Faculty Pub Night with Jason Jarvis: What You Missed

This post was written by library student assistant, Carmen Venegas. Carmen is a senior communications studies major with a music minor. She was born and raised in the Bay Area, California. She has an interest in grassroots marketing, community advocacy, and ethical usage of social media.

On November 10, our Faculty Pub Night featured Dr. Jason Jarvis, assistant professor of rhetoric and media in the Communication Studies Department. Jarvis discussed his forthcoming publication, Greenwashing: Visual Politics of Oil in Southern California. Jarvis received his PhD from Georgia State University and his research is centered around the visual politics of images and environmental media in relation to digital culture. He focuses on social media’s ability to influence our perceptions of the world and human behavior. His research is also the focus of an emerging journalism course at LMU called “Immersed in Urban Oil,” which will be co-taught by Jarvis and Tara-Lynn Pixley in the spring of 2021.

Jarvis began with prompting the audience to take count of all of the items made from oil surrounding them. He then explained that the number is a lot higher than we often think. In fact, petroleum products are central to our lives. Jarvis showed a graphic that exemplified the fact that petroleum is in everything from our cosmetic products to our dishware. He expressed that we are all extremely immersed in a petroculture. Jarvis further explained, “Even if we all decided to switch to electric cars, we’re still going to be wrapped up in oil.”

Next, Jarvis explained that there is something strange and unique happening in Los Angeles in relation to petroculture. The first major oil field in LA County was founded in 1880 in Brea-Olinda and is still active today. Now, there are a total of 28 oil fields and 7 refineries in the Los Angeles basin. Jarvis expressed that the Playa del Rey field is closest to LMU; Playa Vista and the Ballona wetlands are on an oil field. Jarvis said, “It is undoubtedly the case that there were LMU graduates up to the 1960s who could stand on the bluff and look longingly out over the ocean and watch oil being pumped every day.”

Another chilling fact Jarvis shared is that oil fields tend to follow the fault lines due to the abundance of oil near them. There is in fact credible research that this is one of the reasons that southern California is so seismically active. Jarvis continued to explain that 4 out of 5 of the largest earthquakes in LA were caused by oil drilling. He said that we should especially care about this as it pertains to us and where we live.

In truth, the history of oil in LA is hidden from the public. Jarvis explained this through the origin of Beverly Hills. In 1906, Charlie Canfield bought land hoping to find oil, but was unsuccessful because he did not drill deep enough. The land was then turned into residential plots and sold as Beverly Hills. However in 1908, oil was discovered. And by the 1950s, there were 52 active oil wells that were hidden with plants on the Fox Studio grounds. Jarvis further explained that even now the Beverly Hills mall is on oil grounds.  Moreover, Beverly Hills High School was built on abandoned oil wells, and in the 1950s, drilling was actually permitted at the school; In total, 19 wells were operated there. Due to this, royalties reached $1.5 million a year in the 1970s. Jarvis continued to say that many students and faculty got sick and some even died due to the high rates of cancer. Eventually the company that bought the wells invited children from the local cancer ward at the hospital to paint an extremely visible well. They called it the “Tower of Hope” in an effort to make the derrick look more “child-friendly,” as Jarvis put it. The irony of this was exposed when a large thyroid cancer cluster was discovered at the high school because the pipes were checked for leaks with radioactive iodine and exposure to such radiation directly causes this specific type of cancer.

The “Tower of Hope” is unfortunately just one example of camouflaged wells. Jarvis pointed out that there are wells disguised as office buildings and islands in Long Beach. There are also methane vents that look like street lights in Playa Vista, mainly near playgrounds, and their purpose is to make sure there is not too much build up of chemicals.

For the second half of Jarvis’ presentation, he discussed the importance of social media in regard to oil drilling in Los Angeles. Jarvis began this segment with the question, “How did we get to a place where the most densely populated county in the United States is also the home to some of the most extensive urban oil fields on the planet?” He continued to answer this by analyzing how social media has been utilized by oil companies. He looked to postcards as early social media, which were widely popular among the wealthy and social elites. It was common for people to have displayed collections, but mailed cards were considered more valuable. Due to the social popularity amidst postcard distribution, they were also the focus of social fears and upheaval as they were ways for people to communicate about issues such as gender, race, and colonialism.

Next Jarvis introduced the term greenwashing which he defined as a deceptive PR tactic. Greenwashing is defined as “an attempt to promote the appearance of products and commodity consumption as environmental or ‘green’ while deliberately disavowing environmental impacts” (Pezullo and Cox, 2018). A tremendously helpful resource for Jarvis’s research was the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection offered through the library’s Archives and Special Collections. Through this collection, Jarvis showed many postcards that attempted to greenwash oil infrastructure and naturalize it as a non-threatening part of the landscape in an effort to make drilling seem organic and normal. These postcards consisted of beautiful scenes portraying oil wells among nature and neighborhoods, despite the damage they actually do to the environment and the health of the people surrounding them.

Jarvis’ closing statement and thesis spoke volumes: “California: Greenwashed, but not as ‘green’ as we’d like it to be.”