Whispering Waters

Article and pictures by Joachim Müller-Jung
Video: F.A.Z.

29.10.2019 · The Mississippi, a paradigmatic symbol of American grandeur, is firmly in the grip of the Anthropocene. An intercultural research project is tracing humanity’s influence on this.
> German version

MINNESOTA, in September. This place, the Mississippi Headwater, is said to be symbolic: to be mystical. It is the place where every American is said to discover the great land and its humble beginnings: the source of the Old Man River. Adults wade devoutly into the shallow water; children jump from stone to stone while remaining startlingly quiet, as if no one wants to speak over the whispering of the clear water. This pebblestone dam, just a few meters wide and across which the clear water of Lake Itasca flows, is the first natural hurdle that one of the world’s most powerful rivers has to surmount. The riverbed here is still perfectly intact. John Kim will later recall this place and these first few meters of the wildly meandering river as “like a journey back to another time.”

  • The Mississippi headwater lies in the north of the state of Minnesota, close to the Great Lakes and the Canadian border.
  • The landscape in the Mississippi’s source region is sparse, often deserted, and spoilt by few roads
  • The headwater – the water’s entry point from Lake Itasca into the Mississippi riverbed – is a magical point for Americans and the destination of many a family trip.
  • The American artist Erika Schläger dos Santos from Minneapolis sits beside Lake Itasca, at the source of the Mississippi.
Grafik: F.A.Z.

We are in a canoe in the north of Minnesota. The impression of the Wild West here is not superficial. Here, where the Mississippi begins and the first of its 3,778 kilometers cut their way toward the Gulf of Mexico, traversing the entire North to South of the US, is also the starting point for Mississippi: An Anthropocene River, a unique German-American research project. Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the Cultures of the World), which counts among the small number of large institutions that began exploring the Anthropocene issue several years ago, has set itself the task of spending over a year studying this identity-shaping New World river as a paradigm of the planetary changes caused by humanity.

Canoeing across the river for several days and in several stages before spending five ponderous intervals at “field stations” will prove to be a major intercultural research experience. The goal of this unusual expedition: to trace the works of humanity from pre-modern times to the present day. For the participants, the aim is to make planetary dimensions – the Anthropocene having been postulated as a new Earth epoch in the historical work of the Mainz-based atmospheric chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen – visible for the Earth’s inhabitants at eye level: regional and local perspectives, rather than global dimensions. Hence this flying visit to the river’s seemingly unadulterated upper reaches that will – in the second part of our report – provide an Anthropocene contrast to the highly industrialized river life on the lower course close to New Orleans. Rather than claiming to match the scientific rigor demanded of empirical research, the aim of this expedition is to start a conversation. And it is for this reason that artists, authors, political activists, and scientists with very different interests will be present alongside the most numerous group: students of the River Semester at Minnesota’s Augsburg University. Their first mission: learning how to canoe.

The source of the Mississippi River lies 450 meters above sea level in a huge estuary delta. Slowly, and in many places almost imperceptibly, the water pushes forward, passing first through almost untouched terrain in a huge arc. Sandy plains, grassweed, and meter-high canebrake line the banks. Just below the spring at Lake Itasca, we climb into our seven canoes at the impassable Coffee Pot Landing, an overgrown scrubland.

  • A total of seven canoes, some equipped with solar panels to power the electronic devices, formed a convoy for the first stretch of the Anthropocene research trip that will head from the source of the Mississippi to its mouth in New Orleans.
  • Expedition leader and environmental policy researcher Joe Underhill of Augsburg University searches the upper reaches of the Mississippi for an entry point for the seven canoes.
  • The Mississippi’s meandering upper reaches first lead north over dense marshland.
  • From cook to student of the Anthropocene: Steven Diehl works his way in a canoe along the Mississippi, which is overgrown at this spot.
  • Artist and media scientist John Kim always had his “environmental station” (foreground) on board his canoe.

