Sisyphus, Science & Carbon Removal
Updated: Jan 24
Sisyphus King of Corinth cheated death by making his wife promise not to give him proper burial. She threw his body into the market square with no coin for passage into Hades - and Persephone, queen of the underworld, sent him back so that he could torture his wife appropriately for deceiving the gods.
They lived happily together until old age but when it came for Sisyphus to die again, the gods openly offered him the chance of immortality by presenting him with a giant rock. Knowing the task to be impossible, they set him the challenge of pushing the rock to the top of the hill to gain never-ending life.
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
In one reading Sisyphus is a pathetic figure because he does not know that his struggle is pointless, and inflicts suffering upon himself repeatedly. Sisyphus gains an immortality to which death would be preferable. Indeed David Graeber might say that Sisyphus was given a 'bullshit job'.
In his controversial essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013), Graeber defined this category as labour which is socially meaningless thus inflicts a 'psychological violence' upon employees who are unable to find meaning in their daily work: "How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not exist?" - "Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed." - "The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul". (1)
Hell, in Bullshit Jobs, was full of fried fish.
Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there's only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there's endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it's all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy (1).
From an alternative perspective Sisyphus is a hero struggling for a beautiful idea. He sees beauty in the struggle, which gives his life meaning even if there no end goal is achieved. Many have read Sisyphus as the emblem of existential philosophy - as summarised by Stephen Fry: "Painters, poets and philosophers... have seen an image of the absurdity of human life, the futility of effort, the remorseless cruelty of fate, the unconquerable power of gravity. But they have seen too something of mankind's courage, resilience, fortitude, endurance and self-belief. They see something heroic in our refusal to submit" (2). This Sisyphus escapes the 'psychological violence' inflicted by a meaningless task because his 'meaning' is located in the process. (2)
Generally, the myth cautions that we should not cheat. Sisyphus represents hubris, excessive pride, which leads to nemesis, downfall. He is one figure in a pantheon of hubristic friends given regrettable immortalities for their unwanted 'interventions' and used, in medieval emblem books for example, to make points about human greed, arrogance and jealousy. Prometheus, who gave fire - technology - to humankind against Zeus' wishes, was given 'never-ending life' strapped to a rock having his liver pecked out every day, only for it to grow back every night. Tantalus was made to stand in a lake tantalized by its waters but never able to quench his thirst. Ixion, who attempted to seduce Hera, was tricked by Zeus into having sex with a cloud instead (the cloud then gave birth to centaurs) and Ixion was tied to a perpetually spinning wheel of fire in Hell.
On 19th Jan a report was launched titled 'The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)'. It represents the collaborative efforts of Stephen M. Smith (University of Oxford), Oliver Geden (German institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP), Jan C. Minx (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, MCC) and Gregory F. Nemet (University of Wisconsin-Madison). [Report] The findings are presented as "a significant new report, a first-of-its kind, independent, scientific assessment, tracking the development of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) globally." (3)
5 Arguments in the 'State of Carbon Dioxide Removal' and how these might be better understood through the myth of Sisyphus
Rather than questioning the quite genuine commitment of Science to climate change, or the work done by researchers to establish certification frameworks which can ensure environmental and consumer protection by crediting reliable CDR, the Sisyphus myth highlights some contradictions within sustainability discourse which point to a clear problem with the shape of Science itself. The ontology of sustainability science generates unreliable policy advice. The following is my attempt to show this via how the report's major arguments are constructed (4).
1. The hill is constructed
The 'hill' is the Paris Agreement, which as stated on its website, 'is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century [net-zero]." The Climate Change Report (IPCC) recognises carbon capture technologies as a means to achieve net zero.
Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) includes 'Human activities capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it durably in geological, land or ocean reservoirs, or in products. This includes human enhancement of natural removal processes, but excludes natural uptake not caused directly by human activities.' CDR is the work of 'human interventions' and to qualify as (CDR), a method must capture CO2 from the atmosphere and durably store it.' R, 10-11.
Sisyphus represents Science.
Science turned up at the hill with two arms and two legs, and the hill was already there, and so was the rock.
The rock represents the burden of getting to net zero by developing carbon dioxide removal (CDR).
Science picks up the rock.
2. Science tells Policy to pick up the rock
Policy and Science meet at the hill.
