Subterranean geopolitics: Designing, digging, excavating and living

A/ National University of Singapore, Department of Geography, AS2, #03-01, 1 Arts Link Kent Ridge, Singapore 117570, Singapore.

B/ Royal Holloway University of London, Department of Geography, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, United Kingdom.


Introduces the nine papers on the theme of subterranean geopolitics.
Offers a wide-ranging review of works related to subterranean geopolitics.
Foregrounds six thematic agendas for future research on subterranean geopolitics.
Argues that subterranean geopolitics needs to be analysed through a relational standpoint.


This position paper aims to frame and supplement other papers in this special issue on subterranean geopolitics. We trace the research genealogy that brings together the subterranean with the geopolitical before accounting for the state-of-play in the subfield of subterranean geopolitics. Six research themes and foci that can connect to and enrich the study of subterranean geopolitics are being highlighted and proposed: (i) the three-dimensional conceptualisation of territory, (ii) the political geographies of the environmental, marine and earth sciences, (iii) Anthropocene geopolitics, (iv) lived experiences and intersectional encounters, (v) popular cultures and imaginative possibilities and (vi) moral geographies. These intersect and overlap in complex ways and none are exhaustive. Indeed, along with the collection of papers in the special issue, they serve as invitations to further scholarly reflections and cross-cultural research into understanding the designing, digging, excavating and living of subterranean geopolitics.

1. Introduction

In an appropriately basement-like lecture theatre, located in the heart of the National University of Singapore (NUS), our Geoforum-sponsored workshop on the theme of subterranean geopolitics was opened by a colleague from the neighbouring Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Hailing from the Nanyang Centre for Underground Spaces, Associate Professor Zhiye Zhao gave a compelling introduction to Singapore’s subterranean geology and underground construction histories. The starting premise was straightforward—Singapore’s 5.6. million population is set to grow to 6.9 million by 2030 and the surface area of the city-Republic is only around 720 square kilometres. Space, energy and water are considered matters of national security because the country does not have the capacity to expand into new land and there are few natural resources to exploit. While other scholars have considered the securitization of cyberspace in Singapore, there has been less explicit consideration of Singapore’s purported elemental and energy-related dilemmas (Aljunied 2019). Our keynote speaker was adamant that the reality of Singapore’s geo-location and surface area necessitated the government of Singapore to look downwards rather than sideways and upwards. Historically, the Republic of Singapore has embraced land reclamation and vertical developmental strategies designed to maximise the small island-state’s territorial space (McNeil, 2019, Jamieson, 2020). As Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) reminds its readers, there is still considerable promissory potential at stake:

Going underground expands our space resources by optimising land use and freeing up valuable surface land for more liveable uses. There are no plans to place housing underground. The priority is to place uses such as rail lines, utilities, warehousing and storage facilities underground (original emphasis).

Going underground, however, is a well-established strategy for Singapore, as Associate Professor Zhao was keen to emphasise when he offered his audience a virtual tour of subterranean Singapore. With a draft master plan in the offering, the URA and other government agencies are seeking to extend the range of underground activities from storage space for military and civilian purposes, transport networks and energy hubs to more human-centric purposes, including a new underground science park. Depending on depth, purpose and what was described as ‘favourable geology’, there are layer upon layer of cables, tunnels and storage tanks for imported oil as well as ammunition dumps. Saving, repurposing and expanding space work hand in hand with one another as planning and design impulses. Working with the indigenous geology was not, as our guest speaker reminded us, without its challenges. Seepage and subsidence constitute perpetual engineering challenges. Singapore’s underground, as a working volume, remains leaky and building more has to be balanced against ensuring the perils of flooding and contamination of water supplies (Xu et al 2015).

For all the braggadocio one sometimes encounters about the underground as the next frontier for expansive futures (and we watched a remarkable video about “Singapore 2065” by architectural photographer and filmmaker, Finbar Fallon), the underground plans of Singapore are also animated by anxieties about regional neighbours. Land reclamation is a source of tension with Malaysia; importing sands irritates regional neighbours such as Cambodia (Jamieson 2020); and building underground also serves to reassure city authorities that Singapore is not lagging behind regional financial and trading centres such as Hong Kong. Towards the end of his illuminating lecture, Associate Professor Zhao cautioned non-Singaporeans that there is a human cost to all of this subterranean activity—citizens and residents alike worry about vibration and the psychological impacts of blasting should not be under-estimated. Working underground has a myriad of implications for those living and working above ground, even when the work is many metres below ground and often appears quite discreet (Reynolds 2020). Citizen groups in Singapore do express disquiet about the scale and pace of underground development and its impact on public spaces such as parks and wildlife areas.

