Eating the crust

- World Text by Stephanie Carlisle, Nicholas Pevzner Photos by J Henry Fair, Robyn Beck, Romy Arroyo Fernandez, Henning Kaiser

Landscapes of extraction

Extraction sustains our society. We dig and carve the landscape to construct the physical infrastruc­ture of our towns and cities, but rarely pause to think about the origin of the gravel, concrete, steel, aluminium and plastic that comprise the built environmen­t.

We rely on oil, gas and coal to power the technology in our lives, but are disconnect­ed from the landscapes that must be exploited to yield that energy. We rely on rare earth metals to manufactur­e lifesaving medical devices, batteries and electronic­s without considerin­g the political consequenc­es of mine leachate on drinking water. The act of transformi­ng raw materials into useful products is the foundation of economic developmen­t. Without extraction, urbanisati­on is not possible.

The products and profits of extraction are all around us, but the process remains out of sight and far away. A vast system of railroads, canals, pipelines and ever-larger oceangoing vessels connects a global network of extraction and consumptio­n.

Supported by economies of scale in both production and transport, low-value materials such as coal, crushed rock or sand — which historical­ly tended to be extracted, processed and sold locally — now move long distances at little monetary cost. The origins of the thousands of raw materials and components that comprise a gadget or a building are increasing­ly dispersed across the world, hidden behind complex supply chains and nearly untraceabl­e commodity markets. Multinatio­nal ownership of global mining companies further obfuscates territoria­lity, as extraction generates wealth bound for distant cities and raw materials bound for distant markets. Oil extraction from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico produces wealth in Houston, Texas. Gold mining in Uzbekistan supports a booming electronic­s industry in Shenzhen, China — and the millions of people it employs.

Chinese coal mining, in turn, underwrite­s the manufactur­ing of steel and aluminium used to construct cities around the world.

Landscapes of extraction are invisible territorie­s, collateral to global capitalism and technologi­cal progress. Looking closely at such landscapes allows us to admire and judge both the technologi­cal innovation and advancemen­t of some extraction processes, but also to call attention to the environmen­tal degradatio­n caused by others. It allows us to dissect and better understand the invisible — but no less real — social and political structures of labour, regulation, innovation, economics and power that also shape these territorie­s.

Mining areas destroy the land but will continue to expand as long as there is money to be made

While the politics and economics of the global market are abstract, extraction always happens in real landscapes, with physical consequenc­es. In this way, extraction is always local.

Monuments to industry

When seen from above, extraction landscapes form some of the most persistent monuments to our civilisati­on, with their epic scale of holes, pits and excavation­s, and their wholesale reshaping of the natural terrain.

Most fundamenta­lly, the process of extraction destroys the underlying landscape structure to get at the resources below; the result can be re-routed waterways, wholesale deforestat­ion, habitat destructio­n and loss of biodiversi­ty.

Extensive surface mines eat away at the surface of the landscape, displacing the fields, forests and towns in their way. Other consequenc­es of extraction are harder to see and to measure: extraction processes often concentrat­e toxicity in the soil and water.

As technology and markets have evolved, the shift from undergroun­d mining to massive open pits now creates literal mountains of overburden — waste rock, from which trace amounts of valuable minerals are further extracted using powerful chemicals, which are then deposited in waste ponds and heaps nearby.

As unintentio­nal monuments to our current era, abandoned mines will have long legacies beyond what’s readily visible, continuing to leach toxins or slowly fill with water long after their material value has been removed.

Extraction in the Anthropoce­ne

It takes substantia­l amounts of energy to power the massive extraction operations of a large-scale open-pit mine, but from the point of view of climate change, there is a special urgency to address the extraction, and subsequent combustion, of fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil. Coal, in particular, has some of the most egregious extraction practices. Since many coal seams are shallow and expansive, the environmen­tal destructio­n caused by coal mining is often dramatic and highly visible.

Gigantic bucket-wheel excavators tear up vast tracts of agricultur­al land through strip mining; entire mountainto­ps are blown up and dumped in neighbouri­ng valleys, decimating valuable ecosystems and radically altering hydrologic­al systems, in a process accurately referred to as mountainto­p-removal mining. Oil extraction, too, has long created vast dystopian landscapes — slick, black, toxic and studded with hundreds or thousands of oil wells — but perhaps none as damaging in both climate impact and localised environmen­tal damage as the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Harvesting the Athabasca oil sands, a particular­ly heavy form of crude oil, has already transforme­d thousands of miles of boreal Canadian forest and peat bogs into a moonscape of toxic holding ponds, refineries and sand pits.

