the territorial reach of municipal states over rural hinterlands and transform the livelihoods of residents (Rodenbiker 2020). Ecological states—state formations expressed and constituted in relation to ecology—are now widespread across mainland China (Rodenbiker forthcoming).
While the central government portrays a homogeneous environmental policy framework, various local state and private actors compete to benefit from environmental engineering projects. Across China’s north and west, for instance, the state, in cooperation with private corporations, has undertaken extensive interventions to transform desert landscapes. These include seeding the desert with drought-resistant plants to help control the sandstorms that plague Beijing (Zee 2022). Colloquially referred to as the ‘Great Green Wall’ (绿色长城), the Three-North Shelter Forest Program (三北防护) is a series of plant-based shelter strips designed to control the sands of the Gobi Desert.
In the early 2010s, China’s artificial plant coverage exceeded 500,000 square kilometres, making it the largest human-engineered desert forest landscape on Earth. Efforts to build the Great Green Wall, however, have largely produced monocrop landscapes across once diverse desert ecologies. Yet, despite drastic transformation of local ecologies, such projects find widespread support within Chinese society—in part, because of the strong ideological associations surrounding campaigns to beautify China and build an Ecological Civilisation (Schmitt 2018). Those who have visited the Great Green Wall, such as acclaimed photographer Ian Teh, have described the spectacle of billions of trees planted in the desert as impressive and awe-inspiring (Mallonee 2017). Teh’s photographs depict landscapes that engender a sublime experience of earth system intervention. Such large-scale approaches to transforming nature, however, are not limited to China’s mainland; increasingly, they are finding traction globally.
Global Environmental Futures
In 2021, China hosted part one of the Fifteenth United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15), which was themed ‘Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth’. The conference placed Ecological Civilisation front and centre on an international arena. The targets proposed in the current version of the COP 15 Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework are of global consequence. At the time of writing, the framework calls for 50 per cent of the Earth’s surface to be set aside for spatial planning for functional land/sea use and 30 per cent set aside for conservation. Such large-scale technical interventions would substantially affect not only global ecologies but also people living in areas zoned for conservation. How might global efforts to build ‘ecological civilisations’ transform ecologies and societies the world over? What roles will ecology and aesthetics play?
Considering the ecological sublime in Western contexts, Hitt writes:
In an age in which humankind imagines that it can ensure its own survival through technological means—that it will ultimately win the war with nature—the sublime is more relevant than ever before … In addition to altering fundamentally our relationships with the natural world, technology has assumed an integral role in the ideology of the sublime. (Hitt 1999: 618–19)
In recent years, the Chinese State has grafted techniques of earth system intervention on to an ecological sublime. But China is not alone. Laura Martin (2022: 230), writing on the rise of ecological engineering and offsite mitigation, observes that: ‘To many, it seems entirely possible to genetically engineer coral and fund tree planting in Costa Rica, but virtually impossible to reduce carbon emissions in the United States.’
Techno-optimism is widespread indeed. Yet, what is often overlooked is how the aesthetic modes through which earth system interventions are framed and understood reinforce the ideology that science will stave off the worst of environmental disaster and societal collapse. In an age of digitally curated representations, the optics of geo-aesthetic engineering shape how publics perceive earth system interventions and the states that orchestrate them. Ecological states, after all, depend on it.