Oil and Injury in Los Angeles

The city’s ports may be physically located in the imperial core—inside the barricades of the USA—but their tendrils span the globe.

Infrastructure doesn’t sound especially sexy. You probably wouldn’t bring it up at a party. By virtue of its ubiquity, it fades into the background of daily life—all those roads, buildings, servers, pumps, pipes, ports, wires, satellites, computers, stacks, tunnels, channels, and so on become the substrate of quotidian existence, life as it is experienced by people. It seems inert, inorganic, immovable, just kind of there, all the time, everywhere yet nowhere. The human world can’t function without it. It’s like a second biosphere, enfolding and enabling all we do.1

But we shouldn’t let it fade into the background of our lives, because infrastructure can tell stories. These built systems are documents of socioeconomic trends, capital flows, political decisions, technological shifts, cultural impulses, environmental changes, and moral values, accounts written in powerful explanatory detail and hidden in plain sight, awaiting those who can read the landscape. Infrastructure is social narrative, is a kind of civic poetry. These societal life-support systems (everything from running water to freeways to server farms) tell us who we are and what we—or more to the point, what our ruling classes—have done to and in the world. You have to know where to look, however.

One such extended act of interpretive, imaginative looking is Oil Beach, the newest work from the science and technology scholar Christina Dunbar-Hester. Her field of vision is the Los Angeles metro area’s San Pedro Bay, a straight shot down the 110 and 710 freeways from the DTLA core, home to a pair of almost unimaginably big, world-altering systems: the ports of Long Beach and LA. The port complex has its own gravity. Dunbar-Hester, who teaches up the road at the University of Southern California, speaks ominously of its “massive force field.”

On the one hand, these “logistics spaces” are incredible achievements. In the early 20th century, the harbor was dredged out of the ocean floor from the existing, shallow San Pedro Bay, where the shifty Los Angeles River meets the sea (LA, unlike San Diego and San Francisco, does not have a natural deepwater harbor). On their own, the ports are the entry point for over 40 percent of all the containerized goods that enter North America. By one estimate, the port complex processes so much petroleum that without it, Southern California would run out of oil in five days. Built over the course of a century, the ports employ thousands of people, process millions of shipping containers, and are worth billions as fixed, capital-intensive investment. Their complexity is mind-boggling, but they appear to run like a smooth machine.

Regional, national, and global economies would shudder to a halt without these ports. Thus, the machine really does work well; at least, within the terms of heroic industrial capitalism.

And that, Dunbar-Hester points out with extensive evidence, is the problem. The ports’ economic power derives from and intensifies “stunning infrastructural violence”: violence that is doled out to human beings and nonhuman nature alike, and which is not a side effect but a constituent part of the whole operation. What we find in this “water-to-intermodal-shipping-and-distribution landscape” is, Dunbar-Hester observes, “multitudinous life … juxtaposed with patterned violence.” The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are heaven for militarized, globalized, oil-based capitalism; they are hell for living organisms, ecosystems, and communities.

The ports have not eliminated nature or automated away the human presence. Instead, they warp and engulf these lives. Their industrial-grade violence is, like the supply chains it serves, entrenched in the landscape. The ports might be physically located in the imperial core—inside the barricades of the USA—but their tendrils connect to systems that span the globe.

Given the sheer tonnage, the multiple square miles, of the port complex, as well as its outsize role in planetary supply chains, the place generates its own ideology. The conceptual/imaginative and the physical/material reinforce each other like concrete and rebar.

