Discard Studies and the Nonhuman

Guest post by Josh Lepawsky

Have we students of discard studies given sufficient thought to the nonhuman? The nonhuman in the form of materiality and the agencies of things is certainly a prevalent theme in the multiplying and ramifying work constituting discard studies. But there is, of course, more to the nonhuman than ‘stuff’ and ‘things’. There is life, too. Nonhuman life and living.

I was reminded of this perhaps obvious point while reading a recent article in the New York Times about High Island 389-A (Gaskill 2012). Isn’t that a wonderful name? It evokes science fictional places – and as Haraway has shown us, science fiction is a potent way into our becoming with others and the ethics of care and responsibility such becoming entails. High Island 389-A names what the Times calls a “dormant oil platform” in the Gulf of Mexico. It is not an innocent name. Under US Interior Department rules, according to the Times, “nonproducing ocean structures” must be dismantled. Such dismantling involves either explosive demolition, toppling, or towing to shore for scrap metal recycling. Here’s the thing: structures like High Island 389-A no longer produce oil, but they do provide habitat for marine life. According to one marine scientist interviewed by the Times, “Much is growing on them, from corals up to marine mammals” (Greg Stuntz, cited by Gaskill 2012). How much? Quite a bit. According to Gaskill’s piece there are at least 650 such platforms in the Gulf and a typical platform offers about 2-3 acres of habitat. In total that’s somewhere between 1,300 – 1,950 acres or around 983 – 1,475 football fields worth of habitat.

Source: Schmahl/FGBNMS

Source: Schmahl/FGBNMS

What is it to be entangled with such structures – and the profusion of nonhuman life they attract – with names like High Island 389-A? Structures that the Interior Department enacts as “nonproducing ocean structures”? That the oil and gas industry enacts as “idle iron”? And that marine scientists enact as “habitat”? I love this about discard studies, this ontological undecidability, that sites like High Island 389-A generate. What is this thing and its constellation of nonhuman life, the agency of which transforms the thing again and also into ‘island’ and ‘reef’? How might we orient ourselves to the ethical relations it generates? Is the impending demolition and recycling of these structures also habitat destruction?

Source: Schmahl/FGBNMS

But even to pose these particular questions in these particular ways is inevitably to be partial and situated. It is to presuppose a kind of human exceptionalism in relations of care and responsibility in which the key issue is vulnerability to human technoscientific action. Human comes back to the centre even as we enlarge the umbrella to welcome certain nonhumans. In a fascinating set of forthcoming papers Myra Hird challenges us to consider waste-nonhuman relations without presuming that human or nonhuman vulnerability to human technoscientific activity is, or should be, a default terrain of engagement for discard studies. She’s asking us to think about nonhuman life and waste without human exceptionalism. It’s a profound challenge.


Gaskill, Melissa. 2012. “A Fight to Convert High Island, a Platform, Into a Reef.” The New York Times, June 17, sec. U.S.

Myra Hird’s work

Flower Garden National Marine Sanctuary

Josh Lepawsky is an Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University, Canada.

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  1. Pingback: Non-Producing Ocean Structures | Anne Percoco

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