11/10/2015

Some thoughts on a submission on Resource territories and climate change

My sincere apologies for not having been productive over these months but I was particularly busy.
This following text is notes and ideas for a text that I submitted (finally rejected), days ago, for an American journal of architecture on correlation between side effects of resource territories and the pressing question of climatic changing contexts in the context of architecture. What interested me was not so much the relation of climate and resource extraction. With a strong evidence, this issue of toxic emissions strongly contributes to change the biosphere's climatic and geological conditions. One of the central themes of my text was the emphasis placed on the objects generated by spatial and material destruction for extractive and processing purposes. What type of objects are they? And why do they matter? These objects are derelict, abandoned buildings, crumbling infrastructure, put it simply ruins. These very discrete material traces cannot capture our attention but are as toxic as the emission of contaminants, pollution and toxic waste that extractive and processing activities generate.
An abandoned well tested by researchers of the Princeton University, the Allegheny National Forest. Photo credit The Princeton University. Originally appeared on PhysdotOrg

I focused my submission on the transformation of Russian Arctic Circle's space during the Soviet era while I admit that I am not a specialist of this region (even of Russia). I view the Soviet era (in particular the Stalinist era in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s) as a good example of the limit and contradictions of the production of space for economical and technical purposes, in particular in extreme environments. For these notes on this text, however, I'll be expanding on the entire resource territory, at the scale of the planet. Some examples: the Niger Delta, Sumgayit (Azerbaijan), parts of United States (Pennsylvania, for instance), parts of France (mining regions) to name a few. A very vast geography of resource production-related ruins at the scale of the planet.
An abandoned, unplugged well near the Allegheny National Forest | Photo courtesy Scott Detrow/State Impact Pennsylvania. Originally appeared on State Impact, 2012

With regard to resource territories, as a technological space, we usually look at these spatial products, these platforms, tanks, storages, pipelines in activity. This, however, is a mistake to neglect those obsolete, crumbling infrastructures, those broken buildings, abandoned wells, destroyed pipelines due to lack of maintenance, to sabotage or as targets in warzones (we all know pipeline is a favorite target in war zones) since they provide us information of (1) the type, force, time, scale, and rhythm of spatial destruction related to the production of resource territories; (2) the lack of quality or, to put it simply, the obsolescence of many infrastructure as a legacy the 19th and 20th centuries; (3) as a result, they, simply, pollute soils, water and air affecting both environment and population.
Discharge from an abandoned well killed an acre of vegetation in Oneida County. Originally appeared on Tom Wilber's blog

The intention of my submission was not to deliver positive messages in the form of architectural scenarios to remediate these challenging issues. Neither was my intention — in the worse case — to formulate negative messages that would blame architecture for its contribution to the accelerating climate change. This submission situates within the following problematic: What can architecture do with the déjà-là? Indeed it poses the question of the negative déjà-là, these ruins that expand their territory into far beyond their location and beyond this, the role and position of design practices in creating these spatial products with lack of quality standards in such particular sites as extreme environments — the desert, the Amazon, the Arctic, the Ocean —, conflict-pattern regions, or primarily sparsely populated regions (villages or small-scaled human settlements) over the late 19th and the 20th centuries.
Abandoned Pipeline, near The Headland, Hartlepool, Great Britain | Photo courtesy Alison Rawson
According to Alison Rawson, "There are several of these rail topped pipelines heading out to sea. Once part of the now abandoned Steetley Magnesite Works."
Originally appeared on Geograph

With evidence these ruins pollute the territory they are shaping, the places where they have been erected in. But they also pollute the scale of the biosphere through the emission of toxic elements or oil and gas leakages. Most of these resource production-related infrastructures were built at a time when companies and governments did not take into consideration quality standards and, worse, side effects on both humans and nonhumans. In surveying these crumbling infrastructures, broken and collapsing buildings and factories, I attempted to look into the (in)direct correlation between the resource territories-related infrastructural space and climate change. It indeed is commonly admitted a direct correlation between resource extraction and climate change throughout emission of greenhouse gas, methane, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, oil leakage, and other negative by-products.
Abandoned pipeline in Tarraleah Power Station, Wellington, Australia | Photo courtesy Simon Cullen/ABC. Originally appeared on ABC

