Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmospheric Control

by Yuriko Furuhata, Duke University Press, 2022, 256 pp.
Paperback $25.95, ISBN: 978-1-4780-1780-6

Many recent works, including Yuriko Furuhata’s Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmospheric Control, have emerged from a deep concern for our present time marked by both planetary climate crisis and dependency on computational media. Yet very few authors share her ambition to trace how we get here: the transpacific genealogy of atmospheric control across the United States and Japan since the twentieth century, one that operates not only across scales but also brings together seemingly distant histories of atmospheric science, architectural design, environmental media, cybernetics, and empire-building. For Furuhata, a media studies approach to various forms of climate engineering, which she theorizes as “climatic media,” holds both methodological and analytical significance. The book sets out to expand the definition of media to include “the materiality of elements that condition our milieu” while also encompassing “the architectural, scientific and artistic techniques and technologies” that actively mediate and shape our atmospheric and living environments (3-4). This goal puts Climatic Media in conversation with the environmental and elemental turn across the humanities and science and technology studies.i But even readers unfamiliar with these specific debates would still find this book’s thoroughly researched scientific and artistic history of climate thought-provoking. “Climatic media” as an overarching framework also reveals the book’s core argument: The diverse experiments of weather modification and microclimates on both sides of the Pacific since the twentieth century were not only inseparable from the legacies of imperial expansionism, but also anticipated and influenced later developments in smart cities, urban networked surveillance, space exploration, and data infrastructure.

One of the book’s greatest takeaways comes as an entwined logic: Efforts to technologically monitor, alter, and condition the Earth’s atmosphere are one and the same as conditioning the social conduct of people. From regulating our everyday living environments (such as our offices and apartments through air conditioning, weather prediction, and modification) to designing a dome city and space colony suitable for human habitation, these efforts share the same thermostatic desire to control climate. In turn, these atmospheric experiments rely heavily on networked systems of computing to govern the behavior of urban populations while securing the comforts of a select few. Furuhata reminds us that this biopolitical governance through air must, in the Foucauldian sense, be interpreted within the complex geopolitics of climate engineering both prior to and during the Cold War. In each chapter, Furuhata carefully lays out the geopolitical dynamics that make such atmospheric thinking and engineering possible, and by revisiting works from Japanese thinkers such as philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro, architect Tange Kenzo, and mathematician Ikehara Shikao, she offers an invaluable genealogy of concepts often assumed to have taken shape in Euro-American contexts, such as “geopolitics,” “climate,” “spheres,” and “cybernetics.”

The book’s first two chapters together set up how atmosphere became “an object of calibration, control and engineering,” an epistemological shift that draws heavily from philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “explication,” in the atmosphere through poison gas and via the weaponization of weather in the twentieth century (2). Chapter 1 discusses site-specific outdoor weather control through Japanese environmental artist Nakaya Fujiko’s fog sculpture, an art piece conceptualized for the Pepsi Pavilion at Japan’s Expo ’70. Furuhata sees Nakaya’s work as an example of climatic media and a convergence point between earlier practices of “visualizing atmospheric phenomena” and scientific practices of “engineering the atmosphere” to produce artificial weather such as fog, rain, and snow (27). The story of artificial fog-making, as the chapter shows, invokes the militarized history of weather modification before and during the Cold War in both the US and Japan. On the other hand, site-specific artificial weather finds its afterlife in sustaining the daily operation of cloud computing and data centers. Chapter 2 then leads the reader to think further about production of customized microclimates through air-conditioning. These artificial indoor climates, operating mundanely in the background, in fact help to secure the performance of digital computers, which in turn enable practices of weather prediction and future forecasting.

The rest of the book gravitates around architectural design and the philosophy of Tange Lab and the Metabolists, in particular their vision of cities and the state as “living organisms” (85). Chapter 4 traces how Metabolist architects’ ecological vision through capsule architecture was undercut by its reliance on the petro-chemical industry that both financed these projects and provided the material foundation—plastics. Chapter 5 then focuses on how Japanese architects’ use of these early biological and cybernetic metaphors and the use of tear gas in urban crowd control are genealogically linked to the experiments of networked systems and urban surveillance that appeared in both Expo ’67 in Montreal and Expo ’70 in Tokyo.

Chapter 3 is the most important chapter in several senses. First, the chapter establishes architecture as a crucial form of “climatic media.” The greenhouse, in this sense, becomes “an ensemble of cultural techniques and technologies [that] also operate as media, which generate material and symbolic distinction between the life worthy of protection and those in need of careful management in various experiments of atmospheric control” (83). Furuhata further points to an “enduring fantasy of scalability” inherent to climate experiments though unattainable in real life (103). The scales of climate engineering can shift from one’s body (wearable air- conditioning device), a control room (in Expo ’70), or corporate office (Amazon’s greenhouse), to an entire city and even outer space settlement; yet all exhibit a similar thermostatic desire to secure and govern a livable environment. Lastly, chapter 3 reminds us that Climatic Media is also a book about modern geopolitics of territorial expansion and its climatic consequences. Early colonial city planning in the northern territories of Japan’s empire (e.g., Manchuria and Sakhalin) in the first half of the twentieth century provides much-needed knowledge of controlling cold climate regions during the Cold War era, when Japanese scientists and architects developed techniques to expand Japan’s “living sphere” beyond its immediate territorial limits through Arctic expedition (88). This impulse to territorialize atmospheres through scientific, architectural, and artistic techniques runs through all five chapters of the book.

This book is an exhilarating read as the reader navigates the “feedback loops” across the dense historical details and sharp theoretical reflections (137). Furuhata’s ability to read seemingly distant ideas and practices alongside each other makes the book stimulating, though not always the easiest to follow. The materials are written and organized in a style that at times might seem disjointed, but they re-surface in later chapters with new layers of urgency and significance. Ultimately, Climatic Media makes an important contribution to history of science and technology, environmental media, and architecture, and it attunes us to transpacific exchanges and connections that together shape our current media and climate condition.

Weixian Pan, New York University Shanghai

i For example, see Nicole Starosielski, “The Elements of Media Studies,” Media+Environment 1, no.1