This overview of subterranean Singapore provides a timely and provocative introduction to a workshop held in January 2019, which brought authors from around the world to further consider subterranean geopolitics. It is a vibrant field of inquiry with special issues, edited volumes, monographs and scholarly papers addressing the breath and scope of geographical and wider environmental and social science as well as humanities enquiry (for example, Garrett, 2020, Himley and Marston, 2020, Squire and Dodds, 2020). Our workshop was populated in the main with human geographers, political scientists, anthropologists and cultural and literary studies scholars. In this introductory essay, we seek to provide critical readings of the field of subterranean geopolitics. We offer one initial caveat to what follows: the categories ‘subterranean’ and ‘geopolitics’ were not taken for granted by any of the participants. Our audience members pushed the speakers to think hard about how spaces get identified and labelled as ‘subterranean’; the elemental affordances of the sub-surface; how and why they are framed on the one hand as economically and geopolitically invaluable and on the other hand as liability and disaster; and the role of technologies such as underground pipelines and techniques such as tunnelling and surveying. What all that in mind, we tease out a suite of themes that we believe will be of enduring importance to those interested in the underground and underwater environments/milieu and how the sub-surface makes things and relationships materially, institutionally and ideologically possible. Thereafter, we provide a brief summary of the papers in this special issue and draw attention to shared concerns and interests. Writing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and global lock-down, it is salutary to acknowledge that the workshop and special issue exemplified the very best in academic solidarity and peer to peer support.

2. Going Underground: The State-of-Play in Subterranean Geopolitics

Bringing the subterranean and the geopolitical together has a provenance that stretches well over a decade from – Heidi Scott’s innovative essay on colonialism, mining and the underground to investigations into contemporary energy geographies and expressions of resource nationalism by authors such as Gabriela Valdivia and the urban geopolitics of Stephen Graham (Graham, 2004; Scott, 2008; Valdivia, 2015). What links some of this extant literature is not only the subterranean as a lively natural-social domain but also the contested politics of the surface and the sub-surface. From Greenland to Bolivia, scholars have matched an interest in extractive projects and infrastructural investment planning to the networks and relationships that exist between states, corporations, financial and legal frameworks, global markets and the local communities affected directly by what Valdivia (2015) termed energo-political assemblages (On Greenland, see Nuttall 2017 and on Bolivia, see Laing 2020). Inspired by Latin American geographical scholarship, some of the most path-breaking scholarship has probed and unearthed the subtle and not so subtle connections between colonial systems of governance, earth science knowledge production and subterranean governmentality (Marston 2019).

When governments and corporations stake out their claims to the subterranean, they work with an assemblage of actors, ideas, knowledges, and practices. We could speak of a military-industrial-scientific-legal complex that contributes to this endeavour, as well as recognise ongoing interest and investment in subterranean surveillance and warfare (Richemond-Barak, 2017, Slesinger, 2020). Government funding is integral to the 3D mappings and excavations of the underground. The national security apparatus is usually complicit with any projects involving the sub-surface, while national and trans-national corporations and global capital entwined with the financing of initiatives and legal and political frameworks are enablers of activity (Bridge 2013). National legal frameworks determine and adjudicate on who owns the sub-surface and what is permissible. As indigenous and local communities around the world have discovered to their cost, governments can and do act swiftly and ruthlessly to protect subterranean portfolios, revealing the power of emergency planning powers, legal regimes, land injustice and dominant knowledge practices (Cowen 2017).

In anticipation of its impending forays into underground space, the Singapore government has, for instance, unilaterally amended the State Lands Act in 2015 to make clear that a landowner can only claim their rights to subterranean land up to 30m below Singapore Height Datum (Chew 2017). Beyond that, the land is state-owned and this effectively entitles the government to unbridled power in developing underground spaces for ‘national’ agendas. This draconian move was backed up by concurrent revisions being made to the relevant laws to grant ruling elites with the authority to acquire entire columns of land. Singapore is hardly exceptional in this regard—other polities like Hong Kong are similarly considering a range of legal improvisations to facilitate subterranean ventures (Cheung 2020). There are, of course, examples of states working together to manage shared underground aquifers but in general terms the direction of traffic is avowedly one shaped by national developmental and security priorities. Indeed, as Garrett et al (2020: 6) pointedly note, whilst mapping and legal regimes that underpin subterranean interventions undeniably have the “capacity to open imaginations to [underground] spaces”, they also signal to the broader issue of power relations with their “the potential to become a neo-colonial method of parcelling land”.

The established turn towards the volumetric, the capacious and the forceful in contemporary geopolitical writings on territory makes a great deal of sense. First, as others have noted, the geopolitical realm has never been exclusively horizontal and two-dimensional (Bridge, 2013, Graham, 2016). Writings on the vertical and the volumetric have performed sterling labour in alerting us to the height and depth of the power-knowledge geopolitical nexus (Elden, 2013, Weizman, 2017). The subterranean is integral to ancient and modern life. For centuries, human communities have extracted water and mineral resources from the underground, buried their dead (necropolis), organised storage (catacombs), built sewer systems and sought shelter (see the essays in Bille 2020). It was not until the 19th Century, however, when the rise of industrial cities brought about the possibility for people “to reconcile themselves to living in the Underworld” (Bobrick 1994: 85). Specifically, the development of the modern underground railway ushered in a new artificial and abstract technological order that assured a clean, hygienic and safe subterranean travel experience for the masses. Although there have been contestations to this seemingly romanticised historical interpretation of a new subterranean order (e.g. Brooks 1997), there is little doubt that the use of the underground has been the source of pioneering subterranean studies of major cities such as London, Paris and New York, which in turn inform and enrich understandings of urban geopolitics (Pike 2005). It would be difficult to write a human geography of a city that did not situate itself within the underground.

