The New World in Practice: Placing Columbus in a New World

We long placed Columbus’ transatlantic voyages in a “discourse of discovery”, if we now almost ritually question that link, as we debate the valor and commemoration of the Genoese navigator.  Columbus became a lens, and even a name, to refract as much as come to terms with contentious legacies of colonialism and colonization, legacies rooted in deep problems of the recognition of the other–and the inhabitants of other lands.  

We can imagine the difficulty of processing the extent of the Atlantic Ocean in earlier times, but the very idea of “discovery”–“a dude discovered America?  c’mon, like it didn’t already exist??!!?“–poses questions of privilege and race, in ways we are challenged to come to terms–or even perhaps fully admit, of naming, mapping, and sovereignty, questions that are central to the debate about public statuary of Columbus–and the commemoration of Columbus Day, but already were addressed in the figuration of first contact with the New World.

The problem of viewing the New World from afar was one that maps provided tools to address, but abilities of reading space on a map–let alone reading the networks of space that we readily digest from airplane route maps or Google Maps–were so foreign to being internalized that we must look beyond questions of cartographic literacy or the power of maps.  The ability to frame–and indeed unite–the Atlantic in what might be called the “first” spherical age of global mapping, although the globes only circulated among quite elite audiences, was based on a new epistemology of proximity, as the frame of the map–of a scale and expanse that was previously communicated only in the nautical map, a fairly expert sort of document drafted on sheepskin or vellum, and rarely exhibited to large audiences, or able to be read by then–suddenly migrated to a new audience of readers and a new reading public who rarely read maps or used maps as tools to process terrestrial (or territorial) expanse, but credibly stake sovereign claims to possession.  

We might do well to ask, in looking at them, what sort of work is done by images like maps, and the claims to sovereignty encoded in the islands that bore the names of sovereign but floated disembodied in a global sea in the Hunt-Lenox Globe–a small globe whose careful worksmanship suggested the power of contemplating the newly “discovered” lands.

New Islands Lenox Globe

Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/courtesy New York Public Library

For the mapping of the New World posed the almost existential questions of situating those individual mariners who sailed the highly maneuverable crafts of caravels across the Atlantic ocean, even before the “naming” of America.

Detail of engraved Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/ from the 3D model
produced by Digital Scholarship Lab of University of Rochester

All of which should force more attention to the informational value of maps as transitional records, as much as the contents that they bear. Consuming, digesting, and materializing trans-Atlantic expanse was not only deeply challenging; it encouraged or taught abilities to mediate royal authority across vast oceanic waters, reframing relations of sovereign to land in ways that frontispiece to the first editions of his Letter rehearsed and sought to recapitulate by its iconography of a monarch observing from his throne indigenous peoples overseas where the three caravels arrived.  

The tension between a throned man in the lower left hand of the frame–the Spanish monarch Ferdinand–and the naked natives in thatched grooves is linked by the intermediaries of the four sailors in one of three caravels at the shore of these islands with palms.  If the woodcut suggests a division between its left and right registers, they overlap in a vision of a domesticated nature, at the base of the woodcut, extending at the foot of the enthroned monarch who dispatched the caravels, and the exoticized nature of the New World, far removed but imagined as if continuous with it, in a pictorial rendition of the continuity of the mapped globe. The most striking apsect of the frontispiece to Columbus’ letters remains the bridging of the ocean by a gesture, a representation of transatlantic communication, as if in the royal gesture could bridge the seas.

If the simple perspective bridged an oceanic remove, it did so by inventing the notion of transatlantic sovereignty, across borders, in the very first image that introduced Columbus’ letters from the marvels of the New World and its inhabitants.

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

As the set of letters bridge the New World and the Old, extending across the globe, in what we must take as a first image of globalism, they prepare the notion of the legibility of the map, able to bridge huge global distances, and the virtual continuity it frames between the Atlantic as a navigable space and a unified sovereign domain: the image of sovereignty that the frontispiece seems to celebrate, and declare, present the medium of letters as a basis to bridge space, and to perform a geographic transit across a network of sovereign rule, enacting the very claims of sovereignty that the naming of the islands perpetuates, and that the broad objections to the discourse of discovery, and the “discovery” of the Americas, presents. Indeed, the affective relation to the foreign areas prefigures the structuralist paradigms of anthropologists, between the robed monarch and nude natives, the enunciative action of the monarch, whose raised hand suggests declamatory intent, and the crowded field of long-haired indigenous bodies–are they dancing? crowding among one another in fear?–in the upper left, faced by the hatted men who approach the as yet unnamed island. The three caravels that arrive had been designed to maneuver ocean waters adroitly. The image of skillful maneuvering and undisciplined crowding, encoded into the woodcut, prepare a set of structural oppositions even before we read the letters themselves.

The prefatory woodcut must be looked at after removing the ghosts of Columbus’ legacy as a navigator, so often and ahistorically elevated in far more recent iconography, and placing him in a network that was more accessible to the readers of early books.  The legacies of the navigator were magnified in the many statues of Columbus across the built landscape in a craze of commemoration and of memorialization after the U.S. Civl War, that also intersected with the four hundredth anniversary of his first voyage across the Atlantic. Indeed, the onslaught of social media images of slinging red paint on statues of Columbus each Columbus Day, spreading across the United States in ways almost unthinkable a decade or two ago, has revealed a deep rethinking of the relative power of the claims of triumphalism in the statuary of Christopher Columbus, and the ability to idealize the celebration of claims of discovery, without recognizing dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and death that made indigenous people among the first stateless people in the early globalized world.

The images of a now-annual dousing of the figure of Columbus with red paint–figuring the blood of inhabitants–is far removed historically from the moment of contact, but a response to the very perspective that the image of contact offered on how indigenous inhabitants were directly sent a message of European sovereignty.

The building of monuments across states was not only an attempt to find national collective meaning, but a mending wounds of civil war. And the pronounced fetishization of the map as a logic of manifest destiny mirrored may have helped justify the geographic expansions westward by purifying its inhumanity in a discourse of discovery and invention as native lands were confiscated and folded into the nation, happening in the culmination of violent claims of expanding claims to sovereignty into western lands. Columbus offered an apparently safer, purer ideal of conquest, as the Columban encounter was imagined as if with less spilt blood.

Western wars

Processing of the New World’s place on the map still provides a worthy site of reflection, however, and perhaps especially in a globalized world, especially by spilling blood in the New World, or revealing the spillage of blood that was concealed in narratives of discovery and indeed the Colombian myth, as sought to be shown by protestors in Providence RI this Indigenous Peoples Day. The fiction of presenting Columbus as a figure of discovery and taking possession of removed geographic lands is impossible to dissociate from genocide, and perhaps all the more difficult to reconcile in the very lands that were seized from indigenous inhabitants–even if Columbus himself never set foot there.

Vandfalized in new landf

October 13, 2019

We were long far more apt to recognize the reduction of Columbus to the visage of Renaissance man with a plan to sail the ocean blue in 1492, twinning foresight and navigational endurance, as twinned in the verso and recto of to celebrate the anniversary of the voyage  in an anonymous medallion printed for the Colombian Exposition of 1892, which honored the Renaissance man shown in his furs and coiffed hair looking out spaciously, on one side, as if his piercing stare allowed him to cut across waves of neoclassical design emphasized the historical scope of the voyage of one ship across waters as its prow cut across the intervening oceans to arrive in the New World, unimpeded by any elements, erasing the ideahe even encountered any resistance among indigenous inhabitants across the ocean seas, and creating the sense of frictionless travel without obstacles, enabled by a penetrating gaze.

1893 volumbus medal, anon, as a classicizing engraving tableaux
Anonymous Medal, Columbian Centenary

To express the sense of transit and remove, that was preserved in the woodcut prefacing Columbus’ widely read letters about the New World, we must perform the work of cutting away encrusted images of Columbus as a modern hero, perhaps for the last time rehearsed by none other than Venetian nobleman (and former fascist) count Vittorio di Colbertaldo, who in 1957 was accompanied by a group of Italian sailors as he unveiled a 3.6 meter bronze triumphant statue of Columbus in San Francisco, having already unveiled a similar statue in Miami. In San Francisco, Colbertaldo was accompanied by a group of Italian sailors with the statue of over three and a half meters, on Columbus Day weekend, when it was unveiled in the festivities of an annual Columbus Day parade. Colbertaldo proudly invested Columbus with clear fascistic attributes as a martial, virile man of state, a commander of European nobility, atop a marble base brought from Genoa: the triumphalism written into his visage and martial brow with more kinship to fascist statuary than most images of Columbus, but only slight exaggeration of his rhetoric in its iconography. The perpetuation of this iconography–and indeed the laminations of conquest, and the rationale of conquest, and its naturalization, is exactly what we must object to and find repugnant, as a question of human rights, and of government, but which was so long celebrated in quite unmasked radicalized terms.

The placement of the statue overlooking the bay in San Francisco is a natural target of resistance–in its grotesque perpetuation of Columbus as a victory of state, religion, rationality, and male strength, that befit Colbertaldo’s resumé as a monumental sculptor of the Fascist period in Italy, dedicated to the “discovery of the new world.” The statue’s imperiousness readily naturalized some of the dogma set forth by Columbus himself, but updated the claims of discovery of new continents to the twentieth century with cartoonish masculinity. As a sculptor, Colbertaldo had only recently formulated unsubtle ideas of the role of monumentality as he worked to promote the iconography of government in Fascist Italy, where he had written I Monumenti e l’uomo; as preferred sculptor of Benito Mussolini–who he served as personal bodyguard–his work toured varied martial statues of Italians in arms. Perhaps Columbus provided the natural subject to consider a martial Italian in the postwar era for American eyes.

He must have arrived at Columbus in rather circuitous ways, in the post-Fascist era. One can read into the readiness with which he endowed the navigator with fascist triumphalism for an American audience, accentuating the clear-eyed vision that subdued distance and oceans to his person, in a triumph of individuality, linking man to state by an illustration of personal force, almost not needing a map–projecting an image of European nobility across the ocean–if now, in San Francis,  looking in quite commandeering fashion over the Pacific, bearing with pride a cross on his robust chest, as if to refer to the expansion of American sovereign claims in the Pacific, and letting the map in hand fall to his side–perhaps, after perhaps having been inspired by it to take on his destined role as a soldier of Spain, but having done so by his own will alone.

The triumphal image seems to fulfill a majestic historical narrative that swept his ships across space, .  In the postwar period of America, the ship is absent from the person, perhaps as military mapping had so expanded in accuracy to make the moment of perception of America more dramatic as a fascist will to power.  The space of the Atlantic was not problematic to bridge, as the expanse of the Pacific was in the midst of deterritorialization.

Columbus
Fascist Colomubs by V. di Colbertado (1957)

This Columbus’ determination is evident in his  brow–startlingly akin to the face of Mussolini as rendered in fascist statuary– in what was the most recent incarnation of Columbus as emissary, and soldier, if looking more like a superhero whose virility seems tied to his ability to look to overseas shores with determination.  The recent vandalization of the same statue with red paint, in an attempt to connect the dots between the bloodiness of conquest and the heroism we have long imagined called for more than stripping off paint or veneer, but seeing the navigator differently and renarrativizing that hackneyed narrative, shown in its most grotesque in Colbertaldo’s glorification of white determination–no doubt making it a perfectly appropriate target for vandalism on Indigenous People’s Day.

