MDES Risk and Resilience Lecture: Mimi Sheller, “Toxic Modernism: The Political Ecology of Aluminum Dreams”

What are the geo-ecological connections between Caribbean industrial landscapes of strip mining, toxic red mud, caustic dust, and abandoned wastelands, and the energy-intensive accelerated architecture of light mobile modernity in the Global North? Aluminum smelted from Jamaican bauxite played a crucial role in reshaping modern American mobility throughout the mid-20th century due to its use in streamlined transport, lightweight packaging, portable buildings, military power, space travel and satellite communications.

The roots of modernist architecture and modernizing infrastructures are knotted together in the conjoined global industrial environments of bauxite mining in the Caribbean and aluminum production, promotion, and proliferation in the USA. This talk will juxtapose “aluminum dreams” in different parts of the world, connecting everyday material cultures to faraway toxic waste. The latest efficient designs for light, mobile, vehicles and sustainable dwellings build on the legacies of experimental designers like Albert Frey, Jean Prouvé, and Buckminster Fuller, but still ignore the transnational circulation of materials, energy, and pollution that allow for advanced architectural programs deracinated from the tropical industrial landscapes and toxic ruination which they produce.

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