This is what Dunbar-Hester calls “infrastructural vitalism.” Deriving from the scale and complexity of port operations and their attendant logistics networks, this ideology entails submitting everything—including all biological life around the port—to capital accumulation. “Heavily managed, industrial infrastructure,” she writes, “is structured by violent logics”; these logics involve profit and risk, the former concentrated and privatized, the latter dispersed and more (but not equally) public. The “creators and maintainers”—everyone from engineers to truck drivers to stevedores to local politicians to transportation planners—treat the ports as a built, capital-intensifying ecosystem with needs of its own. Infrastructure is horribly alive. Dunbar-Hester writes that

infrastructure gets “fixed” through a set of epistemic and material commitments, whereupon it begins to demand something like care and feeding, exhibiting the stirrings of a self-organizing system that reproduces itself, monstrously, excessively, and even cannibalistically. Of course, it is not literally autonomous. On the other hand, because of how managers in essence treat ports, pipelines, and freeways as alive and are committed to their vitality, these animistic beliefs do work in the world. Infrastructure has momentum … and is mutable, adaptive, lively; it is unclear who or what is in control. (original italics)

Wherever you look, there is capital and its infrastructures, a ghastly Sublime. (“What the port has been producing since at least the 1960s is scale.”) Instead of the Alps, a dense network of machines and money.

Capital, seeking what the Marxist historian David Harvey calls a “spatial fix,” is always on the lookout for new markets, flowing and morphing like T-1000. Ultimately, infrastructure is capital in brute, material form. “The port complex is not just a collection of objects or systems,” writes Dunbar-Hester, “but a large assemblage in an even more vast, heterogeneous, and intricate sociotechnical system that is both deadly and lively.”

Infrastructural vitalism operates in “violent tension with biological life.” Sometimes this violence is dramatic and abrupt, such as an oil spill when a pipeline ruptures. But typically, on the scale experienced by humans, we are talking “attritional, accumulative harm”: the slow growth of cancer, the steady worsening of a child’s asthma, the summers that keep getting hotter. “More often,” Dunbar-Hester notes, “violence is not especially spectacular or cataclysmic but the slow accumulation of injury and multiplication of harm.” Infrastructure enables economic life, but infrastructure can kill you.

The injury and death produced by the ports touch nearby communities—Los Angeles, in the 2020s, is far denser than its lingering cultural rep would suggest—like Long Beach, San Pedro, Compton, and Wilmington. But it also affects nonhuman species that live in (or migrate through) the great Southern California Bight: the ecosystem (technically a transitional “ecotone” where warm and cold seawater mix) that enfolds the harbor. Stretching from Point Conception north of Santa Barbara down to Mexico, and including the Channel Islands off the coast of Los Angeles, the SCB is an extraordinarily rich environment. It is also one of the most endangered biodiversity hot spots on Earth.

This flourishing motivates Dunbar-Hester’s mode of critique, which she calls a “multispecies analysis.” It takes in “charismatic” creatures like otters, seabirds, dolphins, and whales; grocery commodities, namely bananas (the world’s most-traded agricultural product); and matter that once was alive—oil. Situating these life forms within settler-colonial capitalism, she tracks the violence of wealth generation. This is why the horizon of our ecological politics must be “transspecies supply-chain justice,” she argues, moving beyond “conservation” of the status quo to uses of the sea and land that sustain living communities rather than capital. A tall order.

Crude oil constitutes 30 percent of all ocean freight, and the San Pedro Bay is part of this. Dunbar-Hester calls the port zone a “petroleumscape,” intimately bound to military and economic imperialism.

Partly this is because Southern California has produced a lot of oil over the past century, particularly after enormous fields were discovered at Signal Hill, Long Beach, and Wilmington in the 1920s and ’30s. Local, coastal production has tapered since the 1960s (moving to inland California, away from wealthier residents), with ghost wells all over the landscape around Long Beach (an “ambient presence”). Even so, the ports still process enormous quantities of oil and oil-based products. Indeed, petroleum has long been the Port of Long Beach’s main import and export.

It is oil that is the primary geographical force in the ports. It is oil that draws all that capital-intensive planning and infrastructure around itself—submitting them to its uses—like a tumor acquiring blood vessels and metastasizing.

Oil is fossilized life, the remains of prehistoric organisms compressed into valuable black goo. It is “zombie” violence, dead but toxic to living things, and utterly terracidal when burned as fuel—which, of course, we do a lot. Every barrel of oil that flows through the ports deals out a small portion of biospheric death.