191014102607-03-columbus-statues-vandalized-screengrab-exlarge-169
October 14, 2019

The statue makes one want to pair it with the first images of contact that prefaced the hugely popular incunable of Columbus’ letters, an image that deserves careful unpacking and historicization, but encapsulates a sovereignty over space in less imperious ways–Columbus was a middle-man, and monarchical agent–but suggests a similar domineering of space by virtue of a sighting instrument and a divine message inscribed in the heavens, that made him so celebrated as advancing Christianity overseas to new continents whose inhabitants were opened to conversion. Was the statuary of the late nineteenth though mid-twentieth century a rehearsal of these claims, or did it only update how they enacted a new relation to the map in loaded and nefarious ways?

Stradanus, Allegorical Invention of America,
in Nova Reperta from Renaissance Quarterly 65:2 (2012)

In its radical contraction of a transatlantic journey, the woodcut that prefaced the Columban letters, the first written description of the New World encounter, recalls the contraction of time and space to the arrival of the navigator elegantly garbed in the moment of arrival in the New World shores, as if to take possession of them with considerable elegance, as in the Currier and Ives print that was sold widely at the Columbus Exposition of 1892, to be exhibited in American homes, which recduce the voyage to a triumphant gesture of arrival, and planting of the Spanish flag unfurling in the New World, as if below a spotlight onstage to which the dark-skinned anonymous natives approached with something akin to veneration, as Columbus and his men express gratitude to something like the gift of having been granted discovery.  

The commemoration of the Colombian discoveries encouraged scenic images that erased any sense of indigenous suffering, or more explicitly martial relations in later years long before the late nineteenth century, as a poetics of discovery was rehearsed as a pastoral scene enacted entirely among men.

Currier and Ives, 18992--exposition image?
130205105638-christopher-columbus-exlarge-169
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Filed under Columbus, commemoration, geographic mobility, Voyage of Discovery, World Maps

Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

As the haze is again settling over San Francisco and blanketing the Bay Area, fire season has begun again in Northern California. The densely populated Bay Area is surrounded by levels of particulate matter from the fires based in the Sierra Nevada, sending some flakes to San Francisco, as alerts are issued to those in Santa Rosa, Livermore and San Jose sensitive to air quality to avoid extended outdoor activities, and reduce their time out of doors. The new strategies of fire containment, however, that have been adopted by PG&E, after the private company used its privileges to declare power shut-offs in ways that did not seem so “surgical” at all–leading led Bay Area State Senator Jerry Hill to remind the corporation that all safety shut-offs “must be a surgical, last resort measure,” not a knee-jerk method of containment–although what a “surgical” sort of shut-off of electricity would be was unclear, as it would presuppose an assessment of transmission poles, the clearing of nearby trees, and tools of pinpointing high winds.

In an era when, in the East Bay and in Oakland, we’ve been looking at fire warnings in public service announcements placed on the side of park entrances and highways for over ten years,

the emergency warnings that extended a red flag alert of extreme fire danger to the entire Bay Area on October 8 was an immediate cause for alarm, as the gustiness of winds generalized extreme fire warnings, warned to potentially be the very wind conditions that in 2017 helped spread the North Bay Fires, rendering immediate danger signs throughout the Oakland Hills where memories of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 were still raw, inscribed in the landscape, as the largest suburban conflagration that spread from the Oakland Hills over the weekend, as the Tunnel Fire was fanned by Diablo winds in late October, destroying hillsides of homes, and pain, shocking residents in ways that would barely receded from the public imaginary by the time of the North Bay Fires were fanned a quarter of a century letter.

The NWS warning was apparent in making the connection, which couldn’t have been clearer in anyone’s mind, or to PG&E’s new board of directors:

If the dystopia of Fire Season lay last year in raging firestorms that consumed homes, tract housing, and high carbon forests, the safety measures that were adopted after the North Bay Fires of 2017 to curtail corporate responsibility have become a new dystopia, of intermittent power supply, immediately inconveniencing the poor, elderly, and infirm, as a temporary safety tactic was extended to thirty-four of fifty-eight counties–over half–as if this was a new strategy of fire prevention or containment.

And the maps that were issued to make the case for the outages weren’t that convincing, perhaps as they seemed quite improvised, if they did aleThe rather loopy maps that were recently issued by PG&E, California’s very own home-grown for-profit energy company, to its customers or “consumers” seemed a weak public wager of confidence. After hemming and hawing, apparently, about deciding how to respond to the forecast of possible high winds returning to northern California, a region over recent decades that is haunted by fires by every earlier autumn. Whether they actually prevented fires–as PG&E insists, and left us all to sight with relief–or not, the hodge-podge constellation of overlapping parcels of indicating potential electrical shut-offs was disorienting–

–and didn’t create more clarity by drilling deeper down into Bay Area neighborhoods..

Were the maps a warm-up for the difficulties of managing the threat of fire in a new fire season? Our “fire season” now stretches past winter, if not lasting all year, and its length has created such problems of management that PG&E elected to announce last Tuesday evening that the power was being turned off to over 800,000 of its customers preventively, affecting what might be upwards of 2.5 million individuals. It did so by exploiting an ability that it had gained after inadequately struggling to respond to past fires that had caused damage across the state, but intense loss of homes and property in Northern California, after the Camp Fire almost a year ago in 2018;, combined problems of infrastructural management and climate issues of a lack of rain it was unable to face, management of which was triple jeopardized after it had declared bankruptcy as a private corporation, which this time shut the power preemptively as the gusty winds began to blow.

This being California, it was significantly striking that the turquoise rings seemed electrified version of the iconography of radiating earthquake tremors, and caused a comparable alarm.

The maps were hardly much grounds of confidence, born as the board of directors hunkered down in preparation for those dry, warm wind of winter to sweep across Northern California. They were announced to be the result of the sudden arrival of “unprecedented fire risk,” even as the highest temperature anomalies recorded in the state had been published online since early summer, as dry autumn winds of increasingly high velocity returned to raise fears across the state, setting off alarms for a new geography of firestorm risk.

For “risk” in this case meant winds, and fire danger was understood as an intersection, as in a Venn diagram, between combustible undergrowth and winds that could carry dangerous embers from downed power lines–the apparent paradigm of recent outbreaks of what the media still calls–with PG&E–“wildfires,” as if they were due to a failure to thin the woods.

This may be the best optic through which to understand the awfully loopy maps that the company released, in an attempt to suggest that this time it really had the situation under control, or at least to dodge the danger of not seeming to have responded to verifiable risk. The responsibility of PG&E exercised over the electrical infrastructure of the state had led to its ability to monitoring weather privately to determine the urgency of shutting off residents’ power, allowing customers to consult a weather webpage to ensure some sense of transparency.–and security–until it crashed under broad demand for answers. The project of educating customers to the possibility of unprecedented outages raised questions responsibility and agency that many felt the private company had not been delegated authority to adjudicate.

The prediction of gusts of wind from the Great Basin over areas that still bear traces of firestorms created a broad sense of alarm, however, and with good reason. High gusts of dry air had spread firestorms of huge destruction, crumbling steel lattice structures of aging transformer towers that sent power lines crashing into dry underbrush, in Pulga, as low precipitation, low atmospheric moisture, and sparks led to particularly extreme consequences: debates about what “good forest management” has led to concern about the strength and durability of elevated electric wires knocked down by the force of high winds, pushing brush fires that became firestorms over vaster areas than firefighters had been used to manage–or fire fighters had even recently imagined. It led many to contemplate the stubborn fact that an expanded network of elevated electrical wires, bearing charge, running more prominently than ever before across a wild lands-urban interface, with terrifying consequences.

Despite the complexity of expertise required to explain the fires’ spread and indeed the problems of forest management, the maps that PG&E issued to explain outages were not clear. Only earlier this year, Judge William Alsup called the PG&E “the single most culpable entity in the mix” within the current “crisis that California faces on these wildfires.” This led several attorneys had sued the company for the huge damages of the Camp and North Bay wildfires eagerly listened, happy that some accountability did seem to be in the air. But as PG&E had let its budget for reducing trees near transmission lines whither, they seemed to illustrate utter irresponsibility in neglecting “a large number of trees that should have been removed, and that appears to be the single biggest factor in the 20107 and 2018 fires,” demanding that the fire mitigation plan of the energy corporation follow state law by trimming trees that might contact power lines in high Fire Season winds, which were only expected to grow, and placing there corporation on probation. The limited sensitivity of CEO Bill Johnson to the question of trimming may have not been able to be dislodged from how his salary was being pegged to safety performance, as much as responsible maintenance.

Judge Alsup had ominously warned the corporation it would be bad in the docket come December, wen the number of wildfires PG&E started would be reckoned, and he hoped it would be none: the expectation were balanced by the significant bonuses Johnson would gain if he created conditions to allow the stock of the utility company bounce back to the heights they enjoyed in 2017. And the power of PG&E to shut power of temporarily to 500,000 and ten 800,000 Californians provoker indignation but were won as a right to announce “public safety power shut off” with little warning was won, without being imagined to be used in such an aggressive and proactive fashion as Johnson and his Board seem to have done, raising questions about the current corporate culture of PG&E, if it had committed to “only consider proactively turning off power when the benefits of de-energization outweigh potential public safety risks.” These benefits were not only regarding safety, but the dangers of being found negligent in managing the energy infrastructure.

The problems of fire management that this mapping of fires revealed was both problematic, and difficult to respond to: PG&E asked–or demanded?–the ability to shut off power in high-velocity winds in response. The consequences were not only personal inconveniences. They may well have compromised valuable cancer research on temperature-controlled cultures within a week of conclusion, costing 500K and countless hours of lab work, as controlled experiment were rushed to San Francisco. Even if a warning on October 9 let folks know that the private energy agency “continues to warn of a power outage,” the absence of anything like expectations of such a shut-off or even plans to deal with the web traffic that meant that the “inconsistent” and at time “incorrect” information on the PG&E website, which would continually crash due to high volume of folks seeking information urgently, led to a broad swath of apologies that however refused to admit any underlying fault–“I do apologize for the hardship this has caused but I think we made the right call on safety,” said CEO Johnson, who arrived at PG&E only recently from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and installed a new Board: Johnson is a proud long-time Grateful Dead fan, but may be more conscious his salary was tied to safety performance than California topography or corporate ethics, and expected that the state would rapidly accept a declaration of fire emergency.

Perhaps the arrival of winds didn’t inaugurate a “fire season,” however, but revealed a new aspect of the electrical infrastructure about which no clear working process had been devised or imagined. If such winds inaugurated the “fire season” in California, this was now not an issue to be addressed by thinning forests or environmental management alone–the large carbon loads of forests had gained an increased vulnerability to high-charge electric sparks, in ways that had exponentially expanded the vulnerability of the landscape to fire, and risk of firestorms,–

–of the very sort that had generated ever more terrifying images around the time of the Camp Fire of statewide fire risk; winds that created conditions for the fire fanned the flames further, at higher velocities, to create firestorms and new management challenge of fire whirls, or vortices of flames of extreme heat intensity.

