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Manufactured Landscapes

The European tradition of landscape painting imagescreated idealized representations of an arcadian world populated by shepherds and nymphs. The evenly distributed planes of sloping land in paintings by artists such as Poussin (one of whose works is featured to the right) created a balanced sense of landscape that reflected an idealized social order. These ordered representations of the land were given form in the ornate geometrical images-1symmetries of Renaissance Italian and French gardens such as those of Versailles, and, later, in the carefully constructed simulacrum of nature found in the gardens of English country houses.

Ironically, Poussin and other landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain created their works shortly before the onset of capitalism broke apart the stable feudal order that tied workers to the land, setting off a series of enclosures that radically dispossessed peasant communities across Europe. Similarly, the apparent self-enclosed order of the English garden was often a product of the brutal landscapes of exploitation that characterized slavery-driven sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Each age, it seems, creates images of the landscape that just as often obscure the underlying social relations that produce nature as they idealize those social relations and the configuration of land produced by them.oil1

What representations of landscape is our epoch creating?

It should not be much of a surprise that some of the most interesting depictions of contemporary landscapes depict a land blasted by industrialization and extreme extraction of various sorts. Edward Burtynsky’s series on Oil is typical in this regard. Burtynsky traces the various stages in the life of oil, from extraction (featured at the right) to the auto plants, flyovers, and fast food joints of Detroit and Los Angeles, to the toxic shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh.

His work is important since oil is such a contradictory substance. It is the lifeblood of US late capitalist culture, and yet is remains thoroughly invisible to most Americans. They see neither its oil2sites of extraction or refinement, and seldom think about the ways in which oil fuels virtually every aspect of life in the US, often at a serious toll of resources and blood for people in other parts of the world.

Other artist-activists have produced work which seeks to make this environmental toll visible. The Nigerian photographer George Osodi, for example, documents the massive environmental and social destruction caused in the Niger delta region of his country in a series of photographs reproduced in a montage here:

Nor are established forms of extraction such as petroleum the only form of manufacturing toxic industrial landscapes. The short photomontage Oil on Lubicon Land by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace, describes the impact of oil and gas developments and the recent oil spill in the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree in northern Alberta:

There are many other artists working today on Manufactured Landscapes. Indeed, this geographical awareness, and the critical, investigative spirit that animates such depictions, could be said to be one of the most important trends in contemporary artwork. A key institution in supporting such work is the Center of Land Use Interpretation, whose website features photomontages every bit as devastating as those I’ve featured in this post.

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Toxic Tour

Today I went on a toxic tour of South Durban, one of the most polluted places in Africa. The area is home to a host of polluting industries. Foremost among these is a petroleum refinery run by Shell and a paper plant owned by the Anglo-American Mondi company. Both these plants were visible from a beautiful prospect to which we were taken by the toxic tour. After this, we continued on to another prospect that overlooks the Engen refinery:

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Our toxic tour guide, Des D’sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), explained to us that 80% of the country’s crude oil comes through Durban. The area around the refinery was industrialized in the 1930s, pushing out peasant communities and indentured farmers. The river running through the area was canalized and turned into a sluice for all the toxic effluents produced by local industries. These include not just the refinery and the paper plant, but also a huge landfill that leaches materials into the canal.

The people of this area, Des argued, are already products of displacement during the apartheid era. Now the city wants to displace them again by building a deep-water port and connections between this port and the extant one in Durban, which is already the largest in east Africa. We never thought, Des explained, that a democratically elected government could do the same thing to us as had the apartheid regime.

Des argued that COP17 has been captured by polluters. Once the conference ends, he predicted, it’ll be back to business as usual. To illustrate this point he took us to the Engen refinery, which, he explained, produces 155,000 barrels of oil a day, but has not been significantly upgraded since it was built in 1953. One of the tanks he took us to see caught fire in 2007, burning 30,000 tons of benzine. The Engen refinery is surrounded by communities whose protests have effectively shut it down numerous times after explosions and similar hazardous events have taken place. There is still no plan for emergency evacuation of the area, Des told us.

Des’s descriptions of the struggles waged by the community were made more poignant by the fact that we were trailed, throughout our toxic tour, by both state police and private security guards from Engen. As if that weren’t enough, a small plane flew round in circles over our heads during each stop. When we arrived at the front gate of the Engen refinery, the police turned out in force, wearing riot gear and with a water cannon. You can see them in the background as Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange talks about the need for a constitutional provision respecting the Rights of Nature:

Although direct action had been promised for this demonstration, in the event we simply lined up in front of the refinery and demanded that it be closed. Perhaps this was enough of an action since there were many members of the media in attendance. During one of our previous stops, I asked Des what we as international visitors and observers could do to support his struggle. He replied that they are under tremendous pressure for their work. When you’ve gone, he said, perhaps we’ll all be arrested. So it’s important that you stay in touch and continue to support our struggle when you go home.

I want to close this account of the toxic tour with some footage of Des leading chants against Engen. As Joel Kovel remarked to me, Des is a true organic intellectual. He’s also a very brave man:

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