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Taking mud volcano’s trigger debate above ground

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


LAWRENCE – In a new paper published in Marine and Petroleum Geology, a University of Kansas researcher disputes almost everything about a 2018 special edition of the same journal that all but absolves an energy-exploration company of responsibility for triggering an environmental disaster.

It’s already gotten some attention in the field, with several scientists expressing surprise at a researcher with an English background publishing in a geology journal.

“I’ve never had this type of response to an article before,” said Phillip Drake, associate professor of English and environmental studies, just days after the paper went live online. He’s not sure whether the targets of his critique will respond, ignore or dismiss him as off-base and unworthy, but he looks forward to the debate.

The dispute concerns the 2006 eruption of an East Java mud volcano that has continued to flow (albeit more slowly) ever since, inundating several square miles and displacing an estimated 50,000 Indonesians.

Drake specializes in environmental literature and rhetoric, and he has studied this disaster extensively in the field, publishing numerous articles and a book, Indonesia and the Politics of Disaster: Power and Representation in Indonesia’s Mud Volcano” (Routledge, 2016).

His new article is titled "‘More than ten years of Lusi: A review of facts, coincidences, and past and future studies’ by Miller and Mazzini (2018): Taking the trigger debate above ground.” In it, Drake takes on the rhetorical strategies and factual claims that scientists – led by Adriano Mazzini, a geologist at the University of Oslo, and Stephen Miller, a geophysicist at the University of Bonn – have used to ascribe the cause of the mudflow to an immutable “nature” and to impugn those who dispute their findings.

It all goes back to what is known as “the trigger debate” regarding the so-called “Lusi” eruption. Did an accident at a gas exploration well in East Java’s Sidoarjo province activate the mud volcano? Or was it shock waves from an earthquake two days before, centered 175 miles away?

Drake said a great majority of scientists who have studied the eruption – though not an unshakable consensus – believe that drilling caused it. In his article, Drake questioned several of Miller and Mazzini’s geological claims by citing an earlier critique of their work.

Drake proceeded to center his criticism on the terminology Mazzini, Miller and scientists associated with their Lusi Lab have put forth in scholarly publications, as well as in the news media.

Even the very term “Lusi” is disputed, Drake notes. “Lusi” is a portmanteau (i.e., mashup) of “lumpur Sidoarjo” — lumpur being the Indonesian word for mud and Sidoarjo being the district in where the eruption began.

But Drake, who speaks Indonesian, said in a recent interview that people who live in the area don’t use the word “Lusi.” Instead, they refer to the disaster as “the Lapindo mudflow,” “the Lapindo case” or simply “Lapindo” for the Lapindo Brantas energy company that was drilling a borehole in the area to explore for natural gas when the eruption began.

Drake sees Miller and Mazzini’s use of the name “Lusi” as symptomatic of a tendency in science writing to separate inquiry from real-world, political contexts. By focusing on language, history and politics, Drake is trying to bring the geological debate above ground, metaphorically speaking.

“One issue I have with science writing in general is the presentation of inquiry as wholly objective and nonpolitical,” Drake said. “Science is a cultural practice. Inquiry involves the negotiation of hierarchies, funding, systems of patronage, tools and technologies, and institutions. In addition, scientists must think about their audiences, and their rhetoric reflects this. I don’t mean to disparage scientific inquiry altogether. It’s really good at producing excellent knowledge, but it's not perfect, and it's not outside of the political fray.”

Drake said he encountered this tendency while his journal article was under peer review.

“Anything that didn't sound scientific, reviewers interpreted as political,” he said. “And I think there's a real danger in thinking of science as existing outside of social and political worlds. That just distorts reality in dangerous ways.”

More fundamentally, Drake writes, Miller, Mazzini and others minimize man-made impacts on the land when they ascribe the disaster’s cause to nature. In this way, Drake said, the trigger debate is a lot like the larger rhetorical dispute over human causation for global warming.

“The difficulties of ascribing responsibility for a mud volcano echo the larger debate about how climate change is caused and how to hold certain companies responsible or accountable,” Drake said.

Photo: As part of his research on the environmental disaster, Phillip Drake has visited the site of the Lapindo mudflow volcano in Indonesia several times over the past decade.