Did it all start with dry winds, or with carbon loads, or with live electric lines suspended in what were revealed to be dangerously unstable ways? Heat maps of the nature of air quality became seared into northern California residents’ minds.

Mapbox Heat Map of Smoke Emissions of Camp Fire

The high gusts running through trees that received far less water or snowpack than in previous years, the deep worries both among PG&E administrators who balanced their abilities of oversight of the electrical infrastructure with their public responsibility, was mirrored in the haunted nature of the Northern California residents who had seen increasing numbers of fire men stream into the areas near Chico, Sacramento, and the North Bay or the Sierras and Yosemite each Fire Season like clockwork in previous years–in ways oddly dissonant with bucolic green surroundings.

This time round, the temperature anomaly alone had offered some guide to prediction of the eventuality of future fires, but provided little guideposts to the possibility of managing the situation at hand. The arrival of winds were terrifying, and not only to PG&E. The gustiness of local winds seem new indices that will mediate all future responses to what Daniel Swain called the ongoing firestorm of California, and are destined to filter our future collective reactions to future fires’ spread.

While the maps of outages seem to convey a weird spectral sort of precision, they suggest an architecture of emergency response that blankets all areas of the now legendary woodlands-urban periphery with darkness, as if in an attempt to rationalize the impending outages that have been paralleled with offers to set up cell phone charging stations, were hardly reassuring.. Promising lavishly to set up a designated communications network with its clients and customers, that seemed a bit like not allowing the news to get into the game, preferring texts, emails, and robocalls as a way of staying in touch and broadcasting emergency to folks who it assumed would have fully charged phones–because who lets their phones run low–though it wasn’t clear communications could continue if outages lasted the full “five days or longer” as announced. The company had its own private team of meteorologists, to prevent any redundancy from designated communication with the NWS or NOAA. But trust us, POG&E seemed to say–as Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program, put it, “some of our customers may experience a power shutoff even though the weather conditions in their specific location are not extreme.”

The memories of the Camp Fire created a sense of disorientation before the impending arrival of high winds, which triggered a memory of the massive destruction of property and loss of lives even as the much of the nation is distracted on other media sources, and indeed by greater problems of irresponsibility. With the memories of the Camp Fire and to the North Bay Fires of the fixed in our head, from the toxic air they across the city, to streams of refugees who lost their homes, we had only just started to face the first evidence of the start of a new fire season in smoke from the first fires, which only last year had made Northern California site of the worst air quality the world, as we studied maps of how the Firefighters have made progress containing the deadly Camp Fire was tired to be contained. As we tracked the fear of fires growing not only near Los Angeles, but near Chico,

we faced a new beast in the unprecedented power shut-offs that became a possibility for hundreds of thousands of customers of the utility company over the last week, a highly controversial act that enabled power to be preventively cut to regions in California that we tracked through loopy maps of potential shutoffs, shown in alientating map layers that seemed to glow with radioactivity, as the authority of the utilities company had assumed in public life in California, elevated after a series of mismanagements or mishaps, meant that the combat of ever-present fire threats extended to the disruptive dangers posed by power shut-offs, perhaps strategic.

But the maps offered no clear logic to their arrival or creation, though they seemed to follow global curvature, akin Bowie net, though the GPS loops didn’t also overlap so often, and derive from power lines on a local level. The threat of interruptions of electricity seemed issues of global importance, altering access to electricity and shifting many to local generators–even closing the University of California for a few days until wind levels died down.

The large, privately held public utility company elected, with winds forecast from Wednesday through Thursday to reach velocities as high as sixty to seventy mph at taller elevations of the state, to adopt what was called “PG&E’s state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan, which aims to cut down on the ignition of wildfires during high-risk periods”–presumably because it was in bankruptcy, more than or as much as a form of public protection, at a time that PG&E has its back up against the wall. The widespread “voluntary” withdrawal of power supply was due to a failure of risk management, and the dangers of firestorms that could not be contained. The threat of electrical transmissions lines malfunctioning, collapsing, or igniting brush–as had begun the conflagration known as the Camp Fire of 2018 and the Tubbs Fire and the North Bay Fires of 2017, lead Berkeley residents to be asked to evacuate the Hills–an area where evacuation would be judged difficult in an actual emergency. The extensive elderly population dependent on life-sustaining electrical medical equipment–oxygenators; dialysis machines; ventilators–whose loss of power could pose diastrous health risks. Even the announcement of power loss could trigger panic sending customers into a tail spin.

Since the potential outage map on the PG&E website first appeared, and before it crashed, significant panic grew as the need to follow a careful protocol seemed absent in the energy corporation’s plans. The maps revealed in complex if simple fashion a blanketing of many of the areas of the Berkeley Hills-based on what must have been the newly launched website PG&E had devised to help customers prepare for wildfires readiness, and indeed presented to the Berkeley City Council this past July about the potential for emergency ‘public safety power shutoffs’ and presumably also the need to develop a strategic response given the problems of residents who relied on electricity for medical devices, cel towers, and city reservoirs, who would all be thrown into disarray in the eventuality of a “public safety shutoff” that the energy company had recently acquired–or been forced–to adopt. The sort of outage map that PG&E distributed were low on actual information, and rich with apparent looniness and difficulty to read,–

–the image of state-wide potential outages even more generic at such small scale. The map is more suggestive of targeting of sites of past ties created by sparks from wind-driven fallen transmission lines or as a result of the sudden collapse during high winds of aging electrical infrastructure. All state residents were alerted to update their contact information to receive more local bulletins at pge.com/mywildfirealerts, a dedicated communications infrastructure over which PG&E held all strings; any possibility of confused communications was sought to be contained–as was that of examination of the protocol for delivering information.

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Filed under climate change, fires, Global Warming, PG&E, Wildfire, wildfire risk

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can lose sight of the central role that seaweed plays in the coastal habitat of Northern California. For while often present before our eyes, the problems of mapping often submerge seaweed forests with any fixity is mirrored by the threatened disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe, as creating an actual image capture able to register the extent of kelp forests is sadly mirrored in the diminishing kelp beds off the California coast.

Has predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, from the harrowing images of the spread of fires. We are reminded by maps showing the rapid advance of the burn perimeters of Yosemite wildfires of 2013, North Bay Fires, or the disastrous Camp Fire of 2018. The rapid pace of the loss of these forested lands seems eerily echoed in the shrinking of coastal beds of kelp along Northern California, and correlates to the advance of warming climes.

If we have developed tools to map the continuity, intensity, and growth of forest fires by satellite and drones, the problem of passively registering the loss of kelp forests, and its relation to the advance of urchin beds, removes a part of coastal environments we are in need of mapping. The scale of maps of the destruction of seaweed beds on the California coast are less rooted in real time, but have advanced in striking fashion over ten years, although the ravages of destruction for now seem to remain undersea. But we are less skilled to communicate their crucial place in offshore environments.

The nutrient-rich cold waters of coastal California provided with its rocky seafloor afford a perfect environment for lush kelp forests, that extend up into British Columbia and Alaska. But as waters are warming, with astounding rapidity, we need to ensure kelp beds are mapped, although many are often off the map, and difficult to register, even as their size has come to be threatened by global warming and climate change, in ways that eerily parallel the loss or threats to irreplaceable forested environments. While the nature of the decline of seaweed is not linked to warming waters directly, the shifting ecosystems that climate change has created have caused a drastic and rapid decline of seaweed’s offshore presence that we have yet to fully map. For the passive registration of kelp beds, traced by GPS or captured through aerial photography, is far less hands-on than examination of their extent would warrant, and low-flying satellites of remote sensing offer few possibilities for accurate mapping of their extent. The rapidity of the disappearance to kelp–and beds whose boundaries are shifting in time with the rapidity of the advance of forest fires on the scale of their destruction–pose problems of global dimensions that are pointing for the immediacy of loss of kelp of over 13,000 species whose biodiversity and creation of oxygen by photosynthesis feeds much of the world drives our own ecosystem.

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

Even a map of globally threatened areas cannot emphasize properly the extent to which the Pacific coastline provides a site of cold waters, ocean upwelling that provides rich mineral nutrients, and sunlight that makes it an especially abundant site of kelp forests, in a true megaregion of coastal ecology whose catastrophic loss is impossible to imagine. Even a map of kelp’s local abundance fails to map its ecoystemic centrality in adequate ways–ways that the diversity of kelp speciation also fails to capture, despite its clear .scientific value to survey the ocean populations that are most risk.

The Nature Conservancy

Miller, Lafferty, Lamy, Kui, Rassweller and Reid (2018)/Royal Society Publishing,

The particular vulnerability of the kelp biomass seems to have grown in unexpected ways not only due to climate warming, but to its particular vulnerability to ocean floor sessile predators like purple sea urchins, who are more likely, it is now believed, to eat phytoplankton and microalgae in the kelp understory, rather than kelp itself: however, the role of urchins in diminishing kelp forests, which themselves feed exclusively on sunlight, the combination of how a lack of upwellings due to climate change diminished urchin food supply and the inhospitable nature of warming waters to kelp forests may increase the vulnerability of kelp in coastal oceans.

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Gulfs of Meaning

In a world where borders don’t often correspond landmarks or terrain, tensions of incursions on new forms of territoriality multiply. Tensions of violations of airspace and national waters pose questions of the accuracy reliance on mapping systems, moreover, difficult to contest or resolve on a single map, as, at the same time, the frictionless nature of drone flights–here embodied by the costly RQ-4A Global Hawk, whose price as a high-end unmanned surveillance tool reflects its abilities to transgress borders without detection, flying at over 20,000 feet across borders at a speed of five hundred miles per hour, embodies an ability to remap a space of surveillance by superior mapping technologies than other countries. With literally hours remaining before devastating military airstrikes on Iran, amidst fears that a slight miscalculation or misinterpretation of mapping systems could precipitate an unwanted war of massive scale, the strikes were canceled at 7:30 p.m. Washington time, and the threat that Iran had “made a very big mistake” de-escalated. Trump surprised the world by suddenly allowing for the margin of human error, even as he insisted the drone was flying “clearly over international waters,” rather than Iranian airspace just 750 miles southeast of Tehran, refusing to relinquish his own map of wherejn the Global Hawk was downed.

The trust in this unmanned drone may possess its own almost hubristic quality. For its downing by Iranian missiles downed not only a costly military surveillance tool, but punctured a space of surveillance of the Persian Gulf and Iranian territory, and a sense of security in a precarious geopolitical region–at the same time as the American government seems to be bent on increasing tensions about the continued flow of crude petrochemicals to much of the industrialized world, creating global flows and energy markets that are themselves concealed by the question of at what point Iranian missiles struck the drone–or into whose national airspace the drone was flying.

