This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

he years-long legal battle between British musicians Robbie Williams and Jimmy Page over Williams’s intention to build a swimming pool in his basement has recently come to a close, conditionally in Williams’s favor. Page had reason to be concerned: since the late aughts, the super-basement craze among the more well-heeled that has flooded council planning committees and inspired a gimmicky BBC documentary has also wreaked havoc on neighbors. In one infamous case,[1]  the subsidence-related damage caused by the 2012 renovation of Goldman Sachs executive Christoph Stanger’s London estate cracked walls and trapped neighbors in their homes. Council planning permits for such basements have become highly contentious not just because of the nuisance they pose on the street, but because the lack of containment spreads down into the earth. While in the context of a city full of underground pipes, wires, and tunnels, it stands to reason that homeowners wouldn’t have absolute control over a kilometer of space below their living rooms. The damage that construction, specifically its resultant vibrations, can do to adjacent homes is nevertheless disconcerting. What good is the tiny autonomy granted to a house plot if a jackhammer can so easily breach the boundaries of the sacred cadastre?

Such conflicts over moving earth are not limited to vanity renovation projects. More than 4,000 miles away in America’s heartland, homeowners are similarly enraged by houses shaken into disrepair by their neighbors. For many living in the states of Oklahoma and Kansas, however, the source of the offending vibration isn’t a construction project from an adjoining residential plot, but rather an induced earthquake from a massive industrial enterprise. Oklahoma alone has experienced more than 2,500 M3.0+ earthquakes between 2008 and 2017—an increase of two orders of magnitude from the previous decade (ANSS, 2018). Most of these have been attributed to so-called “induced” or “anthropogenic” seismicity. Contrary to popular belief, so-called “fracking quakes” are less commonly caused by the initial act of fracking itself than by the disposal of wastewater byproducts. Oil and gas extraction operations, hydraulic fracking among them, get rid of excess salt water by injecting it deep into the ground (Rubinstein & Mahani, 2015: 10,61). This shift in pressure increases seismicity in local faults, which in the past decade has resulted in multiple damaging earthquakes, of startlingly high magnitude and physical impact. Such quakes are hyper-localized, but quake epicenters can be as distant as 30km for high activity zones (Yeck et al, 2016: 10,204), with as much as an 18-month lag between quake and injection (Keranen & Weingarten, 2018: 150). With such variability over time and space, culpability for quake damage to individual homes remains difficult to pin down.

Much like Jimmy Page’s fears over his neo-Gothic estate, homes damaged by injection-induced quakes are also subject to complex notions of territory. While in Oklahoma it is possible to sue oil companies over damage to homes, they are not yet liable across the border in Kansas. Further, drawing a causal link to fracking operations in either state can paradoxically threaten insurance claims rather than help. Notions of cause, effect, liability, and culpability for earthquakes reside across jurisdictions: from the state and municipality-governed homes to the oil company operating on federal land, to Native Americans protecting sovereign tribal land, each set of relations implies a different type of sub-surface claim. Extralateral rights, i.e. the right to chase resources beyond the surface boundaries of an initial land grant, have guided the American extractive industry and governance thereof since the nineteenth century (Ziemer, 1998:147-8; Huber and Emel, 2008:376), essentially allowing serpentine underground claims to supersede the surface grid. With the inclusion of induced seismicity, however, the stakes of securing a territory from incursion rather than simply profiting from it are suddenly higher.

Through conflict and encounter, both of these cases pose difficulties for a straight-up-and-down conception of vertical territory, while both are at the same time deeply invested in a three-dimensional idea of controllable space. Indeed, in the face of a shaking building, the importance of lateral dimensions of such spaces is hard to escape. In a previous volume of this series, Sarah Green (2017) evoked the earthquake as a tool to illustrate the messy, constantly recalibrating nature of the relationship between a land and a people. The anthropogenic quake is less an analytic for the historical rupture than a means of highlighting subterranean territorial encounters—as critical to underground sociality as they are to surface dynamics.

While calls for a volumetric theory of space (Elden, 2013: 36) are well-served by the verticality posed by Weizman in his 2002 study of operation of the Israeli state in (and under) the West Bank, there is nevertheless an unsatisfying implication of extrusion in these texts. This stands in contrast to explicit appeals for a de-surfaced, complex understanding of bounded volume. Elden (2013:41), for example, invokes Iraqi allegations of slant drilling for oil on the part of Kuwait preceding the first Gulf War. Presented with that perceived territorial transgression, one can’t help but maintain the mental model of the geopolitical boundary as a prism extruded into the ground—a standard against which alternative forms of sub-surface territoriality should then be measured.

Anthropogenic seismicity offers an opportunity to tease out a finer-grained image of how vertical territorial claims may be shaped. It allows us, following Elden (2013:49), to approach these questions not just from above, but from below—in this case, literally emanating from the earth. While previous provocations have called for a more fluid, moving view of territory (Steinberg and Peters, 2015), such ‘wet ontology’ still implies a cohesion which is not evident in places where multiple underground claims are operating through each other—as a house in a city or an injection well on purchased federal land. The anthropogenic nature of induced vibration allows us to still talk in terms of intentionality and incursion while nevertheless operating in a fundamentally different kind of space than a surface-based territorial encounter.

Finally, while militarized states loom large in some of these discussions of vertical territory, perhaps still more interesting discussions about overlapping (better put as “intersecting”) or hierarchical claims happen at a finer scale. The homeowners in central London and in suburban Oklahoma both know their claims to subterranean territory are necessarily limited, but to what degree and by whom are still questions to be answered. In London, threats to one’s physical dwelling via adjacent excavation is still dealt with primarily as a nuisance issue, mitigated through the same channels as much pettier neighborly disputes. An ocean away, any policy differential between Kansas and Oklahoma’s well drilling regulation is undermined by the Arbuckle shale that straddles the border and fuses the two states’ fates to each other. If the original study of such geology served as a visual language for territory (Braun, 2000: 29), perhaps through earth movement a sensorial language will emerge. Anthropogenic seismicity provokes territorial negotiation at scales beyond the reach of models of verticality developed for geopolitical contexts. Instead, we can engage the state, city, and home plot for a very different picture of what vertical territory really means.

[1]    Fame aside, it should be noted that more urgently than damage to homes of very wealthy people, the super-basement craze has also resulted in a number of construction deaths and serious injuries in recent years due to unsafe excavation sites.


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