An incantation ritual by Dawn Gaagigeyaashiik Goodwin – a berry picker, daughter of a South American priest, and somewhat the embodiment of Native American resistance to Anthropocene excesses of the US oil industry – has torn away the facade of untouched nature: “We will stop Line 3.” This is one of the most controversial oil pipelines in the country. What the activists were yet to find out was that a few days later, the Minnesota Supreme Court would show the limits of what this long-term opposition to the pipeline could achieve. Soon, 120 million tons of crude oil are expected to flow daily from neighboring Canada to the refineries of the Midwest. Seven more pipelines are already running through the Mississippi’s northern basin. Of course, on the calmly flowing water, human influence – such the environmental crime of leaking oil pipelines, a distant, demonic presence in the idyllic wilderness where the lives of Native Americans and colonial descendants are shrinking into narrow settlements – is invisible. It is pretty much only in conversation that hints of the Anthropocene arise.

Video: F.A.Z.

John Kim, an artist and media scholar from St. Paul, has taken on the difficult task of digitally processing the meandering journey along the river. Gyroscopes, GPS receivers and all kinds of sensors sit within waterproof casing in his canoe luggage. Water movement, air quality, and water quality stats are gathered, and whenever the radio signal in this dead-zone region allows it, the Anthropocene project gets the data in real time: the in-house tracking of an intercultural field experiment.

John plans to continue recording data right the way down to New Orleans. For the locals making the trip, canoeing is much more than an experiment: it is getting back in contact with a friend. Shanai Matteson, an activist from the small village downstream of Palisades, lives and breathes her “relationship with the river” whenever she leaves the shore near her parents’ home: “see you later,” she calls out to it: an illusory nostalgia.

  • Dream team and prominent American artists from Chicago: installation artist Claire Pentecost and her partner Brian Holmes, a well-known author and Anthropocene artist, participated in the first leg along the Mississippi.
  • Ever-changing vegetation is encountered while traversing the sluggishly flowing Old Man River, including a particularly extensive and rich vein of wild subarctic species.
  • In the north, it’s almost winter already: student Steven Diehl and Cornelia Wagner from Berlin’s HKW warm themselves at the campfire while awaiting the next leg on the canoe.
  • Preparing drinking water on the shore during a camping stop.

The locals’ bonds with the river seem to become ever stronger as the surrounding region comes under ever greater threat from Anthropocene influences. Dams, mines, factories: here in the far north too, the mighty river whose basin area approximates the size of the Indian subcontinent is far less peaceful. The indigenous lawyer Frank Bibeau, a member of the Ojibwe people and thus a representative of the largest native community in the north of the United States, describes the struggle of the locals against an industrial exploitation that hardly anyone on the other side of the Mississippi region has noticed. Alongside the famous wild rice – a subsistence food for the people here and of which they harvest a million tons each year in Minnesota alone – the famous omega-3-rich white fish caught from the water are increasingly endangered, despite dozens of treaties. Where the Mississippi has its source, he says, is “the heart of the universe.” That for the Ojibwe, this heart was never at Lake Itasca but rather at Leech Lake a few lakes south of here, feels in this present moment like a folksy quirk. It evokes pre-modern and pre-colonial times, when these cultures still inhabited their own, untouched territories – and the dawn of the Anthropocene was still generations away.

Chapter II:

Part 2 of the report from the dramatically changed mouth of the Mississippi will appear in the next issue.

Outrage Doesn’t Just Fall from the Sky

The greatest threat of the Anthropocene is destabilization, and climate change is merely one part of it. On an experiment in rethinking the Earth system.

