Whenever we drive east to Omaha on Interstate 80, we are passed by truckloads of wind turbine parts barreling west. These ceramic composite blades are hard to miss: 50 to 180 feet long, sheathed on flatbed truck convoys rolling across the High Plains like clockwork.
“Wind farms” exist across the midwestern United States from Ohio to South Dakota, yoking a diverse industrial base to a renewable resource with tremendous potential to reshape a traditionally extractive energy landscape. This may be where turbine convoys will be going in 2016 and 2017: Carbon County, Wyoming, midway between Casper and Fort Collins, CO, and the proposed home of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre (CCSM) Wind Energy Project. When it is completed, CCSM is expected to generate over 3000 megawatts of power to the Mountain West, surpassing the Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County, California as the largest wind energy facility in the United States.
I drove cross-country with my parents when I was 10, and Iowa was a brutal bore, hilly and big-skied as she is. Twenty three years later, when I drove out to Nebraska with a family of my own to start my wife’s career in academia and raise our son Cyrus, Iowa’s big sky was fanned by hundreds of turbines. These manmade date palms towered over the plain, newly introduced to the windblown belt of settlements along Interstate 80.
Twenty three years from now, Cyrus may know a different landscape if we stay in Nebraska – I hope for him to participate in a new space for geographical discourse, energy economies and carbon-alternative politics, building on the integration of safe technology onto evolving land use (and language – wind farms, after all) patterns. These could be the churning turbines shaping volumes of air into new spaces and rhythms for migratory wildlife, dependent on the region’s wind currents. Or…not.
Drive east or west of Lincoln, Nebraska on Interstate 80 and you will soon come to realize that the windswept plains are the table of a great exchange. The prospect of renewable energy for millions of people living along the front range of the Rocky Mountains follows a fuzzy line of divergence with the coal trains fifty hoppers long which transport sub-bituminous coal to points over the Mississippi, to power the electricity grids of the thickly settled east.
Here, from the comfort of the passenger’s seat, one can watch two boom frontiers converge and overlap. Turbines go west, Powder River Basin coal goes east. It would be easy to view each frontier as a political response to shifting human-environmental interactions on a global scale, and inherit with such a perspective the attitude that all political challenges from here on out are binary, apocalyptic, and the sovereign province of humankind – for better or worse. Hell or heaven, played out along old pioneer trails. Coal or wind.
This is the grounding discourse of the Anthropocene epoch – this current period of tremendous social and geophysical change. These are too often the terms of the debate, as new anthropogenic carbon, nitrogen, and metal cycles recycle our world – we have built lanes for coming and going, ways out and ways through. Global humanity is positioned as the the center and scale of this analysis, imbued with theological certainty and agency, although what may be certain – humanity’s renewal or an apocalyptic die-off – is more or less abstraction without understanding how the epoch is lived-in. Catastrophe and redemption are the stereoimages of the new epoch – how different subjects are differently positioned in here and now might as well be a postscript to be written by a Final Historian, in any case. Outside the frame of the anthropogenic, the non-human is secondary, deprived of agency. Outcomes are re-aggregated as cycles of reproduction and consumption, easily perspectivized in Malthusian terms. The global context and scale of the restratification of geology and society are cast so broadly we risk being unable to ask important questions of mediating differences between power relations, constituency, and subjectivity: who do these political-environmental challenges affect, where, to the benefit of whom, and how are they lived in the everyday?
With this critique of the present in mind, how generalizable are the conditions on the boom frontiers of the anthropocene? And how can we reincorporate a critique of extraction capitalism into the material reinventions posited by the new-old anthropocentric epoch?
What follows here is a liveblog-response-and-riff to Antipode Foundation‘s Grounding the Anthropocene: Sites, Subjects, Struggles in the Bakken Oil Fields.
This post is chiefly a way for me to make some sense of this new place my family has moved to, in a setting and context much larger than myself (and my typically food-borne interests.)
It’s also an attempt at establishing generalizability of analysis – does the conversation in Grounding the Anthropocene have any explanatory power outside of the sites and systems of Bakken oil extraction? To what extent is the broader Great Plains region and its people still afforded a capitalist frontier, and how do works of representation – oral, visual, built and acted narrate the past to explain the present the conceptions of human ecology and capitalist interaction in the current anthropocene moment?
While the working postulates of Grounding the Anthropocene may be most applicable in “rigid” frontier arrangements like Williston, North Dakota where extractive capitalism is practiced in its most raw form, I find that the structural expressions of capitalism inherent in the frontier still prefigure social reproduction and human-environment relationships of the non-petro or agro-plains economies. On that note, this essay is an attempt to bring these (and other) questions to my work and reassess what I do as a civic integration and citizenship instructor here in Lincoln, in what is still a settler regime – and to analyze the origin narratives of my worksite as the “middle of everywhere” – while chipping away at the “middle of nowhere” construct that fascinates me as a geographer.