The downing of the drone punctured confidence in a continuous space of surveillance that was built, painstakingly and over time, to guard those global energy markets. While the shock to U.S. military intelligence may have been that Iran had gained the ability to observe, fire at and down the high-flying unmanned vehicles that they had purchased at considerable expense from Northrup Grumman, not revealed even by the most precise hexadecimal GPS coordinates, which would render the costly drones more than a poor investment in preparation for the very grounds of war that Northrup Grumman had promoted to transmit high-resolution images from higher than ever altitudes of sensitive hotspots in “real time.” The United States Military didn’t ever think Revolutionary Guards possessed or could acquire marked not only a threats of war,–and chose to celebrate the RQ-$ “Global Hawk” as a tool of maintaining an infrastructure of global surveillance rooted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as covering the Persian Gulf, while piloted remotely, by yet another one of the increasing paradoxes of the globalism of globalization, by pilots in bases in Beal, California and Grand Forks, North Dakota, far from the military theaters they sought to control

U.S. Air Force/AFP

But the shattering of this imagined space of global dominance occurred not in U.S. bases, or even on the military maps of Americans, but rather on the screens that Iranians used to monitor the unmanned vehicle’s flight, and, by extension, the missiles they launched that downed it. The missiles’ surprising accuracy disrupted the imagined continuity by which the United States hoped to extend sovereignty into international waters to protect traffic across the Strait of Hormuz–not only by a new surface-to-air missile, but a new radar system able to detect the drone–

–that effectively ended a map of surveillance that will no longer exist in the face of new Iranian defense systems allowing Revolutionary Guards to protect their territorial claims.

The Persian Gulf region has long been planned and imagined to be a new theater of possible war. Indeed, each side has become compelled to map the potential battle field in ways that has been forced the region to be remapped, creating a delicate balance of often contesting Exclusive Economic Zones, international waters, and territorial waters, in ways that have constrained the possibility of American surveillance. But the drone’s downing air revealed that Iranian guidance systems of surface-to-air missiles that Iran possesses to target drones, aircraft and unmanned vehicles are no longer clearly understood by the U.S. Army or U.S. military intelligence. The American “upper hand” in mapping technologies has perhaps been punctured, in ways that may cause the entire battlefield to need to be remapped in costly ways, if to preserve the delicate balance global trade of petroleum from the Persian Gulf, one of the most concentrated and easily accessible site of petroleum reservers, especially in the increased tensions between the United States and Iran.

Airspace and territorial waters are more difficult to map on earlier maps, and difficult to map on top of shorelines, or in navigational routes, perhaps, for an untrained eye, but the proliferation of alternate readings of sovereign space have become especially fraught in the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, where overcrowded traffic turns on hairpin turns, seems to have been detected entering Iranian airspace–if one trusts the maps tweeted out in self-defense by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif–who argued the unmanned surveillance drone had crossed the “red line” of its sovereign airspace without warning, ignoring alerts from Revolutionary Guards, and interpreted as threats to its sovereignty.

Coming on the heels of Iranian threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz to all traffic, as Iranian speedboats patrolled the waters, as if tempting to assert their control over the narrow passage-way out of belief that “if our oil does not go through the Strait, other countries’ will certainly not cross the Strait,” the jockeying for power over the transit of oil in international waters set up a conflict between where national sovereign interests began and ended, and what power the United States regained on a global geopolitical stage, even as the United States openly asserted the upper hand of global surveillance over what is one of the narrowest maritime site of petroleum transit in the world wildly out of proportion to the millions of barrels that cross the narrow strait daily, a transit that wildly dwarfs the petroleum carried to global markets by other maritime routes–despite the quite narrow nature of its passage, and the even narrower space of international waters by which oil tankers navigate the Strait.

NASA/Public Domain
Shipping Lanes of Strait of Hormuz

Where the unmanned vehicle flying American colors flew–and whether it crossed into a sovereign space–bedcame a flash-point of regional tensions, so much that the downing of the $110M drone, long celebrated by the U.S. Army as covering surveillance needs over the Gulf, embarrassingly became a target of Iranian defenses, as it was downed on June 20, even as it was flying at over 60,000 feet, or above what American forces believed that Iranian Revolutionary Guards could detect. The illusion that American unmanned surveillance drone RQ-4A Global Hawk could itself move frictionlessly across national boundaries without being downed was itself unmanned, creating a small catastrophe or large disruption in the international balance of powers.

Did it cross the red line?

Or, as the U.S. Military’s Central Command tried to assert with its own parallel graphic of where the drone was downed, showed the apparent intensity with which Iran was able to pursue the dominance in a theater of oil transport vital to the global energy economy, and to the global economy that was attached to it, signaling a real Achilles heel in the continued image of American global invulnerability. which the United zStastes was determined to map as occurring outside Iranian sovereignty as an attack on American property and super-costly military hardware–starting a war of maps on the heels of a renewal to past Tanker Wars, both possibly poised to escalate into actual military bombardment.

It certainly seemed that the downed Global Hawk would constitute something akin to the arrow fired by the Trojan Pandarus into the groin of the Spartan Menelaus, the great warrior and husband of Helen of Troy, causing blood two streak down his legs, in an image of the fraught virility of the fabled warrior to incite the wrath of the leader Agamemnon, if not reveal newfound imbalance of military relations which Athena seemed to use to provoke the shattering military disaster of the Trojan War by starting the siege of Ilium. Would the downing of the jet provide the occasion of the bombing of Iran that Donald J. Trump has hoped to begin, matching his heightened bellicose rhetoric with the presence of a violent escalation of arms?

What happened was not clear, as was evident in the difficulty of mapping the event. When the costly U.S. Army Global Hawk drone looped back in the course of its surveillance of the Strait’s coasts, possibly entering Iranian airspace, after it was shot down, reverberations spread across the world, quite quickly. President Trump declared that Iran had shown itself by this act to be “ready for war” before plans for a miltirary reprisal were called off with but hours before it was poised to begin–perhaps saving the world from a global catastrophe, although U.S. Secretary of State was later dispatched to forge an improvised alliance against Iran in the coming weeks. Although war was averted on a global scale, the question of whose map was more authoritative, and whose could be trusted, reveals much about the contested status of authoritative maps in the globalized world, beyond being a debate waged across social media. The debate turned on different ways of reading space–or of wanting to read space; one hinged upon a notion of national boundaries and sovereign space, whereas the other relied upon the frictionless space of a notion of regional surveillance.

The downing of the drone lifted a corner on the shifting tensions in globalization, and indeed the increased problems of lamination of multiple maps over the increased density of economic traffic across the Strait of Hormuz, and indeed the conflicts between national and international waters along which petrochemical and crude petroleum leaves the increasingly blurry–if much mapped and over-patrolled–region of the Persian Gulf. The tensions were not about the drone. At least not only. The ratcheting up of tensions with a policy of “maximum prsssure” and rhetorical escalation has ratcheted up tensions, as Iran policy has been transformed into a flag-waving exercise of defense against a perceived infidel enemy–one that has disdained civil discourse and alleged overtures of open negotiation–in ways that are about American desires to map “international waters” and international airspace–

–rather than recognize even the potential legitimacy of a sovereign state’s defence. For all the mapping of “national” spaces on new maps of the region–that for all their identification of names of nations affirm the abilities and potentials of U.S. surveillance maps.

The Strait of Hormuz exists on the borders of several nations, and might be mapped in multiple ways. While the central waters of the Strait–which narrows to just twenty-one nautical miles, or less than forty kilometers–nonetheless retains a thin band designated as international waters, which puts it outside of local sovereignty. But the Strait increasingly is mapped in radically different global and local contexts, making the question of its territoriality and international status a question of increased tensions in the past weeks–when one American Global Hawk, a pretty fancy piece of surveillance, was downed. The cost was not only limited to the fourteen million dollar piece of military hardware, or to its symbolic loss, but the casualty of a sense of security in the frictionless policing of an economically vital transit routes–and the hegemony of mapping and ensuring the safety of the movement of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to global energy markets.

What appears to be a navigational course, in an era when territoriality is designed by points, rather than either landscapes or terrain, created an increasingly serious a quandary for measuring locations along a nautical map alone, or in reference to a mainland. For the question of incursion in territoriality–as the high-grade U.S. Army drone that was shot down in Iranian airspace–is not so evident from the Gulf waters, or the landscape over which it flew, approaching the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sovereign region of Hormogazan Province, or appearing to stray outside of the path of international airspace, or at least doing so at a height of 20,000 meters, higher than Americans’ expected Iranian radar systems could detect, but in fact just within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s radar detection abilities.

Was it an incursion of sovereignty? It depends less on whose maps you are looking at, than what sort of landscape of military conflict and geospatial intelligence you followed, or what side of the cat and mouse game of mapping the nature of the international status of the navigational paths of the Strait you follow to understand how securing “free passage” through he Strait of Hormuz became rooted in the security of abilities of mapping energy transit. If the Strait has emerged as a hotspot in an increasingly irrevocably globalized world, the conflict between Iran and American interests arose as abilities of local mapping temporarily shifted, and the hegemony of American mapping of gulf waters was challenged, as Iran accused the United States of crossing a long drawn “red line” of sovereignty in spying on the banks of a Strait that Iran has increasingly asserted its ability to close, and indeed to monitor the escalating American surveillance of its waters and shores.

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Venezuela’s Terribly Slippery Sovereignty

Almost unnoticed in the current crisis of who is the real sovereign of Venezuela is that national maps fail to show the remove of sovereign power from territorial bounds. Even as blockades obstruct borders, closing points of entry and ports from entering Venezuela, the pressure that push the Venezuelan people into dire economic straits underlie the map of its population, lying deep, deep within the ground beneath their feet. The ties of this underground notion of sovereignty, in oil deposits located offshore in sandy regions or in sandstone basins, suggest a the scale of redrawing sovereignty in an age of globalization–when the nature of what lies offshore can becomes a rational for globalized conflict.

The precarious claims of petrosovereignty are hard to map, but as the reserves in the Orinoco Basin and offshore on the continental shelf are leveraged against a global energy market, the real sovereignty of Venezuela–and the tensions manifested on Venezuela’s national boundaries–have become a touchstone and trigger point of global attention as the nation’s huge oil reserves held by Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) have made the legitimacy of the nation’s Presidential election a topic of global divides.

The infographic that has gained such wide circulation in differing forms transposes the red/blue divide of the election of Venezuela’s President, as I noted in an earlier post, on a global map, in ways that barely skim the surface in suggesting the truly global consequences in which the election is understood as less by geopolitics–the ostensible reason for America’s increasing attention to its results, according to John Bolton, in a policy that extends back to the Monroe Doctrine, of preserving democracy’s expanse across our own hemisphere, but global energy markets.

The Venezuelan tragedy is local, but crises of immigration, economy, and public health seems undergirded by the corollaries of globalization–and how globalization both erases boundaries, and puts pressures on defining them, and invests huge significance on defining the “boundary” even if it has become something of an empty fetish in maps. If oil and gas were made central to Venezuelan sovereignty by Simon Bolivar, it is increasingly linked to global webs of oil exports and ties of international commerce–visible in the petroleum tankers marked by red dots in a visualization of global shipping routes–that have refracted and become a basis to interpret the question of Venezuela’s sovereignty, and in which the future of its economy and the future of its sovereignty are unavoidably entangled and enmeshed.

 Red dots are oil rigs in interactive map, courtesy UCL Energy Institute/Map: KILN

For the crisis that is unfolding against the economic backdrop of a precipitous drop of wages, goods, and basic human and health services suggests one tied to ripples in a global energy market. For as much as Venezuelan sovereignty was long based in the “bituminous belt” of the Orinoco Basin, whose expanse exceeds the oil in all of Saudi Arabia–

–located in the Eastern Venezuela Basin in the Orinoco Belt, surveyed as recently as 2010 by USGS as the Venezuelan government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez took bids from Chevron and others to help finance exploration projects in the Orinoco Belt, seat of the world’s largest reserves, in a basin extending quite far offshore, in quite dense jungle.

USGS, 2010

Venezuela has long seen its petroleum sovereignty as the source of its regional independence, and of needed cash influx from multi-national corporations with whom its nationalized Petroleos de Venezuela SA–PdVSA–undertakes strategic partnerships, including Exxon and Gazprom (Russia), Sincor (China), and Belarusneft, as American multinationals were pushed out of the heavy oil-rich Orinoco Valley during the Chávez regime. The evolution of multiple “strategic alliances” in mining and oil and gas speculation with over a hundred and fifty companies from thirty-five nations led to an expansion of foreign involvement in oil extraction and gold and mineral mining that has created a lamination over the region–

–that provides a complex lens to examine the refraction of its sovereign status, and the global geostrategic importance of the region to the globalized world.

Venezuela’s sovereignty is viewed as so closely tied to global energy markets that invocation of hemispheric dominance and the American “Monroe doctrine” truly seem only so much lip service–if it weren’t for the huge access to oil reserves that the sovereignty of Venezuela will determine who has access to these reserves. And much as the earliest mapping of the same region of South America combined the rich natural hydrogeography of the curving river basin that snaked through the territory with missions who had colonized the land, to convert its inhabitants, in the region of Granada–note the jesuit presence above the equatorial line–

Libarary of Congress, Map of the Province and Missions of the Company of Jesus in the New Kingdom of Granada

–the new presence on the Orinoco Basin are transnational oil companies, and repossession of their extractive wealth has provided a basis for not only nationalism, but Although their stewardship of the delicate ecosystem of the Orinoco may be doubted, as charges of a crude oil spill in the region that would be so disastrous to its ecosystem has created a specter of ecological disaster for several years that PdVSA has steadfastly denied, despite the threats of accelerated deforestation, pollution, and extinction that mining and oil accidents portend in the Guyana highlands: Maduro has claimed mining and oil extraction are now “environmentally friendly,” but satellite images have shown the extent of deforestation into once-protected areas. Little of the protected regions are actually protected as the economy has fallen into free-fall and pressure to extract gold from the region brought increasing use of mercury in mineral mills, despite a Presidential ban, and the erosion of legal enforcement on workers in the region. Although PdVSA has asserted that leaking of over 100,000 barrels of oil from local pipelines did not enter the Orinoco, but was contained in the Anzoategui province in 2016, the extent of environmental devastation may only be understood in future years across the “Strategic Mining Belt” south of the Orinoco, where the Orinoco’s major watersheds lie, where gold, iron, copper, and bauxite feed the cash reserves of the government as well as oil.

Indeed, as we consider

Virginia Behm, ESRI Story Map: The Orinoco Mineral Arc and Mega-Mining in the Amazon

In an age when we increasingly form interactive maps in terms of the information we desire at the moment–and the needs that this information can provide–perhaps Trump is the sort of executive we deserve, framing information by infographics he can grasp on demand, rather than motivated by universal ideals. After the Venezuelan “economic miracle” grew by oil from 2004-2008, Maduro had declared his own state of emergency in Venezuela, back in 2016, when American intelligence predicted his time in office was only a matter of time, as inflation neared 180% and GDP fell to levels before 2004. But increasing exports to China and Russia sent a lifeline, despite shrinking foreign exchange reserves, of which Trump and Bolton are no doubt extremely attentive observers–even before PdVSA moved its European offices to Moscow in early March.

While cast to reach 100,000%, the peaking of vertiginous levels of hyperinflation near 41,838% led economic data to be closed to the public, as all revenue sources dwindle or vanish, and all foreign aid is refused by the Maduro government, as all question of a coup increasingly uncertain as most of the country is living in poverty, and a fifth of PdVSA is laid off–raising questions about the fate of extractive industries and the continued safety of existing oil reserves that are inseparable from state sovereignty.

Venezuela’s sovereign wealth extends globally, if it is located deep underground. But the long-cultivated dependence of the United States, where heavy crude flows to three refineries, which supply over 5,000 retail stations in twenty seven states, has created a question of linked economies which our ADD-afflicted President is now doubt attentive: CITGO plants along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard run against according independence to sovereign state in a globalized economy–a tie that President Trump would want to keep alive, and indeed that the impact of a sudden shock an absence of oil flowing in its nine pipelines would create.

The flows of oil have blurred Venezuelan sovereignty, and allegedly led Donald Trump to ask advisors repeatedly why American couldn’t invade the nation in August, 2017, stunning former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Clapper, as American sanctions against the nation were discussed, and then again to float the question with Latin American leaders, including the President of Colombia, after addressing the U.N.’s General Assembly, to make sure none wanted to oust Maduro as President. Global energy supplies have created a lens by which the “legitimacy” of Venezuela’s government and Presidency is questioned that has overriden constitutional practices sanctioned by Venezuelan law.

The crisis of immigration on our southern border notwithstanding, the fear of a crisis in oil important have encouraged the United States to invoke the arrival of a “crisis situation” in Venezuelan internal politics, that allows action outside the rule of established Venezuelan law of due process Trump’s eagerness to recognize Guaidó as “interim President of Venezuela” on January 23, shortly after Maduro assume the and declaration, before any other nation, of readiness to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” as he encouraged other governments to follow suit. As Bolton works to distill Presidential Daily Briefings on global intelligence into a form that is more amenable to his chief executive–“big points and, wherever possible, graphics,” as James Clapper put it–energy markets are the basic map on which he seems to be informing himself about global politics. Mike Pompeo noted that President Trump is said to “dig deeper” into his President’s Daily Briefing about Venezuela to assess the “real layout” of “what was really taking place” there–who had the money? where was the debt?  who stood to loose and gain?–led to open questioning of the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.

At a time when 8.36 million barrels of heavy crude managed by PdVSA–the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, Petroleos de Venezuela SA–which is worth half a billion American dollars lay off in tankers nation’s shoreline, in national waters, ready to ship to refineries to be processed by Chevron, Valero Energy Corp. and Rosneft, but with no place to ship the heavy oil, the local and global seem to intersect in globalized energy markets.

Tankers Holding Venezuelan Oil off Venezuela’s shoreline

As Clapper remembered Trump’s preference in Daily Briefings for charts and data visualizations quite early on, the distilling of the Presidential Daily Briefings by John Bolton into America’s bottom-line interests may compel re-examination of the place of the nation in a global energy market, and his sense of the value of the region’s geography to American national interests. Mike Pompeo, current secretary of state, has similarly described the need to reduce global conflict to the bottom-line of America’s economic interests for Trump, given his dislike for distilling the PDB to American interests, the Venezuelan crisis may more easily be understood by infographics or “mapped” as a global calculus of oil exports, rather than a defense of democratic principles. Trump has increasingly asked, Pompeo remembered, with interest for “more clarity” on financial issues–“Who had the money, where was the debt, what was the timing of that?”–aware, as the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” of how debt, too, structures sovereignty, and deeply aware of the US$60 billion in foreign debt the nation carried–a massive amount that has grown almost six-fold in recent years, as oil exports from the nation increasingly grow, and Russia and China invested increasing sums in its oil exports as the debt grew.

Of public sector debt above $184.5 billion, $60 billion is foreign debt, though smaller numbers are claimed by the Venezuelan Central Bank 

–no doubt fascinated that the submerged collateral of such huge oil and gas deposits allowed the debt to grow to unprecedented height, as the exodus of refugees leaving Venezuela’s borders grew. Indeed, we focus on the fate of refugees, and cross-border flows, as a humanitarian crisis, but on which we focus more than the flow of extracted minerals, oil, and gas that have spread out to the world, and the arrival of capital from global sources as energy exports grow.

The sovereignty of the state was long tied to the concentration of oil and gas fields in sedimentary basins of northern Venezuela and South America–and which are the understory of the global attention to results of the election. As much as they are rooted in ideological debates of socialism and free market advocates, one needs to made sense of what “what was really taking place” in much of the Eastern Venezuela Basin and Columbus Basin to parse the deep interest in Venezuela’s sovereignty–and indeed to drill down, literally, into what Venezuelan sovereignty meant for the United States.

For the protection of those reserves led U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo-former director of the CIA–to try to entice Venezuela’s own armed forces to remove Maduro as President on January 28, 2019, as Trump helped assemble hemispheric powers to deny Maduro’s legitimacy. And it has led Donald Trump to advocate gunboat diplomacy by asking aides about benefits of a “military option” they openly called analogous to the 1989 Invasion of Panama when 9,000 troops toppled dictator Manuel Noriega, with 12,000 military already stationed in the nation, after Noriega had annulled a popular election, denying foreign sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone with little military resistance of Panamanian Defense Forces. If America seeks to achieve a similar shift of sovereignty, hoping to echo the use of military force to topple Noriega–years after he was installed as leader of Panama to stop a feared spread of Communism in 1970—due to charges of Cuban collaboration, rather than money laundering and long involvement in the drug trade, such arrogant denial of sovereignty of other states in the hemisphere would not be so lopsided an engagement of force, or so smooth.

“Soberana” or “sovereign” is somewhat ironically the now-obsolete brand-name for a beer popular in Panama, now updated, which hung from the store-front of a Panama street American forces occupied back in 1989–

–the questions of the legitimacy of Venezuelan sovereignty are deeply intertwined with the offshore drilling rights that American oil companies are eager to acquire–or repossess–and underlie the denials of the legitimate sovereignty of elected leader Nicolás Maduro. The powerful evocation of the map

The American demonization of Mauro as military dictator erases the basis of Venezuelan sovereignty and a patrimony of petroleum, from Bolivarian models of sovereign economic independence; if oil is the source of 95% of the currency provided to the government, and was long seen as a gift from God to the Venezuelan independence at the heart of Socialist prosperity–

–the ties between the oil company and oil extraction and the nation grew hen Maduro declared personal leadership of PDVSA before the National Assembly in January, 2019, on the eve of his country’s assumption of OPEC presidency, as General Manuel Quevedo–a man without oil industry experience but a close Maduro military ally from the National Guard–assumes presidency of the global cartel OPEC, with ambitions of using OPEC to affirm Maduro’s swearing in as President, and his status as a defender of retro-sovereignty as counter-weight to the United States on a global stage–as the leader of sustaining the global prices of oil, offsetting the fall in prices with the increased production of shale-derived oil in the United States from 2014 that had caused a problem for Venezuela’s national wealth, and removing oil from the hegemony of dollar prices by cryptocurrencies as Venezuela’s own oil and mineral-backed Petro,

as well as by tying them to Chinese Yuan, in the face of growing US sanctions that Trump announced as Maduro heralded the digital currency as a way to affirm his nation’s “monetary sovereignty, to make [global] financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade” imposed by the United States on investors, which led Trump to impose further sanctions on electronic transfers from by Americans in 2018, after the Petro netted $5 billion from American investors. The hope of decoupling from the US dollar was allowed by the transfer of the 30,000 million barrels of oil in the Orinoco Belt to the Venezuelan Central Bank as collateral for the hoped-for cryptocurrency–itself a proclamation of the national ownership of oil reserves that the current struggle for Presidential legitimacy would contest.

