What You Don’t See 2


Edição. In the corporate literature of Georgia-Pacific, the slogan “What You Don’t See Matters” refers to the branded building products — DryPly, Ply-Bead, Plytanium, PlyFrame, etc. — that are used in countless light construction projects. In the larger contexts of industrial-capitalist supply chains and environmental sustainability, the phrase takes on new meaning. “What you don’t see” in the production of these plywood components includes four tons of sub-bituminous coal leaving a single mine in Wyoming every second; 22 tons of coal burning at a single power plant in Georgia every minute; and, 62,000 tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere every day as a result of these processes. Needless to say, it “matters.”

Here I would like to argue that it matters in particular for the profession of architecture: that any full accounting of environmental, economic, or social sustainability has got to consider not merely individual buildings and sites but also the intricate product and energy supply chains that are crucial to their construction. Equally important are the elusive and often secretive networks of financial power and political influence that are underwritten by the billion-dollar construction industry.

Follow the Coal

It is revealing, for instance, to consider the extractive operations, transport networks, and material transformations that must be activated in order to produce a piece of plywood. The place to start is the Powder River Basin, a landscape of rolling grasslands in northeast Wyoming that is home to the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, the largest surface coal mine in the world. In 2014, coal production in the United States topped one billion tons, of which 400 million came from the Powder River Basin, and 120 million from North Antelope Rochelle. 1Resource extraction of this magnitude requires not just sophisticated technology and specialized knowledge; it requires also  the historical and cultural conception of resources as valuable. Here is an early assessment by the United States Geological Survey, from 1883, when the country was emerging as a modern industrial power, and coal mining fueled the national economy.