Oil is also militarized—or, if you want to think of it the other way, the US Department of Defense is soaked in the stuff. There are the wars fought in places like Iraq and Kuwait. There is the geopolitical fact that the American military guards oil facilities and oceanic trade routes. There is the nasty reality that the Pentagon, besides being good at direct killing, is also the planet’s biggest consumer of oil and its worst polluter. There are all the otters and seabirds soaked in spilled oil, and the whales killed by ship propellers both naval and commercial.

This nexus of violence is what Dunbar-Hester calls “everyday militarism,” the “gradual and unspectacular” saturation of life with military practices, infrastructures, ideologies, and externalities. Around 1900, just as LA’s boosters realized their young city was growing fast enough to need a deepwater port, the US had acquired a Pacific empire after the Spanish-American War; thus, the newly dredged ports satisfied economic and martial needs. From the beginning, the San Pedro complex was wired into planetary circuits, linked to oil-gorged supply chains and military campaigns (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) that enwrapped more and more of the globe, particularly after World War II, when undamaged California “was fairly uniquely positioned to pursue capital-intensive modernist world-building.”

One of the focal points in Oil Beach’s narrative is the banana, its ordinary nutritional packeting worth billions at scale and brought to consumers around the affluent world via “the cold chain,” the refrigerated supply network that turns fruit from the topics into a grocery commodity. And it all runs on oil.

“Where the banana meets the pumpjack,” Dunbar-Hester points out, “is in shipping and refrigeration,” which are carbon-intensive processes subject to minute logistical calculations. Since the 1960s—and juiced even more by China’s global economic debut in the 1980s—the transportation of goods by massive container ships (containers that can be loaded onto eighteen-wheelers or trains in the ports) has undergirded “supply-chain capitalism.” “Modularity is ascendant,” Dunbar-Hester observes. But this oiled cold chain also produces a lot of pollution as an externality—again, risk is made the public’s problem—and creates an unsustainable consumer expectation that fresh food products will be available year-round, anywhere in the USA, which another writer has called “the first refrigerated society.”

The “infrastructural imbrication” (Dunbar-Hester’s term) of the supply chain—its many layers of shipping lanes, port cranes, warehouses, subcontracted delivery firms, refrigeration sites, and so forth—effectively means that the system is so complex that it defeats human comprehension. Managers have increasingly pinned their hopes on Big Data, automation, and artificial intelligence, but even that doesn’t really help; if anything, it solidifies infrastructural vitalism: only machines can understand what we’ve built, this leviathan with its own need for care and feeding.

Still, if you rip off the layers like the mask from a Scooby-Doo villain, what you find underneath is capital.

Infrastructure enables economic life, but infrastructure can kill you.

A leitmotif in Oil Beach is the way that capitalism brutally sorts out life, marking some people for immense wealth and others for homelessness or cancer, tagging certain nonhuman species as economically useful or aesthetically pleasing while consigning others to death via pollution and climate change. Our geographies—material or imaginative—are never just.

But a strange thing happened in the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 brought the economy to a standstill. When global markets halted, so did shipping—and suddenly, the ocean, even around gargantuan ports, grew quiet.

Or rather, there was suddenly no human industrial noise. This “anthropause” allowed scientists to briefly hear the full spectrum of song, for instance, from the multiple species of whales, especially the gray, that feed within the Southern California Bight, because normally the sheer underwater din of port activities drowns them out. Indeed, this undersea noise pollution—a “sonic burden” of “acoustic effluvia”—is terrible for whales, disrupting their communication and killing their food supply of krill and plankton.

Oil Beach goes so far as to call the marine environment in the ports an “urbanizing” one, not merely because of the noise. There’s also imperial trash like the thousands of leaky DDT barrels dumped into the Bight during the 20th century and now linked to skyrocketing rates of cancer in sea lions, the plastics that fill the bellies of whales and dolphins until they choke to death, the ship propellers that maim and kill sea mammals. Despite the privileged position in the American cultural imaginary occupied by cetaceans (i.e., whales and dolphins) since the environmental movement of the late 1960s and ’70s—they’re smart and cute!—“the shipping industry still constitutes a form of state-sanctioned violence,” concludes Dunbar-Hester. Animals that spend their lives, or large parts of them, in the Bight are, like people with the misfortune of living near the port and its transportation corridors, “rendered available for injury because they are in the way of capitalist profit-seeking or the expansionist tendencies of the US empire.”