The map of national sovereignty onto the petroleum reserves was engraved in the public’s mind on oil and gas tanks that dot the coast and interior–

–even if may of the drilling projects are in fact joint ventures of PdVSA with other nations, from multinational based in Russia (Gazprom) to China (Sincor) to Belarus to Brazil (Petrobras) to Argentina (Repsol-YPF) to Uruguay (ANCAP & ENSARA)–and image of the deep-seated globalism of the Venezuelan oil economy, whose extraction of heavy underground oil is to be piped from the Orinoco Basin to ships waiting off the coast to be refined.

As Maduro tries to reaffirm the notion of petroleum sovereignty–the slogan of Bolivarian socialism is soberania petrolera–rooted in fashioning Venezuela as a global energy power, is there a logic of the staking of war for the offshore? The alleged fear Noriega collaborated with Cuba was voiced from 1986, and offered a rational for the “Christmas-time” invasion of December 20-24, 1989, as much as Noriega’s indictment for drug trafficking, although this was the reason for his eventual arrest by the DEA. The spectacularly lopsided and unrisky military deployment of 26,000 U.S. troops in “Operation Just Cause” against the Panamanian police force is a scenario, of course, quite unlike the threat of American invasion of Venezuela, a larger sovereign nation, not without its own armed forces–an invasion of which would provide far more expansive hemispheric consequences, as the scale of targeting Chávez’ appropriation of economic property. Yet Trump thirty years later in mid-February 2019 invoked the need to end Venezuela’s “humanitarian disaster” in Florida, beside Venezuelan refugees beside an American and Venezuelan flag, to inveigh against “Dictator Maduro” as being–hear the echo–a “Cuban puppet” for blocking the arrival of aid, and describing “our neighbor” Venezuela in ways that recall Panama.

In Florida, Trump threateningly observed that “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away [and] Venezuela is not that far away,” while privately asking advisors if invasion wouldn’t resolve threat of Venezuela’s economic collapse. As FOXTV states that the refugee crisis in Venezuela–a political, humanitarian, and economic crisis, to be sure–could “match the scale of Syria’s catastrophe,” and as sanctions imposed on Venezuela have helped precipitate an exodus that unfolded over the previous years, he was quite eager to suggest military options, in ways that give his declarations of geographical proximity particularly disquieting.

The impromptu geography lesson had huge implications: “The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and America is right by their side,” announced the American President in Miami, before flags of Venezuela and the United States and nationalist chants of “USA! USA!”

Maduro rightly feared coup, as Trump invited Venezuelan citizens in the “Maduro regime” to “end this nightmare of poverty, hunger and death” by a peaceful transition of power as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted images of Noriega on social media–as a specter of the bombast of Quadaffi and the criminality of Noriega, that “thug of a different era,” brought down by American troops.

Rubio’s tweet of head-shots of two thugs helped recall his creation of a niche of helping to design American foreign policy toward Venezuela: the echoes of the offshore in both Venezuela and Panama were perhaps the only element that might link them, for all the similarity of a Cuban connection Trump–who seems to have little familiarity with the region–supplied. The fear that “war for the offshore” may underlie Trump’s eagerness to entertain military options. Gen. Manuel Noriega had not only been on CIA rolls, but preserved access to a notion of the offshore-banking system about which we have learned in the Panama papers; the preservation of the offshore oil derricks that Exxon and Conoco had left in Venezuela in 2007, as well as in the Orinoco Belt, which PdVSA has presumably used new international partners to maintain since to pump viscous heavy oil for international use. Trump’s familiarity with Panama and its President may mostly be through hotels–the Trump International Panama was planned from 2005 opened in 2011, and is the tallest building in Latin America–but the invasion must have provided a point of entry for inaugurating the “fantastic building in a fantastic location” on beachfront property with then-president Ricardo Martinelli, who later fled to Miami, Florida to escape charges of embezzling public funds, and has only recently returned.

The local political dynamics are vastly different, despite some similarity in American eagerness to secure offshore sites: Maduro had won his Presidential election, whereas Noriega had annulled one, but the suggestion of toppling his regime undercut all sense of sovereign boundaries, was a clear parallel assertion of hemispheric dominance, to protect offshore assets. For all the lip service to Democracy and the Will of th People–Guadió was not really elected, although as head of the “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) party, and has declared himself as leader of opposition to Maduro in the National Assembly, with American blessings: after trying to direct the arrival of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, he met with Mike Pence in Bogota and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, but his success would open the offshore waters to American interests, and has been anointed President in one theater of public opinion–but in ways that break the world in ways that reflect continued accessibility to Venezuelan oil.


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But the offshore benefits of a Guaidó Presidency to the United States may be as great as any benefits that he might be able to bring, at this point, to the Venezuelan people: they transcend surely ideology, economic prosperity–save in US aid–btu would be a viable way to reopen offshore Venezuelan oil reserves, and secure assets of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips that had been nationalized in the Chávez Socialist regime. With the Orinoco Belt resources, which transformed a marginal area of oil extraction into a particularly lucrative one in a short time, complemented the drive of Houston-based Conoco to retrieve $2B of assets of lost Venezuelan oil projects, only partly reimbursed as Conoco seized some offshore PdVSA rigs in the Dutch island of Curacoa, in May 2018; ExxonMobil and Hess were poised in 2017 to start drilling projects offshore of Guyana–including several regions Maduro has claimed as Venezuela’s sovereignty, if ones identified, in public maps show, to ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s ambitions for offshore drilling and exploration.

Oil Rig Reclaimed by Conoco in Curacao
6.6 Million Acres offshore Guyana being Explored by ExxonMobil/Hess Guyana/CNOOC in 2017/ ExxonMobil

Claims of Shell, Canadian Oil Company CGX and ExxonMobil Claims off Venezuelan Coast (April, 2017)

CGX Energy INterative Map

If there is a connection between Panama and Venezuela, is it in the prospect of invasion to protect role of the offshore assets so dominant in an age of globalization? If the comparison of invading Panama was widely entertained by military, U.S. bases not only lay in Panama, unlike Venezuela, but Venezuelan troops are loyal to the Maduro government, and any asymmetrical invasion with support from neighbors is unlikely. The attempts to delegitimize the election of Maduro, and his sovereign claims to offshore oil, with such finality have been an increasing goal of ensuring global claims to its petroleum sovereignty. Yet in an American administration that encouraged the expansion of offshore drilling, the arrogance of regarding sovereignty over offshore and inland black dots denoting oil and gas wells in the below map reveals the slipperiness of Venezuelan sovereignty, no doubt tied to the readiness of regarding them as an extension of our own energy security.


Based on A. Escalona and P Mann, Marine and Sedimentary Geology, v 28, 1 (2011)

And despite the heralding of waters offshore of Guyana as “the next big beast of global oil”–medium-light crude that is closer to major Middle East grades than United States shale-based oils, hoped to be rich in diesel when refined, the championing of Guyana as a next new site for oil extraction in late 2018, lies in a region that Venezuela has proclaimed as it sown, in a proclamation of uncertain enforcement, from 2015: ExxonMobil announced Stabroek blocks in 2015 and 2016 as a “world-class discovery” of up to a billion barrels of oil, as the Venezuelan government asserted it sovereignty over some of the exploration block, and has demanded that all exploration and development work be ceased until the international resolution of territorial boundaries.

ExxonMobil Oil Platform offshore of Guayana/Reuters

The continued dispute of the “offshore” and the state of Venezuelan sovereignty only increase the importance and significance of dismissing the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Trump’s America. The confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves sadly may underly full-throated blaming of other nations for “protecting” Maduro, as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Maduro in November, 2017, appointed his own National Guard major general—Manuel Quevedo, who lacked expertise in the oil industry—to run the national Oil Ministry and PdVSA, gathered with oil ministers in the Caracas headquarters to pray “for the recovery of the production of the industry,” the beleaguered company come under American attention, as the petroleum-technologies that remain in the region. Quevedo’s almost surreal level of inexperience in the oil industry has decreased oil production; and the decline of an established oil industry became seen as a question of American National Security, as army officials without familiarity with oil production meant that military managers have purged the industry of former executives, arresting former leaders, and appointed former military aides to supervisory positions.

National oil production plummeted by over half a million barrels from 2016-18, as maritime units entered critical mismanagement, more practiced executives and engineers left, many fleeing the country among three million displaced refugees, and oil production fell daily, as the National Guard assumed leadership positions–and foreigners invited to fill needed roles as infrastructure went unprepared, creating a time bomb dramatically reducing oil production by a million barrels per day from previous years–



BODI

–and reducing exports even far more severely, as far as an be gleaned from available PDVSA and OPEC records–

–but has created steepening anxiety about the futures of its oil exports.

How to map their decline against the increasingly slipperiness of sovereignty in Venezuela–undermined by economic catastrophe and lack of goods, as well as mismanagement–and on a global stage?

Deep confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves may underly full-throated blaming other nations for “protecting” Maduro–as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Although such calls for the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s self-declared Presidency present themselves as rooted in international consensus, Guaidó’s “Presidency” would pave the road for an increased access of American multinational companies to refine and extract oil from Venezuelan. The nationalization of oil has marginalized joint ventures with American companies and stands to diminish investment and servicing of rigs. Exxon has been barred from extraction by Maduro and its assets nationalized, and its exploratory ships confronted by Venezuela’s navy off Guyana’s coast; Shell has been trying to unload its stake in joint ventures on oil and gas with PdVSA; CITGO will cease to ship oil to America as American sanctions have struck the Venezuelan economy–the massive decline of venezuelan oil production stands to impact American gas prices.

The result is a scarily liquid sense of Venezuelan sovereignty. America entertained possibilities of a military coup openly from early 2018, and since the summer of 2017, seems to have led him to assemble pressure from Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras–leaders themselves not elected democratically–to endorse and call for regime change in Venezuela. The pressures created on Maduro’s claims to presidential sovereignty, and a national vision rooting sovereignty in mineral deposits and wealth have grown, as the nationalized oil and gas company has seemed close to collapsing.

