wisdom of wild relatives; the undersea fossil empire
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Last week, Gabriel alluded to the Ship of Theseus. I’m sure you’ve encountered the idea behind this thought experiment, whether in seventh grade biology brain teasers or late night philosophical debates. The idea is this: if you change all the component parts of a thing, piece by piece, is it the same thing? If you rebuild a ship over the course of its life, is it the same ship? When all of your cells regenerate every seven years, do you remain yourself?
I often consider this thought exercise when thinking about ecological change. Discussions about restoration—of marshes, of freshwater streams, of prairie—tend to imply there is a state to go back to. How can we restore something back to a former state when time, and the climatic damage that has occurred during it, cannot be reversed?
When governments talk about emissions levels, these metrics usually come in terms of x percentage of, say, 1990 emissions. This is not back; this is forward, with the measurement of back.
A consideration of what it means to restore without acknowledging unstoppable change over time also impacts the language we use to describe species’ roles in ecosystems.
Much destruction of plant and animal life is attributed to so-called invasive species. Here are some things a species does to get labeled invasive:
Show up somewhere new
Learn how to use the available resources to thrive
Grow your population, potentially at the expense of others’
It goes without saying that these are also shared characteristics of colonization. And, these are also things people do when they migrate with seasons, or away from disaster to a safer place. It’s also a biological imperative; if you can’t take advantage of available resources and reproduce, you’re extinct.
This past weekend I was at a festival, overhearing lots of snippets, including “is that a plant, or a weed?”
This conception of weeds as not-plants is another instance of determining value and identity in context of ecological time and purpose. Plants are only weeds if they are not desired or cultivated (intention) on a managed piece of land (a temporal state). In Vermont, agriculture and conservation are often at odds, because most modern agriculture requires some degree of destruction, an irreversible disconnect from back.
A friend of mine, @basicbrassica, recently posted about how they aren’t interested in smashing Spotted Lanternflies, contrary to the aggressive encouragement of the internet. They note that concern about the lanternfly’s impact is about agriculture, which we’ve just discussed is based on a temporal understanding of what ‘should’ and ‘should not’ be in a place. Further, we don’t actually know what the spotted lanternfly will bring, just like we have never really known what long-term ecological impacts will follow interference or change.
The Botanic Matchmakers that Could Save Our Food Supply attempts to split the difference here: learning from Indigenous practice, botanists are looking to ‘wild relatives,’ FKA weeds, for keys to climate resiliency among farmed crops like wheat and veggies. Along this line of thinking, there is no back, because weeds are often a present-day, continually evolving manifestation of back. Never cultivated, always-wild plants have been adapting, with the same logic of so-called invasives: learn how to use what’s here, so you can thrive. Now, that skill is essential, if we want to retain any semblance of back. Back before ecological disaster that devastates crops; back before humans shifted from mostly stewarding plants to mostly controlling them; back before reorganization of ecosystems for our dominance.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
At first glance, Google Maps’ bathymetric imagery is pretty fantastic. Unlike the satellite images that Google uses for overland maps, the world’s oceans are shown by their depth. The black spot where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath Asia looks almost like it could be the shadow cast by the Filipino Plate on the ocean floor until you realize that its blackness is the extreme depth of the Mariana Trench. In the Atlantic you can see the neat seam of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, zig-zagging from the North Pole to where Iceland blooms up from the mantle, and down past all the Pangean siblings.
Looking closer, you can also see some anthropogenic traces running in straight lines across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, intersecting with one another at diagonals as they reconnect these estranged landmasses. These markings are the fiber-optic cables that allow the internet to flow between my computer and yours. They are the legacy of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, stretched from the western tip of Kerry here in Ireland to Newfoundland in 1858. That first cable was only capable of sending a few messages before breaking three weeks later. Today these cables move tens of terabits of data, a quantity so large it’s incomprehensible, across the ocean floor each second.
The games Bioshock and Bioshock 2 center around a modern Atlantis, a subterranean city called Rapture founded at the close of World War II as a playground for the rich and tax-averse. Rapture, fallen to ruin from vice and corruption by the time you arrive, is located somewhere between Iceland and Greenland, just north of where these undersea cables run. I like to think that these undersea cables are themselves a kind of Rapture, a difficult-to-regulate city of data, a place of vice and lawlessness, but also a place of refuge for people forsaken by landed society.
Digestable’s location, according to the email you’re reading, is “Someplace in the sky,” but in truth, the digital life of this column is entirely terrestrial and a large part aquatic. In some ways, in its current state, Digestable lives somewhere along an undersea cable, between Lena’s computer in Burlington and mine in Dublin. The newsletters and the drafts we share back and forth across the ocean floor also live in various data-centers, located in similarly difficult-to-regulate places where electricity is cheap, and tax law is forgiving.
Ireland is one of these places where the internet’s “clouds” come to settle on the ground. Despite the island’s small population, Ireland uses a massive amount of electricity, 14% of which comes from data centers. Playing host to the world’s internet has become less popular with the current energy crisis. As the threat of winter blackouts looms, there is a debate around the power of municipalities to block the construction of new data centers while Ireland’s multinational landlords threaten to withdraw investments in retaliation. Ireland’s coal-burning power plant on the north side of the Shannon estuary was slated to close in 2025 to meet Ireland’s CO2 emissions targets, but will now stay open indefinitely given increased demand.
On the Shannon’s other bank, negotiations have been reopened by New Fortress Energy for a bid to build a LNG terminal after Hess’s bid failed in 2014. And from there we can see transatlantic connections surfacing somewhere in the distance. In Point Comfort, Texas a gigantic LNG terminal is being built, one of several primed to drain the entire Permian Basin into European ports. A direct line can be drawn, both in geography and intention, between developments in Texas’s Bay of Formosa and Ireland’s Shannon estuary, one that precedes energy shocks from the war in Ukraine.
From a distance the internet looks clean because electricity is good at hiding its carbon connections. But looking closer, you can see the Texas fossil energy pouring into the growing vacuum of Ireland’s data centers, then feeding back across the Atlantic through the undersea pipeline, from your computer to mine as a series of sanitized 1s and 0s. I don’t know what powered the fictional city of Rapture, whether they tapped undersea vents or had a pipeline running from North America. But the submarine city where Digestable lingers is the secret seat of a new kind of fossil empire.