Images of Loss: Mapping the Future Coast

By Sheehan Moore, CUNY Graduate Center §

Ten miles south of New Orleans, on the West Bank of the Mississippi, the trees flanking both sides of Highway 3134 stop abruptly. A 300 foot wide, clear-cut strip extends to the left and right, cutting across the road and sloping up from a shallow drainage canal. The highway rises with it, and with a gentle bump passes over the hurricane protection levee’s floodwall. A sign announces:

Your Tax Dollars at Work!
WBV-14e.2 Hurricane Levee Lift
Hwy. 45 to Estelle

It’s another three minutes down the road to the Barataria Preserve, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. A popular walking trail snakes past a 2,500-year-old shell midden on the bayou’s natural high ground before turning deeper into the swamp, where the park’s namesake smuggled enslaved Africans into Louisiana from the West Indies. The path meets up with a canal that once drained a sugar plantation and was later expanded for cypress logging. It ends at another, dredged through the wetlands in the 1950s for a pipeline serving nearby oil and gas fields. Thousands of years of lower Mississippi River land-use history sit atop each other here.

Figure 1. The Barataria Preserve visitor center. Source: National Park Service.

Back at the park’s visitor center, though, the subject is this land’s future. An exhibit titled “Going… Going… Gone…” takes up a whole wall, centered on a large map of southern Louisiana (fig. 1). The drainage canal by the hurricane levee makes another appearance, this time as one blue squiggle set among countless others. By now this map will be familiar to most of the state’s residents: it shows the coastline fifty years from now, modeled on projections of land loss if subsidence and erosion continue unabated. At present, the state is losing coastal land at an average rate commonly expressed as a football field every hundred minutes. This map—of a genre planners sometimes call “red-green maps”—is based on a scenario created by the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) for its Coastal Master Plan (fig. 2). It shows a small amount of land gain in green at the mouths of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, and, in the worst-case scenario, up to 4,200 square miles of land loss in red.

Figure 2. Predictive land loss maps as they appear in the CPRA’s 2017 Coastal Master Plan. Source: CPRA.

In a geological sense, the land called Louisiana is built up from thousands of years of sediment deposits as the Mississippi River’s main channel swung back and forth along different routes to the Gulf. But over the last century levees and other river control structures have locked the river in place and prohibited new sediment from overspilling its banks. Further, since coastal mineral leasing began in the 1920s, the oil and gas industry has dredged over 9,000 miles of canals for navigation and pipelines. These canals allow tides and storm surges to bypass the natural sponge of wetlands, accelerating saltwater intrusion and erosion (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Satellite view of canals in Lafourche Parish. Source: Google Earth.

With the addition of rising seas and intensifying hurricane seasons, the region faces the relatively rapid conversion of coastal wetlands into open water. A sprawling apparatus of NGOs, private planning firms, and state agencies like the CPRA is attempting to slow or reverse this process, undertaking projects like marsh creation and sediment diversions designed to restore the region’s ecological processes.

Figure 4. Source: Robert A. Rohde/Wikimedia Commons.

Predictive land loss maps generated by these groups belong, in part, to the proliferation of images depicting risk-filled climate futures. “Burning world” (Schneider 2016) temperature projection diagrams (fig. 4) and digital renderings of underwater cities (fig. 5) abound in the media. The scores of maps and other graphics in the IPCC’s 2018 report have their own web page. And a 2014 special issue of Public Culture is dedicated to theorizing environmental visualizations.

Figure 5. Source: Climate Central.
Figure 6. Still from a March 2021 CPRA webinar.

Figure 7. Projected land loss maps from a 1989 issue of Louisiana Conservationist.

But predictive maps have a particular currency and ubiquity in Louisiana. In addition to the walls of national park visitor centers, they appear at public meetings (fig. 6) and in seemingly every news report about the state’s coastal land loss crisis. While the CPRA’s red-green maps are no older than the agency—formed in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—similar renderings date back decades to when local fishers and other residents first sounded the alarm on coastal subsidence and erosion (fig. 7). Taken together, such maps tell us something about the ways that land loss is formulated as crisis here in Louisiana, and about the courses of action thought to be available as residents and governments seek remediation.

Anthropologists have a long history of looking at and making maps. For much of that time, they have treated them purely as spatial representations: powerful and ideological diagrams, maybe, but not images. Alfred Gell, writing in Man in 1985, is exemplary: “…there is nothing intrinsically pictorial about maps, since their information content can be encoded in words and numbers. There need be nothing sensory about a map, whereas an ‘image’ always has sensory form” (1985: 278). But the intervening years have seen art historians and critical geographers alike insist on maps as “a genre of pictorial image” (Kupfer 1994: 262) that reflect motivated aesthetic considerations (see also Harley 1988). Anthropology, to an extent, has followed suit (see Roberts 2012), concurrent with a growing ethnographic attention to the sensorial.

