Author Archives: James Maguire

About James Maguire

PhD Fellow: I have previously conducted fieldwork in Iceland focusing on the interplay between dual environmental (disappearing fishing) and economic (inflating debt) crises. I am returning to Iceland for my current doctoral work and will be focusing on energy controversies and possibilities, investigating the manner in which energy underwrites multiple dimensions of social, political and economic life in Iceland. My interests include politics, ontology, ethnography and the intersection between anthropology and STS.

Running from Bárðarbunga

Resting at a campsite in Mývatn, which lies to the west of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river canyon that was evacuated yesterday, our (myself and Laura) apprehensive mood has lifted and a more inquisitive tone has set in. Did a volcanic eruption actually occur? In fact what is an eruption anyway, what constitutes it as an event? The media like to portray it with ash, large smoldering clouds that rise up over the horizon and extend into the extremities of our atmosphere, mixing the innards of the earth below with the infinity of space above, although such images are of course interspersed with ashen faced travel industry players and panic stricken airport passengers. Some more intimate scenes also add to the eventfulness of it all, locals packing up homes, tourists, like us, arguing with rangers over our few measly yet worldly belongings, horses and sheep grazing, looking bemused by all the human fuss.

The Icelandic Met office made a decision at 2pm yesterday that the tremor levels at Bárðarbunga (within the Vatnajökull glacier) were sufficient to indicate a small sub glacial eruption somewhere between 100 and 400 meters deep. With ice this thick it might take days for the lava flow to break through the glacier, if at all. The coastguard, with representatives from the civil aviation authority and the police, took a flight over Vatnajökull but reported that there was no indication of pumice or ash erupting through the glacier. A prominent geologist suggested that it was a false alarm, others disagreed.

So an eruption is also about scale, specific indexes (visual indicators of smoke, ash or pumice) and data, lots of data, and different forms, seismographs, aerial photos, web cams all spewing out graphs, charts and interactive data sets. ‘The eruption is happening now’ reads a Reykjavik Grapevine headline, ‘oops not yet’ follows an updated report within five minutes.

In such discourses the eruption is an on or off mode occurrence, it’s either happening or it isn’t, green or red, safe or dangerous. But as we experienced yesterday it can be both happening and not happening at the same time, it isn’t really a discrete event but a continuous fluid set of processes, mobilizations and reactions.

We left Vesturdalur at 2pm yesterday afternoon just as the civil planning authority set its eruption response plan into action. Driving within the beautiful canyon the richness and diversity of the Icelandic landscape is on full display, craggy lava formations of breathtaking color and form are overlain with a rich fertile topsoil as the glacial river carries nutrient rich organisms to the land. This is where pre and post glacial worlds meet.
Thirty minutes into our journey towards Dettifoss (an apparently magnificent waterfall that gathers its water from Vatnajökull) a kindly but authoritative park ranger stops us just short of our destination, ‘the road is closed’, she utters to the bewilderment of myself and Laura. Apparently so is the route back to the area from which we have just traveled. She insists that all cars drive west to Mývatn, but we can’t we grumble, ‘all our gear is back at Vesturdalur’. We argue with her in a slightly worried yet polite manner and she seeks approval for us to return on her radio, while we wonder how serious this really is. ‘Ok, go back and get your gear and Guðrún (another ranger) will meet you on your way, listen to her advise, closely’.


Now we’re nervous, is it a risk to go back, is this a classic tourist dilemma that upon reflection could look like folly. We talk back and forth, imagining that our cool reasoning will intervene in our ever increasing sense of anxiety. If there is an eruption the glacial melt will surely take some time, and this canyon looks vast so no imminent danger, right? But that’s with all things being equal, what if we had car trouble on the way back, this valley is harsh terrain and notoriously difficult to drive in. In this instance we are inhabiting both spaces at once, the eruption both is and isn’t happening. We feel it in our raised anxiety levels, our stressed questions, our growing uncertainty, and our doubt. Our doubt about ourselves, our foreignness to this landscape that we admire so much, yet at the same time are ever increasingly beginning to fear. But more specifically we feel it in our circumscribed ability to act as we wish, in the very materiality of the civil protection infrastructure that has launched into action, mobilizing all manner of people, institutions, devices and technologies.

