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

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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

Abstract

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.

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: https://rdcu.be/bw0VI (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.

 

 

Dipesh Chakrabarty – The human and the geological: On Anthropocene time

Ian Baucom: Post-colonial method and Anthropocene time

Ian Baucom is the director of the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke.