From the Series: Geological Anthropology
The stunning jagged out-crops of the ophiolite mountains crowning the edges of the Arabian Sea are a result, geologists have explained, of a 40-million- to 73-million-year-old process of obduction, whereby the oceanic floor is pushed up, transforming into an exposed craggy range. In addition to supporting theories of tectonic plates (Coleman 1981), allowing marine geologists to examine ocean floors without the usual exorbitant costs of such research (Mervine 2011), and even serving as an excellent geologic tourist destination, these unique ophiolite mountains could help remove carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere (Kelemen et al. 2018; Hazen 2019). Unlike the carbon capture and storage (CCS) models that treat carbon dioxide as a commodity that would extend the productive capacities of oil fields, as described by Gökçe Günel (2016), here, carbon dioxide would be, according to Mervine, Keleman, Hazen, and other geologists, absorbed into the rocks, accelerating their natural abilities and role in the carbon cycle. Oman’s rocks could, as a recent New York Times article bluntly put it, “help save the planet.”
And yet, Omani officials and engineers with whom I have spoken about the possibilities of ophiolite carbon capture and sequestration have been less than impressed: “How do we know what will happen to that carbon? Where does it go? They say it goes down into the rock, and that Omani rock is special, but then what?” The discussion of ophiolite rock, and its uses, raised more uncertainty and suspicion than it has awe and pride. Indeed, the brochure for an international geological conference in Oman in January 2020 on its ophiolite mountains barely mentions carbon sequestration.
Geological anthropology, as evident in this example, raises numerous theoretical questions. First, it raises questions about temporality. How do human and national time (carbon dioxide production with the burning of fossil fuels, the science of sequestration or capture, and the national management of fossil fuels and their future depletion) intersect with each other, and with geologic time (mountain formation and the non-human “natural” carbon cycle), an expanse that is almost impossible to fathom? How might such intersections serve as a form of synchronization that is less directly about capitalist profit (Tomba 2013) than about a confluence of the present, not to mention about humanity’s future in the near and long term? Second, a geological anthropology raises questions about the making of national geologies through notions and practices of territorial sovereignty and law. As Günel (2016) has also pointed out, the management of the movement of carbon dioxide (potentially for carbon capture and as a commodity to be used in Enhanced Oil Recovery) reveals the significance of law for geologic matter. In Oman, geologic matter, just like subterranean and offshore oil reservoirs and resources, also becomes territorially national, requiring significant discursive and legal work to maintain. And, third, geological anthropology highlights again the power of earthly metaphors, in this case, of force and of visibility, as well as of their dangers.
Not surprisingly perhaps, geology appears along multiple temporalities, not only as the burning of fossil fuels in the twentieth century accelerated the natural carbon cycle, but as the possibility that the devastation of excess carbon dioxide might be remedied in the present by Oman’s ophiolite mountains, which are the result of millions of years of tectonic movement. This intersection of mountain formation, human carbon dioxide production, and the possibility of carbon capture could be understood as a form of synchronization. Such discussions are, however, taking place in Oman within already established and elaborated public discourses about national time, such as the nearly fifty years of deferrals of the twenty-year supply of oil as well as the uncertainties (and refusals to make claims, on pious grounds) about political, personal, and economic futures beyond those supplies. Thus, while such calls for responsibility and redemption (and further intervention) at a present confluence of geologic and human time are synchronized, they are also entering a field already saturated with discourses of deferrals and futures, of planning and prophecy, that are not (at a minimum) necessarily understood through presumptions about progress. Nevertheless, one might argue that the greater acceleration, processualization, and synchronization of capitalist time (Tomba 2013) is, in part, projected on geology.
While the discussion of the potential of Oman’s ophiolite mountains to absorb excess carbon dioxide highlights the temporal complexities of geology, they also make evident the tensions over the nationalizing of rocks, carbon, carbon dioxide, and oil. While the significance of the link between the territorial nation and nature, both on the surface and in the subsoil, has been highlighted in the political economy of oil (Coronil 1997), such linking is also evident with other geological features. With the circulation of images where Oman has increasingly become associated with its rocks, these mineral deposits become national. But, the nationalizing of rocks becomes heightened as they are understood as resources (Ferry and Limbert 2008) and as they become subjects of law or tied to dispossession (Yusoff 2018). While the regulation of ophiolite, like carbon dioxide (Günel 2016), can differentiate inorganic matter according to its various functions, the management and regulation of matter also often continue to reinforce a national territorial imagery, as well as senses of sovereignty.
Finally, and perhaps as a result, a geological anthropology highlights, yet again, the power of metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Ferry 2005). In the case of ophiolite and obduction, discussions about their formation and powers, and knowledge about them, echo and reinforce already circulating discourses about the exposure of powerful invisible worlds, whether those worlds are political, economic, or spiritual. In a place where unseen worlds are both pervasive and powerful, references to the limits of human knowledge or to the powers that allow humans to see that which is normally unseen or sense that which is unseen are not only recognizable but reinforce and resonate (Lepselter 2016). On the one hand, such references to the visibility of matter can easily be understood as metaphors for political and economic transparency. At the same time, in a place where unseen worlds are pervasive, references to the limits of human knowledge, to the forces that exceed the powers of our vision, or to the powers that allow humans to see or sense what is normally unseen are both recognizable and resonate (Lespselter 2016). Indeed, in a context where spirit worlds regularly disrupt the work of maintaining boundaries between life and nonlife (Povinelli 2016), the language of geologists who speak of the effects and powers of ophiolite mountains and obduction becomes recognizable as potentially dangerous. The force of obduction that makes the unseen world visible (and even transparent), a force that would make the spirit world appear and act with humans, is barely controllable or knowable.
Coleman, Robert G. 1981. “Tectonic Setting for Ophiolite Obduction in Oman.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 86, no. B4: 2497–508.
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Ferry, Elizabeth Emma. 2005. Not Ours Alone: Patrimony, Value, and Collectivity in Contemporary Mexico. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ferry, Elizabeth Emma, and Mandana Limbert. 2008. Timely Assets: The Politics of Resources and their Temporalities. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School for Advanced Research Press.
Günel, Gökçe. 2016. “What is Carbon Dioxide? When is Carbon Dioxide?” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39, no. 1: 33–45.
Hazen, Robert M. 2019. Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything. New York: W. W. Norton.
Kelemena, P.B., R. Aines, E. Bennett, S. M. Benson, E. Carter, J.A. Coggon, J.C. de Obeso et al. 2018. “In Situ Carbon Mineralization in Ultramafic Rocks: Natural Processes and Possible Engineered Methods.” Energy Procedia 146: 92–102.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lepselter, Susan. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Mervine, Evelyn. 2011. “Geology Word of the Week: O is for Ophiolite.” Georneys (blog), February 10.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Tomba, Massimiliano. 2013. Marx’s Temporalities. Chicago: Haymarket.
Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.