Ecologies of Automation

My project seeks to investigate that relationship between urban and economic forms by exploring patterns of urbanization emerging from the growing diffusion of labor automation technologies. Working through a ‘planetary’ understanding of urbanization, I focus on globally emerging territories of automation by following a single commodity along with its transcontinental production networks. Through ethnographic and relational fieldwork, the project retraces the planetary travels of Li-ion batteries—from lithium extraction in South American salaries to cell production in Chinese gigafactories and their subsequent employment in ‘new energy vehicles’ across new smart urban clusters.

Year

2021

Type

PhD

Introduction

The mine/city nexus illustrates the long-lasting material interdependence that exists between processes of urbanization and the extraction of resources. Each energy transition of the past—think of coal and oil—has both been premised upon and generated itself planetary-scale geographic transformations. Why should we then think differently about the unfolding transition to renewable energy sources?

Mines of the zero-emission city

Abstract. The first chapter of my dissertation takes commodity chains as a methodological orientation to describe how the forms of urban agglomeration and those of extension are
mutually transformed. Although studies of urban metabolism have vastly flourished over the last two decades, commodities remain a largely underrated urban heuristic therein. And yet, an economic history of the city elucidates how its existence is tightly bound to and ultimately premised upon the planetary-scale circulation of things through the market. In order to carve such methodological space, this chapter reviews the commodity chain genealogy in economic geography, charting how its engagement with urban issues has remained limited. To explore these issues in practice, it turns to examine the interdependence of zero-emission urbanism with other territories of production and extraction by reconstructing a ‘lithium road’. Lithium is a fundamental ingredient in the production of high-performance batteries, themselves being a fundamental component in the current pathway to urban decarbonization worldwide. In calling for a systematic exploration of the ‘backroads of decarbonization’, the chapter concludes that, by illuminating the extractive processes emerging together with the decarbonization of cities, an urban metabolism of commodities is a precious tool in unpacking the material geographies of urban change.

Where the veil remains: preclusion as method in follow-the-thing research

Abstract. From planning to empirical work, following things entails stumbling upon frequent gaps. This is possibly unavoidable if the commodity-form, as traced by Marx, is defined by its ‘mysterious character.’ While such mystery has historically stimulated thing-followers to ‘tear aside the veil’ in order to unmask the fetish, the many places along a commodity chain where the veil forcefully remains have been seldom discussed. In this chapter I observe how such mysterious character translates into material preclusions. I draw on participant observation, bus rides, interviews, walks, site visits and document analysis which I performed on and off a ‘lithium route’ crossing Argentina and Chile between 2018 and 2020 as part of a larger effort to follow the life of li-ion batteries.
Firstly, I soon had to realise that following a large part of the supply chain with strict ethnographic methods is empirically unviable. This is particularly the case with technologically complex goods and contrasts with the centrality of ethnographic methods typical of much follow-the-thing research. Secondly, while en route, many things have been concealed to my view and listening. Permission to access extraction sites has been denied, accurate reporting on environmental damage never showed, actual shipping routes concealed or inaccurately pictured. These prominent gaps can stimulate our methods to ‘get messier’ and ‘dance a little,’ both on and off the ground. If global commodity chains are not smooth flows but jarring entanglements, we need to assume preclusion as a suggestive condition of inquiry.
Abstract accepted at the RGS-IBG 2020 conference, session On methods of thing-following. 1–4 September 2020, London, UK.

Land, labor and lithium extraction zones: infrastructural violence in the Olaroz basin, Argentina

Abstract. The high-altitude territories of the Puna de Atacama in the Argentinian province of Jujuy are a growing global hotspot for lithium-related exploration, extraction and popular contestation. As part of the global rush to locate, secure and extract this new commodity, land use change goes along profound transformations in the land ownership structure. This occurs in a territory which is vastly organised through collective land ownership and
management, the structure of which is being progressively fragmented in individual plots of
land. This chapter offers an account of the dynamics by which mining companies and the local State are producing such shifts. While the literature on extraction zones has concentrated on the explicitly violent means by which these sociospatial configurations are established, this is hard to retrace on the Atacama plateau. Building on Tania Li’s concept of infrastructural violence, this chapter proposes an additional reading of this notion, one that maintains violence as structural to the formation of these landscapes but beyond outright manifestation. The violence scarring these operational landscapes is a hardly visible one: like infrastructure, it only manifests itself when friction appears in an otherwise apparently smooth operation. Empirically, the chapter focuses on the fragmentation of land property in the Olaroz basin in the Argentinian province of Jujuy. The infrastructural violence sustaining these landscapes of extraction stands in sharp contrast with popular narratives of ‘clean’ extraction employed to justify an equally clean mode of urban development.