For those living in any city ravaged by war, the bunker and shelter were integral to their everyday lives. In Beirut, for example, one could take something specific such as the B018 bunker and trace through how a celebrated nightclub came to exist in a part of the city that previously hosted Armenian, Palestinian and Kurdish refugees (on Beirut and its relationship to urban geopolitics, see Fregonese 2020). In neighbouring Syria, the documentary The Cave (2020), brings to the screen the grim reality of running an underground hospital in rebel-controlled area close to Damascus, in the midst of artillery shelling and air strikes from forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad. While some cities have to literally ‘go underground’ to protect their keyworkers and critical infrastructure, other towns and cities rediscover their underground air raid shelters, which had been abandoned and then accidentally re-discovered during new building works or local subsidence. In the city of Bristol, school playgrounds had to shut in May 2020 because of World War II-era underground shelters being accidentally un-earthed. While these old shelters have now been infilled, doctors in contemporary Syria battle to avoid being entombed by surface rubble. Recent scholarship has not only investigated the depth of the territorial volume but also pondered capacity, resilience and stability. The subterranean, as the fate of the air raid shelter in Bristol reminds us, is not necessarily stable, even when it is spared the disruptive consequences of civilian-led construction projects and dramatic episodes of military violence (Klinke 2018).

Second, our auditing of geo-politics is increasingly tied up with the political geographies of the environmental, marine and earth sciences. Historians of the earth sciences have produced a compelling body of scholarship on the funding of Anglo-American and European projects and the role of the military as interlocutor of knowledge production and circulation above and below the surface (for example, Robinson, 2018, Squire, 2020). The Cold War era has been generously serviced in part because of the availability of a plethora of archival sources but also due to the scale and extent of the earth sciences and oceanography in particular (Hamblin 2016). Where the militaries wanted to go, the scientists followed and vice versa. The underground and seabed were mapped, charted and surveyed by engineers, geologists, seismologists, and oceanographers and glaciologists. There is plenty more to learn about the intellectual and social histories of Cuban speleology, Bolivian geology, Brazilian oceanography and wider histories of knowledge of the earth including the ocean depths and seabed (Perez and Zurita, 2020). The relationship between the earth sciences and vertical and volumetric understandings of national and international territory is crucial to understanding future iterations of subterranean geopolitics and their relational qualities.

One area that is attracting ever more attention is the global commons. Major powers such as China, the US, Japan, Russia and India are investing heavily in underwater drone technology and deep seabed mining (Hughes 2016). Outside the purview of any one nation-state, the world’s remotest waters and ice-covered regions of the world are enabling and hosting geopolitical rivalries. Both the US and China have invested in a sophisticated fleet of drones (un-crewed underwater vehicles, UUV) and deployed use to survey for resources as well as collect oceanographic data such as seawater temperature and salinity. This kind of data is considered highly valuable for intelligence-gathering purposes, including the detection of third-party submarines in highly sensitive spaces such as international straits and the waters favoured by global shipping lanes. Indeed, China has announced its plans to build a ‘underwater space station’ in the disputed South China Sea area and this deep-sea platform, according to some Chinese scholars, will be used to hunt for oil, gas and mineral reserves as well as serve military operations (Potenza 2016). The geopolitical fears in ‘Western’ states and media around this ambitious plan were further compounded by the proposition by a Chinese state-owned shipping firm to erect an “Underwater Great Wall of China” consisting of a network of submarine detectors to boost the country’s defence (Wong 2016). Amidst concerns of a ‘scramble’ for and the militarization of the underwater world, new regulatory frameworks are in the process of being formulated to govern access and norms in deep oceanic spaces The UN agency, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is responsible for the issuance of around 30 licences to a medley of commercial and national operators so that they can survey and possibly exploit areas in the deep seabed is supposed to release an underwater mining code but that has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of any delay, it is now increasingly likely that there will be more interest in visualising, digitizing and privatizing the world’s remotest seabed.

Third, the enchantment with the subterranean owes a great deal to a more explicit consideration of Anthropocene geopolitics (Dalby 2020). If geopolitical theorising was guilty of anything, it was a tendency to assume that there was a largely fixed distinction between land, sea and ice. Over the last 10,000 years, as part of our Holocene era, we have largely been able to plan on the basis that the earth’s climate was stable, notwithstanding seasonal variations in weather. While natural disasters made an impact on local and regional communities and economies, the tectonics of global geopolitics were stable premised on artificial territorial division, identifiable international boundaries, and powered by hydrocarbon extraction. Humans had at their disposal arable, pasture and forestry, and later the utilization of resources such as coal allowed carrying capacity of land to be extended and radically transformed energy generation. Land not only provides wealth but also helps determine national sovereignty and access to resources on land and at sea. The coastal state, as a legal category, is premised on the possession of a coastline and zonation of water being measured from the so-called baseline. This confidence in the stability of the earth system facilitated an extraordinary expansion into the subterranean and submarine realms of the earth – and including using the underground as a haven for our critical infrastructure, extracting resources including minerals and fish, and using sub-surface environments as experimental testing and waste spaces.

The Anthropocene is scrambling that geographical complacency. The underground is in revolt. In the Arctic, thawing permafrost is causing havoc with roads, pipelines and buildings and revealing things that we thought were safely buried such as abandoned Cold War detritus in under ice Greenland (for example, see Dodds 2020, and on ‘un-earthing’ see Hawkins 2020). The disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has exposed yet again the crucial work that our warming and acidifying oceans perform in absorbing carbon emissions and pollutants. Underground spaces have brought into sharper focus the importance of how human communities are remaking nature over time. This artificial world-making is exposing our co-dependencies on subterranean environments. As the Arctic demonstrates, the thawing of frozen ground is bringing to the surface ancient animal carcasses and causing the release of zoological diseases such as the Anthrax in the Russian North. Humans, animals and pathogen were put into dangerous motion. The frozen underground is no longer able to perform the sorts of ecological and infrastructural services that human communities benefit from. The underground is being re-engineered by heat and moisture interfering with the active soil layer and the depth of frozen earth. What we learn from the sub-surface of the Arctic is the intersection of decompression, emergence and transformation of elemental matter and energy. There is nothing fixed or inevitable about the subterranean here and there (for an overview, Dodds and Woodward 2021).

Subterranean geopolitics in the Anthropogenic era is one in which we reconsider the ability and capacity of human communities to design and engineer underground environments around the world. Indeed, more frequent and severe weather events and natural disasters in the age of the Anthropocene have prompted widespread debates about the potential to exploit the underground for shelter and protection. In Singapore, the decision to ‘go underground’ is not solely driven by the intent to overcome the city-state’s land constraints. Rather, there is the constant rhetoric by local policy-makers and planners that the potential exists for Singaporeans to take refuge in subterranean spaces should global warming and rising temperatures make surface living unbearable (Yong, 2018). While Singapore can devise a master plan for sub-surface living and storage, the grim reality for others is that subterranean engineering is going to be a great deal more expensive and interventionist. The science and technology of geological mapping and engineering science is a field ripe for further interrogation, and one likely to attract more funding as governments around the world make judgements about whether to exploit further underground resources, construct new living spaces and devise new storage spaces. But the converse is also true—subterranean mapping is going to be necessary to avoid disaster and to help anticipate what one should not do, which might include closing down activity such as mining and the dumping of waste. Geological repositories will be required, for thousands of years, for substances such as nuclear waste and other extreme contaminants. In an age of ecological scrambling, the surface and sub-surface worlds are being blended and blurred with one another (Macfarland 2019).

The geo-politics of the sub-soil and sub-marine is not evenly distributed in this Anthropogenic era. We should not be in doubt that there are precarious geographies of the subterranean to be tracked and traced. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, we have stories of the super-rich investing in their own private bunkers designed to preserve their lives while the rest of us hope that the earth does not become our public mausoleum. Our relationship with the non-human will also be prominent in how certain objects such as plastics, microbes and bugs will endure in the nooks and crevices of our fossilised underground transport systems, sewage networks, quarries, catacombs and bunkers (for example, Bille 2020). The human agency responsible for reshaping the underground resides on an extraction-based logic of usage buttressed by the assumption that our air, water and underground could and should accommodate our by-products and waste. As critical geographers of toxic waste remind us, poorer and indigenous and non-white communities often end up living and working with that waste at surface and sub-surface levels. Thom Davies (2019) has aptly termed such a development as producing ‘toxic geographies’ whereby toxic pollution exploits structural inequalities to mutate into notorious instances of slow violence. The challenge for critical scholars and environmental activists around the world is to get those in power to work with a future that allocate knowledge and responsibility in a more equitable manner, where the techno-scientific and legal expertise of the privileged do not bury and drown out others and where time is taken to consider and accommodate the inter-generational and inter-species demands of the future. Perhaps all these echo Donna Haraway’s (2016) efforts in rethinking response-ability in the era of the Chutulucene. According to Haraway, the Chthulucene signals to an epoch of multi-species worlding and ‘sym-poietic’ thinking and making together. Essentially it is a call to extend the web of connections beyond those ties of ancestry or genealogy in order to invoke and practice a deep responsibility to many others. As she reminds us, “all [surface and subsurface] earthlings are kin in the deepest sense” (Haraway 2016: 103). Interestingly the term Chthulucene is derived from the word ‘chthon’, loosely translated as “earth” in Greek is associated with things that dwell in or under the earth.