Science: 'The state of CDR research, development and policy lags behind - similar to renewables 25 years ago. Good decisions and accelerated progress in the field of CDR require adequate data. Minx
Twenty years ago, renewable energy was a niche sector. Today, the picture is radically different. This rapid development was enabled in part by concerted efforts to build institutions and communities for gathering and sharing information. CDR is at the start of a similar journey. We, the scientific convenors, hope that this contribution, in addition to the contributions of many others, provides similarly important guidance so that CDR too can play an important role in addressing climate change. ES, 9.
CDR is given a fixed trajectory. There is a lag! There is a 'gap'. Science makes 'catching up' the problem and shifts attention away from the question of debating whether it is even appropriate to develop CDR as 'a solution' for the Paris Agreement. Rather, the argument is made that policy should enable Science by funding research and development in CDR.
Science convinces policy that the possibility of never-ending life depends upon them rolling CDR to the top of the hill together.
Policy picks up the rock.
3. Try, try again
CDR is grouped into 'conventional' and 'novel' CDR. Conventional CDR includes - 'wood products used in construction such as panels and saw wood. These construction products characteristically store carbon for decades after having captured it during tree growth'. R, 16. Whilst the Work that Plants Do is increasingly recognised, 'Science' agrees that 'conventional CDR' is not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees. R, 10.
Science: The next decade is crucial for novel CDR, in particular, since the amount of CDR deployment required in the second half of the century will only be feasible if we see substantial new deployment in the next ten years, novel CDR’s formative phase. ES, 8.
"If normal CDR doesn't work, new types of CDR will work. But..."
"Costs at scale and mitigation potentials are judgements based on the literature; these are particularly uncertain for methods with a Technology Readiness Level around 7 and below." R, 18.
Novel CDRs are 'Generally at a TRL below 8–9'.
Just under half of listed novel CDRs have a TRL of 7 or below. R, 17.
But this 'uncertainty' about novel technologies does not deter Science.
Science: "To limit warming to 2C or lower, we need to accelerate emissions reductions. But the findings of this report are clear: we also need to increase carbon removal too. ES, 5.
The findings are 'clear' in so far as reductions in emissions alone will not limit warming to 2 degrees, CDR is currently not working, is less researched than other options, and could possibly work if new technologies are invented, but this is uncertain.
4. Try, try again 2.0
The novel CDR data available lists 84 projects opening between 2022 and 2030.
The 'Carbon Engineering Project Dreamcatcher' - the UK's first large scale facility for CC - is down for 2024, and has a projected gross removal of 1,000,000 tCO2/year.
The data shows gross removals. It does not show that the process of producing 1300 times more CDR technologies will produce CO2.
Pushing CDR up the hill risks the rock getting bigger and squashing Sisyphus and the other humans, animals and plants on the hill.
This risk is indicated by the TRLS and 'example hazards'.
Policy advice given:
Science: To help manage uncertainties and risks associated with CDR at large scales, our dependence on it should be limited by reducing emissions faster. ES, 8.
Science next 'forgets' that developing CDR produces emissions.
Science passes the rock to Policy and goes for an ice cream.
5. Bullshit job?
Of the many arguments made against CDR, the most obvious problem is its reversibility.
This report is useful in highlighting the importance of recapturing anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the air but largely ducks the key issue for climate change mitigation, which is how long this carbon dioxide will then be safely stored (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/perceptions-permanence-co2-storage-what-long-time-jon-gibbins/).
Prof Jon Gibbins, Professor of CCS at the University of Sheffield and Director of the UK CCS Research Centre
The reversibility of CDR already suggests this labour is 'futile'. (5) But the big picture problem - for the 'scientific' nature of 'the Science', and for the planet - is that research in CDR is presented as a means to generate economic growth. This report is a pitch which adopts the language of economic growth with its exponential curve; CDR becomes a company 'lagging', 'falling behind', it has both a 'rapid growth' and requires an 'acceleration' to be brought 'up to speed'. Publications are GDP and research splits into 'shares'. R, 30-39.
The mere presence of scientific debate on a subject does not directly validate CDR as a policy option.
