From the Series: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen
In 2014, the state of Oklahoma, located in the middle of the United States and far from its most famous active faults, had three times as many earthquakes measured at magnitude 3.0 and above than did the state of California. The following year, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s website Reveal offered a rendering of Oklahoma’s underground and the energy moving through it.
The data is presented in beeps and echoes, their pitch and volume illustrating quake magnitude. This short sound piece resonates with other concerns about increasing environmental instability which are, themselves, unsettling. It explicitly documents the effects of processes associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. As it does so, the piece demonstrates the importance of stability for our developing Lexicon.
The Anthropocene is legible for the “emergence of a new physical and conceptual space within which to know and act on the future of human being, dwelling, and relating,” as Valerie Olson and Lisa Messeri (2015, 28) have put it. These scholars direct our attention to both physical environmental systems and the tools we have for thinking about them. As Olson and Messeri point out, the Anthropocene entails the breakdown of old material and theoretical boundaries as well as the production of new ones.
The Anthropocene and its urgent, frightening changes, like the quakes of increasing size and frequency shaking Oklahoma, become particularly clear when contrasted with stability. Stability can be used to bound and define new upheavals. Stability, in this sense, is a matter of conditions, previously reliable, against which new and dangerous ones might be contrasted. But marking these changes and communicating about them are not neutral acts, particularly when evidence, tools, and expertise needed to do so are subject to public, legal, and academic contests and unstable in their own ways.
In seismic Oklahoma, as in many of the systems that human practices are materially transforming, there is change where no one had reason to expect it. Making this kind of change evident and available to encounter can mean bracketing it strategically. The sound piece demonstrates the character of that movement. Seismic events are becoming more frequent, powerful, and dangerous. This induced seismicity is related to the wastewater that fracking operations dispose of in high-pressure injection wells. Just a decade of seismicity was rendered sonic in order to make that point. The piece is effective and clear in part because it is so limited in scope.
Clarity is important here. The increased seismicity described is dangerous in and of itself. People have been injured. Their homes have been damaged. The built environment was not designed to withstand these forces. Injection wells themselves may contaminate groundwater or simply deplete water resources. The seismicity they induce is suggestive of other changes, too. The various fracking practices with which they’re associated can expose soils, waters, atmospheres, and bodies to transformations that certainly make themselves felt in human time—as do the effects of this industry on social relations and more subtle experiences of the world, which Anna Willow and Sara Wylie (2014) argue demand similar attention.
The Oklahoma sound piece brackets the last ten years off for sonic rendering, telling listeners that serious change is happening in this span. Ten years is a long time, to crib from Hugh Raffles (2012), when it comes to materially transforming atmospheric composition and groundwater quality and availability, to new national priorities in resource extraction, or to putting human bodies in danger.
Ten years, however, may be very little when it comes to the kinds of stresses and energies that have pushed through this geology. Oklahoma has never been geophysically stable, exactly. In the past several thousand years it has shaken. Occasional earthquakes tied to wastewater injection have probably been happening in Oklahoma since the middle of the twentieth century (see Hough and Page 2015).
Anthropogenic or otherwise, earthquakes are always already part of the earth’s thermodynamic system. In a very immediate way, imagining them as part of a stable ecology, once in balance and now out of whack, both is and is not accurate. As with many complex systems, the sheer scale on which seismicity unfolds can limit our ability to characterize recent changes or describe them clearly, and the ways that we conceptualize them and address their urgency have histories and politics. As Andrew Barry (2015) and Joseph Masco (2010) have illustrated in different ways, extant ideologies about power and danger—as well as stability and instability—may vex our responses to upheaval even as the Anthropocene is articulated through new material and conceptual relationships between materials, temporalities, spaces, and agents.
While the link between fracking and these earthquakes is gaining acceptance, their implications are contested in some communities. The goals, concepts, expertise, data, and analyses involved in attending to them are themselves unstable, debated, and transforming (see Ernstoff and Ellis 2013). In this context, bracketing off recent change and contrasting it to relative stability in historical conditions can be effective for all kinds of argumentation and communication. I want to say, if nothing else, that it’s worth keeping an eye on why, and how, stability matters as we mark the Anthropocene and its effects in material and theoretical spaces. The sounds of seismic Oklahoma might not give us all the facts, precisely, but they can certainly shake us up.
Barry, Andrew. 2015. “Thermodynamics, Matter, Politics.” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 1: 110–25.
Ernstoff, Alexi Sara, and Brian R. Ellis. 2013. “Clearing the Waters of the Fracking Debate.” Michigan Journal of Sustainability 1.
Hough, Susan E., and Morgan Page. 2015. “A Century of Induced Earthquakes in Oklahoma?” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 105: 2863–70.
Masco, Joseph. 2010. “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1: 7–40.
Olson, Valerie, and Lisa Messeri. 2015. “Beyond the Anthropocene: Un-Earthing an Epoch.” Environment and Society 6: 28–47.
Raffles, Hugh. 2012. “Twenty-Five Years Is a Long Time.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3: 526–34.
Willow, Anna J., and Sara Wylie. 2014. “Politics, Ecology, and the New Anthropology of Energy: Exploring the Emerging Frontiers of Hydraulic Fracking.” Journal of Political Ecology 21: 222–36.