With an introduction by Emma Lirette, Gwen Ottinger and Ellen Griffith Spears review Robert Misrach and Kate Orff's Petrochemical America (Aperture, 2012). Included is an excerpt from this work of research, photography, and infographics, which surveys the environmental impact of the petrochemical industry on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Introduction by Emma Lirette
|Saltwater Intrusion, Chauvin, Louisiana, 2013. Photograph by Kurt Lirette. Courtesy of photographer.|
Growing up in Louisiana meant growing up with the men in my family intermittently spending holidays on oil platforms, living subject to a bust and boom economy of new Dodge pickups and coupon birthdays. It meant seeing unreal cities on the horizon at night: the flares and safety lights of apocalyptic refineries. It meant joining my father and uncles at sea, working on platforms. The closets in my parents' house tell the history of industrial Louisiana in company patches on long-sleeved blue shirts: Diamond M, Gulfstream, Burlington Resources, W&T.
I had seen Richard Misrach's ghostly photographs documenting images of my hometown: the salted cypress trees jutting from the water, the religious statuary fading against the backdrop of holding tanks and beat-up shotgun houses. But finally getting my hands on Petrochemical America—a collaborative visual argument in coffee table book format—was thrilling. The contribution of Kate Orff articulates the complex industrial, economic, ecological, and historical problems that inevitably gave rise to the places in Misrach's photographs. These pictures become densely textured with the series of actions that disciplined the land of Louisiana into America's refinery and its sump.
Here, we hope to bring attention to this book, the problems it raises, and the ones that remain to be raised. Gwen Ottinger, whose 2013 book Refining Expertise performed a sharp analysis of discourse between local activists protesting a nearby refinery and its pollution, focuses on the intertwining relationship between nature and industry in Petrochemical America. She also calls attention to a missing element in the book's stark analysis—people—proposing that a deeper appreciation of the humans embedded in this landscape could help visualize a way out of our intractable commitment to oil. Ellen Spears, who previously curated Southern Spaces' Landscapes and Ecologies series, highlights the interdisciplinary achievement of Petrochemical America and contextualizes its production and position in ecological criticism. Finally, we include an excerpt from the book itself: an exploration of Louisiana's hybrid infrastructure and a map correlating industrial spills, explosions, and purposeful releases of pollutants with population centers.
These texts and images represent sophisticated and nuanced contributions to the ongoing debate about oil, ecological disaster, and southern Louisiana, while demonstrating the power of visual scholarship and spatial criticism. This debate will continue as Aperture makes Petrochemical America available to a broader public in paperback format in the spring of 2014 at half the cost of the hardcover version. To echo Ottinger, this important publication deserves wide circulation.
About the Author
Emma Lirette, originally from Chauvin, Louisiana, lives outside Atlanta with her wife and two daughters. She works as a User Experience Researcher in social media and holds a PhD in American Studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her book Last Stand of the Louisiana Shrimpers is forthcoming from University of Mississippi Press in September 2022.
Peopling Petrochemical America: A Review by Gwen Ottinger
|Pipeline and River Road, Donaldsonville, Louisiana, 2010. Photograph by Richard Misrach. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles. © Richard Misrach.|
For me, the petrochemical culture of southeastern Louisiana is epitomized by the pipe rack, one of which photographer Richard Misrach captures in plate 23 of Petrochemical America, his impressive collaboration with landscape architect Kate Orff. A site more common than plantation houses along the Louisiana River Road, a pipe rack is a collection of bracketed-together pipes of assorted sizes and dull metallic shades that emerges from a tangle of industrial units, always behind a chain link fence, and flies over the road like a highway overpass to disappear in the direction of the Mississippi, hidden by the green slope of the levee. Bridging complex machinery and a powerful river, clashing on the way with the levee's lush vegetation, the pipe rack has always seemed to me to represent the collision of industry and nature that makes Louisiana's "Industrial Corridor," a.k.a. "Cancer Alley," so fascinating.