None of this stops regional planners and their well-meaning scientist colleagues from trying to make impossible repairs to the world. With birds under threat from frequent oil spillage, with dolphins sickened by plastic, with dying kelp forests, with whales gouged by the propellers of superships, these professionals do their best. But they are never allowed to question the fundamental logic of the port: that it exists to move goods and make money for people who don’t live nearby. Consider how otters have become the “commodified (furry) face of conservation” on Oil Beach—a type of conservation that doesn’t bother the port, that is. They are what Dunbar-Hester calls “highly managed creatures”—the only otters in San Pedro Bay live at the Aquarium of the Pacific, a cheerful site that proselytizes “personal responsibility framing” (Don’t litter! Use cloth grocery bags!) and runs on donations from oil multinationals and car companies. The otters at the aquarium are popular with visitors, and they “normalize ‘nature’ in human care, or even on life support.” Indeed, Dunbar-Hester writes that “conservation managers attempt to prop up organismic ecologies, but many aspirations run afoul of commitments to infrastructural vitalism.” The irony of, say, cleaning up seabirds oiled by a spill is that “in this context, expert attempts to provide care and to palliate or ameliorate violence exist within unstated requirements for violence” (original italics). The show must go on, and if that means poisoning the water or killing some whales or driving otters out of their natural habitat, so be it.

Nobody is allowed to question the status quo. If you do, you don’t get anywhere near having power over the ports.

If a port has a dialectic, it emerges between the stubborn flourishing of ecological life and what Marx calls the “mute compulsion” of capital. “Conservation and infrastructural vitalism are complementary yet contradictory,” Dunbar-Hester writes, one giving a green sheen to the operation of the other. The American public, after all, loves to get its treats from the store, and there’s none of those without the ports.

Even science bends the knee. Scientists know that the port is inimical to flourishing life, but in no way does that knowledge drive policy; if it did, the ports would probably be shut down. Dunbar-Hester’s take on this “managerial” ecology is worth quoting at length:

What this book shows is that wildlife management practices run alongside logistics science and in effect work together to stabilize the assemblage that is the port complex. The past half-century of regulation has not fundamentally changed the relations that caused the ecological endangerment here. The production of scientific knowledge in this context helps build and maintain infrastructure: even if scientific knowledge is sometimes also mobilized to combat infrastructure’s effects, governance of San Pedro Bay is guided by managerial commitments to infrastructural vitalism. … regulatory compliance is arguably as much to meet legal requirements that will allow industrial activity to persist as it is to allow birds, fish, crabs, eelgrass, and kelp to live in flourishing relation. (original italics)

If you were to guess the quantity of air pollution in the LA basin that comes from the ports, you would probably guess low: according to a study done in 2005, a staggering 94 percent of the “ambient carcinogenic risk” in the region could be traced to them. More recently, in late 2020, researchers found that the ports’ daily airborne pollutant output was over 100 tons, or more than all six million cars on the road in the metro area.

Experts speak of “diesel death zones” near the ports, where heavy trucking and rail transport moves goods away from ships and out into the land. These logistics zones—where rates of chronic illness are disturbingly high—tend to be poor or working-class neighborhoods, and they are often majority POC, and the structural violence is something anyone with eyes and a brain knows about. “Extraction regimes,” notes Dunbar-Hester, “conscript racialized bodies for harm: not as an incidental side effect but as a constitutive dynamic”—they kill people, wildlife, whole communities, entire ecosystems. Our ruling elites just don’t want to change anything, because the present is profitable.

