Settler Geology: Earth’s deep history and the governance of in situ oil spills in Alberta

lined pit pkg 1 249

Contaminated soil from an in situ flow-to-surface event in northern Alberta

In my latest article, I examine 4 related events in which processes that superheat bitumen into a hot emulsion deep underground forced it to Earth’s surface…rather than having it stay put for long enough to be pumped out. I have a lot of data I gathered on the governance response, but this article targets just one part of it (the rest will be in a new book I’m writing on Alberta). Namely, what was the official ’cause’ of the bitumen flowing to the surface?

Here is the paper (free for 50 days from this link, and available from my publications page). If you have a subsription to Political Geography click here.

At first glance, the answer seems straightforward: the technology used to extract the bitumen was clearly the driving force. But things are more complicated than this for a variety of reasons. The most interesting part for the argument in this paper is how Earth’s deep history (i.e. geologic time) was used to explain causal relationships as ancient marine environments, glacial advances and retreats, and floods from the geologic record were used to explain causal relationships in the present. By looking closely at this case, we can see how geologic and human time are made commensurate with one another…that is, how they are put on the same scale of time.

Of course, these temporal scales are not brought together in just any old fashion. Instead, they are brought together in ways that fit with existing governance structures designed to extract value from land. That is, from the structures put in place through settler colonialism. As it happens, settler colonialism has a very peculiar, and quite flawed, idea of time underpinning it and which make it appear natural despite its violent effects on Indigenous peoples, lands, and relations. I have created the term ‘settler geology’ as a shorthand to refer to how this temporal framework is extended to make Earth’s deep history a natural fit with the cultural time of settler colonialism.

Those who follow debates around the Anthropocene will be familiar with a very prominent premise: that the scale of the Anthropocene is incommensurate with human time. Or, in other words, that the two not only operate on vastly different time scales but that, in addition, geologic time cannot be explained in terms of human time (or vice versa). This premise, and adjacent ideas of incommensurate aspects of the Anthropocene (like Tim Morton’s idea of hyperobjects like climate change that are too big to be candidates for experience) are the target of my latest article in Political Geography. In it, I show how geologic time is made commensurate with the governance of one of the planet’s largest fossil fuel extraction operations: the Alberta oil sands (or tar sands, if you are looking to battle it out over terminology).

Settler geology: Earth’s deep history and the governance of in situ oil spills in Alberta


Alberta’s bitumen industry is frequently identified as a key site of environmental politics in the Anthropocene owing to the scale of its fossil fuel extraction operations. While popular images of surface mining activities often focus these discussions, approximately 80% of the bitumen reserves in the Canadian province lie too deep for surface mining and are extracted through in situ technologies, including processes that inject high-temperature, high-pressure steam to mobilize geologic formations of the tar-like fossil fuel. This article examines how in situ extraction was governed in response to four flow-to-surface (FTS) events in which bitumen unexpectedly migrated to Earth’s surface as the result of in situ operations. The governance response to these events is of particular interest because it counters the assertion that existing governance institutions operate on time scales that are incommensurate with those relevant to the Anthropocene. The Alberta case shows the opposite owing to how Earth’s deep history was used to provide temporal syntax for a geotechnical debate that ensued over what caused the FTS events. By detailing the controversy over what caused the FTS events, and the search for “enabling conditions” that would link causal explanations to the spatial distribution of the four bitumen seeps, Earth’s deep history was also made commensurate with the political geography of settler colonialism in Alberta. The article introduces and develops the notion of ‘settler geology’ in order to capture the naturalization of geologic forms of reasoning about Earth’s deep history, the geologic force of anthropogenic in situ operations, and the temporal framework of settler colonial governance in Alberta.

Anthropocene Lecture: Philippe Descola

My latest paper – The Moral Geography of the Earth System

My latest paper is now out entitled, The Moral Geography of the Earth System. It is currently free access here (thanks Wiley!). And it is permanently open-access here, though only in read-only. If there is a problem with the second link try pasting this in your browser: (or click the link in the header to my publications page and go from there).

I’m especially keen on reactions to this article, which tries to do a couple of things to set up a concluding argument: that the form of integration achieved under neoliberal forms of sustainable development is now giving way to new forms of neoliberalism without nature.

