Petropolis. What is to be done?

Two weeks ago or so, Matteo Pasquinelli, a theoretician, shared via facebook a video entitled Google and the World Brain. Visiting the website Thought Maybe, for further information, I found another documentary entitled Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands produced by filmmaker Peter Mettler:
Canada's tar sands are the largest industrial project ever undertaken-spanning the size of England. Extracting the oil and bitumen from underneath unspoiled wilderness requires a massive industrialized effort with far-reaching impacts on the land, air, water, and climate. It's an extraordinary industrial spectacle, the true scope of which can only be understood from an aerial view. Shot primarily from a helicopter, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands offers an unparalleled view of the world's largest ever industrial project…
Peter Mettler has shot Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands from a helicopter. The Alberta Tar Sands area is located in the Canadian boreal forest occupying a large area of 141,000 sq. km (54,000 sq. mi.). These deposits comprise Athabasca Oil Sands, Peace River and Cold Lake. This area is the primary locus of oil sands extraction in Canada and one of the earth's largest reserves of fossil fuels. A petropolis, then, is defined by a high dependence on natural resources — oil, natural gas, coal — marked by a political-economic system. Other examples of petropolis are Macaé (Brazil), Baku (Azerbaijan), among others.

What this video shows is nothing less than a pressured environment through surface mining activities. Guilty, toxic landscapes. These images force us to reconsider our position toward resource extraction, and more broadly energy. Guilty or not guilty? Shame or not shame? Consider accountability. As Brendan Cormier rightly puts it in his essay 'Accounting for guilt', the acceleration of environmental issues through industrial activities will contribute to more accountability. Resource extraction is a "strong generator of guilt." These images pose the question of ethics and its relation with industrial activities within the (re)configuring of, and the becoming-unstable of territories for industrial purposes. Allow me for convoking physicist and philosopher Karen Barad for a better understanding of the role of ethics towards these extreme landscapes. As Barad writes:
The point is not merely that there is a web of causal relations that we are implicated in and that there are consequences to our actions. We are a much more intimate part of the universe than any such statement implies. If what is implied by 'consequences' is a chain of events that follow one upon the next, the effects of our actions rippling outward from their point of origin well after a given action is completed, then to say that there are consequences to our actions is to miss the full extent of the interconnectedness of being. Future moments don't follow present ones like beads on a string. Effect does not follow cause hand over fist, transferring the momentum of our actions from one individual to the next like the balls on a billiards table. There is no discrete 'I' that precedes its actions. Our (intra)actions matter — each one reconfigures the world in its becoming — and yet they never leave us; they are sedimented into our becoming, they become us. And yet even in our becoming there is no 'I' separate from the intra-active becoming of the world.
How to measure our responsibility in these shifting landscapes? What is to be done?
Syncrude Upgrader and Tar Sand © Garth Lenz
> "The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the Tar Sands consumes for more oil and energy than conventional oil production and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailing into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday." | Garth Lenz
Originally appears on National Geographic
I'm reminded of these aerial pictures taken by Garth Lenz (see the 31st issue of Volume Magazine and The Petropolis of Tomorrow). Garth Lenz documents how the boreal landscape has been transformed through resource extraction. The point of view is similar to Mettler's video: aerial views providing a panoramic view of the damaging landscape. Mettler's video Petropolis and Lenz's images do not show the before-and-after but the process, the changing environment of the Boreal Forest.
Tailings Pond in Winter, Alberta Tar Sands | © Garth Lenz
> "Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas." | Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on National Geographic
The architect Kelly Nelson Doran has made a great contribution to our understanding of these changing landscapes of the Alberta Tar Sands, examining the mechanism of oil sands extraction, the accelerating landscape transformation through this method of extraction. As Kelly Doran argues, the "future of this landscape is the unfortunate byproduct of blame." Indeed, oil sands industries, he continues, "have developed an orchestrated set of landscape behaviors based on emerging hydrological, logistical, technological and legal parameters." Oil sands or tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay, and water, saturated with viscous form of petroleum, also known as bitumen. This is based upon a specific technique of extraction consisting in strip mining:
Initially, while constructing the massive upgrading facilities required to separate bitumen from sand, the boreal forest is gridded off; its land clear-cut; its soil drenched, drained and dried; and its roughly ten-meter-thick layer of overburden (musked, soil, gravels, rock) is removed and stocpiled before any mining can occur. Simultaneously, massive embankments for holding and tailings ponds are constructed adjacent to the future mines to provide the necessary fluids to lubricate the transportation of the crushed sand, which will then have steam pumped into it to separate the oil.