To call the midwest the “stable inner craton”of North America as John McPhee does in his cross-section of continental geologic history, Annals of the Former World, is to overlook the drama of the space. A passage like this one, out of McPhee “you don’t see a lot of rock. You see in the roadcuts emerald vetch moving under wind like wheat,” – there’s a lot about the specifics, but little analysis of representations of the space in narratives (that’s not McPhee’s argument, in that particular work.)
We are passing in a blur the roadcut, where dynamite opened a path, and are likening the visual to wheat, planted by settlers. We lay on the land and understand it is the firm basement of future dreams – and we are cast to resist or capitulate to these dreams.
If we can read this as a landscape dominated by different subjectivities: settlement, dispossession, intercultural and interpersonal violence, booms, busts. Of different American dreams. Then, the table of exchange can be reckoned in post-Columbian currencies. The production of this landscape – and its attendant myths – masks genocide and ecological catastrophe, as well as the lived alterity of American frontier spaces.
Let’s start with a “cruel optimism” – that we can have our naive future of migration, resettlement, and some modicum of responsible, forward-thinking local leadership, striving to move the rock of climate jeopardy and escape into an open future of reinvention.
How do we tell this story?
Who and what will we consider at the center of this new analysis? The exemplars of the boomtowns: the farmers and ranchers recently cast as leading actors in an emerging climate politics that could shift the thinly settled interior toward the heart of new-old capitalist argument? And by whose agency were these actors cast?
Where will we locate this frontier? Will this frontier inhabit the same site-specific construct of conquest and settlement? And will the same tamer-actor in this margin play be the high school dropout of the Bakken oilfields, acting out the fantasies and coercions of raw capitalist historical life? We know that Wyoming has the worst gender pay gap in the country – how could a new alignment in regional climate politics restratify this arrangement?
Historical, economic, cultural forces converge and diverge on this frontier, if there’s a frontier at all – and to apply some language used by Sabrina Perić, what of the idea of what is wild in this West? Wildflowers, wildpeople, wildanimals – how will responses to the comings and goings of extraction economies blur on this exchange table? Will the wildness of migrating cranes continue to constitute some kind of identity for Nebraskans if the state harnesses its potential as a wind energy powerhouse? What will happen when the “clean” economy overtakes the coal economy in Wyoming, and the extraction sites that employed 6000 workers wither, replaced by wind farms which employ 250 people? The How should tourism figure into this new mix – as old spaces are rewilded for frontier tourists to become enriched and then leave? And what of the spaces marred by accidents – where the fast capitalism of fracking or what have you – zones where control failed or was lacking, where the integral accident of extraction capitalism, in all its sociological manifestations, sharpens the edge of chaos?
How might these energy frontiers, new and old, expose and rework pre-colonial relationships with nature? Alles nur künftige Ruinen / Material für die nächste Schicht – all is just future ruins, material for the next layer. How will future wind farms appear when emptied of their potential energy? How will the future wildlives (wildafterlives?) of the High Plains consider these ruins in 50, 100, 150 years? What new concepts of wilderness will confront the physical landscapes and biologies then?
Calling future Quixotes…
I work with a substantial number of immigrants at my job in Lincoln, and I am guilty of emphasizing some differences over others – that the form of settler colonialism practiced through my work in citizenship and civic integration is as engaged in the struggles of representation as frontier life was one hundred years ago. With integration comes new attachment, new infrastructures of hope and sites of self, where the constant struggle, the bounty, the scarcity, all intermix. With integration come the further recession and erasure of Native life.
Women, men who migrate to Lincoln for the Immortal Reasons, and blend into an easily fetishized notion of the West, the Plains, America – pick your construct. They come to this old frontier – a middle of nowhere – and, we tell them (and ourselves,) that they have created a middle of everywhere. This is the end of the New World.
But how do immigrants from Kurdistan, Kosovo, South Sudan, Guatemala and beyond, support or displace dominate ideas of patriarchy and family care? Do they have displacing power, within the norming limits of the broader social infrastructure? The hard work of settlement and the privilege of community create conditions for social reproduction which usefully emphasize and protect some forms of reproductive labor – but only certain kinds. We see some forms of diversity amid a new and active reordering of the social landscape – and with it, will we have a new, widespread acceptance of the fluidities these frontier spaces create? And in the case of immigrant men who work in the slaughterhouses of Nebraska, where organized labor is frequently disqualified from valid social reproduction, what of their charges – the non-wildlife of Nebraska, victims of massive resource exploitation, the heart of the frontier?
These are, in some function and fashion, settler homesteads in red states – or at least in the blue veins threading along Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Omaha.
The struggles over representation in this new geo/social formation, to which Cyrus, Kel, and I ourselves are transplants – what answer can we find in the languages of wind and coalsmoke?