Bernd Scherer
Bernd Scherer, Director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin(HWK)
Picture: Joachim Müller-Jung

In Science, an international research team evaluated huge archaeological data collections and thus demonstrated that the radical transformation of the earth by humans began three thousand years ago—much earlier than previously thought and long before nuclear tests, intensive agriculture, and the profusion of plastic around the world. Should the Anthropocene Working Group reconsider its decision to date the beginning of the human-influenced epoch to the middle of the last century?
No, because the beginning of the Anthropocene—as earth scientists tell us—is marked at the point the Earth system fell out of balance. This transition is illustrated by the findings and curves of the Great Acceleration, i.e. the exponential increase in human intervention in the Earth system since 1950. There is a qualitative difference between developments before and after that point. My view is that the archaeological findings that prove humanity was already having a significant influence beforehand are not enough to call this central theorem into question. Nevertheless, it is of course interesting for me as a philosopher how the Anthropocene came into being. It didn’t just fall from the sky. There were rather a series of developments during human history—like colonialism, the invention of the steam engine, and even the combination of agriculture, animal rearing, and the development of new plants—that were, while significant, only prehistories on the path toward the Anthropocene.

In the Anthropocene project and in the Mississippi project which you promoted with Katrin Klingan, Christoph Rosol, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science you use the term as if the scientific issued had already been resolved. Why are you not keen to wait until the scientists’ work is complete?
The scientific process is going well. But it will take a few more years. Science examines the material changes that have taken place in recent centuries such as carbon dioxide emissions, changes in methane levels, the spread of plastic, and the acidification of the seas. To formally determine what the Anthropocene is, however, it is irrelevant which cultural, social, and political developments led to these physical changes. So that is precisely what the sciences do: they refrain from looking at these aspects of the processes. For us as a cultural institution, however, it is of crucial importance to interrogate exactly these political, cultural, and social circumstances. The planetary distribution of radionuclides in the middle of the twentieth century, which represent a central marker of the Anthropocene from a geological point of view, correlates to nuclear weapons testing and the Cold War. The massive change in the nitrogen cycle is closely linked to industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution, in which Western farming methods were exported to the countries of the Global South. By introducing this issue into the Anthropocene debate, we expand the scientific discourse by including a social dimension.

The term Anthropocene is however still unfamiliar to many people, while climate change is a major issue. Why is this?
The Anthropocene is about questions of our existence, not just individual problems. Many Anthropocene processes are invisible to the outside world because they are beyond our immediate perception, both temporally and spatially. While we have developed the tools to initiate local processes that change certain aspects of the world, such as greenhouse gas-driven climate change, we have not developed the perceptual systems needed to understand what this means for other societies. It was not until the direct experiences of summer 2018 that many people began to understand how our living conditions are changing. From my point of view, cultural institutions are precisely the ones who have the task of making the invisible visible.

Is science even necessary for your approach?
What is crucial is that our current knowledge systems are unprepared for these fundamental transformation processes. We are dealing with a whole new combination of cultural and natural processes. This means that we have to readjust our knowledge production processes.

You mean more joint, interdisciplinary research?
Research rooted in a single discipline is in truth less and less able to do justice to these ever more dynamic issues. That kind of research no longer does justice to the constantly changing realities. But we also want to accelerate the scientific process. This is why we’re providing funds so that drilling, sampling, and sediment analysis can take place now, not another ten years. And in parallel, we’re developing this art and culture project.

Bernd Scherer, Director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, during the Anthropocene Project’s Mississippi tour

Have you already seen similarly broad approaches outside HKW?
Absolutely. For our Anthropocene project, for example, we have developed a curriculum project that develops new methods and working forms of knowledge generation regarding Anthropocene lines of research. Several hundred researchers, artists, and social and political activists have already participated in this worldwide project in various ways—renowned researchers alongside a completely new generation. The Mississippi project is another example. We’re working with universities from Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Around the world, sciences centers in South Korea, Australia, South Africa, and even in Europe and the United States are involved. Some of the universities have adopted our campus idea.

What’s gained when you work with artists on knowledge production?
It is essentially a matter of learning to see the world differently, of recognizing connections that the scientific disciplines, because of the way they are set up, don’t address. The imaginative power of artists gives an immediacy and accessibility to developments that are not visible—i.e., taking what happens within science via scaling and making it experienceable. But socially committed activists also play an important role, as it’s about defining problem areas which have social significance. The knowledge processes then set about addressing these problems.

