The surface of the earth, transformed into objects

“Is it painted?” Park asked. “Most people don’t think about pigments in paint. Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There’s chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave’s electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn’t turn on a light or make ice without it.”

[Image: Bingham Canyon, Utah, photographed by the Center for Land Use Interpretation].

This text is all via John McPhee: “The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin – it’s still in tin cans – from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things – planes in the air, cars on the road, Sierra Club cups – once, somewhere, were rock. Our whole economy – our way of doing things. Oh, gad! I haven’t even mentioned minerals like manganese and sulphur. You won’t make steel without them. You can’t make paper without sulphur…”
Rearranging planets into TVs. Producing objects from geology.

15 thoughts on “The surface of the earth, transformed into objects”

  1. “it’s called the world’s largest landfill, and it may well be. It certainly is big, serving the nation’s largest city for over fifty years, until shutting down this year. Fresh Kills is many things. It is a new kind of landscape, one that is alive with movement -volatile off-gassing, leachate leakage, differential settlement. An undulating, dripping, vented bio-reactor of artificial organic decay, covered by a thin lid of soil.

    It is a physical metaphor for the individual and collective desire to see one’s waste go away, and how there is no “away” after all (just ask the residents of Staten Island, or those of Sierra Blanca, Texas, the most distant point to receive New York’s sewage sludge, for that matter). Fresh Kills looms above New Jersey as the tallest of the many landfill hills that line the meadowlands like drumlins from a new geomorphological force – man.” (link)

    Why does this sound like a couple of familiar bloggers? Did someone intern at The Center for Land Use Interpretation, or perhaps at the Santition Department?

    Interestingly, the winning design in the 2001 competition seems to be about acknowledging the diversity of wildlife in wastelands rather than bringing a geo-Frankenstein to life from the remains of objects and landscape.

    Satellite Photo

  2. e-tat,

    You know, I sometimes wonder whether human production/consumption/waste cycles are part of a larger system for transferring minerals about the earth in highly portable forms. It’s almost as if geology could be ascribed some kind of agency and was using humans to extract, transport, and redistribute itself. I know that’s crazy talk, but what if we were to visualize the flow of minerals globally? Where was magnesium concentrated geographically a hundred years ago? Where is it now, in whose hands, in what machines, en route to which landfills? Once all identifiable subsurface sources of it have been exhausted, where will it then end up as waste? It isn’t hard to imagine high concentrations of magnesium ultimately deposited in a very few locations again, slowly, inexorably leeching back into the soil. New veins, waiting to be mined with as yet undeveloped (or at present economically unfeasible) techniques. Geology transformed.

    In a similar vein (forgive the pun), I wonder what role mosquitoes have played in the evolution of viruses (and perhaps evolution in general), acting as they do to transport viruses from host to host, exposing them to the different genetic creches in which they mutate and adapt.

  3. e-tat, anon – There’s a Russian biologist (I’ll have to look this up) whose career is more or less made from the theory that biology itself – life itself – is geology pursued by other means. The rearrangement of minerals – iron, calcium – re-deposited elsewhere. Think coral reefs after a million years, or slow depositions of marine exoskeletons. The surface of the earth rearranging itself through biology.

    Also, e-tat, I’ve always loved the idea that you could build an object in several sections, but with each section located in such a way that future plate tectonics will eventually bring the parts together, assembling the object in some future perfect tense. So, for instance, as you write on your blog, a TV assembled over time: mountains colliding with abyssal plains, minerals here with minerals there, etc.

    Is there a “tense” for material objects? Future perfect, past imperfect…?

  4. “the theory that biology itself – life itself – is geology pursued by other means.”
    This sounds like a good contender against ID. Give the rocks some agency and they’ll be brewing up humans in no time! Trouble is, if humans have been developed in relation to a particular geological project, we are either doing that project very well, as intended, or we have fucked it up something awful. What will the rocks make of that?

  5. Anon, those are lovely ideas, although I have to say I’m more entertained than awestruck by them. The mosquito thing is interesting because it assigns a hugely significant role to something we regard as a pest, but there’s no reason that amoeba or other lower life forms can’t also be prime movers in the development of intelligence, civilisation and this blog.

