Brian Holmes on Mon, 4 Nov 2019 05:17:15 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> The Watershed in Your Head

On Sat, Nov 2, 2019 at 10:51 AM John Hopkins <> wrote:
My formal work currently includes being the archivist for, among many other
items, the maps of now-abandoned coal and metal mines in the state of Colorado.
The state is literally riddled with holes -- somewhere around 25,000 abandoned
mines alone, not to mention hundreds of thousands of hydrocarbon and water
wells. Brian's pipeline mapping project only scratches the surface of such
manifestations, they are practically fractal, given that anyone using natural
gas has a pipeline right to their house, and so on.

This whole post is a profound response indeed. Thank you John, both for recognizing what I am doing and for throwing your own parallel efforts into the mix. That is the best one can hope for in these kinds of exchanges.

You are absolutely right about scratching the surface, and one can also be rightfully perplexed as to what to do about it - whether to go more deeply into the subject, or to just immediately stop using more energy in any form.

Perhaps wrongly, I have chose to go deeper into it, such as here:

A general-purpose ecology map of the Mississippi River Delta could definitely focus on the wetlands (which I try to do) and it could definitely go into such things as the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" (which I do elsewhere in this atlas). This particular map focuses on petrochemical exploitation. First in the Gulf of Mexico. The slider at bottom left draws on the kind of official GIS data that John mentions, in order to reveal all the wellheads and rigs that have been installed in the Gulf since the fateful year of 1947. A painfully large number, which has recently gone into decline, at the same time as much deeper wells have appeared. The red dots mark those where exploitation has  stopped, the wellhead sealed (hopefully), and the rig either removed or simply blown up and scuttled in place, as is often sadly the case. The green dots mark rigs that go on pumping (the majority of those located in deep water are, sadly, newer ones that do just that). Zooming in a little closer, you can see the underwater pipelines, again divided into active (black) and junked (gray). Clicking on any of these features generates yet more details. However it remains difficult to even imagine how much oil wreckage besmirches the seafloor in this area; and it would also be necessary to tally the major leaks that have occurred or are still occurring, just to get some idea of why the Gulf of Mexico is currently dying.

Now let's look on land, for instance just south of New Orleans. Zooming in you will see the town of Jean Lafitte, and south of it, a black cluster of still-active wells. They are located on marshes, but not really, because the vegetal mat of these marshes could never support such infrastructure. In almost all cases, a canal has been cut into the marsh, just to install and service the wells. But you will see that the still-operating black wellheads are surrounded by a ghostly halo of off-white dots. Each of these represents an abandoned well, of which there are some 90,000 in Louisiana all told (oil and gas combined). Those shown are only former oil wells, and only the ones located in the wetlands zones: click them for a company name, date and depth. In the area south of Jean Lafitte, a canal has been dug for each of these too. In some cases, a brown smudge at the edge of the canal shows the dredge spoil that was piled up on the living marsh. Only sometimes though, because in most cases, these crisscrossing canals have let in so much storm surge that what formerly appeared to be land has just been ripped to shreds by the waves, spoil and all. "Louisiana's disappearing coastline" (a veritable commonplace in recent journalism) is due largely to this shredding action, augmented by sea-level rise, subsidence and a lack of fresh sediment because of the levees that channel the Mississippi River. Every year, Jean Lafitte floods a little more; and with every hurricane, it's an emergency situation. The mayor of the little town keeps finding public and private money to build more and more public architecture there, in hopes that one day, the town will be valuable enough for the Army Corps of Engineers to surround it with levees and turn it into an artificial island. That's not likely to happen. Flooding is. Jean Lafitte, and most of the Louisiana coast, and the entire planetary ecology is being eaten alive by the oil and gas industry.

Is it useful to know these things? You will probably say that you already knew, you have the general picture. But you do not really have any idea, not in most cases at least (let's except John and others like him). You do not know enough to really protest these things in aggregate, in their systemic reality, let alone take any concrete steps to change them at the aggregate level of the production system. I went out in a small boat in this general area, south of Morgan City. With my own eyes I saw a few wells and some shredded marsh, and let me tell you, I understood nothing. To grasp the technical and human modalities of planetary ecological change - how it is carried out, cut by cut, bite by bite - one needs specialized visualization tools, detailed information, operational narrative and numerous kinds of theory - especially biological science, but also economics, governance theory, etc. I am trying to learn those kinds of things, and to supply them in these maps. Later I will follow John's cue, and attempt a full-scale map of the whole Mississippi watershed, showing at least some aspects of the entire energy complex - not the pipelines to your door, but everything short of such granularity. Is this just a useless obsession? Or worse - a form of insanity?

I am not really sure. My belief, so far, has to do with the idea that David Garcia has been formulating recently - the idea that we need to build communities of knowledge as a basis for action. To be sure, all kinds of people act without such knowledge, just go join any anti-pipeline protest, you'll see. More power to them. But knowledge communities are required, precisely, to give the protesters more political power. All sorts of other functions, such as legal expertise, political representation, alternative forms of engineering, and ultimately a new cosmology will also be required, to change the productive norms of the societies we live in. No one can do this stuff alone. Indeed, as John points out, the reality is that we are not acting as individuals, we are acting as a species. How does a species change a course that is headed toward what is called ecological overshoot - that is, a massive die-off due to over-exploitation of so-called "resources"? Well, I do agree with the Marxists (after all I'm one of them) when they say that all this is not being done by the whole species, but instead, by the capitalists. However that answer begs the question - because you still have to get the whole species to internalize and act on this judgment about the capitalists. A process which is, just maybe, now starting. By necessity.
  I am
preparing, with colleagues, a deep survey of Colorado groundwater. The only word
I can use to characterize it is "grim". And Colorado is relatively well-off
compared to many other locations on the planet where groundwater supplies (as
the *only* local source of water) are being overdrawn by 4-500%. We are making
this information available to the public, though at the cost of participating in
'cloud computing' which should be an anathema, given its energy cost. (see, for
These kinds of conundrums are evidence that we yet have not fully understood
where we stand as a species, thinking that we stand separate from everything else.

I believe the point is to make the conundrum or quandary into a pathway, one that leads toward viable relations with the rest of the world. Yet that belief is clearly an article of faith. Over the upcoming years and decades we will see what, if anything, that kind of faith achieves at the species level.

soberly, Brian
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