Fourth, any claim to develop a field such as subterranean geopolitics would need to account for the lived experiences and intersectional encounters of the underworlds. Remoteness, inaccessibility and comparative invisibility should not disguise the fact that these are lived worlds, involving multiple species. The relationship between human communities and artificial environments under the sea was never divorced from the earthly forces and pressures that made them in the first place. In her study of underwater living, the US Sealab programme, Rachael Squire drew attention to the fact that naval personnel were rocked by underwater tremors and surface-level hurricanes, and even had to deal with the rotting stench of fish that were caught up in the metallic structure including its vents (Squire, 2018, Squire, 2020). Contact with the surface was crucial to the morale of the men stuck in the underwater pods but the place-making activities also revealed highly gendered patterns of labour with the wives and children associated with the naval staff expected to send cake, offer supportive radio messages and help with the physical and psychological adjustment that a return to shore life demanded.

While Sealab is an extreme example of experimental living, human communities for millennia have made the underground their home. This might include cave dwellers, temporary dwellers such as miners and those simply seeking emergency refuge. During the Cold War, military communities spend lengthy moments underground in secret missile complexes and nuclear submarines navigating under ice and under the world’s oceans for months at a times. It is, perhaps unsurprising, that life underground has generated a diversity of embodied experiences and encounters. Being trapped in a cave, for example, as experienced by a group of school children and their teacher in Thailand in 2019 ended up not only being an extraordinary human drama for 17 days but also an opportunity for the country’s special forces to exhibit their skills in front of a global media audience (Coombes 2019). The trapped party were forced, as others have found, to adapt and adjust to an unfamiliar and unsettling environment. The rescue effort was supplemented by US military assistance from the US military base in Okinawa (Japan) as well as the Military Advisory Group based in Thailand. During the actual rescue mission, the US authorities released no images or news stories about the role of the service personnel. Immediately after the successful rescue the US Special Operations Command took to social media and shared images of Thai and US military teams working together. In the wake of China’s growing economic and political presence in South East Asia, the images shared by the US authorities captured the encounters above ground while showcasing the drama below ground.

What all the aforementioned experiences of the subterranean reveal is their ‘difference’ from surface living and encounters, with psychological preparations needed in order for humans to survive in these ‘alternative’ underground settings. Indeed, there is no lack of scientific studies that have been conducted to ascertain the behavioural and psychological impacts on humans residing and/or working long hours underground (see for example, Küller and Wetterberg 1996). Such contemplations are arguably closely intertwined with Peters and Turner (2018) call for a ‘politics of capacity’ in future volumetric studies. In their words, “Capacity [is] not simply a physical, geometric calculation of available resources (space, services, finance), but a social ability and aptitude to act and live in a particular way” (ibid: 1052). By taking into account the idea of capacity for the understanding the intersectional geographies of subterranean experiences, we can then start to think about how different identities, physical and psychological factors and socio-cultural backgrounds can perhaps influence the ability of individuals to negotiate the domain of the underground.

Fifth, any subterranean geopolitics worth its salt must recognise that the nexus between the surface and sub-surface has been filled with imaginative possibilities (for an overview, see Fitting 2004). Literary utopias, science fiction, dystopian fables have all contributed to underground imaginings as have filmic and televisual cultures that have sought to portray sub-surface life, from underwater wildlife filming to sub-surface action-thrillers and dramas (for example, Cohen 2019). What characterises a great deal of this popular cultural engagement is a basic distinction between these inaccessible spaces being sites for extraordinary survival and endurance on the one hand and on the other being characterised by decline and death. While the novels of H G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs would provide plenty examples of fictional popular geopolitics, it is important to note that scientific theorising about the earth also was capable of imaginative musings about the chambers, channels and hollows that made up the world below the surface. For the most outlandish theorising, there were not only nooks and crannies beneath the earth’s crust but also human communities enduring even thriving in the ‘hollow earth’. The premise of a subterranean utopia found expression in work such as Willis Emerson’s Smoky God or A Voyage to the Inner World (1908), and we might well ask what forms of subterranean popular geopolitics continue to endure and the kinds of utopian and dystopian worlds that they compose and mobilise.

Subterranean drama was part and parcel of Cold War cultures as well. Film, television, public information videos and novels contributed to imagining worlds that were either ravaged by nuclear confrontation and/or exposed to fictional imagination. A legion of underwater and subterranean films and novels took readers and viewers beneath the surface. Not all of them were necessarily pessimistic and doom-laden but it might necessitate a super-spy such as James Bond to foil the outlandish sub-surface scheming by evil geniuses (Dodds and Funnell 2017). At the same time Hollywood was producing blockbuster movies such as Ice Station Zebra (1957) and On the Beach (1959), aquanauts such as Jacques Cousteau released Silent World (1956), which took the viewer on an odyssey of the ocean as a bright and animated volume. Underwater environments were part and parcel of Cold War strategic planning, scientific discovery and legal and political expansion, as international agreements such as the UN Continental Shelf Convention extended the resource rights of coastal states. But those waters were also filled with potential adversaries so fixated with submarines and secret naval operations, and they, especially when filmed and pictured, provided rich opportunities for political and military leaderships to showcase their technological agility and human prowess.