In Petrochemical America, however, Misrach and Orff aren't content to see the relationship between industry and nature as a mere collision. Rather, their book's brilliance lies in depicting how industry and nature intertwine in the region. Skillfully weaving Misrach's photographs with Orff's visualizations of the myriad systems that run through the region—not just oil, but food, consumption, and waste—the book shows how the unique geography of the area has shaped industrial infrastructures and how petrochemical production continues to alter the landscape.
The first part of Petrochemical America consists of photographs taken by Misrach in the riverside communities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with extended captions that offer windows into the history of the region. He takes a broad view of his subject: there are pictures from restored plantation homes, pictures of churches and dwellings, and pictures of roadside quirks—a cow statue, a "hot lunch" sign with the lettering falling off. But the ubiquity of industry is the driving theme of these photos. As a backdrop for grasslands, swamps, and the river itself, the towers and tanks of chemical plants take on an eerie beauty in Misrach's spectacular landscapes. In photographs of human habitat, they have a more sinister aspect—outsized in comparison to modest homes; implicated in the desolation of an empty basketball court.
|Playground and Shell Refinery, Norco, Louisiana, 1998. Photograph by Richard Misrach. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn. © Richard Misrach.|
While the photography featured in Petrochemical America is both stunning and thought-provoking, the book's more important contribution lies in part 2, Kate Orff's Ecological Atlas. Just as part 1 began as an art museum exhibit, the visually rich two-page spreads that make up the atlas have the quality of natural history museum displays. Each features layers upon layers of information, arranged graphically so as to offer insights into complicated phenomena that are both richer and more comprehensible than what could be gained through the presentation of facts in isolation. For example, a timeline of oil production, entitled "Depths of Addiction," bisects its two pages horizontally, with period pictures of ever-taller drilling rigs arrayed above it. Below, the blue-black of murky depths gives way around 1950 to a bar chart showing steady increases in average drill depth—and exploding costs per foot as wells have gotten deeper. A graph is superimposed on the rigs above, as well: three white lines show trends in overall oil production, skyrocketing worldwide while staying relatively flat in the US.
Displays like these—some incorporating Misrach's photography from earlier in the book—combine to illustrate, with striking clarity, just how ubiquitous and deeply embedded in our everyday lives petrochemicals are. Orff arranges them into seven sections, each with a brief, accessible introduction that provides context for the information to come. Together, they describe the scope of the industry, its environmental and human health impacts, and its double-edged consequences for social life—both permanently displacing vulnerable communities and enabling all of us to pursue our particular visions of prosperity. Orff's section on "Infrastructure" is a particular contribution, making visible the pipelines, export routes, and material flows that are so important to the petrochemical industry but largely hidden from public view. Showing how petrochemicals are implicated in American food systems, she also makes the important argument that obesity should be considered among the health effects of petrochemicals.
Indeed, Orff's unique and accessible depictions of complex systems that comprise "petrochemical America" deserve inclusion in a natural history museum: the information she has to offer is too important to understanding the natural, political, and social world that we live in today to be available only to those motivated to purchase an eighty dollar tome. The authors are, in fact, well aware of the importance of what they have to offer, and they suggest throughout the book that they wish to help bring about change; specifically, to "participate in new thinking about how we can best divest ourselves of our addiction to petrochemicals, and to sketch the outlines of a more hopeful future" (17). Yet it is here that their otherwise outstanding book falls short, failing to visualize that hopeful future—or even progress toward it—with the same deftness that they visualize the systems that are already in place.