Who can bring together the different approaches, the philosophy?
For me, philosophy is not a discipline like chemistry or history, it’s a reflective activity that thinks about the fundamentals of our ways of understanding. It is particularly in demand in times of transformation, when the existing sign systems and forms of knowledge are no longer adequate. In this sense, philosophy plays a special role in the development of Anthropocene world perspectives. So yes, it’s in this sense that our work is philosophical praxis.

This interview was conducted by Joachim Müller-Jung.

Chapter III:

Part 3 of the report from the dramatically changed mouth of the Mississippi will appear in the next issue.

Abused Waters

Deepening of the Port of New Orleans on the Mississippi 2019

How racism and slavery sowed the cultural seeds for today’s ecological crises. Part three of our report on the Anthropocene river that is the Mississippi covers the notorious petrochemical strip in its south.

The final stretch in the canoe was an ecological revelation: bald eagles gliding over the post-glacial alluvial plain and its dense marsh landscape, frightened geese, unperturbed water turtles sunbathing on the shore, and the sluggishly flowing water of the Mississippi itself, avidly absorbing every ray of sunlight and stretching out to its edge in glistening light.

We would later have to live off the memory of these final, inspiring hours on the Old Man River for days afterward. As we would from the powerful three-page plea left behind at our final campfire by the cowboy hat-wearing Minneapolis artist and activist Erika Schlaeger dos Santos: This body of water, she said, this lifeline that served the explorers of this continent as a superhighway, is “an autonomous, natural creature, a living world [...] composed of billions of micro and macro-organisms that are sensitive and yet exposed with no protection against the human economy.” This creature, says Erika, deserves civil rights like any other person.

“An autonomous, natural creature, a living world composed of billions of micro and macro-organisms that are sensitive and yet exposed with no protection against the human economy.”

But nature has no such rights. This is another tragic aspect of the Anthropocene: that nature has never been structurally protected from destruction under international law; that its resources and provisions have been seized upon by modern humanity as no-cost goods. Humanity has kept the wilderness at arm’s length politically, all the while exploiting it without remorse. It is this anthropocentric attitude that, once we were done canoeing from Minnesota and had reached the other end of the river, 3778 kilometers to the south in the state of Louisiana, we were unable to shake off. Here in the South too, our search is for traces of the early Anthropocene: this Earth epoch that science has not yet fully defined, in which the geological power and shaper of the Earth that is humanity no longer fears competition.

The entrance to the Whitney Museum outside New Orleans. The Whitney is regarded as one of the most important places in the US for the history of slavery and colonialism.

It is just under an hour’s drive away from New Orleans, at the Whitney Plantation, that this search begins. It is a search for the pioneers of the Anthropocene; who should, perhaps, rather be dubbed spiritual arsonists. Bernd Scherer, director of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the Cultures of the World), sees them as the Anthropocene’s “roots of barbarism”. Others call places like Whitney “America’s Auschwitz.” We now take a detour via the early 18th century, a good 150 years before the Anthropocene is currently and officially reckoned to have begun in 1950. For many cultural scholars and historians, slavery was the beginning of a long-standing relationship of humanity to nature and itself – a relationship which left its stamp on industrialization. It is in the slave plantations that Ashley Rogers sees the “first agro-industrial complex” – she says that factories are part of an ecological nightmare that leads into the present day. We will spend our round trip across the Mississippi delta discussing the many implications of just what she means by this. Ashley – the director of the Whitney Museum – begins by explaining the connection between slavery and the Anthropocene in more detail.