The subterranean has also proven a rich opportunity for community-based activism and documentary filmmaking and political expose. Good Luck (2017), directed by Ben Russell, explores the contested politics of mining in Serbia and Suriname. Split into two parts, the first part of the documentary travels underground with miners working in a copper mine in Serbia and follows the weariness of the miners, as they begin their long descent to the mine face. It looks and feels deeply claustrophobic with only the artificial light from the safety hats of the miners to illuminate this underworld (on the miner’s light and the subterranean, see Jaramillo 2016). At surface level, the management of the mine is a multi-national affair involving Canadian and Chinese partners. In Suriname, the gold mine in question is illegal and amateurish. Local miners seeking their fortune complain about how hard it is to find gold and muse about the fate of the earth as communities around the world continue to ‘hollow out’. But there is also violence in and around the mines as illegal miners continue to clash with indigenous communities. International partners such as the appropriately named IAMGOLD licensed by the Suriname government complain that their operations are being disrupted by protest, blockade and shutdown. In Serbia and Suriname, despite their geographical distance from each other, the underground is revealed to be a contested space exposing wealth inequalities, geopolitical and geo-economic relationship-building and the cumulative legacy of ill-health on miners, illegal or legal.

Finally, there is no reason to think that subterranean geopolitics will not continue to trade in moral geographies. Our underworlds often serve to reveal both ugly truths about the manner in which humanity has laid waste to the biosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere but also underscore how impact and wealth have been skewed towards the most privileged in the world. Critical studies on the subterranean and sub-surface have unearthed to further scrutiny the capacity of territoriality, state-power, and logistics to facilitate extraction, burial and storage (see the essays in the collection edited by Squire and Dodds 2020). These new and emergent geo-social interventions and geo-political relationships are shot through with normative judgements about what kind of earthly futures are being made and put into motion. Undergrounds around the world have and continue to be manipulated by human interventions and thus we would expect further research to interrogate the planning power of the state, the role of design and experimentation, the development of new knowledge regimes and legal frameworks and the articulation of aspirations, fears and goals of elites and publics. In our Anthropogenic era, the subterranean will attract ever greater attention as the height, depth, density and volume of the earth intersect precariously with human, geologic and cosmic timescales.

3. Our collection

The papers that follow this positioning essay build on and broach many of the themes that we have described above. They are written from a variety of disciplinary vantage points and dabble in diverse topical concerns which invariably attests to the lively and immense possibilities of conceptualising and researching subterranean geopolitics.

The first set of three papers eschews presentism to trace the long(er) genealogies and histories of thinking and doing subterranean geopolitics. Indeed, Ian Klinke opens the special issue by forcing us to question the widespread claim that the subfield of geopolitics has traditionally been a flat discourse and horizontal imaginaries (see MacDonnell 2020), and that it is only in recent years that geographers have begun to appreciate the vertical extensions of statecraft, armed conflicts and geopolitical power. According to Klinke, such a perspective constitutes a partial and incomplete ‘reading’ of even the Anglophone geopolitical tradition. By embarking on a historical journey to revisit the works of classical geopolitical writers, he not only excavates unacknowledged and lesser-known ideas for a fuller understanding of the origins and evolution of geopolitics, but also demonstrates more specifically how the writings of German political geographer, Federich Ratzel was instrumental in using geology and the underground realm to address broader questions of politics and power. Beyond academic accounts, Klinke is similarly keen to highlight the ways in which ‘real world’ historical events like the aerial and (subsequent) nuclear bombings in the 1940 s prompted geopolitical strategists on both sides of the Atlantic to become much more cognizant of the three-dimensional struggles for territorial space (c.f. Bridge, 2013, Klinke, 2018). Thus, Klinke argues that it is only through intimate dialogues between the intellectual history of geopolitics and the growing literatures on geopower and vertical geopolitics that we can start to think about ‘the vertical’ in ways that do not simply reproduce the violent and destructive gaze and practices of classical geopolitics and strategic military discourses.