The first half argues that one of the key things the Anthropocene is often taken to imply is the loss of ‘other’ spaces, places, and landscapes since one set of (cumulative) social actions now affect how the Earth system functions. The Capitalocene, for instance, is a way to describle those social actions as being primarily compelled and constrained by capitalist forms of accumulation or extraction. As interesting as those debates are, I’m interested here in how response to this loss of others has generated new attempts to describe how we might understand belonging in a new geological era. New debates around the (1) novelty of the Anthropocene, (2) temporal mis-matches between history and geology, (3) new ontological ideas about what is or may exist (or what is or may become), and (4) what sorts of agents need to be accounted for all shape this new arena. I try to think through the accounts of some of the most cited proponents of each. These aren’t necessarily the best accounts of each, and I didn’t pick them with a view to adjudicate. Rather, I chose them because even some of the most widely circulating accounts both have some residual problems (which I point out) and also tend to have targets to the side of new practices now shaping notions of belonging in the Anthropocene–perhaps most notably because they focus on macro, or meta-ethical claims about the proposed epoch as a whole, which is partly why I highlight the Earth system (which is changing in many different ways) rather than the Anthropocene.

So, the second part of the paper looks at two of these new practices as they are circulating in international law and, to some extent, among members of the Anthropocene Working Group. The first of these practices is the idea that we should use the planetary boundaries framework as a kind of grundnorm (a norm basic to all others) in global governance.  The second practice is the idea that humans are part of a geological sphere known as the technosphere that includes buildings, internet cables, and all of the materials and energy that are now organized to support humans. Both of these concepts are gaining steam, albeit in their own ways, as they circulate in the interdisciplinary conversations about how to make sense and semblance of different normative concerns that arise in the context of human impacts on the Earth system.

The final section of the paper names a phenomenon I term neoliberalism without nature. In part, this is a side-long response to arguments that neoliberalism has been rearranging nature for some time through new commodity chains, privatization, and so on. What I am more keen to point out, however, is that nature isn’t needed for any of this. That is, the economy doesn’t need some sort of ‘frontier’ or new space for accumulation in the classic sense that some political economists promote. In fact, I think the idea of neoliberalism without nature helps to focus a set of familial critiques developed by people like Eve Chiapello and Melinda Cooper, who have been pointing out how different financial technologies and practices increasingly shape understandings of how the environment and the economy are entangled with one another. I think that there is some room to expand on these kinds of critiques. I don’t do that in this article, but have plans to do so in the works.



Future Remains: a cabinet of curiosities for the Anthropocene (new book!)

Another great looking new book, from University of Chicago Press, with a slate of well regarded contributors.

9780226508658Future Remains: a cabinet of curiosities for the Anthropocene

Edited by: Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, Robert S. Emmett


What can a pesticide pump, a jar full of sand, or an old calico print tell us about the Anthropocene—the age of humans? Just as paleontologists look to fossil remains to infer past conditions of life on earth, so might past and present-day objects offer clues to intertwined human and natural histories that shape our planetary futures. In this era of aggressive hydrocarbon extraction, extreme weather, and severe economic disparity, how might certain objects make visible the uneven interplay of economic, material, and social forces that shape relationships among human and nonhuman beings?

Future Remains is a thoughtful and creative meditation on these questions. The fifteen objects gathered in this book resemble more the tarots of a fortuneteller than the archaeological finds of an expedition—they speak of planetary futures. Marco Armiero, Robert S. Emmett, and Gregg Mitman have assembled a cabinet of curiosities for the Anthropocene, bringing together a mix of lively essays, creatively chosen objects, and stunning photographs by acclaimed photographer Tim Flach. The result is a book that interrogates the origins, implications, and potential dangers of the Anthropocene and makes us wonder anew about what exactly human history is made of.


Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert S. Emmett

The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea
Rob Nixon


• Anthropocene in a Jar
Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller
• Concretes Speak
Rachel Harkness, Cristián Simonetti, and Judith Winter
• The Age of (a) Man
Joseph Masco
• The Manual Pesticide Spray Pump
Michelle Mart and Cameron Muir

• Hubris or Humility: Genealogies of the Anthropocene
Gregg Mitman

Living and Dying

• Huia Echoes
Julianne Lutz Warren
• Snarge
Gary Kroll
• Marine Animal Satellite Tags
Nils Hanwahr
• Artificial Coral Reef
Josh Wodak
• Freezing Life in the Anthropocene
Elizabeth Hennessy

• Racism and the Anthropocene
Laura Pulido

• Sabotaging the Anthropocene; or, In the Praise of Mutiny
Marco Armiero


• On Possibility; or, The Monkey Wrench
Daegan Miller
• The German Calico Quilt
Bethany Wiggin

• Anthropocene Aesthetics
Robert S. Emmett


• The Mirror—Testing the Counter-Anthropocene
Sverker Sörlin
• Objects from Anna Schwartz’s Cabinet of Curiosities
Judit Hersko
• Technofossil
Jared Farmer
• Davies Creek Road
Trisha Carroll and Mandy Martin

Anthropocene Cabinets of Curiosity: Objects of Strange Change
Libby Robin

Margaret Lock on The Embedded Psyche: The Anthropocene, Postgenomics and the Microbiome

Kyle P. Whyte on Living Our Ancestors’ Dystopia: Indigenous Peoples, Conservation and the Anthropocene

New book from Christopher Preston: The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

9780262037617I’ve long enjoyed reading Christopher Preston’s work on environmental ethics and look forward to this new book with MIT Press out later this spring.