When Dunbar-Hester writes of “the socioeconomic geography of air”—and how it “relegates communities neighboring distribution corridors to ill health and even death so that freight infrastructure may live”—I was reminded of the geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of structural racism: the disproportionate exposure of certain groups to premature death. If you’re buying a smoothie or some produce at Whole Foods in Silver Lake, those commodities just magically appear. But if you live along the networks—up through South LA or along the I-10 Inland Empire corridor—that bring fresh goods to market, these commodities might mean you get lung cancer, or your child develops asthma, or your partner suffers from disabling migraines.

The guilty knowledge of this violence hasn’t led to anything radical, any real change to port operations. But it has generated a ton of PR about a “Green Port Era,” where the promise of “clean” technology, renewable fuels, and fluid silicon logistics will somehow allow capitalism to function without killing what’s left of the world.

Dunbar-Hester underscores that this is almost entirely bullshit. “The pursuit of ‘environmentalism’ within the context of capitalist accumulation,” she writes, “predictably circumscribe[s] the choices policymakers [are] willing to seriously countenance,” because the focus is still on job creation, endless economic growth, and the maintenance of the corporate status quo. Conservation efforts and other domesticated forms of environmentalism don’t challenge this reality—they are essentially produced by it, a kind of exhaust.

What would real change look like? Dunbar-Hester, who I suspect is at heart a port abolitionist, doesn’t offer a specific plan of action. But it would be unfair to expect that, because that’s not Oil Beach’s critical intent. Besides, honestly, what is one work of public scholarship going to accomplish if the other side—the side that doesn’t want to change—has all the money and the security services?

However, she does offer glimpses of sustainable, just futures.

All of them are coalitional and collective, and they entail seeing the Southern California Bight as a contentious, multiplicative, ongoing site of struggle. The central question is “how to share a future with nonhuman creatures amid mass annihilation” while also pursuing human-scale environmental justice. “The annihilative power of logistics,” backed by the American arsenal, is not going to disappear on its own because capitalist elites suddenly get nicer or develop morals. Its power must be broken. It must be forced to change.

Dunbar-Hester emphasizes that “there is no innocent space or essential nature to return to in San Pedro Bay”—that’s a romantic fantasy. As such, long-term “remediation and repair is needed.” This must involve cleaning up abandoned petro-infrastucture, like the rusty pumpjacks that stand decommissioned around Long Beach and the ports. It will entail the recognition of other species’ “creaturely sovereignty,” their existence on the planet as more than products or problems. It will involve long-term investments in rail, transit, and greener shipping as part of an anticolonial, restorative Green New Deal—or an even more radical “Red Deal” of the kind proposed by the Red Nation of Indigenous Marxists in 2021. It will necessitate activists who are willing to borrow strategies from arenas like the Indigenous-led battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and it must bring in organized labor as well.


How to Dream beyond Oil

By Jeffrey Insko

Because here’s the thing about infrastructure: It has a lot of choke points. A closing example of action and solidarity Dunbar-Hester shares happened in June 2020, during the uprisings that followed the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and which also expressed fury at Covid’s disproportionate effect on people of color). On Juneteenth, that day of freedom, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the US longshoremen’s union (the ILWU) went on strike and shut down the entire West Coast. Port operations in places like Oakland, Seattle, and the San Pedro Bay froze, albeit briefly.

This shocking disruptive action didn’t last long. But Dunbar-Hester uses it to show what people acting in concert, without waiting for elite decisions, can accomplish. She makes no promises about the future, and she is not in the business of bromides. But when your economic system is suicidal—when the ordinary business of procuring goods and services is boiling the planet to death—there is no better basis for that than hopeful solidarity, and no option but action. icon

  1. I am using infrastructure at this point to denote material, physical systems. But there is another, more conceptual layer that historian Aaron Benanav calls “complex, interconnected techno-economic and social infrastructures” (New Left Review, March/June 2023, p. 61). This includes everything from schools to libraries to copyright law to the NYSE. The two infrastructures—material and conceptual—are inextricable from each other, as we’ll see.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image: Cabrillo Beach and U. S. Warships Inside the Breakwater, San Pedro, California [ca. 1930–1945]. Image courtesy of the Tichnor Brothers Collection of the Boston Public Library