Such a dated geopolitical spatial imaginary runs, however, directly against the longstanding centrality of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to national sovereignty of the state in exporting, manufacturing, and transporting crude oil and other hydrocarbons, and its central place in the sustainable and indeed “organic” development of Venezuela’s economy–and the longstanding celebration of the three hundred billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves verified in 2015 by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, whose location is currently trumpeted on all holding tanks in maps of a natural resource fundamental to plans for the nation’s economic growth–and indeed a proclamation of their national ownership.

Map of Orinoco Belt Owned by PdVSA and Venezuelan Central Bank

Although the laminations of sovereignty reveal the problems of Venezuelan sovereignty or its legitimacy that are so evident in maps of border conflicts, cross-border migrations, or humanitarian crises across borders, the problems of sovereignty in a globalized oil market, whose prices are upset by Venezuela’s shrinking exports, but which have long focussed global attention on Venezuela’s sovereignty on a global scale, at the risk of eliding and omitting the crises of regional displacement, economic disruption, and human suffering that “humanitarian aid” can’t resolve.

A crisis of global proportions rooted in the circulation of underground and offshore goods of oil and gas offshore has created a crisis that has spilled over the nation’s borders, and undermined Venezuelan sovereignty and borders–and even created a state of exception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its political government. The sustained undermining of Maduro’s claims to authority as illegitimate, and as allowing the very “state of exception” that would allow the leader of the elected National Assembly to oversee the transition to a new government, and constitutional order, by calling for new elections, the need for a new sovereign power to control the rich oil deposits offshore and underground with speed and expedience by the hemispheric global energy conglomerates that have contracts with PdVSA–Shell; ExxonMobil; CITGO–to resolves cascading economic troubles in Venezuela by ending Maduro’s presidency as expediently as possible. The stakes of doing so would, as Tony Wood argued, run against Venezuelan law and overturn long-established procedures of political process.

As one is struggling by attempts to imagine the crises faced on the ground by refugees and displaced on Venezuela’s boundaries–many of who provide a quite different image of refugees than we have seen from the ravages of globalization–crossing bridges and fleeing frontier with down jackets and backpacks and water bottles, if without jobs, livelihoods, or residence–

Indeed, it may be that problems of the gears of global capital, less clearly visualized, despite a mastery of multiple scales of global mapping, has pushed the nation of Venezuela to such international prominence. Despite ever-increasing facility with switching between local, regional, and global scales of mapping, we however are less able to register the increased impact of shifts of global economic changes that manifest in the fetishization of the border, and its closure. It is as if despite the omniscient promises of Google Earth to take us to any site in a globalized world, we lack an ability to map global shifts that provoke displacement onto local crises. And as much as globalization creates renewed tensions around borders that are defended and redefined against global pressures, in which the question of Venezuelan sovereignty over offshore areas where many derricks are located, and where Venezuelan oil fields are located with easier access for global markets–

Continental Shelf of Venezuela (in blue-green cyan hue)

–the sovereignty of Venezuela stands to be upset for emergency reasons–in a “state of exception” or of emergency that is able to invest legitimacy in the very young leader of a very small minority political party, Juan Guaidó, who was trained in the United States in Washington, D.C., after opposition parties have subtracted themselves from the democratic process and boycotted recent elections, and the oil reserves in Venezuelan waters and the pipelines able to move heavy crude reserves lying under the Orinoco River into global energy markets or to refineries in the United States. Even as Venezuela has failed to create functioning cross-border pipelines to Colombia, or to Aruba, or even to meet its citizens’ needs in gas, the national oil and gas company, PdVSA, to place hopes on exporting gas for needed capital to an imagined market for exports from that same offshore region that sadly reflects the flow of displaced persons from its borders.

Gas Exports Planned by PdVSA, 2018

–that would link Venezuela through both gas pipelines (shown in red) and oil pipelines to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil or to port towns, but are now inactive. Guaidó was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro on his victory in Brazil,


Synthesis of varied sources on pipless connecting Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, planned oil pipelines in dotted green and gas pipelines in dotted red

The failure to use petroleum products to provide needed agrofertilizers that the nation once provided and exported with plastics and other mineral fuels that made up a substantial share of its GDP and national wealth, and the problems of integrating such offshore or inland projects of extraction to the “resto del mondo” in an efficient manner have created a deep cyclical crisis of economic hardships that we register now on its borders,–tied to the increased migration from Venezuela’s frontiers. But might these pressure be more accurately mapped as lying in the deep attachments of the nation’s sovereignty to reserves both offshore and underground? Even if support accorded either Maduro or Guaidó are described in most news markets and by the American President Donald J. Trump in ideological terms of socialism and populism, the underlying pressures of controlling Venezuela’s large oil reserves–and returning its productivity of oil and exports–created huge permeability of its borders, as oil output suddenly drastically declined.

The recent attempt to view the crisis as at the border where refugees and displaced have fled Venezuela at such a staggering rate–over three million Venezuelans have left its borders for other Latin American nations, leaving a million Venezuelans now residing in Colombia, among that nation’s eight displaced, as 5,000 left the nation daily during 2018—a boggling scale seen only as the result of war or huge natural disasters. The cascading numbers of displaced Venezuelans mirror the collapse of oil prices and oil industry–both of which have transformed the state’s boundaries, and transformed national borders into regions overcrowded with displaced refugees–

April 2018

–in ways that recent discussions of the “sovereignty” of Venezula have difficulty including in any discussion of the nation’s economic crisis or current future political uncertainty.

In response to these crises of migration, displacement, and economic decline, many frontiers have been closed to Venezuelans, and anger at Venezuelans has grown in many host countries, creating a humanitarian crisis far beyond Venezuela’s own frontiers. The promise of energy nationalization to provide a vision of “La Gran Venezuela” since 2007 rooted in an image of national autonomy has paradoxically led its national bounds to become more porous than ever, and threatened the national economy in ways that have destabilized its national borders, opening them to humanitarian crises and economic collapse, creating odd out-migrations, quite distinctive from most images of other global refugees or displaced.

Despite invocations of the sovereign desires of the Venezuelan people, symbolized by banner-like display of territorial maps, the struggles for sovereignty in Venezuela are more removed from ideology than one might believe, following most news media. For rather than the crisis being about cross-border flows, or the barriers to needed humanitarian aid poised to cross the border into Venezuela, the global attention to the crisis of sovereignty responds less to any on the ground situation, but rather about what is mapped offshore, under the ocean, and underneath the Orinoco Petroleum Belt and Basin. For in sites of potential extraction where most of Venezuela’s nearly three hundred billion barrels of heavy oil reserves lie sequestered deep underground in sandstone, in the largest in the world, and levels of petroleum extraction–long the basis for Venezuelan national wealth–which have currently fallen to levels not heard of since the 1940s, with disastrous results of paralyzing the national economy and affecting the global oil market.

Even as Venezuela finds itself increasingly subject to global pressures even as it assumes the presidency of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As current President Nicolás Maduro threatens to defend his nation’s place on a globalized international energy market, threatening to “substitute the United States with other countries,” to undermine the American economy and the stability of Donald Trump’s presidency, and American energy markets, the sovereignty of Venezuela is again threatened by an increasingly protectionist American government, eager to take action to keep energy prices down–keeping Venezuelan oil, long shipped to and refined in the United States by its North American subsidiary CITGO, providing tens of billions of gallons of crude oil flowing into American national energy pipelines and refineries.

As the infrastructure of oil production have either collapsed or vailed to be invested in and maintained in the nation, they have become an object of eager attention in the petroleum industry as reserves once easily able to be shipped to a global energy market have been remapped for nations that offering to provide new extractive technologies: since oil prices collapsed in 2014, the state-run oil company PdVSA without a plan or ability to invest in necessary infrastructure,–tragically echoing, perhaps, how Chavista policies hurt agrarian and agrochemical industries by short-sighted collectivization and appropriation without an effective working plan. As the rural regions often returned to something similar to subsistence farming, and uncertain future, the lack of maintaining many PdVSA rigs and derricks have created a crisis of sovereignty and capital in the nation, that demands to be better visualized and mapped.

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Mega-Projects without Maps

President Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy. The proposed innovation of a “wall” — a “great, great” border wall blocking the specter of cross-border transit–has offered a powerful image by which to pole-vault into Presidential politics whose power has left the nation arrested in shock. To promote the “wall” as a mega-project the nation, Trump has regularly invoked the notion of an invasion from the southwestern border, conjuring the image of a nation in dire need of protection–using this talking point not only to enter the 2016 Presidential election and on the campaign trail, but to hold his first news conference from the Oval office, and as grounds for a thirty-five day government shutdown to gain a $5 billion in public funding for the project. The ratcheting of collective attention to the imperative of the border wall has peaked as it became grounds to declare a National Emergency.

The inflation of the border wall at the cost of all other projects of infrastructure increasingly reveal both a personal fixation and public obstruction to national growth. From something like a virus, meme generator, and a battle cry, the wall that provides the latest punchy slogan for the 2020 re-election campaign–the oddly motivating cry, “Complete the Wall,” as if such a wall has been begun to be built–

–has given currency to the fiction of a “Trump wall” as a project whose urgency only masquerades its deep illegality. The absence of the wall may lead it to be fetishized as “beautiful” and “being designed right now,” Trump assures, as if to involve the nation in a fantasy, but is never mapped.

The fetishizing of such a misguided promise masks that the project, perhaps funded by stolen funds, including civil forfeiture conducted by Customs and Border Patrol at the border that offer $600 million, would mandate reprogramming billions, but fails to address the problem of massive migration and displacement. But in dignifying the border plans by discussing a border “wall,” the image helps magnify the mega-project Trump has recently elevated to the status of a National Emergency to secure funding of $3.6 billion, even its cost estimates haven’t been defined, but lie at least $15-25 billion without costs for land acquisition and future maintenance. And as if to avoid the misery of migrants who arrive in the Caravan from Central America, the wall is elevated as a mythical, beautiful construction, and played against violent scenes of sex trafficking, threats of the violence of criminal migrants, or stories of the cruelty of cross-border transit. The mega-project of the border “wall” deflects all of these, and seems a solution to the tide of migration that haunts a globalized world.

The state of state-funded mega-projects is a battleground for defining the future of the nation in both metaphorical and real terms, and it was bound to be opposed to projects of actually investing in national infrastructure. Trump has long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed Rail along California’s central valley. The project that symbolizes many of the visions of responsibility he has disavowed, and indeed the vision of building “new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” by destabilizing the role of public funding in infrastructural improvements, but using local and state funds with private capital. While the High Speed Rail was based on promises of lowering emissions and government funding of infrastructural projects that were the fruit of public stimulus projects, it has come to symbolize public investment he seeks to shun, and a vision of the future that seemed destined to collide with the alternative mega-project of guarding the nation against the danger of outsiders outside its borders. Indeed, longtime anti-HSR Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law” Act to ensure the project–slated at $23.4 billion–as reflecting the popular desire “the American people want” to fulfill an alleged governmental responsibility of “maintaining strong borders” that “For too long, America has failed.” Yet despite the geographic fiction of this imperative, it lacks any map.