Yet what about those derelict infrastructures and buildings that are abandoned after mining and drilling operation shut down? My research led to state that the very political importance of these ruins has been neglected over decades certainly in order for capitalism not to confess its non-interest in detrimental impacts of this technological zone on space and bodies. Let me borrow this concept from Timothy Morton, wicked problem which strongly illustrates these ruins. A wicked problem, Timothy Morton writes, means "a problem that one can understand perfectly, but for which there is no rational solution. A super wicked problem, he continues, is "a wicked problem for which time is running out, for which there is no central authority, where those seeking the solution to it are also creating it, and where policies discount the future irrationally.[1] There is no rational solution to deal with these ruins because of the high price of their maintenance and upgrading programme. Yet these issues will be revealed to us as dangerous or, even, wicked as their toxicity will become more relevant, more vivid. It's just a matter of time.
Abandoned gas well in high grass | Photo courtesy Steve Hillbrand, U.S. Fish and wildlife service, originally appeared on Public Domain Image

In the world there are many abandoned objects in the forms creating their own zone and affect. Let's take for example, the extreme environment of Russian Arctic Circle with its numerous abandoned infrastructures, buildings, with industrial functions, many of them built in the Soviet era, next to, or part of the built environment. Images of crumbling infrastructures and buildings under snow and due to melting permafrost, broken or incomplete transport networks and factories, in Norilsk, Murmansk, and other Russian Arctic Circle's sites can easily be found on Internet. What these images show is the spatial and material traces as a factor of the destructive forces of the production of resource production-related space. Not only do these spatial products affect the natural processes generating viscous and violent phenomena — melting permafrost, rising land and water temperature, more frequent and violent cold storm, acid rains, boreal forest and tundra loss — and the population who lives there, but, and as a consequence, they also stick to us, are part of us[2]. The region has been suffering from some of the worst land and air pollution in the world with a population whose life expectancy is 10 years below the Russian average (which itself if particularly low)[3].
An oil-pumping equipment standing abandoned at the oil well near Surgut in Siberia | Photo courtesy EPA/Vadim Rusakov |
Originally appeared on New Europe

Ruins obey their own logic, yet they interfere with us by disrupting the clear-cut rules of our logic (for instance to say it with Timothy Morton, the world in its entirety has since long evaporated, becoming a vast, planetary technological zone made up of clusters of technological zones)[4]. Given their toxicity, they also disturb the clear partition between their spatial and temporal inscription, and living and non-living bodies and space. Their discrete agency and power will reveal to us as we will be confronted with the question of climate change and its affiliated shifting contexts. In that respect, we will be forced to account not only for their presence as well as for their toxicity[5]. More precisely, these ruins, broken infrastructures and buildings are becoming "omnipresent planetary entities", or hyperobjects, to say it with Timothy Morton, 'vastly distributed agents' co-responsible for turning the surface, subsurface, air and water into dead land, waters and poisoned air at a dramatically accelerated pace[6].
Abandoned Transpolar Railway in Salekhard-Igarka, Siberia, Russia. Originally appeared on Russia Trek
Another view of the abandoned Transpolar Railway in Salekhard-Igarka, SIberia, Russia. Originally appeared on Russia Trek

For that matter, I convoked a series of texts that deserved to be read by architects interested in these industrial wastelands. These texts were a great source of inspiration to explore this critical issue of ruins within resource territories and see how they contribute to the accelerating environmental degradation, and by extension, climate change. I merely cite some of them. Henri Lefebvre unsurprisingly is on top of the list with his account of Production of Space[7] that I associated with Gaston Gordillo's excellent Rubble. The Afterlife of Destruction[8], in particular his concept of destruction of space. Gordillo, through the question of rubble, examines the destructive force of the production of space in the region of Gran Chaco, northern Argentine reminding us that the production of a new space for technological use — agribusiness, waste processing, resource extraction, military or scientific operations — or simply put, abstract space always results from the destruction of the original space which of course, in turn, generates tangible traces of former places. Henri Lefebvre, Gaston Gordillo reminds us, emphasizes that "this abstract space is inherently violent, a 'lethal' space that 'destroys these historical conditions that gave rise to it'". I was much interested in the material and spatial traces that the present abstract space produces as a factor of disruptive or side effects of this abstract space. These polluted, derelict, debilitating places, I repeat, are now living with us. As Timothy Morton forthrightly affirmed, "we are no longer able to think history as exclusively human, for the very reason that we are in the Anthropocene."[9]
Cap of Kola Superdeep Borehole, Siberia, Russia | Photo courtesy Rakot13, 2012. Originally appeared on Inhabitat

