The Watershed in Your Head - Mapping Anthropocene River Basins

Translating the abstraction—and banalities—of the Anthropocene into readable cartography has resulted in many past attempts that often ended up reproducing those same qualities. But, as Brian Holmes asserts in this essay, we seem to have found ourselves in a moment where collaboration, engagement, and new forms of knowledge exchange are breaking that deadlock. Tracing his own involvement with artistic practices that both engage with and attempt to represent a “political ecology,” Holmes explains how the evolving, collaborative cartographic practice that brought the "Mississippi. An Anthropocene River map" into being simultaneously reveals and interrogates the power structures of Anthropocence society.

The biogeochemical transformations of the twenty-first century demand a new analytic of society: not political economy, but political ecology. It’s the study of the technological powers, organizational forms, and decision-making processes whereby human groups reshape their environments. But it’s also a more difficult and sometimes incalculable approach to the multiple forms of agency exerted by non-human others, whether on themselves, on us, or on any other component of the living world. Political ecology mingles nature and culture in an unlimited feedback system at planetary scale, with consequences in all directions. How to achieve at least a beginner’s literacy in its manifold concerns? How to express them with the exactitude of science and the passion of direct engagement? And how not to exclude the crushing banality of economics, which continues to produce so many unwanted changes in the earth system? Finally—it’s no mere detail—how to inject the uncertain wonderment of art into this devastating panorama of ecological overshoot? The questions are immense, but that’s the point. It’s time to develop a cultural critique of too-late capitalism, aka the Anthropocene.

I’m going to give it a try in the first person.

I used to be involved in the critique of political economy and the practice of tactical media—a cultural cycle that had kicked off back in the ’90s. Then in 2015 I began work on a serious reboot, mixing public science, environmentalism, and open-source cartography. The idea was to produce a web-based map about pipelines and oil infrastructure under the title Petropolis. I wanted to learn contemporary reality in public, by locating fossil institutions in lived rural and urban spaces that could expand out to continental scale, but that could also be explored close up, by groups deliberately convened for experiments in collective perception. Yet the confrontation with petroleum infrastructure was paradoxical. On the one hand, it’s absolutely necessary, because the crucial power structures of Anthropocene society remain functionally invisible, concretely unimaginable by most people, posing obvious barriers to any conceivable change. But at the same time, petroleum infrastructure is just plain deadly; it’s the epitome of instrumental rationality divorced from any form of human or ecological interdependence. When you examine it up close, you become terribly conscious that the stakes of this economy do not lie contained within its sprawling infrastructural footprint. Instead they’re elsewhere, everywhere, in a fundamental entanglement with no end in sight. Political ecology has to begin with that condition.

To go there in a positive way I reached out to a friend with extensive experience in grassroots eco-advocacy: the artist and activist Alejandro Meitin, known for his work with the Argentinean group Ala Plástica. We had an opportunity to do a project together in the context of an exhibition called The Earth Will Not Abide, about industrial agriculture and land-use change in the Americas. So we launched an “interbasin collaboration,” which continues up to the present. The aim is to explore watersheds as laboratories of governance. The first results took the form of a double map and multimedia archive entitled Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos, comparing two major watersheds in North and South America.

Alejandro brought twenty-five years of knowledge and experience to bear on the Paraná River and its vast drainage basin, the Río del Plata watershed extending from the middle of Argentina to Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. As a comparative greenhorn, all I could do was throw myself body and soul into the political ecology of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which cover roughly 40% of the continental US. Both of us were focusing on the accelerated land-use change brought by a single phenomenon that also dates back twenty-five years: genetically modified grain planted in endless monocrop fields and sprayed from the air with glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp. This weirdly industrial use of the tranquil countryside has exploded over the last quarter-century, due especially to the telluric pull of the Chinese soybean market, and more broadly to the rising global demand for grain-fed meat. How could urban publics, far away in their bubbles of prosperity and entertainment, begin to perceive and talk about such things? Artistically we were attempting to combine embodied experience, social experimentation, political engagement, and earth-systems science, expressed through the vector of geographic information systems augmented by multimedia archives and written narratives.