In 1721, two years after the first captured African people were brought to Louisiana as slaves, the German emigrant Ambroise Heidel and three of his siblings reached the bay of what is today New Orleans. Of the two hundred passengers on board the French ship, only forty survived. Together with thousands of other German and French people who landed in Louisiana, they founded settlements along the Mississippi. The area between today’s Baton Rouge and New Orleans was labelled the “German Coast.” Three years after their arrival, the Heidels would own a hog and a piece of farmland that yielded 15 barrels of grain each season. By 1730, they had three slaves laboring for them – the beginning of an indigo plantation, soon to be called Habitation Haydel, that was moved to the western bank of the Mississippi after a dispute with indigenous people and finally became a source of major wealth for many generations of Haydels.

Commemorative plaques on the museum’s grounds on the bank of the Mississippi commemorate the hundreds of victims of the former plantation.
The almost perfectly preserved manor house on the grounds of the memorial site is owned by the Whitney Museum.

Opened just a few years ago, the Whitney Museum has restored many of the buildings of the slave-owning family and has reappraised the cruel history of slavery in southern Louisiana, emphasizing the perspectives of the exploited. As of 1752, no less than 350 people were being exploited at this site – which was soon converted into a sugar and rice plantation – often under inhumane conditions. It would become at least 100,000 in Louisiana alone by the time of the first uprisings and the liberation of slaves in the middle of the nineteenth century. The large-scale industrialization of the Mississippi’s lower reaches continues to this day, having begun with that series of plantations along the banks of the Mississippi River. Louis Chude-Sokei, an African American Studies scholar from Boston University, explains the phenomenon from his point of view in an essay entitled “Race and Technology: A Creole History,” arguing that the concept of race “haunts” technology right up into modernity. The slave trade stole Africans’ selves, rendering them non-human commodities and thus anchoring later technologies in “race,” colonialism, and slavery. Dehumanization thus became integral to the emergence of modernity. Whitney director and historian Ashley Rogers consequently speaks of the “slave factories” of the Mississippi.

  • The DuPont/Denka chemical factory on the Mississippi, not far from New Orleans, seen from River Road. The petrochemical factory is located next to the municipality of St. John and is one of the most controversial companies in the area dubbed Cancer Alley.
  • Industrial El Dorado on the lower reaches: every day, dozens of giant cargo ships from overseas come ashore on this almost 100 kilometer-long belt of petrochemical plants.
  • Lawyer Frank Bibeau informs the Anthopocene voyagers about protests led by local and in many places mostly Native residents against oil pipeline projects in the north of Minnesota.

It is this almost uninterrupted continuity of the colonial industrialization process that places slavery at the center of today’s ecological discourse. In the lands along the Mississippi River where slave owners exploited their way to wealth, around 150 oil companies settled between 1909 and 1913 alone, followed afterwards by the first petrochemical companies. Today, the seventy kilometers between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on the Mississippi River form one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical companies in the world. The media has dubbed this chemical strip that runs along Mississippi “Cancer Alley.” Diked by these very companies through hundreds of canals to make it navigable and diverted a thousand times over, the Mississippi itself is now unrecognizable from its former state. It is said that an area the size of a football pitch is lost every hour in the estuary. According to Nasa, the loss of land will reach up to 5000 square kilometers by 2050. This is the result of subsurface subsidence and sediment erosion in the Gulf of Mexico and, ultimately, of rising sea levels provoked by climate change. The Mississippi, revered by others as a natural wonder and treated like a person, is objectified here as a superhighway for the chemical and oil industries. To the river’s north, there is a huge human-made structure enclosed by more than 40,000 dams. The Mississippi delta is thus a major Anthropocene point of conflict – both historically and, in a very tangible way, in the present day.

The protests against the expansion and renewal of the pipelines in the north of the United States are mainly sustained by Native communities that have lived there for centuries.