This method, however, has a cost: the deterioration of these landscapes producing "more carbon" and "a major source of airborne toxic pollution." The territory around the extractive site is becoming a landscape-level disturbance that transforms, accelerates biodiversity decline — exhausted rivers, habitat fragmentation and degradation, endangered and threatened species, deterioration of wetlands. These sites, or extreme sites, now are left physically, environmentally, and economically for someone else's problems. As an example of this, as Garth Lenz puts it, the use of pipelines, seismic lines, and pumping stations "impacts a far larger area than the mines and contributes up to ninety percent reduction of key species, including the Grizzly Bear and Woodland Caribou." Not to mention health risk occurring at a very large scale.
Petropolis | © Peter Mettler
Orignally appears on InfraNet Lab
> "A tailing pond is a toxic lake so dangerous that air cannons and scarecrows are used to deter wildlife." | Peter Mettler
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
What will the geologist or, more simply, the urban explorer of the distant future be seeing? In a recent conference entitled Environments of Extraction that brought together architect Neeraj Bhatia (The Open Workshop, InfraNet Lab), Dr Paul Fennelly, Rob Holmes (mammoth) and Justin Fowler (Manifest Magazine) at Storefront for Art and ArchitectureRob Holmes states that "humans are acting as geological change agents." In other words, humans participate in a radically and accelerating changing environment made out of industrial waste, carbon dioxide concentrations, contaminating radioactive materials. I'm reminded of this text written by the author of science-fiction Paolo Bacigalupi The People of Sand and Slag, in particular this dystopian future of damaged landscape and posthuman alienation. Humanity, Paolo Bacigalupi writes, "has transcended all the things that require us to partake of what we might call ecosystem services. They live off sand and mine waste and don't notice the loss. They don't need nature, and that has implications for how they interact with their world."This may be this kind of future landscape the geologist and the urban explorer will be living in.
Petropolis | © Peter Mettler
Originally appeared on InfraNet Lab
> "A giant earth mover transports earth mined at an open pit for processing to separate the bitumen." | Peter Mettler
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
With a strong evidence, our accelerated activities and change of our world will be increasingly difficult to ignore, leaving traces on the planet's land surface. These disturbances can be ranged from toxic materials, oil residues to mining leftovers, sand, liquid tailings. Let me borrow this notion of hyperobject from the philosopher Tim Morton to translate these disturbances.
The Petropolis | © Peter Mettler
Originally appeared on InfraNet Lab
> "Open mine pits in the tar sands are often fifty metres deep" | Peter Mettler
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
An hyperobject, as Tim Morton defines, is an object that is massively distributed in spacetime relative to humans. It could be global warming, radioactive materials, planets. It could be "a black hole, […] the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades, […] biosphere, or the Solar System, […] the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just the plutonium, or the uranium." Hyperobject, he continues, is "so vast, so long lasting, that [it] def[ies] human time and spatial scales." These hyperobjects will outlast our lifetime. In my view, this concept of hyperobject can be an interesting concept in order for ecological design to investigate, address such extreme territories as Alberta Tar Sands.
Tar Sands at Night, Alberta Tar Sands | © Garth Lenz
> "Twenty four hours a day the Tar Sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forest and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast hey can be seen from outer space. | Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on National Geographic
I would argue that Peter Mettler's video and Garth Lenz's photos bring to the forefront important questions of accountability, guilt, and agency. In few words, these images highlight the ethical value of industrial activities, here extractive activities: reclamation, land degradation, pollution, toxic soils and water issues (polluted rivers). The physical inscription of extractive activities and its affiliated infrastructures reveals three key points: impact, scale, and investment. As first the question of impact of extractive activities as an irreversible wound on the land's surface and below the land's surface of the Canadian boreal landscape.
Petropolis | © Peter Mettler
Originally appeared on InfraNet Lab
> Water taken from the local watershed ends up in toxic lake called tailing ponds | Peter Mettler
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
As second is the issue of scale. It is to operate at a wide range from the local to the planetary and from minutes to thousands of years. It has been demonstrated at length that these scales are defined as ecosystems.
Petropolis | © Peter Mettler
Originally appeared on InfraNet Lab
> "Giant deposits sulphur sit next to Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility" | Peter Mettler
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
Extractive activities, themselves, are a very large system that absorbs a set of scales and deploys itself from the micro to the macro, the local to the global. What affects here has a strong impact there. In her essay for Bracket Almanach [Goes Soft], Lola Sheppard evokes a new approach to understanding territorial operation, she names epigenetic territory, claiming that architecture is to operate at "the scale of the broader territory, a space expanded and thickened with environmental data, competing social and political claims, economic forces, systems of mobility, ecological systems, and urban metabolisms."