We give the ranger our phone numbers and subscribe to an emergency response GPS tracker, just in case. We turn back and drive way too fast. Guðrún flags us down about 15 minutes later. Like the last ranger she is friendly yet firm, her voice more sure that a flood is imminent. ‘Drive north, you’ll reach a gate that I’ve closed, pull back the rope and warning sign and drive through it. Pack immediately, continue on to the highway and the police will meet you there’.

We drive on and up to the cordoned off gate, a slight stretch of yellow sticky tape with a small A4 note attached to it awaits us. We laugh, ‘that’s it, that’s emergency response!


But strangely, unlike being in the eye of a storm, it feels like we are at the periphery of one. In this vast canyon it is two rangers, a car, a radio, yellow sticky tape and an A4 piece of paper that is enacting the eruption; but maybe that’s how events work, rather than being inside them or outside them, rather than occurring or not occurring in some definitive manner, one intersects with a particular version of them at any one moment in time. An event such as an eruption is possibly only a series of interconnected forms of infrastructure, including of course the structures of feelings such as anxiety and displacement that belong to them.
In this way the eruption becomes unbounded, freed from the ontological straight jacket of being or not being. It really does become something in action, possibly forming and unforming amongst a plethora of extensive and intensive collaborations, actions, responses, anxieties, and of course sticky tape and A4 paper.

Arriving back at our campsite, we pack up, talk in a jittery impatient manner to the last of the other tourists that are getting out of Vesturdalur. We found this note stuck to our tent;

paper-WEBAt the turnoff point to Husavik, a small town in the north, we encounter two police personnel, they take our details and chat causally with us. Apparently the whole canyon could flood within eight hours; right now the eruption becomes a denser, more palpable reality.

Today the debate continues, the status has changed to non eruptive activity, despite a 5.2 quake at Bárðarbunga late last night. The sticky tape and precision notes have served their purpose, for now, and we turn out attention back to the 3D Bulge seismograph programs, the webcams, the anxiety inducing international media and the claims laden back and forth of different expert groups as they jockey for definitional and discursive power over the event that has and hasn’t happened.


Fieldwork Blogging from Iceland

Dear Aliens,

I’ve landed safely in Iceland, where I’ll be carrying out the second phase of my fieldwork as part of the Alien Energy research project.

Hveragerði, my home over the next few months, is a small town 50kms south east of Reykjavik. Translated variably as hotspring town/garden/corral, it developed in the early part of the 1900’s around its abundant supply of geothermal water and steam. It quickly became the greenhouse capital of Iceland producing cucumbers, tomatoes, red peppers and flowers, and at one point even experimented with the production of bananas (ever head of an Icelandic banana?). Also foundational to the town was a group of artists who left Reykjavik during the 1930’s housing crisis and settled here for the free heat that came with the small houses, along with the awe inspiring tectonic landscape that the town is nestled within. Today it has over 2,000 residents, boasts an ice cream factory (driven by geothermal heat), along with one of Iceland’s largest retirement homes (again driven by cheap heating) and a rehabilitation clinic founded along the principles of the ‘healing earth’ (more on that at a later time).

So why am I here?

Hveragerði sits in the Hengill volcanic system, which is also home to Hellisheiði, the world’s second largest geothermal power plant. On my first phase of fieldwork, from September 2013 to January 2014, I spent time amongst the geoscientists at Reykjavik Energy (the operators of Hellisheiði and owned by the municipality of Reykjavik) and learned about the production of geothermal energy, a vastly complex endeavour that lies at the intersection of a range of scientific disciplines and practices (geology, volcanology, geochemistry, geophysics and engineering). Since expanding its geothermal energy base after the oil crisis of the 70’s (today, Iceland’s energy matrix is 86% ‘renewable’, split 66% geothermal and 20% hydro electric), the country has evolved into one of the world’s leading knowledge hubs for geothermal energy. Boasting a 100% renewable electricity supply and the world’s biggest consumption of electricity per capita (by a factor of two – as we shall see, Iceland is a weird and wonderful place for lists of OECD toping per capita firsts), energy is a topic of much ‘heated’ discussion.