The project claimed to bring economic benefits and jobs become a target of Trump’s anger, leading him to announce on social media “We want that money now!” in a clear attempt to shift its past and future funding to his own designs on completing a massive border wall between US and Mexico, long promised as the guiding project of the Trump Presidency–even if the wall has not, in fact, begun to be built, “Complete the Wall” the likely slogan for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The disdain that California Governor Gavin Newsom showed in dismissing the so-called “border ’emergency'” as manufactured political theater, in which California’s National Guard wouldn’t participate only rose the

Trump is particularly eager to allocate further funds for the construction of the long-promised border “wall” that will be insurmountable by refugees or criminals. To achieve its building, he declared an actual national emergency, in hopes to free funds for its construction that the US Congress denied. He almost acted as if the funds were ready to be reassigned, and the funds to be returned diverted to his own mega-project of border construction–and to glorify the actually uncertain technology of such a “wall,” in contrast to the “boondoggle” of a state-of the art infrastructural project of High Speed Rail, long supported by his predecessor, but which has become something of an avatar of the Green New Deal, as an opportunity to promote his construction of a border “wall.”

In a few days, Trump tweeted out a counter-image of time-accelerated wall construction from his social media megaphone, accompanied by a triumphal score as form of alternate news. High speed video of the replacement of twenty miles of bollard fencing were scored as a triumphal achievement, as if a ready-to-assemble pieces on cleared terrain was only IKEA-style assembly–showing a picture of segments that replaced existing fencing as a project completed “ahead of schedule” unlike the damning time delays and overruns on the High-Speed Rail Project that stands uncompleted.

“We have just built this powerful Wall in New Mexico. Completed on January 30, 2019 – 47 days ahead of schedule! Many miles more now under construction!” (February 20, 2019)

The two mega-projects are quite distinct in functional and in the futures they promise to create. But both suggest the degree to which political problems are both increasingly interconnected with considerable complexity–weaving problems of globalization, from climate change to immigration to economic inequality–responded to by a “simple” solution of a truly monumental solution. The GIF of workmen posed on the side of the new border fencing promoted the momentum to a mega-project of utmost national need. The project is one marked by a stunning lack of national vision, but its simplicity has proved sufficient to substitute for one. Whereas the project of High-Speed Rail or a “Bullet Train” promised to create needed pathways for economic mobility, the super-project of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles–essentially an urban plan, moving across the Central Valley, and promising to reduce carbon emissions in coming years–was both a target embodying all that Trump denied and degraded (needed emissions reductions; public transit; global warming) but a source for needed funds.

The difficulty of these mega-projects–which oddly unintentionally echo the fascist projects of the past, while claiming different visions of modernization–both turn on the use of public investments. The allocation of huge sums to infrastructural improvement are promised to assuage the political sense of insecurity that plague the world, and the promised resolution of global specters that they promise to allieve and the futures that they promise to secure. If the High-Speed Rail Project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles provide a broad link within the state from the hub of a new Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to the world, from Sacramento to Los Angeles, the border “wall” is a barrier to protect America’s place in the world. The claims that the rail project was indeed “dead” that were made by Republican Kevin McCarthy–a long supporter of the President–to interpret Gov. Gavin Newsom’s very first State of the State speech in Sacramento incorrectly as a declaration of death of a project that he has long opposed. The notorious pro-MAGA Congressman from Bakersfield who has long enjoyed aggressively contentious sparring on social media–“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”–and to make the securing of $25b for the US-Mexico “border wall” a national priority to burnish his pro-Trump credentials. His claims as “GOP Leader”–he refuses to be a Minority Leader–on the fundamental place of “a protected border” to a nation led him to promote bills funding the “wall” and support the National Emergency, delighted in tweeting gleefully the “Train to nowhere is finally stopped”–as if the plans for completion had been postponed.

McCarthy seemed to pounce on Newsom’s address with misplaced glee as he relished the prospect of ending a project to which he’s long been opposed, and is the model of public investment in economic infrastructure that Trump on which Trump seeks to shut the book, by privileging public-private partnerships and streamlining with less accountability or review, and the promise of revenue-making public works–while funds earmarked for disaster relief and stimulus seem redirected to a costly “border wall” claimed to be prioritized as a response to current national security crisis. The antipathy that McCarthy–long tied to oil money in Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, through whose district the rail would run–has framed his oppotiion to the high-speed rail project led him to try to frame it as a matter of national politics, as he styled himself as a “Republic Leader”–rather than “Minority Leader,” pronounced the Bullet Train “dead” with a finality that he must have trusted Trump would notice.

The collision between the needs for funds for the border wall–an apparatus of state that is needed, Trump insists, to preserve the policy he enacted of “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the border, but that would serve to protect the nation from proliferating specters that haunt the nation. Collision with the projected High-Speed Rail Project first planned in 2016 by voter referendum, back in 2008, in the days of the arrival of promised Stimulus Package, seem almost the exact mirror image of mega-plan, designed to bundle inter-related problems (air pollution; congested freeways; climate change; petroleum dependence; economic inequality) at a single stroke, if from an almost diametric position. But as the right accuses the “far-left government” of California, suspiciously as if it were a Socialist state in Latin America, of pushing the rail project, and President Donald Trump grips to the conceit of a border wall, the individual faces of men and women recede to the background of each.

While touching on a range of political issues, the project that declared itself free of ideology became something of a political target to Trump as he machinated to find new resources for the “wall” that the U.S. Congress denied funds. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for an unneeded public expenditure–even as Trump tried to remap the southwestern border by a barrier constituents could rally around, as if designing a new aesthetics of our national space to bracketed a record 68.5 million of globally displaced people driven from their homes, according to UNHCR, at a rate of almost 45 million a day, including 25.4 million refugees.

AnCalifornia’s Attorney General–with those of fifteen other states–quickly sued Trump for declaring a National Emergency to secure needed funds for the “Border Wall.” Not missing a beat, Trump attacked the state for the right to do so after “the state . . . has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion,” and whose “cost overruns are becoming world record setting.” Trump’s gleeful tweets about a “Failed Fast Train Project” may conceal what is really at stake–

–but the needed funds were surely in the front of Trump’s mind.

For as Trump seems to be “weighing every possible option” to build the wall’s so junk technology at the border, so that the “wall” has become an icon of “illegal immigration” and the danger of “entry” into the United States’ “open borders,” as if the President is able to exercise complete executive authority by closing the border at any time, the state audit revealing that construction delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns were due to budgetary mismanagement has been blamed on being a project of personal investment for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent public funds on an unbuilt system long promised to link San Francisco and Anaheim, and failing to link the state in the sort of mega-network Brown had proposed, and a true break of public trust. (If Ponytail suggested that a solution would be to build a “wall” in detachable sections that, post-Trump, might be submerged in the Atlantic and Pacific sea floor to offer anchor sites or artificial reefs for marine life to flourish where it doesn’t exist, the potential proliferation of mega-projects and maxi-projects as border walls world wide–

AFP/2015

–have created a terrifying normalization of the border wall in a shockingly brief time, as a mega-project promising security at a time when global security is hard to come by, as if they were tools of normal governance.)

Can the projects and their costs even be compared? If the costs of the High Speed Rail project have ballooned–as the costs of the “Wall” seem constantly underestimated and bound to rise in cost overruns we have not even begun to predict–the notion that these are comparable construction projects, or analogous infrastructural improvements. Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate.

While it’s uncertain that either could ever be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem something like mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the idea of investing in the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet. The rise of such mega-projects seem a sign both of the increased complexity of pressing problems of powerfully political origin, but their bundling of networks of pressing political problems in a single project claiming to resolve complex problems at a single stroke, is combined in quite toxic ways with oversimplification–by both promoters and their critics who attack them–in ways that threaten to remove them from the very complex networks of problems they attempted to address. The changed status of “mega-projects” in our political discourse make them a sort of pandering rooted in slogans and ultimatums, and removed from complex problems we deserve better to map.

Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name, for which no clear map exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping . . .

Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.

Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience. In truth, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

In the process of pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund. And when California’s governor appeared to diminish the size of his project, Trump not only pounced, but to terminate the funds of just under a billion for the rail project–a $929 million federal grant–and to demand the return of $2.5b in past stimulus matching grants, arguing they were neither properly used or matched by the state, by “actively exploring every legal option” to take the funds, no doubt in order to add them to the President’s discretionary funds during the declared National Emergency, which seems more and more a pretext for building a wall for which the land has not been secured, let alone panels designed.

Staging a “state of emergency” is a classic form of justification advance by political theorist Karl Schmitt, a promoter of executive power and extra-legal articulation of a state’s power. The demand for the funds would not necessarily allow the completion of a “Border Wall,” but would compromise a project that is important to the state’s economy. The crisis he has manufactured has led Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail project or “bullet train” to resign, as a damning letter arrived from the very transportation agency which sent grants for the High-Speed Rail Project in 2009 and 2010 called California state out of compliance with the grant agreement and promised date of completion by 2022. As chairman, Richard, former PG&E executive and pioneer in extending public transit the BART transit in San Francisco, was an unpaid member but was involved in the project’s operational planning and oversaw the extension of almost one hundred and twenty miles. But his work came under heavy criticism after the state audit for having assigned contracts in haste that precipitated lawsuits–mostly from the improvident failure of securing land for building track. (Perhaps Newsom suggested a reduction of the scope of the project–“Let’s be real”–to bring the state in line with a Central Valley Project from Merced to Bakersfield, and a cornerstone for a future route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) But the call “let’s level” about the elevated platforms built for the current project whose platforms are already built across much of the Central Valley–

–was heard by opponents as a cry of concession, consequent to the finding that an L.A.-San Francisco line could cost over $13 billion estimates that were expected.

But was the comparison between such mega-projects creating a false sense of similarity in the role of the state to redesign the future of the nation at a single stroke, impressing an executive desire on the landscape? The false geographies that each project create demand themselves to be better mapped. The aspirations for the High-Speed Rail Project were considerably easier to map, similar questions of a lack of state-owned lands on which to build and lack of agreement on the projects form created obstacles that a single executive not deeply familiar with the site or its inhabitants couldn’t have hoped to resolve.

The rail project was savagely satirized in the juxtaposition of newsmaps claiming to reveal hidden interests for property owners–as if to suggest its hidden agenda–by linking High-Speed Rail to the raging California wildfires, as if such a small-scale map could reveal the foolhardiness of the rail project. The manipulation of news maps as information was a teased that the fires would prompt landowners who wouldn’t sell land to the state to do so–

–but was presented as an excuse not to dig deeper into the project’s benefits. For real problems of congestion, a lack of public transit, and a need to create better infrastructure for jobs are all replaced by evils specters of other hidden interests, all rendered opaque by likening the geography of fires’ spread to the state’s problem in securing necessary lands on which to build the tracks, and raise the specter of special interests driving High-Speed Rail, in ways that might deeply damage the state as we know it.

1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be. Price-tags provide a poor basis for understanding the benefits and goals of both mega-projects–$21.6 billion for a wall and $10 billion are sums which we can barely imagine for organizations that symbolize ultimatums–protection and safety or economic modernization–that reduce the complexity of inter-related problems to a monumental solution, all too often removed from or reduced to a map.

The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects seem to crumble into thin air, felled by executive fiat.

Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

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