Tar Sands Upgrader in Winter, Alberta Tar Sands | © Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
> "The Alberta Tar Sands are Canada's single largest and fastest growing source of carbon. They produce about as much carbon annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires far more water and energy than the production of conventional oil and produces twice as much greenhouse gas." | Garth Lenz
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
The integration of the territorial will provide new opportunities for landscape-architecture-urbanism in tackling problems at multiple scales. For example, the operation of extraction does not limit to extract natural resources, rather, participates in an entire logistic network involving extraction, production, distribution and consumption. But the new approach is to integrate what will follow this second point: re-calibration of these landscapes, or, more simply, ecosystem as investment.
Confluence of Carcajou River and Mackenzie River, Mackenzie Va | © Garth Lenz
> The Carcajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project. | Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
Third, investment. Considering landscape as investment is, as we mentioned earlier, to take account that toxic byproducts will outlast our lifetime. They will be our long-term issues. In this context, it is to pose exploration, extraction, production, distribution, consumption and re-calibration of affected landscapes as central in order we, first, to implement a strategy for the productive reuse of these decommissioned, damaged areas, second, to rethink or inscribe the scale of waste management and treatment into the oil industries' agenda.
Boreal Forest and Wetland, Athabasca Delta Northern Alberta | © Garth Lenz
> "Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta Tar Sands, the Athabasca is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is a threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds." | Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
What productive strategies can be implemented to respond to this specific situation of extreme territories? Can we make waste as resources? These territories have been manufactured in response to human demands for energy. The following questions are: what would we do with these exhausted territories? Would we leave them physically, legally, ecologically and economically to become someone's else problem?
Dry Tailings, Alberta Tar Sands | © Garth Lenz
Image originally appeared on National Geographic
> "Shells atmospheric fine tailings drying field demonstration project at their Muskeg River mine. This has the potential to accelerate the reclamation of tailings in the future." | Garth Lenz
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
I, again, make reference to Kelly Doran. It seems that oil sands companies are implementing strategies to "transform the entire region into a constellation of engineered endorheic basins incongruously designed to sustain ecosystems that perform at pre-development levels". The aim of this closure-planning is to produce a post-extraction landscape, say, an "equivalent land-use capability, optimizing the value of the watershed, timber, wildlife habitat, fish habitat, recreation potential or other resources and taking into account stakeholder preferences," the oil industry Suncor reports. If efforts to remediate the boreal landscapes are undeniable, the risk of permanently disturbing the pre-existing ecosystem is to take into account. Kelly Doran points out that this approach "masks the reality of a dramatic habitat shift," including a population growth (from roughly 50,000 to 125,000 over the past 20 years. It may reach at 225,000 by the year 2040) that will occur an accelerating urbanization of the region. Put it simply, this closure-planning seems much more respond to urban pressures.
Tar Pit | © Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
> "Trucks the size of a house look like tiny toys as the rumble along massive roads in a section of a mine. The largest of their kind, these 400-ton capacity dump trucks are 47.5 feet long, 32.5 feet wide, and 25 feet tall. Within their dimensions you could build a 3,000 square foot home. The scale of the tar sands is truly unfathomable. Alberta Energy has reported that the landscape being industrialized by rapid Tar sands development could easily accommodate one Florida, two New Brunswicks, four Vancouvers, and four Vancouver Islands." | Garth Lenz
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
What can we learn from these extreme territories? That a landscape is a network, an assemblage of human and nonhuman actants (Bennett, Latour) or machines (Bryant) — trees, habitats, species and their constructions, energy, rivers, wind, minerals, forest, soil, humans and their social constructions, oil, sands, tailing ponds, toxic water, bitumen, stockpiles, toxic waste, electromagnetic field, pipelines… More importantly, an assemblage should be considered an ecology within which all the elements are interconnected, pluripotent, contingent rather than fixed, static, linear. Moreover all these objects, whether humans or nonhumans, are sensitive to internal and external flows and fluctuations, as Jane Bennett rightly stated. It is not too far from our three points mentioned above, and I repeat here: impact, scale, and investment. What you modify here affects there and there. In this context, the tangled contribution of these objects constitutes an assemblage, an ecology, a landscape.
Black Cliff, Alberta Tar Sands | © Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
> "Tar sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately twelve to fifteen metres high. Giant shovels dig the tar sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks which have a 400-tons capacity Black Cliff, Alberta, Canada." | Garth Lenz
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
This concept of assemblage offers a great occasion to widen the angle of vision in rethinking the agency of ecological design. But prior to this, it may be relevant to revisit the very concept of agency in integrating nonhumans in acknowledging the importance of nonhuman agency, here landscape, there toxic waste, there again species, habitats, as the same level as human agency. It is to admit the existence, the acknowledgment of what Jane Bennett promotes, that is, an agency that doesn't restrict itself to the simple human agency. Agency, rather, enlarges its sphere, its boundaries in including nonhuman bodies. To go further, human bodies and nonhuman bodies are parts of an assemblage within which they interact with each others within larger networks of agency.
