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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
“The earth fell on the earth. It looked like cloud but it was dirt: the planet turning on itself.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, Luwit, 1988
Gyalpo and I walk across the aftermath of an avalanche, as the debris continues to shift beneath and around us. Three years later, the compacted ice is still melting. He is trying not to think of his parents, whose home was here, whom I stayed with the night before the earthquake. I can’t imagine his position. Six million cubic meters of material covered this village: a roiling mass of snow, rock and earth, ancient glacial ice, violent airs. Some people say it looked black. The Langtangpas, the people of the Langtang Valley, must walk through the gray spaces of the avalanche zone again and again as they try to rebuild their lives. Fear and memory churn in the hollows of the mind. We attempt to reckon the shape of this event, of this overwhelming presence and its innumerable absences, of the fluctuating volumes of loss. We fail. Our own volumes change.
Gyalpo walking through the avalanche zone in the Langtang Valley of Nepal (Video: Austin Lord, 2018).
A fixed-wing drone flies overhead in a grid pattern, mapping the changing surfaces of this fearsome mass. The geomorphologist with the remote controls sits near the memorial wall with the names of the dead. Thousands of trees across the river are blown flat, and men are salvaging what they can for timber. Mules flow by, carrying bags of cement. Days here are filled with discussions about the processes of reconstruction or the work of rebuilding the yak herds and the tourist economy. Some talk of the need to repair frayed relations with the deities who animate and protect this sacred landscape. Engineers arrive in helicopters to rebuild local infrastructures and sell larger infrastructural dreams. A shifting gamut of efforts aimed at recovering damaged pasts and futures comes into view. The Langtangpas, adrift in the uncertainty of this turbulent aftermath, are trying to decide how to live now and fighting for control over the shape of their own futures.
My interest in ‘turbulence’ began with conflicts over hydropower development in Nepal: with flowing and impounded rivers, turbines and tunnels, struggles over volumetric sovereignty in riparian landscapes and borderlands, and dreams of becoming “citizens of a hydropower nation” (Lord, 2016). Soon thereafter, my experiences in the Langtang Valley during and after the April 2015 earthquake provoked new questions about turbulence, its dynamics and unknowability. In the space of a moment, the earth began to ripple in horrifying waves and landslides started flowing down on all sides. Seconds later, a massive avalanche consumed the village I had left just two hours before, moving at over 140 mph and releasing half the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. I felt a blast of wind as rain and debris poured down, as I tried to reorient myself and locate my family. These events brought me, like so many others, to a greater recognition of the fundamental instabilities of our world.
Turbulence defines the swirling edges of our encounters with the sublime or uncanny of ‘inhuman nature’ (Serres, 2000; Clark, 2011): sediment-starved rivers changing course during floods, magmatic plumes beneath tectonic plates, hurricanes scouring coastlines and cities, or the propagation of unprecedented wildfires. Yet, turbulence can also describe subtler processes and slower forms of harm: gradual erosion, glacial deformations, seeping patterns of contagion, and the atmospheric unknowns of climate change. Cascading entropies. Turbulence recurs in fractal shapes that index past and future morphologies—a trickle becomes a torrent, as familiar becomes strange. An ‘unsolved problem’ in physics, turbulence is an unfortunately apt concept for confronting the immanence, indeterminacy, and multiplicity of our Anthropocene.
In technical terms, turbulence is a kind of motion that occurs when laminar flows are disturbed and deformed by frictions, inertias, and the irruption of potential energies. While we typically think of turbulence in terms of liquids or gases, solids can also move in turbulent patterns under extreme conditions or at geological timescales (Massey, 2005) – as Ursula K. Le Guin intimates in her poem about the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens (1988: 21). Turbulent processes are forever reshaping volumes and entraining things and people in suspension (Choy and Zee, 2015), stripping away our useful fictions of solidity. Writing about oceanic realms and “wet ontologies,” Steinberg & Peters (2015: 248) call attention to the “persistent, underlying churn” and the “rhythmic turbulence of the material world.” Seeking other ways of “giving depth to volume,” I look to the heights of the Himalaya: an endless knot of mountains and rivers without end, constantly arising and wasting away.
