Corals are in distress the world over. Reefs in the Caribbean, the Indian and Pacific Oceans have suffered from rising sea temperatures, acidification and pollution. In some regions reef formations are largely dead or dying. In the last four decades we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in coral bleaching events – with the most devastating global mass bleachings occurring between 1997 – 1998, and 2014 – 2017. These bleaching events happen at ever shorter intervals prohibiting corals to recover, accelerating the degradation of these sub-marine ecosystems even further. With the reefs dying, entire species complexes and vast geological formations are in danger of disappearing and with it the reefs’ coastal protection functions and carbon binding capacities.
Marine biologists have alerted the world about the urgency of the matter, calling for action predominately along two lines: the first is an urge to reduce carbon emissions to tackle the causes of coral death; and the second is an intervention into the reproductive cycles of corals in order to accelerate coral regrowth and to increase their resilience against climate change effects. Both calls for action build on the assumption that nature is incapable of delivering the necessary adaptation – or at least not fast enough – to save the reefs the way we know them. Hence, marine biologists maintain that it is within human responsibility and capacity to “fix” the coral catastrophe. Although such a position has been criticized as “comic faith in technofixes”, in which “technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children” (Haraway 2016: 3), we approach marine biologists initiatives to save the corals not as “touching silliness”, but indeed as a way of “staying with the trouble” since it creates “unexpected collaborations and combinations” (ibid.: 4).
In this post we focus on the second line of action, drawing attention to marine biologists’ attempts to fix the coral calamity by a set of initiatives that might usefully be captured by the umbrella term “coral cultivation”. This encompasses diverse bio-technological practices, such as coral breeding, coral farming, coral nursing, coral planting, or coral gardening – all being human interventions into coral reproduction patterns. As these interventions are designed to tackle Anthropocene effects on sub-marine ecosystems, they provide an illustrative example of the reflective and intentional enlargement of the technosphere. They display what Lenton and Latour (2018) identify as “a fundamental new state of Gaia”, called “Gaia 2.0”, because “[h]umans are beginning to become aware of the global consequences of their actions. As a result, deliberate self-regulation—from personal action to global geoengineering schemes—is either happening or imminently possible” (Lenton & Latour 2018: 1066). We suggest that the initiatives to cultivate corals are particularly feasible to think with about Gaia 2.0 and the technosphere. This is because, on the one hand corals as such may already be considered at the edges of species boundaries (they are animal-plant symbionts), of land and sea (they produce rock-like structures, terra-forming sediment and submarine living spaces), and of bio- and geosphere (they grow on the solid skeletons of their deceased and create earth surface in the process); and on the other hand because coral cultivation is an activity that raises questions about clear-cut delimitations between culture and nature, technology and environment, and design and circumstance.
To cope with the challenges posed by the Anthropocene marine biologists employ two main strategies to save the coral reefs that shall concern us here: first, the acceleration of coral growth and, second, the fostering of coral evolution. Both display various degrees of human involvement in multi-species entanglements. In terms of technological sophistication, a rather simple human engagement with coral reproduction is the provision of structures for corals to settle upon. Particularly since the 1990s, there were attempts to construct artificial reefs all over the world by purposely sinking ships (or other vessels) near existing reefs, as for example off the shores of Florida and Australia. These vessels were meant to supply the scaffolding for novel coral colonies, building on the capacity of nearby healthy corals to colonise these new nesting grounds. This illustrates that “the technosphere is the sphere of technology, in which humans play a role, but not necessarily the central role” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 213), because here the success or failure of reef construction depends on the “collaboration” of coral symbionts. In other words, in this technique of coral cultivation it is crucial whether or not coral symbionts will settle on the scaffolding provided for them. Quite comparable to the scallop cultivation in St. Brieuc Bay, France that Michel Callon (1986) described in his classic ANT-article the process of settlement hinges on the cooperation of human and non-human actors, where “the complicity of the scallops [or corals] is needed as much as that of the fishermen [or marine biologists]” (Callon 1986: 213). From this one may ask how to account for the corals’ role in the technosphere in this case? To what degree are corals technological artefacts, since the technological solution against coral devastation depends on the corals’ (biological) input?