Aspen and Spruce, Northern Alberta | © Garth Lenz
> "Photographed in late autumn in softly failing snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption." | Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
What is at stake, finally, is the role and implication of design in rethinking a more adaptive approach that would recalibrate, re-program, reshape at a territorial scale whilst maintaining the ecology, biodiversity's patterns in place. What kind of ecological design can we elaborate that would tackle this issue of industrial waste, these damaging landscapes, from the smallest scale to the planetary scale? An ecological design is, by definition, an approach that demands the capacity for resilience, responsiveness, and adaptability to change, internal and external disturbances. Rob Holmes proposes an approach, he names generative capacity of extractive landscapes capable of absorbing issues occurring through extractive activities, of coupling human economy (logistics and infrastructural formats), geologic activities with ecological efficiencies (natural landscapes). In other words, the tangled contribution of objects, that is, social construction and natural construction, problem-forms, reshapes these extraction-related landscapes.
Tailings Pond Abstract, Alberta Tar Sands | © Garth Lenz
> "So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste water of a tailings pond." | Garth Lenz
Originally appeared on The National Geographic
The discussion Environments of Extraction which addresses the peculiar relationship between urbanism and resource extraction provides key questions to rethinking these human-impacted landscapes.
Petropolis | © Peter Mettler
Originally appeared on InfraNet Lab
> "Air emissions from the tar sands include 300 tonnes of sulphur a day" | Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow" | Peter Mettler
Originally quoted in The Petropolis of Tomorrow
Neeraj Bhatia, the co-editor of the book The Petropolis of Tomorrow with Mary Casper (Plat Journal), asks us to examine the fitness or suitable of our tools to solve resource extraction problems. The Petropolis of Tomorrow is also a design investigation, directed by Neeraj Bhatia, into an alternative approach to designing oil-related cities. This hyperfunctional, resilient petropolis proposes the integration of waste and garbage management and treatment as key question to extractive landscapes, namely a detoxi-city which purpose is to challenge environmental pollution, toxic waste, and other industrial byproducts in "co-opting and coupling […] hydrological flows to oil refinement and processing in order to both contain, cleanse, and reintroduce waters that have been used and affected by the industrial processes proposed for the site," Rodney Bell, Julia Gamolina and Zuhal Kol, three architecture students participants in this design The Petropolis of Tomorrow, write. To say it differently, what is at stake is to propose hyperfunctional infrastructures of industrial waste, contamination management and treatment, again scalable, responsive to ecological, environmental, climatic, economic and social flows and fluctuations. I would argue that the inclusion of such task of treating these hyperobjects, these industrial waste, pollution, greenhouse gases and water issues is a great opportunity to enlarge decision-making of architects…

For those interested in this subject, a further reading, that I hope, will enlarge your knowledge on this topic:

Bacigalupi Paolo, Pump Six and Others Stories, Night Shade Books, 2010.
Barad Karen, 'Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter comes to Matter', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), 2003: 801-831, (pdf).
Barad Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press Books, 2007.
Bennett Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press Books, Series: A John Hope Franklin Center Book, 2010.
Bhatia Neeraj, Casper Mary, The Petropolis of Tomorrow, Actar Editorial, 2013.
Bryant Levi, The Democracy of Objects, MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2011.
Cormier Brendan, 'Accounting for Guilt', Volume, 31(Spring), 2012: 19-22.
Doran Nelson Kelly, 'Europe's Oil Sands - Dirty of an Offshore Appetite', Volume, 31(spring), 2012: 122-125.
Doran Nelson Kelly, 'Operational Alternatives: (Re-)Configuring the Landscape of Alberta's Athabasca Oil Sands', 306090, 13, 2009: 40-43.
Doran Nelson Kelly, 'After Extraction,' Topos, (82), 2013: 37-41.
Ellsworth Elizabeth, Kruse Jaimie (eds), Making The Geologic Now, Punctum Book, 2012.
Lenz Garth, 'Exposing the Oil Sands', Volume, 31(Spring), 2012: 91-95.
Lenz Garth, 'The True Cost of Oil', in The Petropolis of Tomorrow, Actar Editorial, 2013: 32-63.
Morton Timothy, 'Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects', Graz Architectural Magazine, (7) 2011: 78-87.
Mettler Peter, Petropolis, in The Petropolis of Tomorrow, Actar Editorial, 2013: 352-383.
Morton Timothy, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, 2010.
Morton Timothy, Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the  End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Morton Timothy, 'Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence', Volume, 31(Spring), 2012: 16-18.
Morton Timothy, 'Environmentalism', Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, 2005: 696-707.
Sheppard Lola, 'From site to territory', in Bracket Almanach [goes soft], (2), Actar Editorial, 2003: 175-180.

Morton Timothy, Hyperobjects, lecture, 2010

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