Published in Overland Issue 251 Winter 2023 · Climate politics / Capitalism “The Earth is still in the urne unto us”: On carbon sequestration, or the burial of air Scott Robinson To weep into stones are fables. —Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall Carbon sequestration proposes to reverse the ongoing particulate re-distribution of the air; that is, to turn the world upside down. The increasingly suffocating proportion of carbon in the atmosphere must be withdrawn and re-buried, whether through mineralisation as stones, which do not leak, or in unstably lachrymose carbonaceous deposits like trees and soil. Such a material inversion — the interment of air in the ground — rewinds historical time, which was knotted tightly in the deep past’s geological substrates. What burning unravelled, carbon sequestration proposes to restore in a ceremony of apology and appeasement that returns historical time to its safely deposited sediments. Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall circumnavigates the question of the right way to perform a burial. Historical fragments of early capitalism, vicious colonialism and humanistic scholarship whisper through his meditation on funerary practices as the conditions of its production. Browne undermines the naturalness of his contemporaries’ complacent Christian practices by interposing recently uncovered alternatives from the past. The historical vantage of Browne’s 1658 “discourse” renders the growing industry of re-burying exhumed carbon in the air aptly unfamiliar and strange. The anachronistic comparison sheds geoengineering’s aura of technological salvation, locating its metaphors of legitimacy in ancient rituals for circulating the elements. Browne’s elliptical reflections on burial rituals are threaded with an elemental cycle in which the fire, water, and air find common succour in the ground. We have misplaced air by misusing fire, and must now gently reinter the past’s deposits of carbonaceous atmosphere. *** In Delia Falconer’s “Coal: An Unnatural History”, she describes a family living on “Victorian coal wealth” whose descendants have turned to religious mysticism amid “heavy antiques”. They are haunted by the ghost of a father who “would run about the house at night, making soft hooting noises”. Falconer recounts the formation of the vast coal deposits that haunt us today. The Northern hemisphere’s Carboniferous period names a geological era defined by its gift to industrial capitalism’s carbon appetite. The southern hemisphere’s coal formed during the Permian period’s third, and largest, of the five non-anthropogenic mass extinctions during a period of atmospheric conflagration. If our voracious unburial of carbon deposits from 250 million years ago desecrates the ritual order of mourning, it is becoming increasingly common to hear calls for the further contradiction of a lamented future. Richard Seymour writes, “We are preparing for a mass wake for the human species”. Grieving the future, in one dominant narrative, involves the ritual of burying the air. This narrative lacks not only principles of justice; it also lacks imagination, for Andreas Malm and Will Carton, relying on stale “ideology-laden metaphors”. Writers like Seymour and Falconer agree that “We impoverish our repertoire” of description, understanding and politics alike when we have reached what Falconer calls the “tipping points in language too, when nothing can be metaphorical again”. Loosening the brittle metaphorical layer over the technological fetish for carbon sequestration, we start to see the emptiness of buried air, its vacuous dream of preserving the status quo. “To weep with stones are fables”, Browne writes, as his contemporaries discovered new ways to extract from stony substrate its energy-intensive molecules. Now, corporations proliferate spouts of hot air, a “perpetual Cambrian explosion” of products “to catch the scattered soot” by direct air capture technology and sell it as the most lucrative path to carbon neutrality and negative emissions. *** We are engaged in an elemental recombination, unburied earth burnt into air, then reburied. Vaibhav Bahadur, an engineer based at the University of Texas, Austin, even proposes to “harvest” water from the air in the productive re-capture of natural gas flares. The air, once regarded as the archetypal empty sphere, has become thick with possibility and politics. In 1995 Ulrich Beck quipped that “breathing is yet to be discovered as a social activity”. But as Scott Stephens points out, an airborne flu pandemic, the dense smoke of bushfires, Eric Garner’s cry of “I can’t breathe” and the atmospheric concentration of carbon have turned the air into a site of contest. The air is hot and thin, and the scarcity of the clean, breathable kind makes it vulnerable to commodification. The process of commodification follows a hallowed custom of value extraction. To be worthy of investment, the promise of clean air must match in profit the “purifying virtue” of fossil fuel combustion “firing out the Æthereall particles so deeply immersed” in layers of earth. Commodification destroys practices of common custodianship, and at the same time erases historical responsibility. It is a mystical process “and the air miners are its most fervent priests”. Social relations are screened behind the equally magical power to intervene in natural systems. When archaeologists of the future read our era through its artefacts, as Browne does, they may perceive the recirculation of air into the earth but they may not see the decisions that, privately or collectively, induced this process. Browne’s reports on ancient burial customs by virtue of their variety de-naturalise them. He notes how different cultures viewed their practices as “most natural”, like cremation which “waft[ed] them towards that Element, whereby they also declined a visible degeneration into worms, and left a lasting parcel of their composition”. Burning implies the airy rejection of corporeality, the disavowed dependence on atmospheric conditions. For Browne, fire exposes: it turns bodies “into so few pounds of bones and ashes”, turns our span of life into: a sad composition; We live with death, and die not in a moment … What the Sun compoundeth, fire analyseth, not transmuteth. The devouring agent leaves almost always a morsel for the Earth, whereof all things are but a colonie … *** This last word spans the centuries, linking the re-composition of the elements with a “devouring agent” for whom the earth is a colony. And Browne’s description of the process of turning flesh through fire into air, with a residual “morsel for the Earth”, is eerily prescient of current proposals for the industrial production of “biochar”, or “plant material transformed into carbon-rich charcoal then applied to soil”. Pyrolisis, as the process is called, heats carbon in an oxygen-starved atmosphere. It has the “purifying virtue” of turning living carbon compounds into inert carbon for storage. We live in a world of “phantastical contrivances”. The world’s “leaders and financiers”, writes Adrienne Buller, gather to discuss “how best to monetise and trade … the clean water or breathable air a healthy environment provides us. Building markets for trading molecules of carbon dioxide is the top priority of innumerable climate conferences”. Buller describes each “molecule of carbon dioxide” as a “communication with the past”, but in the process of carbon sequestration, the temporal signifier functions like the radiation symbols attending nuclear waste: a permanent warning and risk of catastrophe to the future. For Holly Jean Buck, the slick conveyor belt of carbon sequestration projects and technological developments are a series of “cancelled ghosts”. These ghosts, however, linger melancholically in the accounting books of climate change conferences and speculatively (or spectrally) fund the promises of net zero that governments and corporations set themselves. An early version of carbon sequestration focused on soil and organic material, or bio-energy with carbon capture and storage. Luminary of regenerative agriculture Charles Massy celebrated that “a healthy agriculture has the potential to bury huge amounts of carbon for long periods”, presenting a virtuous circle which also enhanced agricultural productivity in land yield and stock carry capacity. In 2022, a single project had been awarded an Australian Carbon Credit. But burying carbon as a life-giving process has its attractions. The Church of England, to which Browne belonged, is considering human composting, or “terramation”, as a greener alternative to conventional burial, using warm air and other organic materials to turn the body into soil. Our “corporal dissolution”, in Browne’s re-purposed words, “now exposed unto piercing Atomes of ayre; in the space of a few moneths, they begin to spot and betray their green entrals”. Soil carbon sequestration uses green entrails to betray the fruits of its subterranean treasure, a literal pastoral covering for the license it provides to fossil fuel production. This re-sprouting of buried emissions is fundamental to burial “Rites” that contain “hints of a Resurrection”. Salvation is a persistent temptation as the powers to control nature and determine the future are mystified through private technological development and finance. The green shoots of tree plantations and fertile soils remain appealing marketing images, now sieved through centuries of enclosure, extraction and destruction. They feed the imagination of “pious spirits who passed their dayes in raptures of futurity, made little more of this world”, in Browne’s early anticipation of the ecological critique of the death cult of capitalism in its unholy alliance with other-worldly promises. The future will be green: now let us keep burning the earth and clogging the air. *** Twice buried carbon is an unstable proposition. Sequestration technology partakes of the burial wish-fulfilment Browne describes our ancestors engaging in “desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discover, and in no way to be seen again”. He suggests, “What was unreasonably committed to the ground is reasonably resumed from it … ” Highly concentrated CO2 must be buried deep in the ground to avoid leakage, which could cause acid rain, acidification of water, and asphyxiation of plants and animals, and risks suffocation for anyone in the immediate area. Further, soil sequestration can be reversed if the soil health changes or erodes, which is a strong likelihood under intensified climactic conditions. The rock must be “stable and impermeable”, recommend Malm and Carton. Future sequestral sites have already, like the funerary monuments of antiquity, become places of pilgrimage and jubilant visitation. Carbon capture is a “deliverance” from the need to fundamentally alter social and ecological relations. Direct air capture trades in the miraculous, as Malm and Carton contend, “the ecstatic abrogation of the law”. It offers a way of avoiding the accumulating weight of historical emissions, turning the force of climate breakdown into a business venture. It is an uneven ecological exchange between stratospheric and stratigraphic layers. “In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names,” writes Browne, and pleads that “To be nameless in worthy deeds exceeds an infamous history.” By including direct air capture technologies with merely speculative existence, carbon accounting can deliver dubious calculations of net zero or neutrality in only a short time. The scale of increasing carbon emissions — between 35 and 37 billion additional tonnes in 2022 alone, compounded by continuous accumulation — dwarfs the scale of even the most optimistic carbon capture projects. These figures fail to give form to the weight of carbon accumulated in the air, and targets like 350 or 400 parts per million CO2 concentration become airy remnants of failed ambition. With around 3500 plants necessary to meet a modest 2°C warming target, according to the International Energy Agency, only 18 were operational by 2022. Contemplating the scope of property claims, Hegel took for granted that “If, for example, I build a windmill, I have not given the form to air, but I have constructed a form in order to utilise the air, which cannot be taken away from me just because I have not myself formed it.” The carbon capture technologies give form to the air, claiming it. Their proponents