In any case, this already exemplifies that the technosphere may indeed be the “defining feature of the Anthropocene” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 221). Not only is the distribution of anthropogenic elements in the bio- and geosphere massive – Elhacham et al. (2020) have recently calculated that globally the human-made mass outweighs all living biomass – but anthropogenic interventions in natural processes are increasingly deliberate, sophisticatedly planned and executed. This reflects in coral cultivation too. As the results of the artificial reef projects were sobering in many cases – the problem being the slow pace with which the corals colonised the artificial scaffolding (if at all) – marine biologists developed another approach to assisting coral reproduction. The idea is to accelerate coral growth by making use of their asexual reproduction capabilities. In this approach, put briefly, intact corals are broken from existing reefs. They are brought to aquaculture facilities and then placed in tanks that provide ideal conditions for corals to flourish. Crucial is a technique called “fragmentation” or more recently “micro-fragging” in which living corals are broken or sawn into small pieces, glued onto some solid base and then nursed to a certain size in the tanks. This way coral tissue grows up to around ten times faster than under natural conditions. The ready-bred corals are then taken off shore and planted on natural (usually damaged) reefs. The re-seeding of reefs – even more than the scuttling of ships – is a case in point of the blurred borderline “between engineering and biology” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 214) and raises doubts about the “systemic separateness of the technosphere relative to the biosphere” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 214). Isn’t an artificially created coral neither part of the technosphere nor the biosphere, but inherently part of both? Could a technologically enhanced biosphere be captured by a novel composite notion of, say, the “bio-technosphere”? With what implications for technosphere science and the study of the Anthropocene?
Marine biologists’ attempts to coral propagation, however, did not commence here. Instead there are various projects that experiment with the sexual reproduction capabilities of corals. Until very recently, scientists depended on collecting coral gametes from reefs during spawning events (in 2019 the Florida Aquarium was for the first time able to artificially trigger corals to spawn in the laboratory). Normally, spawning events usually occur only once a year. A combination of lunar cycle and water temperature cues entire coral colonies to release their eggs and sperm into the sea at once. The gametes must be collected within hours, because of their short viability and because marine biologists want to gather eggs and sperm before they fertilise and form embryos. Collecting eggs and sperm separately enables marine biologists not only to control the fertilisation and breeding process, but to experiment with combining different coral species and corals from various locations of the globe. By interbreeding corals, they strive to manufacture coral species that are more resilient to higher seawater temperatures, lower pH-values and diseases – hence, to make them fit for conditions of the Anthropocene. In contrast to the technological intervention into corals’ asexual reproduction, the aim here is not solely the acceleration of coral regrowth, but the fostering of coral evolution. It appears that marine biologists take for granted “the technosphere as the overarching regulatory system of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 215). For them, it seems, the answer to the effects of the technosphere is the technosphere itself. How else could we understand all the attempts to ensure corals’ survival? Aren’t artificially created and enhanced corals “technomass” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 215) or, perhaps, rather “bio-technomass”?
Finally, there is the puzzling issue of “purpose” in the context of coral cultivation. If technology “serves human purposes” (Herrmann-Pillath 2018: 213) in the technosphere, what than is technology’s human purpose here?: the preservation of biodiversity?; the assuagement of human guilt over the potential extinction of other species?; the fulfilment of responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing?. Does technology solely serve human purposes? Doesn’t technology also serve corals and the species depending on them? What are the implications for the technosphere if technology is no longer tied to serving human purposes alone? Is technology, perhaps, the crucial link in multi-species entanglements in the Anthropocene?
Callon, Michel. 1986. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay.” In Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, edited by John Law, 196–233. Routledge: London. [Google Scholar]
Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. [Google Scholar]
Scientists maintain corals growing in a coral reef nursery. Credit: NOAA. [Link]