The 150-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is home to a mindboggling concentration of petrochemical plants, industrial facilities that produce the country’s lifeblood of polypropylene, glycol ethers, perchloroethylene, alcohol ethoxylates, and other unpronounceables. You know, the stuff that eventually becomes our plastic bags, bottles, tires, pesticides, and food preservatives. The corridor is sometimes known as "Cancer Alley," a bleak nod to the unintended consequences—for people, wildlife, and the landscape—of processing all these chemicals.
Photographer Richard Misrach first documented the area in 1998 for an exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum. Returning to the river more than a decade later, he wanted to retell the story of this place in a way that might begin to suggest some solutions. He collaborated with landscape architect Kate Orff on the latest project, a visually staggering photo essay and "ecological atlas" published by the Aperture Foundation, Petrochemical America. The book is a novel mixture of raw emotion (from Misrach’s images) and analytical vigor (from Orff’s intricate diagrams of everything from the Chevron corporate tree to the history of our "Petroleum Age").
Misrach’s photos each evoke a larger story. Some of his most compelling images capture Louisiana’s landscape in the foreground, with industrial architecture—as seen through a haze of pollution—in the background. Others hint at the history of large chemical companies buying out and relocating entire local communities.
"My initial thought was to reveal some of these layers in a new way with the photographs," Orff says. "But then when I started to look more closely, I thought ‘this is a really big story.’ This is a story of America. This is the story of this one place in relation to America, and America’s consumption pattern of oil and plastic. It’s a great story that I think has yet to be told."
Orff and Misrach ended up with a finished project notably different from the one they set out to create. From their initial desire to unpack the story of this one place, they wound up wandering into politics, ecology, geology, history, technology, and global consumption, narrating how each area is intimately connected through this one stretch of land. Many of the diagrams produced by Orff’s New York-based landscape architecture studio SCAPE are literally layered on top of the Misrach photo that inspired them.
One intricate spread illustrates milestones on our timeline of petro-consumption, through the inventions of the internal combustion engine, the world’s first synthetic plastic, and Dupont’s creation of Neoprene. Another tells the story of how chemicals first produced here from oil and natural gas extraction are later used in pesticides across farms in the Midwest, where they ultimately contribute to runoff that winds up returning back down the Mississippi River producing dead zones in the Gulf that harm local seafood industries.
We have, Orff suggests, turned the American landscape into a machine for consuming oil and gas petrochemicals. "And now," she says, "we’re in a really difficult position that we’re needing to feed the machine." The whole book winds up being not so much about this one geographical corner of the country, but about a broader system in which we’re all implicated for our overdependence on the kind of disposable products that are first born here.
"We implicate ourselves along with everybody else," Orff says. "I’m looking at my computer, and I’m sure it’s got PCB plastic and a hundred things in it." This touches on one solution about what to do with a place like Chemical Alley (and its Chemical Alley cousins in countries all over the world—those are mapped in the book, too). "We should just stop using disposable plastics," Orff says. "We need to use plastic for computers and toothbrushes, but this cult of disposability has to stop."
It’s also time to rethink the settlement patterns of how we live, the size and density of our homes and the products we use in them. This larger narrative of how consumption in New York City connects to landscapes of production in Louisiana, which connect to environmental consequences in the Mississippi Delta is also tied into the very debate we’re having today about the climate change implications of events like Hurricane Sandy. Orff also worked on the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 Rising Currents exhibition that has been getting much attention since Sandy. That project (and her proposal for "Oyster-tecture" to protect the city) was more about a soft infrastructure fix for the city in an age of climate change. Petrochemical America points instead to deeper cultural and behavioral changes.
Orff says she and Misrach have not gotten any response from the chemical companies mentioned in the book (they have worried about retribution other academics have faced in the past from the industry, "but hopefully," Orff says, "the times have changed a little bit and they’re not as much willing to go after the academic trying to make a salient point"). She has, however, already received extensive feedback from the book’s intended audience.
"When I lecture about the material, inevitably there are like five hands that go up that say ‘my father lived near a lead smelting plant, and this happened there.’ These same dynamics were in play," she says. When people can draw those personal connections to all of the data and images contained in the project, that’s a sign that they’re grasping the larger narrative. "People get it in such a big way, it’s really exciting."