The English-language version of the map, Living Rivers, draws a contrast between idealized natural biomes and contemporary anthromes, or anthropogenic biomes, whose biophysical characteristics have been reworked by extensive human intervention. The Spanish-language version, Ríos Vivos, develops a further opposition between recent Latin American coups (golpes) and age-old relations of reciprocal care (mútua crianza). The political concerns are specified and articulated by the satellite mapping kit, whose capacity to integrate diverse forms of perception and analysis is both fulfilled and critiqued by the multimedia montage of situated viewpoints—or that’s what we hope, anyway. Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos is a first step toward the representation of political ecology. It’s an attempt to help institute a new imaginary of ecological stewardship.

After the relative success of that first collaboration, I started trying to figure out what just happened. Was some kind of aesthetic or cultural access to political ecology really emerging? Could a hybrid cartographic art become an initiatory pathway for social subjects faced with glaring contradictions between their own life-activities and the viability of the earth system? Or were these just more vague ideas—a watershed in your head, with no verifiable connection to politics or ecology?

Keep it real

Living in the United States under rapidly decaying political conditions, it seemed essential to find, not just “principles of hope” (we burned through those with Obama), but instead, tangible processes of socio-environmental change that involve broad publics and create new governance routines at regional scale. Only one place in the US seemed to fit that bill: the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. There, generations of inhabitants had absorbed the lessons of countercultural figures such as Gary Snyder and Peter Berg, who put the term “bioregionalism” into circulation in the late 1970s. Bioregionalists insist on locally identifiable watersheds as the most appropriate units of governance. Some extend beyond the watershed model to larger territories, including the one called Cascadia: a more-or-less coherent ecozone transgressing the boundaries of all the existing political units named above. Back in Illinois, where I live, there’s no comparable movement, nor any such audacious attempt to redraw existing borders. So I set out on a new cartography project in cahoots with a Portland-based artist and curator, Mack McFarland. Drawing our inspiration from dozens of partners and collaborators, we called the project Learning from Cascadia.

As it turns out, Cascadia is also the name that contemporary urban planners give to the megaregion that sprawls from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia. I wanted to construct the map as a perceptual field stretching between these two imaginary figures, the megaregion and the bioregion. In the middle there would be a third outline: the scientifically established boundaries of the Columbia River watershed, which extends north into British Columbia and serves as an administrative framework for the region’s hydroelectric dams. This more neutral frame could be applied not only to state administration, but also to the activism of civil-society groups like Columbia Riverkeeper, with whom we directly collaborated. The thing is, there’s nothing neutral about the political debates that have arisen in the Columbia watershed. Most of those struggles stretch way back to colonization, whose long shadow still hangs over the future.

For settler capital, the river is a watery highway permitting the transport of wheat, fertilizer, and coal. Its last two hundred kilometers are deepwater ports where fossil fuels can be shipped off to Asia. Its very current is not water, but electricity. Meanwhile, the dams that make the river navigable literally drown and silence many of the cascades and waterfalls on which Native American life formerly depended. Through their deadly effects on charismatic regional species, especially the Pacific Salmon, the dams bring home the consequences of industrial modernization during the twentieth century. Knowledge like that can lead to action. Ecological concerns, with all their historical underpinnings, are live political issues in Cascadia.

Here’s a discovery I made: both the Mississippi and Columbia watersheds became part of the technological and organizational complex of the wartime state, by way of parallel “engineer districts,” Oak Ridge and Hanford. Located in remote areas near ample supplies of cooling water and electricity, both sites were used for the production and enrichment of weapons-grade nuclear materials during the Second World War, and then onward through the Cold War. What’s more, in both regions massive aluminum smelters were installed to take advantage of the cheap power provided by the dams. Late twentieth-century economic development came at that price, and the thing I never realized was that it came straight out of the rivers. It’s sobering to realize that the “clean energy” of hydroelectricity was one of the crucial technological factors behind what’s now called the Great Acceleration of the 1950s.