The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

We have all heard that there are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. In The Synthetic Age, Christopher Preston argues that what is most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature’s most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. A world designed by engineers and technicians means the birth of the planet’s first Synthetic Age.

Preston describes a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth’s very metabolism: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; “molecular manufacturing” that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology’s potential to build, not just read, a genome; “biological mini-machines” that can outdesign evolution; the relocation and resurrection of species; and climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.

What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.

Graham Harman: Anthropocene Ontology

Rivers of the Anthropocene: new (Free!) book now available

This is a great looking new title, available here for free by the University of California Press. Regular UC Press site here.

9780520295025Rivers of the Anthropocene

Jason M. Kelly, Philip Scarpino , Helen Berry, James Syvitski , Michel Meybeck (Eds)

This exciting volume presents the work and research of the Rivers of the Anthropocene Network, an international collaborative group of scientists, social scientists, humanists, artists, policymakers, and community organizers working to produce innovative transdisciplinary research on global freshwater systems. In an attempt to bridge disciplinary divides, the essays in this volume address the challenge in studying the intersection of biophysical and human sociocultural systems in the age of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch of humans’ own making. Featuring contributions from authors in a rich diversity of disciplines—from toxicology to archaeology to philosophy— this book is an excellent resource for students and scholars studying both freshwater systems and the Anthropocene.

Launch of Anthropocene Primer: open access platform

October 23, 2017
The IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute is proud to announce the official launch of An

Anthropocene Primer, Version 1.0 on October 23, 2017. An Anthropocene Primer is an
innovative open access, open peer review publication that guides learners through the complex

concepts and debates related to the Anthropocene, including climate change, pollution, and

environmental justice.
This born-digital publication ( is a critical and timely resource for learners across multiple fields from academia, to industry, to philanthropy to learn about issues and topics relating to the Anthropocene, a framework for understanding environmental change that highlights human impact on earth systems.
An Anthropocene Primer was created to provide learners in museums, schools, non-profits, and formal research institutions with an entry point into some of the big concepts and debates that dominate discussions about the Anthropocene. The primer is not intended to be comprehensive (this is, after all, An Anthropocene Primer, not The Anthropocene Primer), nor is it intended to be didactic. The primer is a framework to guide individual and collaborative learning from the
beginner to advanced levels.
Version 1.0 of An Anthropocene Primer is available for open peer review from October 23, 2017 through February 1, 2018. Open peer review allows users to contribute to and engage with fellow readers and the authors as the editors develop it for a final print and open access ebook version. A video tutorial on how to participate in open peer review is available at
Edited by Jason M. Kelly and Fiona P. McDonald, An Anthropocene Primer emerged from the “Anthropology of the Anthropocene” workshop ( hosted by the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute in May 2017. The participants from this workshop make up list of authors: Jason M. Kelly (IUPUI, USA), Fiona P. McDonald (IUPUI, USA), Alejandro Camargo (University of Montreal, Canada), Amelia Moore (University of Rhode Island, USA), Mark Kesling (The daVinci Pursuit, USA), Ananya Ghoshal (Forum on Contemporary Theory, India), George Marcus (University of California, Irvine, USA), Paul Stoller (West Chester University, USA), Dominic Boyer (Rice University, USA), Serenella Iovino (University of Turin, Italy), Rebecca Ballestra (Artist, Monaco/Italy), Eduardo S. Brondizio (IU, Bloomington), Jim Enote (A:shiwiw A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Zuni, USA), Ignatius Gutsa (University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe), Cymene Howe (Rice University, USA), Sue Jackson (Griffith University, Australia), Phil Scarpino (IUPUI, USA). This workshop was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the IU New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grant program.
An Anthropocene Primer is an innovative open access, open peer review publication that guides learners through the complex concepts and debates related to the Anthropocene, including climate change, pollution, and environmental justice.
Related Hashtags:
Jason M. Kelly
Director, IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute
Associate Professor of History
IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Fiona P. McDonald
Postdoctoral Researcher, IUPUI Arts &
Humanities Institute
IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute
Indianapolis, IN 46202