Treating maps of future land loss as imagistic as well as cartographic means situating them within the visual culture of crisis in Louisiana. Doing so offers insights into how land is represented and governed in the process of trying to save it—as well as how to figure land “loss” in a place already marked so deeply by historical and ongoing forms of territorial dispossession. The maps’ overlay of future and present coastlines, for instance, calls to mind art historical accounts of medieval European world maps that gathered and compressed time as well as space (Kupfer 1994). In these mappae mundi, contemporaneous borders and geographical features are charted alongside historical or mythological events like the Cretan Labyrinth. The critical difference, of course, is that maps of Louisiana’s future are wiped clean of history: there’s no trace of the past or present that shape what land can mean here. The territories of the Atakapa-Ishak, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Caddo, Natchez, and Houma nations; the tracts of riverfront plantations that became the refineries and petrochemical plants now called Cancer Alley; the supposedly worthless marshes that enabled escape from enslavement and “Indian removals” before timber and oil companies moved in; or the cities and towns molded by violence, abandonment, and rebellion—all of these are effectively flattened into the map’s gray present and set against the ominous red of future loss.

Joseph Masco has argued that “images and logics of imminent danger” (2014: 9) can mobilize public feelings through an affective and aesthetic infrastructure of threat. This is part of a growing literature that attends to temporal moods like anticipation of future crises that come to govern the present through injunctions to act (see Adams, Murphy, & Clarke 2009). So it is telling, perhaps, that these maps are part of a model that planners ominously call “Future Without Action,” and that they depict not one but three possible scenarios for impending catastrophe. According to the CPRA’s Master Plan, these predictions are “not intended to provide any guarantees about the future,” only to provide “clarity and focus that enables Louisiana to build and implement projects that are the most effective investments for building land and reducing risk” (CPRA 2017: 29). Even as resolutely scientific and data-driven as these maps may seem, they also—to borrow Lisa Stevenson’s characterization of images—“capture uncertainty and contradiction” (2014: 10) holding it in tense suspension. The only thing that is certain, the Plan suggests, is the need for action.

“The promise of a planned future” (Abram & Weszkalnys 2013: 3), and of vast infrastructure projects to shield us from threats (see Anand, Gupta, & Appel 2018), is also a promise that the present state of nervous anticipation and readiness will always stretch out ahead of us to the horizon—just as the fifty-year projections in the CPRA maps are extended further into the future with each new revision of the Coastal Master Plan. The red-and-green balance-sheet logic of loss and gain they invoke captures and smooths over other contradictions, too. For instance, while we refer to Louisiana’s land loss, around eighty percent of the coast is privately owned by corporations and individuals. Their loss is in a sense Louisiana’s gain because when land becomes submerged, mineral rights revert to the state.1 But of course, the line between land and water is always murkier than simply “loss” and “gain” suggest, and so these maps do the ideological work, too, of rendering visually some “territorial imperatives” (Harley 1988: 130) of the settler colony. They depict a way of thinking about land that means it is “lost” the moment it becomes water—gone from the map, gone from the holdings of private landowners, and gone, for many of us, from our conception of what land even is.

When confronted with images of land lost so neatly and so finally, we should ask, following the Potawatomi climate scholar Kyle Whyte (2018), whose environmental apocalypse this really is, that seems to begin only at the moment of submersion? What more expansive understandings of land loss—and, inversely, of land defense—do these representations of crisis elide? This is a region, after all, where petrochemical companies have bought out or driven out entire Black communities and where Indigenous pipeline resisters face down felony charges for threatening so-called “critical infrastructure” (see Spice 2018). Writing about Great Lakes pollution, Michelle Murphy urges an “openness to alteration [that] may also describe the potential to become something else, to defend and persist, to recompose relations to water and land” (Murphy 2017: 500). The Gulf Coast of Louisiana will continue to be marked by dramatic alteration. It is critical, then, to challenge totalizing map-images of crisis like these, and to build or defend alternative visual vocabularies for what the future of recomposed relations could be.


[1] La. Civil Code, Art. 450


Many thanks to Chitra Venkataramani, Colin Hoag, and Michael McCauley for their comments on and support for this piece.


Abram, Simone, and Gisa Weszkalnys. 2013. Elusive Promises: Planning in the Contemporary World. New York: Berghahn Books.

Adams, Vincanne, Michelle Murphy, and Adele E Clarke. 2009. “Anticipation: Technoscience, Life, Affect, Temporality.” Subjectivity 28 (1): 246–65.

Anand, Nikhil, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, eds. 2018. The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA). 2017. “Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast.” State of Louisiana.

Gell, Alfred. 1985. “How to Read a Map: Remarks on the Practical Logic of Navigation.” Man, 271–86.

Harley, J. Brian. 1988. “Maps, Knowledge, and Power.” In The Iconography of Landscape, edited by D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels, 277–312. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kupfer, Marcia. 1994. “Medieval World Maps: Embedded Images, Interpretive Frames.” Word & Image 10 (3): 262–88.

Masco, Joseph. 2014. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32 (4): 494–503.

Roberts, Les. 2012. “Mapping Cultures: A Spatial Anthropology.” In Mapping Cultures, edited by L. Roberts, 1–25. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schneider, Birgit. 2016. “Burning Worlds of Cartography: A Critical Approach to Climate Cosmograms of the Anthropocene.” Geo: Geography and Environment 3 (2).

Spice, Anne. 2018. “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines.” Environment and Society 9 (1): 40–56.

Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whyte, Kyle P. 2018. “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1 (1–2): 224–42.

Sheehan Moore is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center studying environmental crisis and state power on the US Gulf coast. His dissertation examines responses to land loss in southern Louisiana, with attention to planning, resource extraction, and shifting technologies of land governance. His research has been supported in part by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture.

This post is part of our thematic series: Imaging Nature.