The Hanford site, in particular, has been a focus of tenacious citizen and tribal activism aiming to insure that costly remediation programs are not simply abandoned in favor of cheaper stopgap measures. This is a tragic struggle waged on the terrain of a lavish technocracy, the multibazillion-a-year nuclear cleanup gang. It takes long-term courage to embrace such a difficult cause within such an ambiguous context, but people do it and they sometimes win.

In any case it’s not invisible radiation, but the vanishing salmon runs that have been the greatest spur to action. Attempts to save the fish and their ecosystems have led to complex collaborations between native tribes, traditional conservationists, and modern-day ecologists seeking the restoration of species diversity in riverine environments. The tribes have often taken leadership of the process, using their limited but real sovereignty to bring new issues to the negotiating tables. All this has led to original forms of political representation and governmental action, including the transformation of an old bioregional dream, the watershed council, into an official institution of the state of Oregon. The lesson is clear: only large-scale social movements, underwritten by the circulation of shareable cultural traits and empowered by new forms of ecological expertise, can gain the capacity to challenge the fossil institutions of industrial modernism. As the map/archive shows, such movements breathe political life into the abstract contrast between megaregional and bioregional patterns of development.

Learning from Cascadia demonstrates the scope and intensity of a contemporary bioregional politics. It uses interviews and artistic collaborations to flesh out the ecological restoration and stewardship practices that lie at the heart of the bioregional imaginary. Yet something vital was still missing from our project: the capacity to directly involve social subjects with the world-making potentials of political ecology. Mack McFarland and I decided that was the next thing to be learned. An inkling of how it could be done—and an approach to the Anthropocene River—is provided by the last project I’ll discuss here, which is again a collaboration with Alejandro Meitin.

Take it to the islands

Like the Mississippi and the Columbia, the Paraná River is conceived by the corporate state as a watery highway, a hidrovía, to be dredged, dammed, and managed for the needs of barges and deep-sea freighters carrying national commodities to the world market. Unlike the Mississippi, however, the Paraná has not been walled up with levees for the needs of floodplain agriculture. Instead it retains a natural delta about 300 kilometers long and up to 60 kilometers wide, consisting of braided river channels and densely vegetated islands—an emerald ecoregion, visible as such from the air. Anyone familiar with the stark divides between water and land imposed by the Mississippi levees, or with the emaciated, sediment-starved delta areas around New Orleans, cannot help but gasp with wonder at this grandiose world of wood, mud, and water, which is also home to very particular forms of human existence.

After the dispossession of the area from its original inhabitants, the Paraná Delta became a refuge for impoverished settlers without land or employment, known as isleños. They built wooden houses on stilts that could survive the floods, and developed simple economic practices in tune with the surrounding environment. Yet the Pampa Húmeda through which the river flows is one of the most productive agricultural regions on earth, and local environmentalists have clearly identified the risk of massive land-use change, which they call “continentalization.” To guard against it—and to gather forces for long-term struggles against the damming and draining of the great Pantanal wetlands at the headwaters of the river—Latin American activists have been experimenting with new forms of mobilization, including the kind of territorial artistic activism that Alejandro Meitin is now developing with Casa Río, a small house located on the edge of the Río del Plata estuary that connects the Paraná to the open ocean.

In mid-2018, Alejandro, myself, and the artist Graciela Carnevale—known for her participation in the ’68-era activist project Tucumán Arde—began preparing a unique kind of exhibition project, to be staged in a three long, brick-lined tunnels that formerly served as entrepots in the grain-exporting city of Rosario, located along the banks of the Paraná. The show combined the works of The Earth Will Not Abide, where the collaboration between Alejandro and I had begun, with a selection of artifacts and documents from earlier ecological art experiments in the region. At its heart, however, was a more unusual program which I think will be intriguing for anyone involved in the current Anthropocene River project.

