Thinking Like a Cloud: Project Sky+
Can humans acquire the art of the long view? We think so. Thinking Like A Cloud is a research project focused on developing a scheme to spark a (potentially radical) expansion of the human mind, allowing us to make more sustainable decisions. We collect cloud samples in the troposphere with the Cloud Collector launched on a weather balloon. The samples are ingested by experimental subjects, and the microbes found in the samples are examined for their role in ecosystems and their influence on human behavior.
Clouds teem with life. Microbes travel thousands of miles in the clouds, metabolize and reproduce there. They play a role in the hydrological cycle and radiative balance of Earth. They might be candidates for bioremediation of the sky, or a source of new antibiotics.
In this project we examine a few of the microbes from the cloud samples. The samples are ingested by volunteers, evoking the process of transformation: the eaten is materially transformed into the eater. The transformation happens also on the level of microbial exchange. The cloud microbiome is incorporated into the human microbiome, rendering its new host part-cloud.
The volunteers keep a log of their transformation as a structured self-observation. This practice of reflecting on material interconnectedness and processes, in addition to learning about air-borne microbes and DIY biology, is designed to influence one’s ideology.
The objective of the project, Thinking Like a Cloud, is modeled after Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: Thinking Like a Mountain. It describes an ability to appreciate the interconnectedness of things over space and time, to see the long view rather than just the immediate demands. Today the perspective of a cloud might be even more apt in representing systems thinking.
Nobody conceived of clouds as habitat for life, until a few recent studies. Microbes not only hitch rides in the clouds, traveling thousands of miles, but are metabolizing, reproducing, and ‘eating things up there. Their numbers in the clouds (over 100 different species in a single sample) suggest that they play a role in precipitation and in the way the clouds form. Cloud droplets form around Cloud Condensation Nuclei, particles such as pollen, or dust or microbes. Up to one third of CCN are of biological origin.
Around 95% of the cells in human body belong to our microflora. What’s more, our individual microbiomes not only play a role in digestion and immune responses but also influence brain chemistry and human behavior. Including the microbiome as part of an individual is a new way to look at human beings.
As the balloon moves through the atmosphere, the cloud moisture condenses on the two mesh wings of the Collector and flows into a container, which is protected by a reflux valve. The Rashel polypropylene mesh is especially efficient at capturing water droplets. It can extract 30% of the humidity from the cloud: around 0.7 to 1.75 L of water per m2, per hour.
Can one drink a concept? Perhaps not. But drinking a glass of cloud water containing microbial life which influences one’s own microflora makes one think about these things — water, clouds, microbes, humans, systems — a little differently. Thus, one’s mind is changed.
Geo-engineering reshuffles our ideas about nature and our place in it, about technology, values and knowledge. It is inherently poetic, and inherently political. Like ambitious land art art proposals, geo-engineering schemes propose to rearrange the elements of the land and the sky: some of the ideas include injecting water into the atmosphere, creating artificial volcanos, or flooding the Sahara. Clouds and oceans have long been agents of the ungraspable and ephemeral, and the quest to “wring exactitude” from them still eludes scientists. Geo-engineering is an index of faith in human technological ability, dividing those who think technology can eventually solve our problems from those who think we don’t know nearly enough about the natural systems to intervene in them.