Whilst the report strongly suggests this, its main argument is slightly different. The number of papers is related to 'growth in CDR innovation', measured here by patents, public investment and purchases of CDR - the share of CDR in the market. R, 31-2. This means that the rising number of patents and purchases is given as evidence that scientific findings are producing 'inventions' from which profit can be captured. Demand for these inventions in the market then becomes an indication for the validity of CDR as an investment option. (6).
This data includes efforts to increase demand for CDR to spur innovation (demand pull) such as the Frontier advance market commitment (a funding mechanism that involves aggregating funding and facilitating purchases of CDR). R, 36.
The market can stimulate demand for CDR. Market demand for CDR cannot reflect directly its efficacy - it merely shows that CDR is trusted and considered economically viable, given that the risk for an investor is that investment in scientific research may fail to produce the outcomes they desire - most importantly profit (and most likely second, a benefit for the climate).
The success of CDR in the market relies upon its consumers - investors - society - trusting in the recommendations made by Science. Science shapes these public perceptions of CDR because its findings are 'accepted' as coming from a legitimate institution. Policy further bolsters the legitimacy of Science by translating its advice into action. Coming full circle, this strengthens the market for CDR.
The ultimate manifestation of innovation is widespread adoption of a technology. This happens when it is relatively advantageous compared with other technologies, demand pull is sufficient and the technology is publicly accepted. R, 36.
Science + Policy + Market work together to push the rock up the hill.
The number of tweets on CDR has grown rapidly over the last decade, increasing from about 15 tweets per day in 2010 to about 350 tweets per day in 2021. This is much less than for climate change in general, at 10,000 tweets per day, but growing faster
Studies find a preference among participants for CDR methods perceived or framed by researchers as more “natural” R, 47.
Science seems to have forgotten Science at this point. It is marketing.
Most glaring of these problems is the fact that economic growth produces environmental impacts because it requires the conversion of natural resources into capital, and the activities growth enables such as production and consumption produce CO2. Therefore, research arguing that technology can both reduce emissions and generate growth relies on the assumption of 'Green Growth' which is increasingly 'debunked' by the academic community. This points to two major tensions. First, Science cannot be 'independent' if it seeks to leverage research because it generates innovation and is therefore economically productive. Second, the policy advice given by Science on climate change depends upon its stance towards the economic system. (7)
What does this mean
If you make the argument that societal stances towards CDR depend upon values and beliefs - of the factors from which one's identity is comprised - than you cannot ignore that Science, its institutions - practices - policy recommendations - as part of, produced by, and comprised of society - also adopts a stance towards CDR which cannot be purely 'independent' and is subject to socio-economic factors.
The choice to back CDR is conditioned by a desire in society at large to meet net-zero whilst maintaining an economic paradigm and way of life. The choice to pick up and push the rock, in other words, is the product of Sisyphus - or Science's - approach to life and desire to cheat death - a desire which was his pre-existing disposition. This suggests that it will be very difficult to move past a sustainability science which contains a major contradiction at its core - the desire to promote growth - which shapes unreliable policy recommendations because it is dependent upon and reproducing growth itself. Or, as Wim Carton argues, 'CDR can already be viewed as “the mobilisation of a specific vision of the future as a way to legitimise and reproduce the present (Carton 2019, 274)”.
What this does is prevent discussions which take in much bigger questions - such as our relationship to energy and our imagination of the future. As it stands, the ontology of sustainability science means that the discussion surrounding energy choices is, as Palmer and Carton (2021) write, missing 'a societal discussion about the kind of energy futures that such technologies represent and the selective ideas of human progress implied within them'. (10) What does CDR as a technology say about society, and Science?
Science and its rock are a reflection of one another. Mario Giampietro explains this far better than I, and I can summarise as follows. The idea that science should provide policy advice depends upon the acceptance, in society and institutions, that science can speak truth to power - and has appropriate research methods, practices, modes of enquiry to do so. These modes of enquiry, ontologies, make up together the accepted scientific paradigm - 'normal science' (Giampietro, 2023; Cf. Silvio Funtowicz, 1997).
The requirement that science should provide policy with findings means that its findings are 'true' when they serve a given political purpose. In so far as the scientific paradigm is accepted the validity of its advice, the Scientific method and findings are not questioned by Policy. Indeed, it is in policy makers' interest not to contest Science because its findings, when applied, make it seem as though governments/nations/politicians are achieving their intended goals. Scientific findings may serve plural political goals at once, eg. 'China and the US are surging ahead with technology development'.