The authors explicitly address the question of change with a back-cover insert, the "Glossary of Terms & Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture." The utterly disparate list—tagged with letters that refer to the sections of the Ecological Atlas but are otherwise merely alphabetized—includes everything from consumer choices ("Eco-Friendly Cleaning and Lawn Products") to public infrastructure ("Public Transit"); organizing tools ("Odors and Symptoms Journal") to legislation ("Resource Conservation and Recovery Act"); with specific organizations ("Hollygrove Market and Farm") thrown in, seemingly as micro-case studies. The effect is both sprawling and haphazard: for every category one might see in their list, only a small fraction of its potential members are included and there is no apparent logic to why one has been selected over others (why RCRA and not the Clean Air Act, with its citizen enforcement provisions?). More importantly, the list does not offer any way of discriminating between more and less effective potential solutions, inviting the interpretation (which the authors surely would not endorse) that carpooling and buying natural fibers can create change in the absence of the hard work of lobbying and community organizing.
|Traffic on River Road heading toward Valero, Destrehen, Louisiana. Photograph by Gwen Ottinger. Courtesy of photographer.|
The authors are unable to present a more coherent account of what change might look like, I believe, because of an important omission from the main substance of the book: people. Misrach's photos are oddly devoid of human life. People are seldom his subjects, appearing in only three of the pictures in the book (only once facing the camera), and the churches and houses that he does depict could be imagined to be uninhabited—no clothes hanging on the line, no cars parked out front. Human figures do appear occasionally in the Ecological Atlas, but with the notable exception of the "Displacement" section, Orff's treatment of them is abstract. Populations are represented by stick figures, people on the land are shown in silhouette, health effects of chemicals are paired with faceless anatomical diagrams, not residents using their inhalers. It is only in the glossary, which features a few quotations from environmental activists, that the reader gains access to the actors on whom change depends.
Petrochemical America might very easily have included pictures of community members demonstrating at refinery gates, or taking air samples under a raging flare. But to depict the fullness of life in "Cancer Alley," it would also have had to include images of a joyful family reunion going on against the backdrop of an industrial facility, of a community leader accepting a check from a refinery manager with a lovably dopey grin, of a homeowner on the fenceline of a petrochemical plant showing off his new vinyl siding. The Ecological Atlas might have traced the flow of highly educated petrochemical industry scientists and engineers into Louisiana plants from corporate offices, out to central research and development facilities, off to California refineries, back again to take the helm of a plant somewhere else along the river; it might have mapped the increasingly lengthy commutes of workers into and residents out of fenceline communities, noting that these can't be accomplished by public transit; it might have visualized the extent of the various laws that cover petrochemical operations, showing the overlaps and gaps amid which companies do business.
Including the human dimensions of the systems Petrochemical America visualizes would not have undermined the authors' point that petrochemicals are, for all their ubiquity, pernicious and unsustainable—far from it. It would, however, have demonstrated people's complex relationships with the complex systems that the book depicts and thus forced readers interested in change to grapple with the fact that corporations are not merely wanton and irresponsible, and that fenceline communities are not merely brave victims. Beyond showing how the petrochemical industry is intertwined with every aspect of our lives, which Petrochemical America does so ably, the book could also have mapped out the many ways in which everyone is implicated in its perpetuation. Seeing that in the book's information-dense but easy-to-grasp format could start the process of visualizing change by enabling clearer thinking about which of the flows in which we participate most need to be interrupted, which infrastructures require dismantling first and what new ones need to be in place before we can, and what coalitions of actors are best positioned to start those processes.
About the Author
Gwen Ottinger is assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell.
A New Nature: A Review by Ellen Griffith Spears
|Cypress Swamp, Alligator Bayou, Louisiana, 1998. Photograph by Richard Misrach. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn. © Richard Misrach.|
"The rise of the oil economy had profound consequences," wrote environmental historian Adam Rome in a 2002 critique of twentieth century American historiography for its failure to attend to ecological processes and the dominant role of Big Oil in accounts of the nation's past.1Adam Rome, "What Really Matters in History?: Environmental Perspectives on Modern America." Environmental History 7, no. 2 (2002): 303. Photographer Richard Misrach and geographer Kate Orff's collaborative tour-de-force, Petrochemical America, documents those profound consequences with visionary insight and creative power. What appears on first glance to be one more gorgeous large format photographic exhibit catalog is no ordinary coffee table book, but a creative and innovative mapping of the country's "petrochemical culture." The book creates a new benchmark for representing eco-cultural history, outlining the impact of the nation's oil dependent economy on the landscape of the Gulf South.