    The geology as agency idea also raises questions about whatever force brought geology into being, and for what reason. Thinking along these lines brings us to theoretical physics pretty quickly, and the way that occupies a peculiar position between mechanics and theology. But I don’t want to get all mystical about it.

  6. e-tat – Replace agency with accident and you’ve got no controversy. Well – you’ve got no controversies over intention or purpose, at least. Geology didn’t seek out its own continuation through biology; it just happened that way. And the universe itself is all just thermal-gravitational sorting, minerals and atomics lattices gathering in space where they may, gases blown away from stars, iron squeezed into cores likes ballerinas – and all of that just temporarily trapped in electromagnetic fields that themselves once arced and ribboned through space where they may. All of it spinning, self-colliding and seeding new outgrowths. Then sorting itself out again, locally, before re-deforming elsewhere and so on.

    And that Russian biologist I mentioned is Vladimir I. Vernadsky. As Lynn Margulis puts it: “Such massive, moving populations of insects were, for Vernadsky, ‘flying mountains.'” (For what it’s worth, Acquiring Genomes by Margulis and Sagan [where that quotation comes from] is very, very interesting).

  7. Geoff, one of the things tha gives ideas like James Lovelock’s or Theodor Schwenk’s appeal is that they suggest organisational principles beyond what’s generally accepted, but which are plausible. A bit like continental drift was plausible 50 years ago. What I like about the idea I mentioned above is that there’s an element of self-organising implied, again, as with Lovelock and Schwenk. What’s really intriguing is the idea that certain patterns of self organisation lead to humans – but we don’t have a clue about what it is that’s being organised. Rocks? Magnetic fields? Thermal decay? It’s as Zippy the Pinhead is fond of saying, life is a joke that only God gets. Zippy, of course, is God.

  8. “What’s really intriguing is the idea that certain patterns of self organisation lead to humans”

    Along these lines, have either of you given any thought to the evolution of evolution? Are the evolutionary mechanics of living organisms themselves subject to forces of natural selection? Was the transition from RNA-based life to DNA-based life a function of evolution? What about the (theoretically) endosymbiotic development of mitochondrial DNA? And if yes, can we trace the development of these evolutionary mechanics back to a prebiotic fork before which the chemistry (or physics) of life was indistinguishable from what would ultimately become another (inanimate) path of development? Do we share a common ancestor with The Star of Africa, or coal deposits on the Crow Rez in Montana?

  9. Coal, sure. Sounds good. Why? Because humans have dug up an awful lot of it, moved it around, and burned it. This is a bit like McPhee’s television, only better! And for all we know, the evolutinary mechanics may have evolved to result in the burning of coal, the invention of television, or in bringing various things from one part of the world to another – just as micro-bots are meant to do in assembling particular technologies.

    Now, how about this: what if the particular evolutionary mechanics operating in this part of the universe are some kind of mutation? What if evolutionary mechanics vary across space-time, and most evolutionary systems result in a particular kind of life, but that any number of the variants produce evolutionary freaks. What if the mechanics operating here are simply geared toward producing television?

  10. e-tat,

    By asking whether evolutionary mechanics have their own evolutionary mechanics that extend back ancestrally to the inanimate (i.e., was autopoiesis biology’s Big Bang; its first, rude evolutionary moment? Or was the generation of life from lifelessness an historical adaptation of pre-biotic chemistries undergoing specific environmental pressures to occupy an open evolutionary niche: self-reproducibility?) Was it a single, low-probability event, or the statistical outcome of a lengthier process governed by predict(able/ive) forces? Who knows, right?), I suppose I meant two things: 1.) that the biotic and abiotic might be regarded as cousins (a silly idea, perhaps) and 2.) that the “origin of life” may be taking place in the here and now, unobserved–and not just on other planets, but also as a function of evolutionary forces exercised over a large, pre-animate system of matter here on Earth (another silly thing to speculate about, perhaps).

  11. “1.) that the biotic and abiotic might be regarded as cousins (a silly idea, perhaps) and 2.) that the “origin of life” may be taking place in the here and now, unobserved”

    Love it. Both ideas. And their potential for silliness.

    ‘Cousins’ might simply be change states. A flip of the coin, a different spin on a molecule based on the passage of some other molecule. We’d be seeing a lot of life in that case. Whatever life is.

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