Nigel Clark’s paper is not so much concerned with the geopolitical tradition as with critically documenting the ways in which human history has been closely bounded up with the utilisation of fire. The subterranean is central to this story insofar as fire and subsurface Earth have literally been ‘enfolded’ at key historical junctures of human civilization’s developmental trajectory—active geomorphic forces within the Earth’s crust have enabled hominins to first ‘capture flames’ for various usages but human communities have also ‘dug deep’ to extract metallic ores to create fire. In exploring three such junctures that define humankind’s longstanding interactions with the fire-subsurface nexus (i.e. the volcanic landscapes of the Great Rift Valley, the chambering of fire by ancient artisans in emergent city-states, and the role of explosive weapons in gunpowder empires), Clark illuminates the novel improvisations and experimentations that have been devised to engage in “pyropolitics” or the regulation, manipulations and management of fire (c.f. Clark 2011). With combustion being the key driver of climate change and contemporary patterns of Anthropocene geopolitics (Dalby 2020), Clark contends that reflecting on these diverse histories of fire-subsurface entanglements is not to exhort for an existence that is devoid of burning fossil biomass. Rather, it can shed light on alternative geopolitical and pyropolitical futures, whereby asking critical questions regarding how to make sense of and negotiate our relationship/alliance with fire become fundamental.

Heidi Scott’s paper transports us back in time to understand the production of subterranean knowledges in colonial Andes in the 16th Century. In particular, she underscores how these knowledges are powerfully shaped by different actors and practices in/of the mining industry. Crucially, as mineral extraction became ever more imbricated with Spanish colonial rule, there were dominant imaginings that associated Andean nature with subterranean mineral wealth. Indeed, an organic theory of mineral formation proved influential, whereby there was widespread belief in the tree-like growth of precious metals that continuously extends underground. Even with the rise of modern geology and cartographic techniques in the 19th Century that allowed for more scientific ways of visualising vertical territory, these premodern (subterranean) ‘ways of knowing’ continued to proliferate in enduring ways. But as Scott goes on to remind us, these conceptualisations of the underground must be seen in tandem with the discursive constructions of surface landscapes. Indeed, promoters of mining were keen to reject visions of an exuberant and productive ‘surface’ nature even as there were no lack of oppositional voices that emphasised the fertility of the Andean soil in fulfilling the promises of agriculture. Hence, by engaging in this study, Scott brings to fore the diverse geographies and temporalities of subterranean knowledges, and the contextual politics that gave rise to particular ways of perceiving the underground.

The next trio of papers are united by their efforts to bring debates related to nation-states, borders and diplomacy into broader conversation with subterranean geopolitics. Franck Billé begins by reflecting deeper into seemingly deep-seated imagination of a bounded nation-state. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s work, he carefully demonstrates how the nation-state in the guise of a logo-map is often deployed both cartographically and in the physical landscape to bring forward a political geography that is graspable, intelligible and knowable. And borderland regions, with their spaces of separation seem to reinforce the nation-state as the guarantor of sovereignty and enforcing sharp lines of territorial divisions. But as Billé is quick to caution, the ideal of the nation-state as homogenous, contained and continuous is one that appears to make sense on the surface but much more difficult to sustain and define ‘from below’. This argument is demonstrated through the Demilitarised Zone in the Korean Peninsula and the English Channel where “the threat of the tunnel, the phantasmatic presence of the concorporate always threatens to disrupt and unravel the delicately crafted illusion of the nation-state”. Although the rich tapestries of the subterranean can enhance our geopolitical understandings of the world, Billé however signals to its absences and neglect in geopolitical narratives given that the underground is imagined being static and devoid of meanings. This leads to him to designate the subterranean as a geopolitical unconscious—a realm which remains unspoken, unexplored or forcibly repressed in geopolitical narratives (c.f. Pick 1994).

Clinton Fernandes’ contribution hinges on three subterranean sites—undersea long-distance telecommunications cables, submarine operational areas and underground espionage missions—to examine Australia’s diplomatic endeavours and their intersections with geoscience, international law and military capabilities. According to him, the myriad interventions into these ‘under-the-surface’ diplomatic sites constitute covert instruments of statecraft and demonstrate elite- private economic interests in shaping/influencing the concept of “national interest” in Australian external relations. For instance, the complex trade agreements around undersea cables between the Singaporean and Australian governments were made possible through appeals to “national interests” by the two states to advance the economic agendas of their respective domestic corporations. Alternatively, “national interest” considerations similarly underpin Australia’s spatial deployment of submarines insofar as they perform a key diplomatic role in aligning the country’s geo-military and geostrategic objectives with those of its main allies (like the US). As such, in unearthing the subterranean qualities of these multiple sites, Clinton essentially helps to cast nuanced attention on the hidden and often invisible dimensions of Australian statecraft in securing national security objectives.

The central premise of Chih Yuan Woon and J.J. Zhang’s paper is to shift geopolitical studies on the subterranean away from their tendency to investigate issues of warfare, violence and militarism. To do so, they uphold that peaceful and diplomatic ideas and relationships can also be forged through the subterranean realm. Using the case study of the Kinmen (or Quemoy) which served as main battlefield site between Taiwanese and Chinese forces during the 1950s, it is argued that the multiplicity of defense architectures and structures on the island has been transformed into rapprochement tourism resources for the cultivation of benign cross-strait relations. One such tourism site that Woon and Zhang focused on is the Zhaishan Tunnel. They purposefully teased out how tourism authorities in Kinmen has strategically designed and arranged the elemental and material aspects of the tunnel to shore up certain convivial atmospheres that shape Chinese and Taiwanese visitors’ disposition towards peace. In so doing, the paper contributes a useful framework to theorise the relationship between affective atmosphere and elemental materialities for the (re)making of subterranean diplomacy and peace.