A collective effort by photographer and geographer, aided by Orff's creative team, the book highlights the extraordinary potential of interdisciplinary scholarship to represent cultural and spatial relationships between humans and our geophysical environments. Misrach, best known for his path-breaking color photography of the American West, has long engaged ecological themes. Misrach's powerfully affecting images of open dead animal dumping pits in the Nevada desert pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to end the practice. The set of images in Petrochemical America were commissioned by the High Museum in Atlanta and displayed on wall-sized canvasses in a 2012 exhibition, Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach's Cancer Alley. In a photographic survey of his work given as a lecture at the High in June 2012 during the exhibition, Misrach displayed the trajectory of his life's work, making evident the links between his stark, emotional color photography of Western landscapes and these images from the Gulf Coast.
The imaginative pairing of Misrach's photographs with Orff's innovative mapping of petrochemical culture along the Gulf makes for a unique text. The infographics in the second half of the book distill information about the petrochemical landscape, showing the chemicals produced, the impact of waste, and the displacement of the mostly poor, mostly African American communities along River Road, the chemical corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Combining maps, "data narratives," and "eco portraits," Orff vividly portrays elements of time, space, and scale. "From the Earth to the Sky" traces Pleistocene geologic formations to the present; maps follow the river's meander belt through native Mississippian culture and regional displacement during and beyond the slavery period. In the present, the authors name names, noting the chemical industry giants that have transformed rich subterranean deposits into multi-billion dollar profit centers and noting the extent of US consumers' "addiction to oil." Maps highlight altered bird migration patterns due to wetland loss and the oxygen-less "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Graphics also call attention to "the synthetic nitrogen cycle," "the industrial food chain," and the health consequences of petroleum and related wastes, noting suggestive national patterns of high rates of colon and rectal cancer in the Mississippi River Basin. Though focused on America's Gulf Coast, the scale expands to include "Cancer Alleys" around the globe.
A fine teaching tool for geographers, political and social scientists, and environmental historians alike, the book sets a new standard in conveying richly descriptive information in a creative and evocative manner. Virginia Tech environmental historian Barbara Allen, author of Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor Disputes (2003), who advised on Petrochemical America, gave a tour for Georgia Tech students of the Misrach exhibit at the High, calling attention to the lessons to be drawn from the displaced towns along Louisiana's River Road—Morrisonville, Reveilletown, Norco/Diamond, and more—and the importance of "nurturing justice in frontline communities."
|Trailer Home and Natural Gas Tanks, Good Hope Street, Norco, Louisiana, 1998. Photograph by Richard Misrach. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn. © Richard Misrach.|
As guide for their graphic tour of the Gulf Coast, Misrach and Orff were fortunate to have Willie Fontenot, a Baton Rouge resident who has lived the story they have documented. Few people are more knowledgeable about the environmental challenges facing those who seek to repair the petrochemical damage to the Gulf Coast. During twenty-six years as community liaison officer for environmental affairs in the Louisiana attorney general's office, Fontenot assisted environmental justice activists, before being forced out of his position in 2005, after he showed a group of college students the site of a 1989 explosion at the ExxonMobil petrochemical processing facility. One wishes these authors might have given more central focus to Fontenot and people like him who have struggled to reshape this region's landscape for the better. Some are mentioned in the "Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture," an addendum that complements the text. For example, Wilma Subra is the 1999 MacArthur "Genius Award"-winning chemist whose work in Mossville, Louisiana, was highlighted in 2010 by CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta's special, "Toxic America." Subra has put her professional skills in the service of grassroots organizations whose members have attempted to learn what petroleum-based chemicals are doing to their land and bodies.