These ruins, which are the negation of negation given their toxicity and viscosity, are forced on us. They have their own agency and power. As I wrote above, these 'politics' obey their own logic. The awareness of the lethal effects of these ruins will appear as terrible shock for us. In that respect, we will no longer be able to ignore or deny their presence near us. What this imposed presence of resource production-related ruins makes explicit is that human existence is situated in a complex space of toxicity, contaminants and pollution at the scale of the planet, a reality witnessable only as the form of indirect effects, but that is not yet, at least immediately, noticeable. This negation of negation is inscribed in a very critical, odd context where ruins, built environment, industrial sites and networks, and nature are intertwined, a context that gives these resource production-related ruins a strong political signification. As by-products of the age of industry, capitalism, and technology, they now are, menacingly, part of our life. While we humans are trying to fix this environmental degradation that we have been producing over centuries with our current system — capitalism —, tools and technical knowledge, these ruins will force us to take into account that "[…] capitalism is reactive rather than proactive, it might contain a flaw that makes it unable to address the ecological emergency fully."[10]
While these ruins are conspicuous to us (if you go to an industrial expedition in these places like Pyramiden, Norilsk, Niger Delta, to quote a few, you'll be facing with their massive scale, their material presence on site, their lethal interaction with both humans, non-humans and space), their toxicity are invisible and very discrete. Yet they affect us: not only are the population who live in the site affected — many of them die of radiation sickness — but they expand their toxicity into the scale of the planetary. Put it differently, bodies are caught in the force field of intermeshed zones — zones emitted by these broken objects, zones that climate change is producing, zones that we create for economic and technical purposes, and zones that constitute the world.
If I go further than the simple presence and visibility of these ruins of infrastructure and buildings, I will take account of their material dimension but not of their spatial and toxic dimension and implication. Nonlocal things, Timothy Morton writes, on account of their invisibility, float around "in an infinite void, since there is strictly no 'around' in which these things float: one is unable to locate them in a specific region of spacetime."[11]
Why did I decide of looking at resource production-related ruins? Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz delivers one but very simple response: "At an ever-increasing rate, we are currently creating examples of the most amazing (and, in the far distant future, perhaps the most puzzling) trace fossils likely to appear in the history of the planet."[12] Put it differently, resource extraction is one example of many forms of production of human trace fossils. So the question that can be posed is as follows: what will the far future architect, urban chronicler, or whoever excavate? Ruins, but not simple ruins. Negative, toxic ruins, debris, as material or human trace fossils, factor of ever-increasing human footprint on the Earth.



Notes
[1] Morton Timothy, Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2013), 135.
[2] A walk on western ancient mining, oil and gas sites show thousands abandoned resource operation-related infrastructures many of them to be found to be leaking a certain amount of methane. An example can be found here. To have an idea of how such leakage can affect both natural process and living beings is the problem of arsenic as depicted in Mehrarg Andrew A., Venomous Earth. How arsenic caused the world's worst mass poisoning, (New York: MacMillan, 2005). Methane is added into the list of poisons as a proof that the Earth has evaporated. About this affirmation, see Morton Timothy, Hyperobjects).
[3] Sassen Saskia, Expulsions. Brutality and complexity in the global economy, (Cambridge: Belkamp Press, 2013) 156.
[4] Morton, Id., 101.
[5] When for instance poisons like methane will be clearly and officially detected in these derelict infrastructures and buildings.
[6] Morton, id., 53.
[7] Lefebvre Henri, Production of Space, (Bognor Regis: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991), 289.
[8] Gordillo Gaston, Rubble. The Afterlife of Destruction, (Durham: University of Duke Press, 2013), 79.
[9] Morton, id., 5.
[10] Morton, id., 21.
[11] Morton, id., 42.
[12] Zalasiewicz Jan, The Earth after Us: What Legacy will Humans leave in the Rocks, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165.

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