A note on human-made earthquakes

“Kerogen Voices” (one of the few working titles; others include Earthquakes for City People, or Squeezing It Out) is a music-theatre about man-made earthquakes caused by oil and gas extraction and other unconventional methods of extraction and injection into the earth’s crust.

The First Domain – The Scientific Aspect

In the process of extracting resources to satisfy energy-dependent human populations, large volumes of fluid are forced into the ground.  This is precisely the cause for man-made earthquakes. 

Having said that, additional pressure put by men is only the final trigger for an earthquake to occur. There are large amounts of energy stored under the ground, especially in areas of pre-existing faults where stress caused by natural tectonic motion accumulates and is silently stored, waiting to be released. The earth is stressed, waiting to have a release.

The earth with its fossil guts is a giant sentient body, patient, but agitated. Kerogen, contained in its guts, can be imagined as a subterranean monster trapped underneath, waiting to come out. Yet its release has huge consequences. The current human choice is between a warm house with cracks caused by a shaking ground, or… Actually, there are no real alternatives – nobody in the wealthy west wants to go back to living in a cold unheated house.

And so we squeeze the earth out. To the last drop.

Localised Geography: it starts in Malta, and then we travel to the Netherlands.

Our research on this planetary phenomenon starts with a reflection taking place at noon on the island Malta during summer, when the sun was high and abundant. Although the sun remains the largest known source of energy, Malta has no solar power plants. Liquefied gas is imported in order to keep up with the increased consumption of energy in the rapidly growing city-state, which was once a rural “paradise” island. Currently, on the island, we lack fossil resources while the sun remains unharvested. The salt left behind by the sea was once white gold; it has now become a mere tourist souvenir.

The liquefied gas coming to Malta all the way from Shell in the Netherlands introduced us to man-made earthquakes. Groningen is one of the most studied places in Europe for induced seismicity due to gas extraction. The discovery of the gas bubble under Groningen is the largest gas discovery in Europe. The Gas Molecule, a sculpture commemorating the discovery, has been repeatedly vandalised with red paint in recent years. Campaigners claim that gas is a curse rather than a gift.

During our research on man-made earthquakes in Groningen, we found a study that shows how children are suffering from the earthquakes and feel unsafe. They are afraid that the cracks will grow, that their houses will collapse or that an earthquake could have disastrous, fatal consequences. Some of them suffer from nightmares, bed-wetting, difficulties in concentrating, anger, and psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches.

Broader Geography: multiplicity of voices and musicality.

“Shell is a multinational, multinationals are monsters. But we cannot possibly stop the oil companies. We tried that in the past, but then they sent the police to us. There’s nothing else to do than talk to them and make the best of it. “

Martha Campo, a 64-year-old member of the Mapuche community in Argentina

Man-made earthquakes is not a Dutch issue, it is global!

The first officially registered international non-natural, human-induced earthquake took place in Australia in 1868 and the cause was mining.

This research inspired us to further explore the notions of dreams, nightmares and fiction in relation to man-made earthquakes.

The Second Domain – the Dreams, the Visions, the Myth

What lies beneath the ground we walk on has been associated with the unknown world throughout the history of mankind. We decided to dive into this darkness through Dutch mythology. Elves, fairies, gnomes, talking oak trees, monsters and creatures residing in the lowlands crossed our path. In particular, we worked with “The Legend of the Wooden Shoe”, which we see as the Dutch mythology of capitalism.

The myths in “Kerogen Voices” incorporate the legends described above, dreams about the Mother Goddess, and the scary visions of apocalypse inspired by poly- and monotheistic iconography. In this way, we try to bring together the spiritual and the scientific to reinforce each other and expand the idea of ‘legitimate knowledge’.  

As it turns out, in most cases it’s somewhat difficult to see the dramatic effects of human-induced earthquakes. Although seismic events happen daily, you have to look closely and use your imagination to detect them. You can’t see the quakes; and unless you’re rather unlucky, you also don’t really feel the earthquakes that rumble constantly beneath the surface. Most quakes are like ghosts in the walls that appear without warning and leave little traces besides a shudder and a whisper. They haunt you with their potential violence, teasing with the possibility of catastrophe. The earth’s sounds are of a very low frequency which we cannot possibly hear unless they are altered to a level that human senses can perceive.

We awaken mythological creatures and tie the scientific knowledge to elves, gnomes and giants of northern Europe, who possess their own earth-knowing and trading energy as magic.

Inspired by Reza Negarestani and his petro-politics, we see this substance as a subterranean creature, a power, a potent dark energy waiting to be released. 

Arguably the most subtle but definitely the most important fold and thread sewn through this work is the ghostly nature of man-induced earthquakes – often almost invisible, yet consistently present, haunting the energy-deprived humanity with the potential violence and damage they can cause.

And indeed, capitalism is an ever-present beast and an obvious backdrop for the work dealing with oil and gas extraction. The article on induced seismicity in Vaca Muerta with the title directly refers to multi-nationals as “monsters”. Yet we want to tackle this squeezing monster in an indirect and poetic way.

And so, we imagine this work as a music-theatre piece.

The strongest emphasis in this composition lies in the sound, in the musicality of the multiple voices present in the work. The voices (of science, of myth, of Earth and of elves) are in dialogue; they coexist. They are suspended in immersive soundscapes of the elementary fluxes. Densely layered streams of text, live vocals, and an immersive soundscape invites the audience to listen to the movement and signals of the earth and to imagine its subterranean fossil guts as a giant sentient body, patient, but agitated.

Practically, we are working with a cast of a mix of elderly and young performers who read, speak and sing. They sit on a chair and perform through their microphones. The form lies somewhere between a conference and a radio play. The movement and choreography are minimal. The sound and interweaving of multiple voices are dominant.

We are working with Joachim Robbrecht as a writer to create the songs and Maria Rossler as a dramaturge who helps with the form. We are composing the original score for the music-theatre piece. Although there are visual elements present, consisting of archiving materials, maps and titles, audio remains the dominant medium in this work.

We want to invite the audience to rely less on what they see, but to listen and “feel” the tremors of the soundwaves.

Ira & Jimmy

o.b.o “the Kerogen Voices” Amsterdam 2020

NL) Een verpleegster bij een vrouw in een ruststoel in het bos, waarschijnlijk in verband met de gezonde buitenlucht, 1909 
EN) A nurse with a woman in a chair in the forest, probably in connection with the healthy outdoor air, 1909