A valuable addition to this text would have been a map documenting the estimated four hundred such citizens' groups who have fought corporate polluters along the Gulf Coast region. Among them are: Jesus People Against Pollution in Columbia, Mississippi, formed to address the latent exposures from a 1977 chemical factory explosion; Citizens Against Nuclear Trash in Homer, Louisiana, who fought Louisiana Energy Services' plan to open a uranium enrichment plant; and further east, Citizens Against Toxic Exposure in Pensacola, Florida, who won relocation away from Mt. Dioxin, the toxic leavings from a timber processing yard and other chemical facilities. A brief mention of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network would be supplemented by reference to the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization, which has organized to assist Cancer Alley residents, and a short description of the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic would further highlight the clinic's joint work with Gulf Coast Tenants, Greenpeace southeast regional organizer Damu Smith, and other groups in successfully blocking a Japanese plastics manufacturer from locating a large, polluting polyvinyl chloride factory near Convent, Louisiana. Foregrounding the place-based resistance movements that the petrochemical and related energy industries have engendered in these locales would acknowledge a critical component for reaching toward an elusive "post-petrochemical culture."
These authors do usefully direct readers' attention to "redrawing the map," to imagining an eclectic array of bioregional strategies that "would not only make for a more healthful nation, but a happier and more cohesive civilization" (198). Toward that end, the authors carefully add up their own ecological footprint in completing the project, in a section entitled "Implicated." In the spare narrative that accompanies the maps and images, the authors write of the chemical transformation of these places, "Intentionally and not, we have designed a new nature" (191). In this extraordinary rendering, Misrach and Orff have given readers a new vision of how we might understand—and perhaps transform for the better—that new nature.
About the Author
Ellen Griffith Spears is assistant professor in New College and the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama.
Infrastructure Seen and Unseen: An Excerpt from Petrochemical America by Kate Orff
Louisiana's natural geography has been radically repurposed into a vast network for extracting, storing, and transporting oil and natural gas. The industrial corridor is located in the lower Mississippi River alluvial and deltaic plains. The region is rich with the core elements of petrochemical production: unlimited river water for cooling and processing; salty brine necessary for the production of chlorine; cavernous salt domes; and oil and natural gas deposits under the seabed's surface. These mesh with artificial infrastructure in the form of drilling rigs, tankers, pipelines, and refineries. Together, the artificial/natural system of the Gulf is capable of producing and transferring more than 1.6 million barrels a day of crude oil (more than thirty percent of all US production) and 2.7 trillion cubic feet per year of natural gas (almost thirteen percent of all US production).
This hybrid infrastructural network connects visible and invisible systems. Moving through the landscape, a lone pipe emerges over levees and backswamps only to dive back down into the ground toward its unknowable destination. At moments, clusters of pipes soar above River Road in an industrial-scaled, welcoming archway and then disappear into the fenced boundary of a nearby factory. At night, refineries produce a sort of artificial sunset, a hazy graph of color and fire against the dark sky. An endless field of (functioning or abandoned) holding tanks merges with tract housing in the foreground. Seemingly pristine, sinuous bayous are suddenly bisected by linear canals built for logging and pipelines that stretch to the horizon.
|Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex) at Night, Across from Bonnet Carré Spillway, Norco, Louisiana, 1998. Photograph by Richard Misrach. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn. © Richard Misrach.|
Just as often, the infrastructure is completely unseen. Massive underground canyons called salt domes—dating back to the Jurassic period—are hollowed out to hold natural gas, ethylene, and oil. Bayou Choctaw alone, near Baton Rouge, holds 73.2 million barrels of oil as part of the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Underground pipes transport not only crude and natural gas but finished products like gasoline, heating oil, ethylene, and other gases. Also, below the surface, amidst stratified layers of sand and clay, lie fluid stores of both drinking water and hazardous waste, like hydrochloric acid, which can move up to thirty feet per year.