In a world of constant flux, animated by contestations over volumes and sovereignties, thinking with turbulence is imperative. First, because turbulent thinking focuses on the inherent instability of all four-dimensional claims on unruly volumes over time, exposing the possibilities of the otherwise. Second, it highlights the “prognostic politics” (Mathews and Barnes, 2016) at the core of anticipatory governance, revealing the ways that uneven attempts to know and define disturbance regimes configure specific kinds of socio-environmental relations. Third, ethnographic description of the disorientations and reorientations that constitute lived experiences of turbulence foreground “the subtle arts of repair by which rich and robust lives are sustained against the weight of centrifugal odds” (Jackson, 2014: 222). Fourth, attention to the ways differently situated people conceptualize turbulence can help with the work of redesigning “resilience thinking” in a manner that encourages rather than suppresses diversity and alterity (Grove, 2018). As the unsettling of the order of things, turbulence can also be hopeful.
Turbulence, as a material and discursive phenomenon, carries energy that can underwrite or destabilize claims to sovereignty. In common usage, turbulence is often invoked to connote an unpredictable disturbance in regular flows, to describe a rough but transitional phase, or to deflect accountability with complexity. And yet, because patterns of turbulence are often socially conditioned rather than ‘natural’ or authorless, turbulence is political. Critically, “what we make of turbulence depends very much on our investment in the kinds of orderings that turbulence allegedly makes untenable. To some, turbulence is a threat and to others an opportunity” (Cresswell and Martin, 2012: 518). Dreams of turbulent futures can authorize new regimes of anticipatory governance (Amin, 2013), and in financial worlds, futures markets create new ways to hedge against turbulence or leverage it (Cooper, 2010). While some are protected from turbulence, others are expected to live with or within it. Who gets to name and frame the turbulent spaces of exception? Who must adapt or become resilient? Why?
The people of the Langtang Valley must live within the inholdings they were allocated when the Langtang National Park was created around them in 1976. Experts come and go, studying climate change, the geomorphological events of 2015, and patterns of resilience and recovery—as they do in other places where people are “living and dying with glaciers” (Carey, 2005). Despite the fact that the avalanche buried a massive swath of land in the middle of their ancestral village, officially delineated as a ‘red zone’ where reconstruction is disallowed, the Langtangpas have not been apportioned rights to any new land. National Park rules are strict, and the process of appeal did not align with the urgent timeframes of reconstruction programs. Now conservation goals compete with issues of human security. Unable to move to new lands, some people with limited options are rebuilding homes and businesses near the edges of the avalanche zone, trying to intercept the flow of tourists and regain economic footholds. These Langtangpas are painfully aware of the risks of future avalanches and the many uncertainties they face. They are making the best decisions they can, given restrictions on their volumetric sovereignty.
Meanwhile, government and park officials have recently approved the construction of a 400-megawatt hydropower project in the Langtang Valley that would require the construction of two large reservoirs. Experts reason that Nepal needs high-altitude reservoirs: Kathmandu is growing, and needs peak-load electricity and drinking water in the dry season. Project developers recently signed a contract with the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation. The hubristic scale of this project contrasts with the recently built community-scale 100kW micro-hydropower project, a humbler investment in localized energy sovereignty (Lord 2017). While some Langtangpas are excited about the increased connectivity and tourism a road could bring, others are worried about tunnel blasting through weakened slopes, having seen destruction and displacement in other ‘project-affected areas’ downstream. Given recent seismic events, most people are understandably uneasy about the possibility of a dam being built above them. Who or what will determine the shape of Langtangpa futures?
In recent years, the Nepalese state has invested a great deal in securing volumes and flows in its northern borderlands: upgrading roads and border facilities, impounding rivers in the name of national energy security, and creating spaces amenable to Chinese investment in the age of the Belt & Road Initiative. Unfortunately, these dreams of trans-Himalayan infrastructural futures and Himalayan hydropower frontiers do not fully consider the unsecured volumes that work against their four-dimensional claims. Topics like seismic risk, construction-induced landslides, and rapid erosion or siltation are often strategically ignored, while risks of dam failure are deeply discounted and eclipsed by the speculative push toward a sovereign hydro-powered future (Lord 2018). Meanwhile, climate change is driving intensive monsoonal volatility, the landslides keep coming, and a massive earthquake is now hundreds of years overdue in the western regions of Nepal (Bilham et al, 2001).
Contestations over volumetric sovereignty in Langtang and across the Himalayan region will forever be shaped by immanent turbulence. If the risk of losing volumetric control is ever-present, then how and when do we reckon these disastrous possibilities? Who will these turbulent futures belong to?
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