Petrochemical Technosphere

Chemical industries play a major, yet in technology studies still underestimated role in the establishment of the technosphere and for the course of history in the Anthropocene. Artificial  fertilizers, ammunition, plastics, fuels, pharmaceuticals are drivers for paradigmatic Anthropocene dynamics in all spheres of the Earth- and socio-technical systems. (Great Acceleration Observatory). Via their industrial technicality, a large set of molecules need to be addresses as part of the technosphere. It is the ongoing „transformation of chemistry“ towards sustainable process structures, that calls for an understanding of the full scope of industrial chemicals for the actual historical condition. 

It is to a large extent chemical technologies, that both contribute to the full establishment of the fossil technosphere (Tipping Points) and that will also define possible pathways of change (Transformation of Collective Behaviour and Decisions)  Understood as parts of the technosphere these molecular agents apear within the widest possible range of systems of mobility, agriculture, information technology, sciences, urbanism, industrial production, among others (Land Use Change and Regenerative Practices). They are part of mesosphere maschine systems, of macrosphere inforstructures on a regional and planetary scale, but they are also active on the microlevel of chemical agency itself.

Cultural theories of this chemical industrial sector of the Technosphere and the interactions with the societal and cultural sphere are still to be established in philosophy of science and technology. What comes into sight is a particular set of resources, infrastructures, processes, that interfere with all layers, scales, geographies, political and cultural systems in the Anthropocene. Both examplary insights into the full range of technical scales and into different geographical and cultural experiences with the chemical Technisphere are needed (petroculture comparison).

The project addresses two sigificant aspects of this chemical system: the petrofossil base of the chemical technosphere in the Anthropocene (petromodernity research), and catalysis as one of the most important tools and agency models in chemical industry from the 1890ies onwards (catalysis research). Only in combination of fossile resources (hydrocarbons) and of the industral tools (mixed material catalysts, nobel metals, enzymes, chemzymes), the full potential of raw materials (fossil and postfossil) could and will be exploited.

A new „chemical cultural theory“ as well as a „critique of fossil reason“ needs to address this, to both understand how the actual chemical Technosphere was established and how the field can be transformed.The project enlarges existing fields in cultural theory and theory of technology. Petromodernity resarch that mostly deals with extraction regimes („upstream“) is extended to the systems of „downstream“ and of chemical industries at large. „Petroleum“ as a both obvious and complex material that connects the lithophere, the biosphere, the atmosohere and the technosphere is put into the larger systemic contexts of futher materiels and the respecive sciences and geographies. „Geoanthropology“ is understood as a perspective to interpret the impact of this complex chemical system on the epistemological and political „conditio humana“ in the actual and future Technosphere.

The project is based both at the MPI of Geoantropology, and at the Cluster of Excellence UniSysCat at TU-Berlin. At the MPI of Geoantropology it also contributes to the joint project Teleconnections: A Spatiotemporal Atlas of the Technosphere. Close project partners outside the MPIGEA are based at the 'European Center for Just Transition Research and Impact-Driven Transfer' (JTC).


Benjamin Steininger,Alexander Klose: Atlas of Petromodernity, Santa Barbara: punctumbooks 2024 (

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