The Mississippi River itself is the most striking example of this natural and artificial infrastructural template. The river essentially created two-thirds of the land mass in the state of Louisiana through deposition and erosion of sediment over thousands of years, creating fertile silt and sandy loam soils well suited for agriculture. A mythical presence in American history, the Mississippi defined the culture and economy of Middle America along its length. Native Americans settled on its edges. Later, this north-south transportation corridor intricately linked ports of trade, towns and small cities, plantation houses, ferries, small barges, and steamboats. After oil was discovered in Texas in 1901, the river's deep water, proximity to oil and gas deposits, and position on natural bluffs led Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) to construct a major refinery at Baton Rouge in 1909, a harbinger of the region's twentieth-century transformation.
|Details from Toxic Release Mapping, Petrochemical America, page 150–151. Illustration by Kate Orff. Courtesy of author.|
Mark Twain wrote, "The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise." Twenty years after his death in 1910, in the wake of the great flood of 1927, the river was leveed into its current alignment, and the paradigm shift from Twain to Texaco (. . . to Chevron Global) was underway. The contiguous levee infrastructure dramatically changed the relationship between land settlement and the river. While it provided docking facilities and deepwater transport for larger industrial vessels, the Mississippi was physically and visually cut off from surrounding lands, severing it from communities and cultures. The Mississippi River was no longer perceived as infrastructure in the public realm. Over time, it has transformed into a semiprivatized, industrial super-corridor that carries tankers and barges, in addition to serving as a giant, open waste pipeline to the Gulf. Oil from Louisiana's land fields peaked in 1970 and has been in a continuous state of decline, calling into question the viability of the region's long-term appeal to industry. Offshore oil drilling started in 1947 and dominates production today. Companies such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Mobil that focus on deepwater drilling have predominantly relocated their operations to Houston.
Methods for refining oil evolved dramatically—from boiling it (which contributed to the decimation of Louisiana's cypress forests) to increasingly complex thermo-, hydro-, and catalytic cracking processes. These processes separate oil into its constituent hydrocarbons, which then become a diverse array of feedstocks, ranging from heavy gas to naphtha. By the 1960s, refineries dominated the river landscape in Cancer Alley, and set into motion a cycle of physical separation, speed, and pollution that severed local cultural connections to the river. For example, in Baton Rouge, there is only one public boat launch site on the Mississippi River, a seemingly abandoned lot of tamped earth that slopes down to the shore next to the defunct municipal dock. Many poor subsistence fishermen, in addition to some sportsmen, continue to fish its water and are exposed to its contaminants.
While still useful for shipping bulk materials, today the Mississippi River as an industrial transportation corridor has been superseded by a vast network of highways and pipelines better suited to smaller-scale specialty chemicals and plastics. In light of the depletion and contamination of its natural resources and the threat of rising sea levels on its infrastructure, the future of the regional economy will depend on education and harnessing the energy of the surrounding communities. Residents will be challenged with rebuilding landscapes, generating new cultures, and imagining new economies.
Toxic Release Mapping
Compared with similar industrial areas in other parts of the country, Louisiana's industrial corridor is more densely populated, so pollutants generated have a greater impact. In the past, industries operated behind the veil of landscaped gates and were subjected to very little public oversight in terms of pollution. In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), which mandated the establishment of a publicly accessible Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Overseen by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the TRI is a publicly searchable database of the industry's self-calculated, self-reported chemical releases. This map shows population centers adjacent to cumulative toxic releases (into the air, land, water, and via injection well) as reported between 1998 and 2008 in the TRI. The visual display of this data reveals the dangerous proximity of people and industry that resulted from a dearth of planning, industrial explosions, accidents, and spills—an inevitable component of business operations—exceed these legal releases. Efforts to improve overall safety include the international Responsible Care program, started by the chemical industry in the mid-1980s. However, mechanical deterioration, human error, and natural disasters will always produce failures. An event like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout is anomalous only in its extreme size.
About the Author
Kate Orff is an Assistant Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She is the co-author with Robert Misrach of Petrochemical America (Aperture Foundation, 2012) and co-editor with Jamie Hand of Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). Orff is the Founder and Co-Director of the Urban Landscape Lab and a Partner at the landscape architecture firm SCAPE.
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|1.||Adam Rome, "What Really Matters in History?: Environmental Perspectives on Modern America." Environmental History 7, no. 2 (2002): 303.|