Geopolitical

by Gene Miller, September 2010

A different set of maps might help extend humanity’s stay on planet Earth.

As I write at the start of August, I’m coming across the occasional online speculation that while the oil at the surface of the Gulf of Mexico appears to have dissipated—broken up by storms and wave action, magically re-absorbed by the biota in the seawater, dispersed by chemicals—there is a “lake” of oil a mile down, held in place by the enormous cold and pressures of the ocean depths. 

Matthew Simmons, Houston-based oil investment banker and peak oil whistle-blower (Twilight in the Desert, 2005), a cold-sober observer of industry doings, wonders about the potential for ocean storm turbulence to dislodge this oil from its resting place, releasing not just the tarry substance but the exceptional toxicity of methane and related ingredients and, potentially, forcing the hasty human evacuation of a vast coastal arc of the Gulf. 

Other online materials refer to the hypoxic “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi—a Massachusetts-size area of the Gulf so polluted by agricultural and industrial runoff from upstream states that sea life is starved for oxygen and cannot survive. 

I also direct you to two TED Talks (not for the weak of heart) by Susan Shaw, marine toxicologist, and Carl Safina, author of numerous books including Song of the Blue Ocean.

We tend to think of the surface of the Earth as a set of geopolitical boundaries or economic ecologies—dividing lines on a map…countries, states and provinces, local jurisdictions shaded in different colours for ease of legibility. This system of accords is different from true ecological boundaries and the operating systems of the planet which undertake their activities under a different kind of governance. 

These images of dead zones and an enormous body of subsea oil puts me in mind of the planet’s shifting physicality and of a landscape—waterscape, too—calling for a very different set of maps—maps of Earth energy, gravity, weather, hydrologies, ecologies, food chains and the other natural conditions that define our lives more powerfully and meaningfully than the lines between Victoria and Saanich, BC and Alberta, Kansas and Oklahoma, Thailand and Laos. 

Stephen Hawking and some other cosmologists have proposed an alternative model for understanding the origins or, at least, the originating principle under which the universe exists—not a Big Bang, but a Big Bounce: that is, a universe that implodes and explodes, or “breathes” (currently, the galaxies are flying away from each other). I take liberties with complex science, but I do so in an effort to understand how universal collapse and expansion might be an absolute principle woven into the meaning of all existence—the “code” under which all things behave, a message penetrating the behaviour of everything, every physical system, every object, every living entity.

We don’t have this map either, though we seem to catch glimpses—an almost cellular intuition—in our religion, literature, culture. Regarding our life on the planet or in the cosmos, we seem to fly near-blind, feeling our way by trial and error, searching for the message.

James Lindsay, a fixture in Victoria’s cultural life and a master of the painted idea, is currently marking 25 years at the same Chinatown studio beside Fan Tan Alley. Late in July he commandeered two adjacent studios to present a three-gallery exhibit of his recent work. A number of these are suggestive, map-like geopolitical topographies: vistas of Earth painted from five or ten miles up. From this altitude, rivers, water bodies and large sections of land around them show as coherent systems.

On these canvases, Lindsay has imposed lines of division and has toned these state-like areas differently—they might be adjacent countries—as if they had separate identities and histories. He has painted symbology on these—cockroaches, heads with hatchets in them, mounds of intestines, red multi-pointed asterisks (“where bad things happened”), black metastasising amoeboids of human settlement, herringbones of agricultural subjugation, and so on—“administrative jurisdictions” suggesting our “competition for scarce resources” and revealing our false victories over landscape. 

As a body of work, these paintings speak to the struggle between two social goals: plenty and safety. We’ve been so good at the first, so haphazard at the second.

Memory is local and particular, as to both space and time. We don’t remember history; we remember events. We experience rain, not ecology. We aggregate knowledge and learn lessons, but only selectively. Hard to know where we are in our own big bounce.

Richard Register, one of the world’s great theorists in ecological city design and planning, believes that we are now at the front edge of a transition to the “Ecozoic” Era: an “emerging epoch when humanity lives in a mutually enriching relationship with the larger community of life on Earth.” In contrast with Register’s hopeful view, even the most buoyant of our sci-fi movies suggests a different future—synthetic, disembodied, electronic, rootless, denatured.

Rich in story, Lindsay’s paintings straddle these possible futures and ask: Ecology or administrative jurisdictions? Ecozoic or geopolitical?   

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit. For more on James Lindsay, see the August 2009 edition of Focus in the archives at www.focusonline.ca.