We were granted access to the Shintech factory located a short distance from Baton Rouge, on the site of a former sugar plantation. The plant, described by its vice president Danny Cedotal as “the largest PVC factory in the world,” belongs to a Japanese group and was only built in 2005. It produces 1.4 million tons annually, with a group turnover of $14 billion. Its competitor Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese PVC manufacturer, plans to expand its plant further south at a cost of $330 million. For environmentalists and conservationists such as Renate Heurich, a German migrant who retired three years ago so she could work with other groups on protests and campaigns against the expansion of Mississippi petrochemistry, this is “pure madness.” Resistance is growing daily, she says. Not least because the state refuses to set any limits. On the question of regulations: “The companies can locate where they want and where land is available”, Shintech Vice Director Danny Cedotal explains. Fracking gas – the key material for ethylene production, which together with the chlorine gas supplied via pipelines from a salt factory is used to make PVC – is, he says, cheaper than ever. His company is therefore planning a $1.5 billion expansion – naturally “in compliance with the strictest environmental standards.” The chemical engineer is promising 125 new jobs. All staff would be hired from the surrounding area, but for this to happen, the factory site on the Mississippi bank would have to be expanded rapidly. Twelve homes would have to be demolished; which is why this goodwill factory visit is happening.

“The companies can locate where they want and where land is available”

Environmental activist Wilma Subra represents the residents of St. John and the Union of Concerned Citizens in their environmental dispute with plastics manufacturer Denka and the Louisiana authorities.

Further south, again on the River Road on the west bank of the Mississippi, not far from Whitney Plantation, we meet Wilma Subra in the Baptist community of St. John’s. As a “cancer town,” this patch of just a few hundred inhabitants has already made headlines across the world. Wilma, a 76-year-old white woman, pensioner, and environmental activist, drives two hours by car twice a month to gather the community in the chapel and spread news of the tragedy out into the world. The cancer rate in St. John’s is fifty times higher than the national average. The DuPont neoprene factory on River Road, bought by the Japanese multinational a few years ago, is said to be the cause. It is said that chloroprene and at least eighteen other chemicals are released into the air and water, exceeding the EPA safety limit. On the day of our visit, with Anthropocene researchers from various universities along the Mississippi and from Germany invited to the chapel of St. John’s, Wilma and the Union of Concerned Citizens presented the correspondence that has taken place between the authorities and a number of the sufferers. “Everyone in this community has lost people to cancer,” says the 78-year-old former construction worker and jazz musician Robert Taylor. Just a few hundred meters from the fence, dozens of children play every day in the schoolyard of Fifth Ward Elementary School. Wane James, a 59-year-old man from the church and a cancer patient, worked for five years in the Denka-DuPont factory. He says that of 29 co-workers, only three are still alive. This is not something that can be verified.

“Everyone in this community has lost people to cancer”

Although the national government has classified chloroprene as “probably carcinogenic,” it does not trust in the reports from the community. The government’s own cancer statistics are considerably less dramatic. This is because – as St. John's community members protest – children with cancer no longer live here, having been transferred to Tennessee for treatment, with adult patients going to the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The environmental authority began conducting regular measurements in 2016. At 66 to 151 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the maximum levels of chloroprene found near the school are many times higher than the official safety limit of 0.2 micrograms. These are the highest chloroprene measurements ever made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the school has not been closed, as the community demands; nor is there any agreement on how to remedy the situation, despite Denka’s efforts to placate the community. Instead, Denka has now sued the EPA, arguing that the safety limit is not based on the toxicological data and has been set far too low. The sufferers are people who do not want to or cannot leave their homes and apartments in the direct vicinity of the petrochemical factories. They have lived there for generations, and almost all of them are Black. Many of them are direct descendants of the slaves who worked the plantations where today, multinationals base their export trade.

“Mississippi. An Anthropocene River” is a project by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Sciences in collaboration with numerous international partners, funded by the German Federal Foreign Officeas part of the initiative #WunderbarTogether and the Max-Planck Society. The drone video footage comes from film artist and producer Steve Rowell who is located in Minneapolis.

Translated by Matthew James Scown

Quelle: F.A.Z.

Veröffentlicht: 29.10.2019 08:09 Uhr