The bodily volumes of subterranean geopolitics have garnered increasing attention whereby existing works have placed importance on examining the manner in which a plethora of bodies encounter, experience and negotiate with subterranean geopolitical events and processes (see for examples, Benwell, 2020, Squire and Dodds, 2020). The final set of papers builds on and extends this thematic focus to question the embodied affects that shape the inhabitation/usage of sub-surface and underground spaces. Bradley Garrett provides an experiential and affective account of underground bunkers which are occupied and resided by the so-called “doomsday preppers”. Prepping, as defined by Garrett, is a “practice of anticipating and adapting to impending conditions of calamity, ranging from low-level crises to extinction-level events”. In this sense, the spaces afforded by subterranean bunkers should not be seen as terminal structures but as architectures of hope amidst dread, disasters and emergencies. Indeed, through his interviews with preppers, Garrett systematically highlights how their subterranean geopolitics is motivated by a survivalist mentality—to ‘live through’ the collapse of society, order or even the environment itself and actively negotiate and respond to the seemingly irresolvable issues that we are failing to address as a species. As such, in putting faith into adaptation rather than mitigation, preppers not only see their bunkers as solely a spatial refuge; rather these subterranean designs are also imbued with temporal meanings given that they afford preppers the opportunity to wait out the impending unrest and resurface as rejuvenated individuals in a reformed milieu.

María Alejandra Pérez’s paper is not exactly centered on individual experiences of volumetric infrastructures; rather she is concerned with the relational sociality amongst bodies within subterranean terrains. The context of Perez’s study revolves around the interweaving geopolitical relationship between Cuban speleology and national defense from the 1960s through to the 1980s. This period was characterised by local speleologists’ efforts to explore and map caves which at times coincided with the country’s revolutionary leaders’ goal of harnessing caves and karsts for military preparedness. What is perhaps interesting is Pérez’s conceptualisation of speleology practice in terms of its affective relational qualities. Forms of relatedness amongst Cuban speleologists and the environments they worked in were not only crucial in helping them structure their everyday modus operandi but also shaping the kinds of subterranean knowledges that were generated and produced. As Perez goes on to summarise, this relatedness can play out in complex ways and at different geographical scales: relatedness among cavers, even a lineage of cavers, leads to the affirmation of local, regional, or national identity. What this study effectively foregrounds, then, is that caves should not be seen as natural geological formations that are devoid of life. Caves, in Perez’s work, are intimately ‘peopled’—they gather as well as amplify the social.

Shiuh-Shen Chien and Yi-Ting Chang’s article rounds up the special issue by showing the possibilities of surface-level encounters with the subterranean. Recounting the 2014 pipeline gas explosions in downtown Kaohsiung (Taiwan), the two authors contend that the explosions not only exposed subterranean pipelines (which are usually ‘out of sight’ to the wider populace) to public scrutiny (c.f Larkin, 2013) but also created an affective relationship between the Kaohsiung peoples and the Earth they reside and traverse on. Indeed, Chien and Chang consolidated a host of empirical evidences to draw out how local populations evoked ideas of ‘homeland’ to demand for a new subterranean governance regime that is more participatory and less dominated by the interests of political and corporate elites (e.g. those in the petrochemical industry). Such activism efforts on the ground are significant especially in a context where peoples have traditionally been indifferent to subterranean safety and industrial land-use policies. In pursuing this research inquiry, Chien and Chang provide a useful entry point to reconsider the instability and fluidity of subterranean elements as well as the affective-nationalistic sentiments that are shored up in the event when these elemental qualities escape and defy calculability and control (see also Wang and Chien, 2020).

Collectively then, the papers featured in this special issue shy away from reproducing the surface/subsurface binary whereby the latter is taken to be the geopolitical realm of the ‘Other’ and relegated to the margins. Subterranean analysis has to be undertaken from a relational standpoint in order to interrogate the underground through its intricate linkages to surface dynamics, processes and developments. As our geopolitical (life)worlds become increasingly three-dimensional, this academic task has never been more relevant and urgent (see the essays in O’Lear 2020).


We owe a debt of gratitude to Elsevier for generously funding our workshop in Singapore in January 2019 and for supporting this special issue for publication in Geoforum. Once submitted, we were fortunate to have the excellent editorial stewardship of Harvey Neo. Our thanks to all the contributors and referees associated with this special issue. Finally, we acknowledge the generous support from the British Academy in the form of an International Partnership and Mobility Award, which facilitated earlier exchanges between National University of Singapore and Royal Holloway University of London in 2017 and 2018.


SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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