Verticality and the Anthropocene: Politics and law of the Stephanie Bricker

The city and its subterranean environment 
The Geoscience and Society team at the British Geological Survey was invited to co-host a session on Verticality and the Anthropocene with social-science researchers from Lancaster University at this year’s Royal Geographical Society conference. Stephanie Bricker, team leader for Urban Geoscience participated in the event along with BGS’ Hazel Napier, team leader for Geoscience and Society and Michelle Bentham, Energy Geoscientist.  Stephanie explores the ideas emerging from the session and the mix of social perspectives and practical applications…

Let’s start with the final question of the conference session, posed by Dr. Nigel Clark of Lancaster University, What do geo-social futures look like, what do we want from the ground beneath our feet?The Verticality and the Anthropocene session at the RGS-IGB conference saw a merging of perspectives from social scientists and applied geographers to examine ‘the interface between human designs on the subsurface and the malleability of geological formations under both natural and human processes’. Much of the discussion centred on the issue of ownership and governance of the subsurface.  Listening to the speakers, where the historical and philosophical approach to this issue was frequently highlighted, I was reminded of the works of Emerson in Nature and Other Essays(i), where the concept of commodity, property and the visual and theoretical connotations we attach to nature is discussed.

Commodity and Property

The subsurface provides us with resources, a concept known as ‘natural capital’, Emerson referred to this as commodity and rather poetically writes;

‘Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul…we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens…What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between?’

Drilling a groundwater production borehole for
West of Scotland Water, at Machrie, Arran
When it comes to the subsurface we are of course talking about the firmament of the earth between. As applied geologists, when investigating the resources that the ground provides, such as minerals, groundwater and heat, we tend to do so in a very practical manner - we evaluate the amount of resource, the processes involved and the impact of those processes.  We are perhaps therefore more concerned with governance and the legal planning and environmental framework controlling the activities being undertaken. As practitioners, rarely do we debate the moral or ethical context of subsurface utilisation which was illuminated by speakers in the session.  The issue of subsurface ownership is however gaining increasing traction, particularly in regard to shale gas extraction, radioactive waste disposal and underground storage and the legal ambiguity on this subject is increasing topical.  Dr. Saskia Vermeylen, Lancaster University even considered the historical references of ‘private property’ by Abraham and Plato.  Emerson makes an interesting observation that nobody owns the landscape – ‘There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts…this is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give no title.’  In this we might draw parallels with the subsurface, whilst people may lay claim on the materials beneath their property, there are services which the ground or ‘sub-scape’ provides which cannot be owned, e.g. the regulation of flows such as heat and water.

However what resonated most was Dr. Saskia Vermeylen’s observation that the broader historical and political context of the laws on ownership should be considered, i.e. what additional sentiment is behind the laws as written?  This is a concept I can identify with, for example legislation is often brought in after significant events that had large economic, social or environmental impacts and the justification for the new legislation is only apparent to those who remember those events.

Human attachment to the subsurface

Long Harry Mine, Mid Lincoln Ironstone Mines, Greetwell
In fact the attachment of human perspectives to subsurface uses was a recurrent theme throughout the session. Cary van Lieshout (Nottingham University) in recounting 17th Century metal mining in Derbyshire, highlighted the ‘layered notions of ownership’ and the accelerated public discourse once water supplies and farms were effected.  Meanwhile Alan Webster (Lancaster University) spoke of disconnect in public perception between resource supply and consumption – we think the extractive industry is a thing of the past? These comments led us to debate the detachment that people have with the subsurface, does the fact that we can’t easily see or visualise the subsurface mean we have a more limited frame of reference for activities occurring underground? A feeling of being ill-informed because the processes are harder to explain and to understand. I find intriguing the names used for the subsurface, from underground, to the more mythical underworld and netherworld.  Emerson notes that appearances in nature corresponds to a state of mind, e.g. a cunning man is a fox, the owl is wise, light and dark are often used to imply knowledge and ignorance, so what then do we associate with the subsurface? The fiery depths?! When we want to hide or conceal something we ‘go underground’? But we also look to the ground as a foundation – to stand on firm ground, or to build from the ground up…no wonder we seem somewhat hesitant about the use of the subsurface.

The city

The Verticality of the Anthropocene does not just relate to the subsurface but to the entire 3D form of the human-modified landscape and Lauren Rickards (RIMT University, Australia) and Etienne Turpin (University of Wollongong, Australia) both spoke about the city. Lauren likened the evolution of the village setting through to the mega-city to the maturing of grasslands to forest.  This analogy is compelling in thinking about the surface and subsurface expression of our cities – as trees mature they develop deeper root networks and in the same way our expanding cities extend increasingly into the subsurface. Just as larger trees spread their roots further in order to sustain themselves, Lauren observes, the increasing gravitational orbit of the city, or as applied scientists we might say the increased catchment area needed to support the city.  Mentioned earlier was the malleability of geological formations under both natural and human processes and natural thresholds was something highlighted by Nigel Clark and alluded to by Etienne, that there is a tipping point in the Anthropogenic processes and perspectives.  It is curious that with nature we rely on the consistency and patterns of nature to inform our own routines, for example, working to the seasons and to daylight – a concept Emerson refers to as ‘the discipline of nature’, yet we also accept and learn to cope with nature’s irregularities. Etienne spoke of flood-hit Jakarta, ‘an accelerator of the Anthropogenic condition’ but first gave an account of the postcolonial theory of Shiv Visvanathan and Dipesh Chakrabarty, where Jakarta’s urban design honoured its tropical setting.  With an increasing detachment of human perspectives from our natural environment and the advent of globally accessible technology and expertise I can’t help but wonder if all our cities are trending towards the same form and end-point? Have we forgotten how to design to the local rhythms of nature?

So returning to the first question, what is the geo-social future? What do we want from the ground beneath our feet? The growing interest of local communities in the uses of the subsurface, re-connecting with our natural environment is a move in the right direction to answer this question. And the next steps – how do we continue to merge the broader perspectives of the social scientists with the practical approach of the applied scientists?

Read abstracts from the RGS-IGB Verticality and the Anthropocene session here

Find out the urban geoscience research at the British Geological Survey here

(i) Emerson (2009), Nature and Other Essays, Dover Publications Inc. ISBN-13: 978-0-486-46947-8.