The ‘lure of abundance’ would be one way to describe it. Harnessing the tectonic earth and glacial landscapes in a comparably clean, green renewable fashion is an enticing prospect, especially for a country with little other than fish and tourists. Although hydroelectric power is the more dominant mode of electricity generation in Iceland, a mega project in the east of the country circa 2008 created a wellspring of resistance revolving around both environmental and economic issues, and as such geothermal is being looked to as a possible way forward.

The Hellisheiði power plant was conceived and constructed in the 2000’s (operationalized in 2008), a period in which Iceland was attempting to become the financial mecca of the North, and which, as most will know, ended badly.
Debt appreciation was exorbitant after the currency tanked, but in the hay days, foreign currency loans from the markets were easy to come by and difficult to resist. Hellisheiði took advantage of this setup and was up and running and ready to produce 303mw of electricity in a geological jiffy, all for the provision of an aluminium smelter in the west of the country (of course, back to this one later!).

But little is known of effects of geothermal power production when it is scaled up to a level not previously imaginable. Up and running for 6 years now, the plant, in order to comply with environmental protection laws, is re-injecting the geothermal waste water back into the volcanic fractures, a process not hugely dissimilar to fracking. The net result of this ‘experiment’ is the proliferation of what geologists call ‘induced seismicity’, experienced in Hveragerði as earthquakes.

So, again, why am I here? Well, energy production always occurs somewhere, someplace, close to some people, and Hveragerði is such a place. It lives with the energies of the earth, taking up its bounty (greenhouses, rehab clinics, green tourists) and living with its risks (earthquakes, induced seismicity, sulfur pollution).

As a very distinct volcanic island, the earth has played an inordinately active role in Iceland’s history, culture and society. I am constantly reminded of the inseparability of the fiery earth from socio-cultural life, whether it be volcanic eruptions decimating populations and changing rural settlements and agricultural practices throughout the centuries, or stories of rock people and elf folk who populate these craggy and mysterious places. Renewable energy is a more recent manifestation of this ‘earthy relationship’ and is articulated through the promises of green innovations and resisted through the rhetoric of economic justice (or the lack thereof) and environmental concerns. The earth in Iceland is unruly, its forces are potent, and its bounties are plentiful. But it is also deeply embedded in ways of living and modes of telling stories, and I hope to be able to bring you some of these stories along the way. I will try to link geothermal energy, as a form of collaborative earth action, into a broader frame of previous and ongoing earth issues, volcanic outbreaks, earth mythology, (rock people and elf folk) etc. In positioning energy as part of this trajectory, I hope to open up a narrative frame with a broader than usual arc, one that takes the enfolding of the earth with capital seriously. So in many ways this feels like a story of the anthropocene, as free flowing capital intersects with techno-scientific knowledge and the exuberance of a small island nation. However, I will try to tease out the concept a little, not only pushing the neologism beyond geological terrains, but through them, as I examine the ways in which the dystopic (earthquakes) and utopic (green imaginaries) work up and against one another.

But again, back to Hveragerði. The town has experienced many earthquakes over the years, but a particularly large one in 2008 (6 Richter) has stepped up the levels of anxiety associated with living in a tectonically active area. The previous quakes are described as being more local, and thereby more knowable and manageable, but the one from 2008 brought with it a sense of earthquake as ‘other’ and rattled the town accordingly. Wedded to this sense of otherness are the multiple small earthquakes being triggered by induced seismicity, something that the town is finding difficult to live with. As geothermal scales up for aluminium production, so do many other forms of action and emotion.

There are many questions to think about while I am here over the next few months, but in a broad sense I will be trying to enquire into how it is that the people of the town ‘get along’ with the energies of the earth in an everyday sense.

See you next time!