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See Maria Fannin's most recent Society & Space contributions: Professional Citizenship and Medical Nationalism in France and Letting Geography Fall Where it May — Aerographies Address the Elemental
The provocative call to imagine a kind of "social science fiction" for the "Return to Earth" expedition asks us to fold the future into the present: to imagine what of our everyday will remain as an artifact thousands of years to come. What imaginaries guide exploration of the future horizon of time on Earth? It’s worth pausing to consider first this exploratory impulse. Rather than diagnosing the present, or unearthing the past, this exercise calls us to speculate on the future. This same exercise is carried out by the head of the Anthropocene Working Group, Jan Zalasiewicz in his book The Earth After Us: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks? (2008, Oxford University Press). His extraterrestrial explorers visit Earth 100 million years in the future and accounting for their findings offers Zalasiewicz the opportunity to catalogue the activities of humans and to make "sober and conservative" estimates of the impact of the human species on the geological record. We might imagine, inspired by Zalasiewicz, that the Future Fossil explorers uncover traces of factory-farmed livestock, the ghost towns of our megacities, or a heterogeneous layer of automobiles sedimented together by a toxic mix of industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and indeterminate plastics. They encounter metaphorical fossils, so to speak, for our explorers are returning to Earth only 5000 rather than 100 million years in the future. These explorers might wonder at what catastrophic event precipitated the demise of the life-forms they encounter in their preserved form—and they may be asked to justify the purpose of their exploratory mission to Earth’s future inhabitants.
Regardless of how far into the future these speculative projections extend, the impulse to imagine the "world without us" (Weisman, 2007), without the "us" we are today, is a thought experiment that takes seriously the call to find new ways of telling stories, new rhetorical devices and moves to write the Earth as an agent of history, to consider our own unintended "geological agency" and our impossible experience of species-being (Chakrabarty, 2009). This invitation to play at constructing different futures might open up new sensibilities and unforeseen possibilities for thinking. Perhaps another appeal of experimenting with the "world after us" is that it also allows us to imagine an escape from our present condition. These stories give us a kind of agency we thought we had lost, and permit us to abandon our earthly tragedy and re-imagine ourselves as astral figures, extraterrestrials with the capacity to withdraw from any of the fictitious worlds we might conjure up. This exercise in speculative thinking forces consideration of what Earth’s futures might be and confrontation with the affective registers of dread, indifference, and the anticipation of something urgent and new. Earth as agent—Gaia—witness to transformations, extinctions, a billion becoming-withs, involutions, catastrophes: what possible resources are available to imagine this kind of geo-graphy, this form of agency, but through fantasy?
Our explorers encounter a decommissioned oil well with a sense of perplexity. Teeming with microbial life, they recall that "Earth’s living history…has, in reality, been mostly a continuous unbroken Slimeworld" (Zalasiewicz, 2008: 97) where bacteria outnumbered human life forms and were central to its species being, from its placental microbiome (Aargaard et al. 2014) to its deep evolutionary history. They find colonies of Pseudomonas, the strain Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty used to develop the first organism patented under US law. In a connection many 21st century ethicists and activists interested only in the history of the privatization of life and the landmark status accorded Diamond v. Chakrabarty rarely make explicit, Pseudomonas putida was developed as a potentially useful bioremediator or "oil-eating" bacteria. This links one of the most important events in the history of the enclosure of "nature"—the patenting of a life form—with the agential capacities of bacterial life, intimately intertwining our anthropogenic/capitalocenic futures. In contact with oil or other hydrocarbons, certain strains of Pseudomonas thrive and multiply. Indeed, research in the 1950s and 1960s on the species of microbes that thrive on oil focused not on the crisis of oil contamination and bioremediation, as the attached image of bacteria collected from the area of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill documents, but on the possibility of solving a previous world crisis: the population/food scarcity timebomb that predicted the world’s arable land would not be able to feed its growing population. The sheer abundance of hydrocarbons available at that time and anticipated in abundance far into the future could be more productively turned towards the growth of microbial biomass to support the nutritional needs of a population "explosion."
Despite the patenting of life forms that Diamond v. Chakrabarty inaugurated, the ability of bacterial life to continuously escape what contains it is an enduring feature of its deep history and imagined future. What do we learn from this lively other, the Pseudomonas? What if it were to escape patent laws, regulation, efforts to harness its capacities towards oil generating or oil eliminating ends? Like other minerals, oil is less often imbued with the resistance and liveliness of animals and plants. But for the hydrocarbon industries, the oil field is teeming with life. Bacteria are neither wholly friend nor entirely foe, the capacity of bacteria to "sour" oil fields seems to attribute to oil the life-giving properties of food, carefully preserved to prevent spoilage or ruin by the actions of other organisms, recalling earlier experiments in fermentation that would harness an excess of oil to feed a growing population. Hygienic and heroic language surrounds the production of oil: "contamination," "souring" and those who "battle" the enemies of its exploitation suggests the intimacy of human relations with oil consumption and the dependency and defense of fossil fuel extraction as a way of life.
The bacteria found in the inhospitable landscapes of the oil field is a relatively underexplored domain of our everyday fossil fuel economy that offers a way to rethink the categories of biopolitics not typically associated with human life. This Future Fossil experiment will explore how the biological diversity of oil field bacteria—and the social and political dimensions of the metagenomic research (the analysis of microbial DNA collected from an environment) that is central to the "discovery" of this diversity—might reconfigure boundaries between biological, geological and atmospheric futures. Do our explorers see in their abandoned oil well a symbol of human-induced catastrophe or the passageway to a once-lively subterranean habitat?
Aagaard K, Ma J, Antony KM, Ganu R, Petrosino J, and Versalovic J (2014) The placenta harbors a unique microbiome. Science Translational Medicine 6(237): 1–11.
Chakrabarty D (2009) The climate of history: four theses. Critical Inquiry 35(2): 197–222.
Weisman A (2007) The World Without Us. London: Virgin Books Ltd.
Zalasiewicz J (2008) The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? Oxford: Oxford University Press.