Aesthetic Encounters with Petro-Capitalism
This is the introduction to a forthcoming article by myself and Jan Dickey for a volume on Climate Change in Hawaii and the Pacific.
In 2014 artist Kelly Jazvac, along with scientists Patricia Corcoran and Charles Moore, identified some curious stone formations on Kamilo Beach, located on the southeast tip of Hawaii Island. They appeared to be rock conglomerates; stones composed of lava rock, coral, organic materials, sand, and––what is most striking––colorful plastic debris. Jazvac and her collaborators dubbed this discovery “plastiglomerate,” writing an article together for the Geological Society of America’s news magazine GSA Today. They argued that this new stone could be understood as a visual and material indicator of large-scale anthropogenic impact on the planet. The theory put forth in GSA Today is that beach bonfires heat up the plastic flotsam, allowing it to glom onto other natural and unnatural substances. The result is a curious human-oceanographic-geologic collaboration involving distribution, sedimentation, and metamorphosis.
The plastic found on Hawaii’s beaches is just a fraction of the ocean trash currently concentrated in the middle of the North Pacific currents. The Hawaiian archipelago, forming a huge arc in the middle of this convergence zone, acts as a giant dragnet or trap for the plastic. The floating debris often traps turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and whales. As the material breaks down in the ocean and along the islands’ shores, bits of it become part of the regular but indigestible diet of birds, endangering entire species. Once it breaks down even further, it attracts toxins. These micro-plastics are digestible for plankton, crabs and fish, introducing poisons into the food chain.
For artists like Jazvac, this drifting plastic is not only an indicator of the permanent mark humans are leaving on the planet, but also a new artistic medium with which to create perceptual and attitudinal shifts about our petroleum-based lifestyle in general. As the ocean’s many great garbage patches move in concert with industrialized society, plastiglomerate stones exist as easy-to-grasp (both literally and metaphorically) artifacts of petrochemical structures that are usually only noticed indirectly, and only on either the molecular and the global scale.
Indeed, the atmospheric and ecological shifts that come from releasing so many greenhouse gases related to petroleum use are a challenge to our current and limited modes of perceiving and conceptualizing the world. The major impasse of climate change debates has to do with the very fact that we cannot see our impact to the Earth’s climate systems with our naked eyes, which introduces conflicting interpretative lenses. While some argue that the climate has always been changing and our short-term records are useless, many many others see the statistical incline of CO2 and natural disasters as clearly marking “The Great Acceleration,” beginning with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Even if we rationally understand the impact that our species is having on the climate, it is still hard for traditional modes of perception, calculation, and conceptualization to capture the complex causal relationship between daily behavior and global shifts: using plastic bags and hurricanes, for instance.
At its very core, this is not only a scientific or political problem, but an aesthetic problem—a problem of how to see and experience objects, forces, and changes both much much larger than our human rhythms, longer than human lifetimes, and also much much smaller than our eyes can see. The logical explication of accumulated data (weather records, ice core samples, ocean current tracking, population statistics, etc.) still does not convince all of us. Art can help with this conundrum, primarily because it can engage our ability to perceive the nonhuman scale of such data as affective residue. For instance, the framing of objects like plastiglomerate not only as “factual evidence” but also as uncanny, poetic, and aesthetic things allows for the imagination to sense climate change as conflicted emotion. That is, a piece of plastiglomerate can be taken as an object of contemplation, allowing us to dwell on feelings of wonder at the sublimity of climate change, a sense of futility of individual action, and even self-doubt over whether this is all just a paranoid episode. It also allows discovery of shared sensitivities and responsibilities for such complexity. In short, it is important to acknowledge the power of our affective or visceral responses to such objects. It is important to acknowledge the power and emotion of not being able to understand or resolve. These experiences are undoubtedly different than what we would consider a traditional “logical” or “complete” scientific understanding of climate change, but arguably they are just as powerful and persuasive.
 Patricia Corcoran, Kelly Jazvac, and Charles Moore, “An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record,” GSA Today (June 2014): 4-8.
 Sileo, Louis, et al. "Prevalence and characteristics of plastic ingested by Hawaiian seabirds." Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris. Vol. 2. 1989.
 Charts of the Great Acceleration were originally published in 2004. Recent updates are provided in Will Steffen, et.al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review vol. 2, n. 2 (April 2015): 81-98.