This means that quality control for the scientific findings requires Science to scrutinise itself, unmake and reform itself, and have 'reflexivity'. As such the report asks for 'expert opinions', or a peer-review. But Science has two arms and two legs and that is how it is accustomed to carrying rocks. It is a tried and tested means of carrying things. This is its ontology.
The ontology of Science places limits on how 'the future' can be conceived.
One possible way to encourage reflexivity when it comes to problems like climate change - which involve risk and uncertainty - is to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, which is key because the resulting makeup of 'Science' - knowledge - shapes how and whether problems are approached and policies are developed.
The social sciences and humanities are crucial for discussions on implementation, equity and governance of CDR, but scientific discussion in the English-language peer-reviewed literature is not yet fully developed in these areas. R, 28.
49% of CDR research is taking place in the domain of the natural sciences. Less than 3% of research on CDR is published by the humanities. You have to ask what shape policy might take if there were a remaking of sustainability Science such that it included those different epistemologies - a Hydra-Sisyphus. There are a number of projects seeking to put artists and scientists together on this subject at research institutions (I will be researching two this summer). (9)
The exponential curves which illustrate this report are given as evidence of a hill being climbed by a Sisyphus who is struggling for a beautiful solution. But he can also stand back paint the rock and think about how that makes him feel about his future, how he creates meaning from the data before him, what he is filtering in relation to his culture, his internal and external dialogue. He might use his left hand to unlearn and destabilise his usual way of mark making, and find a new perspective. Then he might think about the absurdity, changing rock and even landscape gardening the hill.
1. Graeber's Hell is created by the 'labour saving appliance' problem: we have developed technology in order to liberate ourselves from work, but we have not used that advancement to condense our work into less time. We have instead filled the time liberated by technology with more 'jobs', - what Graeber terms 'bullshit jobs' - so that we might compete and accumulate. The irony for Graeber is that we are struggling to produce lots of fish - which we never wanted in the first place - whilst there remains a shortage of cabinet-making time. We are all working more but still fall short of satisfying our needs, and have less time to find meaning elsewhere. Pay does not reflect the 'usefulness' of any given work, hence the economy is 'immoral'.
The ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector...new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries...the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones. These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.
Graeber's concept of bullshit jobs has been critiqued here., here, here and here. Graber, D. 2013. "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs" Strike! Magazine, August 2013. https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/
2. Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus (1942) depicts Sisyphus as an 'absurd hero' who sums up the futility of human existence. Why do we bother living when living is such a struggle and there is no real purpose to life itself? Sisyphus stands in for all humans who choose to live - to struggle rather than commit suicide - when 'rational' thought suggests that accepting death is the most obvious option. In Camus's reading Sisyphus found freedom because he recognised and was content to live within this reality: 'in the absurd'. Sisyphus escaped what Graeber terms 'psychological violence' - a violence which only occurs when one believes their task to be 'meaningless'. His 'meaning' was located in a personal, individual rebellion against reason and death.
3. Smith, S. M., Geden, O., Nemet, G., Gidden, M., Lamb, W. F., Powis, C., Bellamy, R., Callaghan, M., Cowie, A., Cox, E., Fuss, S., Gasser, T., Grassi, G., Greene, J., Lück, S., Mohan, A., Müller-Hansen, F., Peters, G., Pratama, Y., Repke, T., Riahi, K., Schenuit, F., Steinhauser, J., Strefler, J., Valenzuela, J. M., and Minx, J. C. (2023). The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal - 1st Edition. Available at: https://www.stateofcdr.org
4. Mario Giampietro has made this point about sustainability science already by showing why it enables the circular bioeconomy concept despite its thermodynamic impossibility. Giampietro, M. Reflections on the popularity of the circular bioeconomy concept: the ontological crisis of sustainability science. Sustain Sci (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-022-01267-z
5. CDR only counts if it can store carbon dioxide. Some methods have high capture and storage potential.
"Well chosen geological and mineral formations offer the longest and least reversible storage." R, 14.
At other points the report contradicts itself.
6. For example.
"Using publicly available data, we find global public investment in CDR RD&D of approximately $4.1 billion during the period 2010-2022.