Energy and finance: a political ecology of the Cauchari solar plant, Argentina

Abstract. Surrounded by proliferating enclaves for the extraction of lithium, the Cauchari solar plant in the Jujuy province of Argentina is the largest photovoltaic installation in South America, the highest globally and the first piece of a planned 1GW solar complex expected to be the world’s second largest. Besides its sheer magnitude, Cauchari incorporates an equally considerable amount of financial capital. In fact, it would not be in place without the existence of big finance, in this case embodied by a 330 million dollar loan granted to the provincial State of Jujuy by the State-controlled Export–Import Bank of China. Cauchari is a flagship project in the Argentinian RenovAr program, of which 3/4 of solar and 1/2 of wind projects are also linked to Chinese finance and technology. This is descriptive of the unrolling geographies of a ‘green BRI,’ an infrastructural vision materialized through the deployment of Chinese technological components and injections of financial capital.
Regionally, this solar plant is part and parcel of the prospected transformation of the entire province of Jujuy into a ‘power province,’ a developmental model premised upon the generation of renewable energy, the extraction of mineral resources and the smooth circulation of goods. In this paper I observe the relationship existing between the flow of large-scale monetary investments in this solar infrastructure with the multiplication of micro-financial support to rural communities and individuals. By drawing on document analysis and participant observation at the Cauchari construction site and in nearby communities, I explore the reasons and modalities through which ‘big finance’ has to mutate into ‘microfinance’ in order to hit the ground and realize itself into physical infrastructure.
The controversial and uneven dynamics which hold together the fabric of these operational landscapes, I argue, are illuminating of the sociospatial conditions by which digital media and data are materially produced, circulated and consumed.
Abstract accepted at the NECSI 2020 conference, session Infrastructural Pasts and Futures: Global Extractive Processes of Media. 18–20 June 2020, Palermo, IT.

Enduring axes of dispossession: Emerging geographies of the Belt and Road Initiative in Latin America

Abstract. The Capricorn Integration and Development Hub is a 15 million-dollar investment plan comprising 77 infrastructural projects running across the territories of five Latin American states. The hub is one of the seven conceived by the Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America (IIRSA), a longstanding project initiated in the year 2000 by the Interamerican Development Bank and further developed by UNASUR. Almost twenty years
later, in June 2017, Panama became the first country to officially join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s most comprehensive present-day foreign policy instrument marked by the goal to develop infrastructural projects on a global scale. By the end of the year, Latin American and Caribbean countries had been formalized as the BRI’s “natural extension” by the Chinese government and by late 2019 six additional Latin American countries had signed Belt and Road Cooperation Agreements, while others have struck deals within the framework avoiding formal memberships. Possibly, IIRSA and the BRI are being aligned through the common goal of financing and building hard infrastructures of connectivity. At the intersection of these two trajectories, large-scale Chinese-funded operations are being developed within the area of influence of the Capricorn Hub. It is here that the rapidly growing infrastructures for the extraction of lithium from the Atacama salt flats become enmeshed with the urban fabric developed through the Capricorn Hub’s network of customs integration procedures, road and railway construction and the establishment of logistics zones. Reliance upon Chinese finance and technology is anything but novel in the Latin American region, however the current phase seems to be based on novel ideals of development centered on digital technologies and renewable energy unrolled by China both at home and abroad. As activists and academics in the region link Chinese investments with indigenous rights violations and environmental destruction, these projects remain susceptible to established critiques of development: the corridors they project remain premised upon the constitution of enclaves, frontier economies and resource extraction and have been understood as “axes of dispossession,” rather than development. In this chapter I advance considerations on how strengthening political and economic ties between China and several Latin American states within the BRI framework might allow us to
think about a ‘third phase’ for the IIRSA project, questioning whether this might be substantially different or structurally equal to preceding shifts. In order to do so, I review extant literature on the socio-spatial features of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Eurasian and African context, highlighting its connections with Chinese domestic environmental and industrial policies. Secondly, I briefly sketch the developments of the IIRSA project and reconstruct the recent history of strengthening sino-Latin American ties by highlighting the progressive alignment of IIRSA and the BRI. Thirdly, I turn to examining these dynamics in the unrolling of extractive projects along the Atacama section of Capricorn Hub. Through the arguments presented in this chapter I seek to advance knowledge around emerging debates on logistical urbanization and on the geographies of development corridors by describing the sociospatial features of the Belt and Road Initiative in its emerging Latin American manifestations.
Abstract submitted to the Doctoral Colloquium on the Infrastructure Turn and Global Development 12 May 2020,She