Can we be infrapunks, builders of tiny bits of a structure of another life?
I. Living in Shadows
Last month I made the trip from Louisville to Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capitol, to attend an annual rally protesting the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. A coal industry favorite, this process of extraction involves the rapid deforestation of the landscape, followed by the blasting apart of the surface layer rocks, defined as “overburden,” which is then most commonly moved into an adjacent valley. The coal removal can now take place, with excavator digging deep pits into the truncated mountain; when this particular mine is fully emptied out, it becomes the dumping site for the next overburden removal. It continues like this, large paths of ruined forest snaking through the Appalachian mountain country.
The environmental and social impact is immense and negative. The process of blasting dumps pulverized rock, dirt, and chemicals into the air, blanketing any towns or property that happen to be near the mining site. The processes of deforestation and the dumping of overburden in the valleys, where streams and rivers make their way through the landscape, obstructs the functioning of the regional ecosystems. The streams that aren’t cut off fill with minerals and chemical run-offs; aquatic biodiversity collapses and the toxins find their ways into the water table. The rates of pulmonary disease, physical deformities and birth defects, cancer, and heart disease are skyrocketing amongst the local populations. The purpose of this entire process, coal, is shipped across the country and burned for energy; as the third most common energy source – and perhaps the dirtiest – it accounts for the majority of America’s c02 emissions. The machine eating away at the Appalachian Mountains, and the eco and social systems that inhabit these spaces, is plugged directly into what we call the Anthropocene.
Shivering the winter weather, the rally moved through downtown Frankfort, ending on the steps of the Capitol building where speakers, many from the devastated regions, analyzed the multilayered crisis this paradigm has ushered in. Their talks were militant: one speaker spoke in the plain, familiar language of the everyday about dismantling the state’s current power structure, embodied by a senator with a thirty year tenure in office and enough dark money paths to keep investigative journalists spinning in circles for ages. She linked the reality of this dysfunctional representation to the environmental degradation triggered by strip mining, and connected this further to her own experiences and those of others in Kentucky’s Harlan Country, where the coal industry sucks up not only natural resources but regional job markets. Like so many other places across America, Harlan County – once the site of the legendary 1973 “Brookside Strike” – is an experimental neoliberal laboratory for living suspended between a dying ecosystem and a collapsing economy. Another speaker followed a similar route, emphasizing the need in movement building to connect the disparate strands between a varieties of struggles: no isolation between the fights for racial justice and economic equality, between environmentalism and the crisis of governance. This is the truth of being on the left in age of the Anthropocene: there can be no radical struggle that doesn’t hold the ecological as the foundation of its horizon.
As the Situationists once said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s minds.”
How could such a required transformation take place? The career politicians have posed vague solutions such as carbon capture storage; attempts to legislate plans such of these, perversely, have produced incentives and tax breaks for coal extraction to continue. Going wide view, the efforts of cap-and-trade, originally the brainchild of conservative bureaucrat C. Boyden Gray, have done little to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; other environmental regulations have amounted to little more than reshuffling the deck of cards without any long-term impact. For all intents and purposes there is no compatibility between the current global economic paradigm and living conscious of the Anthropocene.
Mike Davis, best known for his outstanding work on global poverty in The Planet of the Slums, attempts to unify the questions of labor and ecology in a vision of the urban environment as the place to prototype sustainable futures. He draws our attention to the development of the postmodern metropolis through the anti-democratic regimes and investment luring, resulting not only in our ecologically unsustainable infrastructure, but also a rampant “growth of peripheral slums and informal employment, the privatization of public space, low-intensity warfare between police and subsistence criminals, and bunkering of the wealthy in sterilized historical centers or walled suburbs.” The point he is stressing is that today, more than ever, the spatial is the political (or, as Metahaven would have it, the ‘personal is geopolitical’). In my home state this is illustrated by the fact that the parceling out of public infrastructure is part of the same machine as the crisis of representation in the capital, along with the corporations that profit, the coal they extract, they carbon they dump into the atmosphere, the think-tanks that whitewash the effects, the money spent lobbying to carve up more public space…