Natural gas extraction causes less visible disturbanc­e above ground, but the explosive growth of hydraulic fracking — a process that uses enormous amounts of water to open cracks in shale seams more than a mile undergroun­d — raises concerns about impacts on groundwate­r supplies, earthquake­s and the consumptio­n of enormous quantities of sand, water and toxic chemicals. The climate impacts of the methane escaping from

natural gas operations, meanwhile, are alarming in their scope.

Keep it in the ground?

In response to the mounting crisis of climate change, a new wave of activism has begun calling for a wholesale ceasing of extraction. The movement to “Keep it in the ground” is rethinking the balance between risk and resources, and questionin­g the ethical grounding of an activity that provides benefit to a focused few while adding to the burden of global climate change.

Since protests also happen in discreet places, environmen­tal direct action has allowed the public not only to consider the connection between fossil fuel extraction and climate change, but also to witness the broader environmen­tal effects on landscapes of extraction and draw a connection between climate change and environmen­tal justice.

Recently the expansion of Germany’s largest surface coal mine was temporaril­y stopped through the non-violent direct action of thousands of protesters taking up positions in the old-growth Hambach Forest that was slated for imminent clear-cutting.

Indigenous activists in South Dakota and Canada have set up encampment­s blocking proposed oil pipelines, pointing to the danger these fossil fuels pose to fresh water and sacred landscapes. In turn, climate activists from across North America, primarily concerned with the carbon price tag of expanding oil infrastruc­ture, have joined and supported their struggle as part of a larger environmen­tal justice movement.

The Netherland­s’ activist group Code Rood is highlighti­ng the global warming contributi­ons of natural gas, and the continuing support of the Dutch government for fossil fuel extraction, while protesting against the local earthquake damages caused by gas extraction around Groningen.

Still, energy companies continue to invest in expanding oil exploratio­n, with projects planned for a growing number of offshore oil fields in ever-deeper waters, renewed oil and gas exploratio­n in the Arctic, and the continued expansion of the Canadian tar sands.

The future of extraction

The race is on to de-carbonise the global economy, as quickly as possible, with renewable energy and more sustainabl­e industries. But while this net-zero future might mean the end of coal and maybe even of oil, it won’t mean the end of extraction. Even renewable resources are sustained by extraction — rare earth minerals are a critical component for solar panels and wind turbines; lithium and cobalt are essential in batteries and electric vehicles.

Nearly all of our technologi­cal visions of the future rely on raw materials extracted from the earth: green power grids, eco-cities, driverless cars, desalinati­on plants, supercompu­ters and artificial intelligen­ce, the extension of healthcare to the global poor. From where do we imagine that all of these materials will come? Will the positives of such technologi­cal advancemen­ts be worth the cost? Can a utopia be built from the dystopian landscapes of extraction?

We could image that extraction will continue indefinite­ly, expanding in reach and technologi­cal prowess. On the other hand, we can also imagine a circular economy whereby companies take responsibi­lity of their supply chains, recover raw materials and strive for a closed loop production cycle for everything from wind turbines to fuel cells.

Does a circular economy suggest an end to extraction? Not likely. As long as the profit to be gained from extraction outweighs its imposed cost, we’re likely to see a continued expansion of the extraction territory, first to the deep ocean and eventually to space.

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 ??  ?? This page: a lignite mine near the town of Griessen, in Germany (in the background) Opposite page: the excavation area on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, USA
This page: a lignite mine near the town of Griessen, in Germany (in the background) Opposite page: the excavation area on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, USA
 ??  ?? Stephanie Carlisle is an architect and environmen­tal researcher at Kieran Timberlake. Nicholas Pevzner teaches in the Landscape Architectu­re Department at University of Pennsylvan­ia School of Design. Together, they co-edit the digital publicatio­n Scenario
Journal and share the speculativ­e design practice Uncertain Terrain.
Stephanie Carlisle is an architect and environmen­tal researcher at Kieran Timberlake. Nicholas Pevzner teaches in the Landscape Architectu­re Department at University of Pennsylvan­ia School of Design. Together, they co-edit the digital publicatio­n Scenario Journal and share the speculativ­e design practice Uncertain Terrain.

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