Undermining the Global in the American West

Over the long weekend, I relaxed a bit and read Lucy Lippard’s newest book, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press 2013). The book is quite wonderful and thought provoking and brings together art and argument in visually appealing ways. Lippard’s book considers the political ecology of the American West by focusing on the intersection of the local and global.

The book begins with gravel pits in New Mexico and considers the role these pits play in the production of roads. Road, in turn, open up the settlements, sacred landscapes, and delicate ecologies of New Mexico to development. At the same time, gravel provide a source of prosperity for isolated communities which frequently have limited resources, but also involves engaging those communities with a global economy that shows little interest in the local. Lippard’s use of gravel as her first case study evoked images of gravel pits across the Bakken and reminded me how important gravel has been to creating the infrastructure necessary for extractive industries in western North Dakota.

Lippard’s New Mexico shares many characteristics with the Bakken. Indigenous communities, small towns, and natural resources lace a sparsely populated and geographically and economically “marginal” landscape. Extractive industries, industrial development, and discard reflect patterns of use for marginal landscapes as local residents negotiate integration with the larger economy. Ironically the appeal of integration is that it can often provide access to resources necessary to preserve local ways of life. In New Mexico, gravel provides roads for the extraction of uranium, water, coal, and exploration for gas and oil.  

Lippard’s book also provided some parallels and local context for events like the dumping of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. Lippard discussed the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) near Carlsbad, New Mexico where radioactive waste from reactors around the US is deposited and ideally isolated for 10,000 years. The radioactive history of New Mexico extends to the earliest days of the nuclear warfare as the Trinity site at White Sands witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The radioactive plume from that detonation billowed northeast up the Tularose valley contaminating the air and the soil. The rural West with its isolated, poor, and minority communities seems particularly susceptible to dumping toxic material beyond the gaze of the urban world. In the documentary made about the dumping and excavation of the Atari games, Zak Penn, the director, asks the mayor of Alamogordo if he’d be willing to open the city’s landfill to another dump of video games. He answered in the affirmative, making explicit the link between local attitudes and global networks.

Lippard concludes her book with a meditation on the role that art can play in negotiating the fraught political ecology of New Mexico. While she recognizes that art also participates in the global market especially spectacular landscape works, she hints that local artists, embracing DIY approaches might find ways to leverage their access to specific landscapes, communities, and experiences to offer distinctly local solutions to global problems. 

Finding ways to mediate between the specific and the global remains a key challenge for articulating a political ecology that is simultaneously sensitive to the specific and generalizable to the global. My effort at writing a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch fits into this larger project of making a distinctive landscape part of the universal, modern experience of tourism.    

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