This map begins with an event: the wind that blew great clouds of dust from three giant heaps of what looked like coal, stockpiled along the banks of the Calumet River in Chicago. Everything turned sooty and grimy as the dust filled the surrounding neighborhoods and the reason for the children's worsening asthma became evident. The piles turned out to be a petroleum residue known as petcoke, which is produced by local refineries: BP, Citgo and Exxon. The initial map view shows you the location and contents of these piles, along with the refineries and quite a few other highly polluting industries in the area. Most importantly, it shows some of the people who gathered to protest the imposition of yet another toxic dumpsite on a disadvantaged district of the city, a “sacrifice zone” that has suffered too many such environmental burdens already. By clicking on the icons, reading the texts and looking at the pictures or videos you can see how people have organized to change this situation, and what has been accomplished so far. A menu on the left identifies the icons, as well as a number artists who have made generous contributions.

But there are still some more things to say about all this.

I was slowly drawn into the petcoke struggle through my awareness of another oil-related problem, which are the trains carrying explosive crude from the Bakken region through the city and throughout North America. The weird thing is how few people seem to care about this one. An oil train could blow in the center of Chicago or in dozens of other large cities, but that is considered an acceptable cost of the oil economy and very little is said about it in this city, despite the efforts of a few dedicated activists whose work is invaluable. Gradually I became aware that something different was happening in the case of the petcoke. People were coming together to perceive and understand this strange, obdurate oil residue. They were organizing to extend their initial perception and subsequent understanding to others, with the idea that this affects us all, even if some are harmed much more directly. For once, the so-called 'public sphere' was actually paying attention. As though there really were some desire to find out what kind of world we're living in.

Like the Bakken crude, the petcoke one sees along the Calumet River has a complicated story. The area it comes from holds a special place in current thinking about climate change: it's the Athabascan Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada. There, oily sands are scooped up directly from the surface using huge earth movers, or the thick, gritty tar is melted underground and pumped up in pipes. Next it is separated from the sand, producing toxic tailings pools, and then it is diluted with natural-gas condensates and a cocktail of secret chemicals. Finally it is put into pipelines and conveyed to distant sites where it will be turned into conventional fuels. That’s what we refine in the Midwest: sticky bitumen scraped up with the ancient forest, or melted out of the soil using steam. We fill our gas tanks with the most ecologically destructive project on earth. The huge dusty piles of petcoke along the Calumet river are the visible signs of this complex, large-scale industry, most of which happens entirely outside any opportunity for public scrutiny. The map aims to reveal the linkages between the Chicagoland refineries and the Tar Sands, and to show how our metropolitan region fits into the larger continental petroleum system.

All of this has a context, and lots of collaborators. Rozalinda Borcila and I had worked with the Southeast Environmental Taskforce on the issue of the oil trains, for an event with Railroad Workers United called Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment. SETF was also the place where people had gathered to deal with the petcoke problem. Just as I was getting more familiar with the area and the people, an institution called the Museum of Contemporary Photography proposed an exhibition in collaboration with SETF and the Natural Resources Defense Council. That show is called Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy. I became involved in the exhibition project, together with some old and new friends. At the same time, I and five others from the Chicago area (Beate Geissler, Oliver Sann, Karen Knorr Cetina, Ryan Griffis and Claire Pentecost) were contributing to an experimental educational project called The Anthropocene Curriculum in faraway Berlin. All of this was on a similar wavelength, and it fit into many years of local work with a group of artists and writers called The Compass. I wanted to make an activist resource that would be educational, striking enough to show in a museum, and useful to many other people both near and far. The idea was to contribute to the struggle, and to analyze the wider political ecology of which that struggle is a part.

The map is built up around a system of scales, starting from the local community of the Calumet region. From there you can go right up close to the three different oil refineries located in the Chicago metropolitan area, especially BP which is the biggest and the nearest to the city (in fact it's right in the middle of East Chicago). You can also expand the scale to the metropolitan region and the continent. You can look at some key sites: the Gulf of Mexico, where BP’s oil rig Deepwater Horizon sank into infamy; the Bakken region, where the explosive crude is put on poorly maintained trains; the damaged boreal forests of Northern Alberta, where the tar sands bitumen comes from; and finally, Cushing, Oaklahoma, which is the largest oil storage depot on the planet. Oh yeah, and you can also look at all the refineries on earth, the global gas stations. Zoom all the way down on any one of them and you will see it in full detail.

What’s the key idea? The key idea is that climate change is both local and global. It happens at the scale of the earth system; but it can be materially grasped, understood and confronted on the ground, wherever you live. We all share a condition that is singular each time, but it’s universal everywhere. One way or another, we all live in Petropolis.

I would like to offer thanks those who have helped make this project happen, especially those listed as contributors, and just as importantly, those who have been working as community activists (many of their portraits appear on the map). The whole endeavor has been influenced by previous experiences with The Compass, and by my collaboration with the photographer Terry Evans. Claire Pentecost accompanied me on countless boat trips as we got to know the Calumet from the level of the river. After several months of researching and programming I came across Peter Mettler's haunting film "Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands," and the coincidence of titles was more a confirmation than a disappointment. There are many other people to thank, including the artist-programmer David Reuter and all those who have helped create Open Street Map, OpenLayers and QGIS, which are the free and open-source map files and software applications that I use. The project is not done yet and there will always be more to add, so if you'd like to contribute somehow, do get in touch. Hopefully there are further cartographic collaborations awaiting in the future.

Brian Holmes