Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Environment, Science

Five Questions with Christina Dunbar-Hester, author of “Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond”

San Pedro Bay, which contains the contiguous Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, is a significant site for petroleum shipping and refining as well as one of the largest container shipping ports in the world—some forty percent of containerized imports to the United States pass through this so-called America’s Port. It is also ecologically rich. Built atop a land- and waterscape of vital importance to wildlife, the heavily industrialized Los Angeles Harbor contains estuarial wetlands, the LA River mouth, and a marine ecology where colder and warmer Pacific Ocean waters meet. In this compelling interdisciplinary investigation, award-winning author Christina Dunbar-Hester explores the complex relationships among commerce, empire, environment, and the nonhuman life forms of San Pedro Bay over the last fifty years—a period coinciding with the era of modern environmental regulation in the United States. The LA port complex is not simply a local site, Dunbar-Hester argues, but a node in a network that enables the continued expansion of capitalism, propelling trade as it drives the extraction of natural resources, labor violations, pollution, and other harms. Focusing specifically on cetaceans, bananas, sea birds, and otters whose lives are intertwined with the vitality of the port complex itself, Oil Beach reveals how logistics infrastructure threatens ecologies as it circulates goods and capital—and helps us to consider a future where the accumulation of life and the accumulation of capital are not in violent tension.

In this post, we chat with Christina about her research approach and the past, present, and future of San Pedro Bay.

How did you wind up in your field, and what do you love about it?

The field in which I did my PhD is Science & Technology Studies, i.e. social and historical studies of how science and technology are built and move in the world. One thing I love about it is that while the title of the field may sound quite specialized and narrow, that is deceptive: really nearly any topic in the world could be in STS’ purview and amenable to STS analysis, and it’s a very valuable lens for many contemporary topics and problems.

Both of your previous books, Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism and Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures, were wonderfully interdisciplinary. Oil Beach follows suit—with a particular ecological turn. Can you tell us a bit about that approach?

My own orientation is to essentially ask interpretive questions about why artifacts and systems have been built the way they are and to understand the belief systems and structures leading to often fairly durable assemblages of practice, knowledge, and material. Every single decision leading into the artifacts and systems that surround us has a history and a set of choices that were made and literally built into the physical instantiations we live with. This mode of inquiry can require engaging with scientific and engineering research; and documents produced by activists, industry, or civil authorities; as well as historical, social, and cultural studies.  (Many STS scholars have science or engineering education and/or work backgrounds before doing a doctoral degree in STS. Although I’m not actually one of them, as I studied the history of science and urban studies!)

Anyway, I’m always motivated to ask how technological systems are built, by and for whom, and with which effects—and also to keep our eye on questions pertaining to the paths not taken when certain infrastructural commitments get made. When I moved to California for work about seven years ago, I didn’t necessarily intend to switch focus from communication and media topics to energy and ecology; but in my mind, maybe this switch isn’t so big, as I’m still trying to understand infrastructural systems we are living with, including present and recent historical choices. And there are a lot of connections between energy and information infrastructures, including the energy consumption of intensive computing, which has led “Big Tech” to remain keenly interested in keeping oil flowing, for example (see Gizmodo). In Oil Beach, one of the things I’m interested in is how logistics techniques and just-in-time inventory management systems intensify environmental harms. Arguably they create efficiencies, but those in turn help build scale. Global trade volume has ballooned so much since the 1970s, it’s actually hard to fathom.

While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

What continually surprises me about San Pedro Bay—and this is more of an experiential surprise than an intellectual one, because intellectually it’s not so difficult to grasp this—is just how recent the choices are that make this built environment what it is. With the port complex, there is on the one hand a very totalizing modernization project, cement docks and freeways, and refineries, literally as far as the eye can see here. That can make the space feels like it has a permanence, a solidity, an ineluctable and unstoppable momentum. But in reality, the wetlands were drained, oil was tapped, the river was channelized in cement, etc., only decades ago, a mere century, a tiny blink in geologic time. I found I had to keep both of those ideas in mind at all times with this project, and that was challenging.

Where will your research and writing take you next?

I actually have quite a few strands of research from the Oil Beach project that didn’t make it into the book, but which I intend to keep following. One thing I’m thinking about is how measurement and exchange function in conservation; I would like to take another pass at some of the documents I read for Oil Beach with more attention to these issues. Another is a more up-to-the-minute look at the present and future of oil extraction in Los Angeles, which environmental justice activists, city managers, and the petroleum industry are wrangling about right now. Lastly, I have some threads relating to shipping and maritime governance, which will trace the story out of greater Los Angeles into other points of connection with activism and policy beyond California. I like being place-ful in research and there is still so much to learn and say here. Maybe there will be a sequel.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

A few recent books that are staying with me right now are:

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Sulfuric Utopias: A History of Maritime Fumigation, by Lukas Engelmann and Christos Lynteris

Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly, by Emily West

Thinking like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy, by Elizabeth Popp Berman

Reconsidering Reparations, by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

I don’t know if this is a predictable list or not, given my recent work. My guess is it is!

Christina Dunbar-Hester is a science and technology studies scholar and associate professor in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the author of Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism, winner of the McGannon Award for Social and Ethical Relevance in Communications Technology Research, and Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures, winner of the Information Science Book of the Year Award from the Association for Information Science and Technology.

Oil Beach is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.