United Kingdom The UK has invested in RD&D on a wide range of GHG removal technologies – primarily CDR methods but also some methane removal projects. The first GHG removal RD&D programme ran from 2017 to 2021, funding 11 projects totalling £8.6 million ($9.7 million)66. The UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy, published in 2021, includes CDR deployment goals and two new RD&D programmes focused on demonstration67. The first is a precommercial innovation competition funded through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy68. In the first phase, 23 projects focusing on the design and feasibility of CDR methods each received £250,000 (a total of £5.9 million, or $6.7 million). In Phase Two, an additional £58 million ($65 million) will be awarded to pilot the 15 most promising designs (ending March 2025)69. Afforestation and other conventional CDR methods on land are excluded from the competition, though their role in meeting the net zero target is recognised. As the second programme, UK Research and Innovation announced over £30 million ($34 million) to investigate the viability of five GHG removal demonstration projects and a central research hub70. The projects vary in method and include peatland restoration, enhanced rock weathering, biochar, afforestation, and biomass crops for use in BECCS71. R, 32."
7. For patents innovation and economic growth, https://www.oecd.org/cfe/tourism/34267902.pdf
For Green Growth: Perez, A. 2020. Green Deals in a Time of Pandemics. 38. Available here: https://odg.cat/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/GREENDEALS-ENG_ONLINE.pdf
In his survey of Green Deals, Perez (2020) describes that "The theory of green growth rests on the premise that it is possible to both achieve continued economic growth and to reduce environmental impacts fast enough to avoid the risks of climate change and the other dimensions of the ecological crisis." (4).
A scenario in which the global economy grows by 3% annually would require absolute decoupling at a scale of 10.5% per year, that is to say the 10.5% decrease in emissions for a 3% growth per year to avoid 2% CO2 rise. Proponents of Green Growth say that this is possible with technologies, however the highest rate of decoupling achieved in the history of the modern economy was less than 3% following an oil crisis in the 1970s.
'Green Deals in a Time of Pandemics was written and updated in this complex, unsettling, uncertain and (for some) dramatic context. Its aims spring from the conviction that, despite living in an intersection of emergencies (health, climate, environmental, feminist, etc.) and wideranging restrictions (total, partial or regional lockdowns, forced closures in various sectors, curfews etc.), we are not prepared to look to the future as mere spectators. The unifying concept is the Green New Deal, a dynamic trend which has been seen as a window of opportunity for promoting a range of “green” policies, which vary widely in nature, origin, focus and depth. Under this umbrella we find neoliberal and neo-Keynesian standpoints (such as the European Green Deal), the progressive standpoint of the US Democrats (led by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez), the Green New Deal for Europe (published by a coalition of European activists and researchers), the Southern Ecosocial Deal (Pacto Ecosocial del Sur, driven by post-extractive organisations in Latin America) or the feminist green deals (whose proposals can be traced back to ecofeminism). Instead of silencing institutional green policies, the pandemic has established a symbiotic relationship with them and turned the European Green Deal into a frame of reference for the economic recovery.'
8. Giampietro, M. Reflections on the popularity of the circular bioeconomy concept: the ontological crisis of sustainability science. Sustain Sci (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-022-01267-z
For post-normal science see any of:
Funtowicz, S. y Ravetz, J. (1990). Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy. Kluwer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-009-0621-1
Funtowicz, S. 2022. Entrevista a Silvio Funtowicz. Ciencia, Tecnología y Política, 5(9).
Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25: 7: 739–755
Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR (1997) The Poetry of Thermodynamics. Futures 29: 9: 791–810.
Pereira, A. G., and Funtowicz, S. (eds.) Science for Policy. Ecological Economics and Human Well-being. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009.
The Joint Research Centre has a Naturarchy Resonances Project
The Serre dei Giardini project in Bologna will be running a summer school with policy makers which questions through art workshops encouraging reflexive practices, the very target of 'net-zero', (zero non significa niente). https://leserredeigiardini.it/
10. Palmer, J. and Carton, W. 2022. Carbon Removal as Carbon Revival? Bioenergy, Negative Emissions, and the Politics of Alternative Energy Futures. Froentiers. Sec. Negative Emission Technologies (3). https://doi.org/10.3389/fclim.2021.678031 Available here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fclim.2021.678031/full