furnish themselves with metaphors gleaned from classical liberal justifications for property in agriculture such as harvesting. Air mining loads the earth with atmospheric particles by applying fire. It works, Malm and Carton write, like “a leaf or a lung”, snatching molecules of CO2. Turning natural processes like breathing or photosynthesis into technologically augmented ones gives them form, and, more importantly, makes them available for expropriation as private property. *** Browne comments that those farewelling their “interred Friends” expected “little the curiosity of future ages … But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?” Browne himself was testament to the tendency in humans, especially in colonial contexts, to disturb burials sites, no matter how sacred. But our buried deposits must be read by the future as stern warnings, protected against curiosity or plunder. All that the showy “Theatrical vessles” can express, Browne suggests, is “old mortality, the ruines of forgotten times”. We uncover the human past by digging through the earth and reading layers (and the universe’s past by peering at stars’ ancient glow). Future generations will have to trust our protruding messages to them, warning them against unburial, warding off the latent impulse to mine for the past. Reading accounts of direct air capture firms, one imagines that the deposits will not carry an epitaph but some piece of marketing, a brand logo along with a “hazardous materials” label, such as a skull. Browne’s comment that “these Urnes … [are] silently expressing old mortality” rings still true. Exhumed burials give Browne temporal vertigo and with “no antidote against the Opium of time”, the span of our memories becomes: a vanity almost out of date, and superannuated peece of folly … ’Tis too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designes. His time-sickness is a prefiguration of the temporal whiplash involved in our geological re-burial, as deep primeval Carboniferous history inflames the present’s precarious tipping points to various statistically modelled Anthropocene futures. While Browne could, by “a mercifull provision in nature”, be “ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past”, we cannot afford to “digest the mixture of our few and evil days” with what Malm and Carton call the “mental picture of millions of machines” capturing CO2. This comforting fantasy obscures the “urgency of cutting back on fossil fuel” combustion. Climate engineers exist in a state of anticipatory mourning, predicting effects they know are inevitable and yet remain somehow suspended. They propose solutions to problems they enable by promising the technological fix. “Because we will overshoot”, one prominent climate engineer tells Holly Jean Buck, describing his work in remedial, homeopathic terms as a “come down”. *** We are living in an interregnum “whose duration we cannot hope, without injury to our expectations” since these words were written in the seventeenth century. Their antiquated ring confronts the remnants of a ritual interplay of the elements in our burial practices. The benign and simple metaphorical explanations for direct air capture obscure the magnitude of the redistribution of atmospheric particle composition it entails. They give mechanical or natural semblance to a profoundly hubristic project of geoengineering. They are an attempt to ward off the vigour with which the technology to bury carbon in the ground is paired with the reformulation of the air as a precious commodity. The ancients, Browne notes, “accustomed to burn or bury with them, things wherein they excelled, delighted, or which were dear unto them, either as farewells unto all pleasure, or vain apprehension that they might use them in the other world …” Browne’s distanced fascination with such customs marks out modernity’s secular and accumulative tendency towards passing treasure down to the living as inheritance or simply wealth and capital, instead. Having disinherited the future with an inversion of carbon composition from the earth to the air, direct air capture treats the carbon-content of air as a pollutant. Strangely, industrial capitalism’s triumphant accumulations end in suffocating piles of noxious waste, buried deep in the earth rather than the glowing, illegible treasure of the past. Sources Bahadur, V 2017, “Modeling Humid Air Condensation in Waste Natural Gas-powered Atmospheric Water Harvesting Systems”, Applied Thermal Engineering, vol. 118, no. 25. Browne, T 2010, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk, New Directions, New York. Beck, U 1995, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, A Weisz (trans.), Polity Press, Cambridge, UK. Buck, HJ 2019, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair and Restoration, Verso, London Budinis S et al., 2022, Direct Air Capture: A Key Technology for Net Zero, International Energy Agency, Paris Buller, A 2022, The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism, Manchester University Press. Falconer, D 2021, Signs and Wonders: Dispatches from a Time of Beauty and Loss, Scribner, Sydney. Hegel, GWF 1991, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, HB Nisbet (trans.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. Malm, A and Carton, W 2021, “Seize the Means of Carbon Removal: The Political Economy of Direct Air Capture”, Historical Materialism, vol, 29, no. 1. Massy, C 2017, Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, The University of Queensland Press, St Lucia. Seymour, R 2022, The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism and Barbarism, Indigo Press, London. Sherwood, H 2023, “Church of England to Consider Greener Alternatives to Burial”, The Guardian, 7 February. Stephens, S 2022, “‘We Do Not Breathe Well’: On the Moral Conditions of Democratic Life’”, Meanjin, vol. 81, no. 4. This piece is sponsored by CoPower, Australia’s first non-profit energy co-operative. To find out more about CoPower’s mission, services, and impact funding, jump online at https://www.cooperativepower.org.au/ or call 03 9068 6036 today. Scott Robinson Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique. 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