Seminar: Commodity Flows

August 21st, 2019

The relations between extraction, synthesis, and exploitation, and the effects of commodity dependencies across scales are explored in this seminar, by mapping commodity flows and energy cycles in the Mississippi basin.

In the Lower Mississippi region, ongoing addictions to sugar, white supremacy, and capital have fueled exploitation of both nature and human society, and—from the molecular relations of industrial chemistry to the accretion of nitrate emissions—20th century commodities once considered solutions to human need, such as synthesized nitrogen, have become engines of planetary change. This seminar is intended to map commodity flows and energy cycles in the Mississippi basin as a whole, to document the relations between extraction, synthesis, and exploitation, and the effects of commodity dependencies across scales.

This seminar is rooted in the idea that the Mississippi watershed is itself a commodity. Its form is dictated by the Appalachia in the East, formed 480 million years ago, and Rocky Mountains in the West, 180 million years ago. This topography creates a basin which governs the path taken by rainwater. The resultant cycle of kinetic energy enables the transport of goods, the generation of power, irrigation, and the accumulation of sediment in southern Louisiana and the Gulf. Along this riverine kinesis, a plethora of industrial sites agglomerate, treating the river as a conveyor, faucet, thermal sink, and waste disposal mechanism. From fertilizers and plastics to sugar, this industrial hydrology maps onto the older economic geography of plantations, reflecting a long and violent history of exploitation of both social and natural systems that continues today, as certain forms of production occur at the expense of human existence and the condition of the natural environment.

To better understand this “operational” landscape, seminar participants will each choose and research a commodity and bring it (or a representation of it) to Campus. Day 1 will begin by sharing, sensing, and arranging these commodities on tables and studying related maps, to explore the relationships between the varied material objects. This classroom experience will be followed by a boat tour on the Mississippi River offered by the Port of New Orleans, to see first-hand the working wharves and docks where plastics, grains, and fuels come and go. In parallel, other seminar participants will learn about the commodification of the city’s Mardi Gras culture.

On the second day, participants will visit the Whitney Museum, the site of a former sugar plantation, to draw out the history of racialized violence upon which commodity production has rested in the region and continues to do so. The appropriation of the work of humans and nature in the region dates back at least to the mid-18th century: Sugar from South East Asia was first planted in New Orleans in 1751. Like cotton, it benefited from the nutritive properties of deposited alluvial soil and the process of photosynthesis. The agricultural knowledge and labor of the enslaved made enormous profits possible. To understand the continued human cost of commodity production, the seminar will also visit the community of St. James Parish, a largely African American community that faces ongoing exposure to the toxic externalities of plastic production. Finally, to further understand the collective consequence of industrial chemistry and its products, participants will visit the largest nitrogen refinery in North America, CF industries in Donaldsonville. Visiting the nitrogen plant allows for the disentanglement of the complex relationships characterizing the agro-energy nexus, with nitrogen production reflecting the intensification of industrial agriculture and the continuing dependence on fossil fuels as well as their negative externalities, both social and environmental. The seminar will also test various relational strategies to enter the plant: exploring nitrate’s integration with our own bodies; using satellite data to map its atmospheric dispersal; and considering its relation to the river and attendant infrastructure. Tracing nitrogen flows will offer one means of mapping the complex feedbacks of an anthropocentric Earth.