What the Argentines did—on a somewhat smaller scale than us, but with the extraordinary degree of social cooperation that prevails in the country’s grassroots organizations—was to organize five groups of inhabitants, environmentalists, and artists, to carry out five exploratory campaigns at different sites in the islands and along the estuary. After that, each group set about producing an artistic representation of their experience, which was sometimes expressed by the artists, or it became a social experiment. The resulting works were installed in the central tunnel of old entrepot, where they became the stage-set for a two-day conversation bringing together around forty significant figures from the delta conservation community, whether inhabitants, environmentalists, NGO activists, experts from both government and civil society, or artists who had participated in one of the five campaigns. Much of the conversation revolved around current problems facing the delta, as well as future actions to address them. In this way the whole thing became a kind of community milestone within a far larger cultural and political process, which neither began nor ended with the show.

My own role at Casa Río was to curate the Spanish-language version of The Earth Will Not Abide, which was made in hopes of exactly this kind of collaboration. But in addition to that, during the preceding year I had discovered the work of a Seattle-based group called Mapseed, which is developing some exceptionally useful collaborative software for ecological and social issues. Their stuff, which is open source and can handle almost any kind of complex cartographic data, turned out to be modeled on a project entitled ¿Qué Pasa Riachuelo?, made in the early 2010s for citizen oversight of a river-cleanup process on the edge of Buenos Aires. In fact, the authors of that map, from a group called M7red, were participating in our project! The Mapseed team generously agreed to work with us on a shoestring budget, and we developed something like a multimedia geo-blog focusing on the five campaign sites, but open to unstructured community input. The theme was “collaborative territories” (Territorios de colaboración) > < . Obviously there was one big question: Would anybody use it? One day I opened the map and saw that a wetlands enthusiast from the Rosario area had gone out to the islands in a small boat to film a bulldozer engaged in the illegal drainage of public property for private agricultural use—an elemental expression of the process of “continentalization” decried by the environmentalists.

Now it all seemed to be coming together: coalitions of diverse groups, multiple intersecting forms of knowledge, avenues for grassroots participation. This was the kind of cartography that Félix Guattari used to theorize: not just a tactical media machine, but an emergent social form at grips with matters of political ecology.

Back to the Big Muddy

“Where you at?” the bioregionalists used to ask. They wanted to know where your water comes from and where your garbage goes, what soil series you’re standing on, which wildflower blooms first in your area. Today we again want to know those kinds of things, which have become the artistic and cultural preoccupations of a generation. But the concept of the Anthropocene asks about the irrevocable fusion of nature and humanity, and about the consequences it brings. “Where you at?” still involves knowing the names of local plants, but they’re also technological ones, such as factories, refineries, sewage-treatment facilities, etc. For US citizens conscious of the damage our corporate and military state is currently doing in the world, there is an urgent need to understand the patterns of so-called development here at home. An “interbasin collaboration” with watersheds in Europe could also help, because most of those American patterns emerged through the long history of European colonization. White supremacy, or the refusal to recognize and co-inhabit with the other, is a shared cultural trait whose dissolution is the key to any viable future.

So finally I’ll bring in the first person plural.

Mississippi. An Anthropocene River > < is not just a map but an emergent social form. It takes the Big Muddy as an object of cultural critique. Yet we all know such an “object” cannot be held at arm’s length. Instead it’s a political ecology where the observing subject is always part of the observed. Murky waters are living ones. The evolving cartographies presented here are an invitation to get involved, as if you weren’t already. “Put it on the map” seems like such a simple action, without any knock-on effects. But the watershed in your head doesn’t just stay there.

So let’s change the map, very respectfully, very precisely and very soon, before everyone loses the territory.

(October 2019)




Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos

Learning from Cascadia

Territorios de colaboración

Mississippi. An Anthropocene River


Ecotopia Today

The Earth Will Not Abide