Skip to main content

Oil Beach

How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond

Oil Beach

How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond

Can the stories of bananas, whales, sea birds, and otters teach us to reconsider the seaport as a place of ecological violence, tied to oil, capital, and trade?
San Pedro Bay, which contains the contiguous Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, is a significant site for petroleum shipping and refining as well as one of the largest container shipping ports in the world—some forty percent of containerized imports to the United States pass through this so-called America’s Port. It is also ecologically rich. Built atop a land- and waterscape of vital importance to wildlife, the heavily industrialized Los Angeles Harbor contains estuarial wetlands, the LA River mouth, and a marine ecology where colder and warmer Pacific Ocean waters meet. In this compelling interdisciplinary investigation, award-winning author Christina Dunbar-Hester explores the complex relationships among commerce, empire, environment, and the nonhuman life forms of San Pedro Bay over the last fifty years—a period coinciding with the era of modern environmental regulation in the United States. The LA port complex is not simply a local site, Dunbar-Hester argues, but a node in a network that enables the continued expansion of capitalism, propelling trade as it drives the extraction of natural resources, labor violations, pollution, and other harms. Focusing specifically on cetaceans, bananas, sea birds, and otters whose lives are intertwined with the vitality of the port complex itself, Oil Beach reveals how logistics infrastructure threatens ecologies as it circulates goods and capital—and helps us to consider a future where the accumulation of life and the accumulation of capital are not in violent tension.

272 pages | 48 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Biological Sciences: Conservation, Ecology

Earth Sciences: Environment

Economics and Business: Economics--Agriculture and Natural Resources

History: Environmental History


"California has long been a byword for the clash between the environment and capitalism. Science and technology studies scholar Dunbar-Hester investigates Long Beach near Los Angeles: a hub for petroleum shipping and refining, and a world-leading container-shipping port, but also a wetland area full of wildlife. Focusing on cetaceans, bananas, sea birds, and otters, her informed interdisciplinary study considers how to avoid toxic tension between biodiversity and capital accumulation."


"Fascinating. . . . While Oil Beach comes in at just 250 pages or so, about a third of which is notes, Dunbar-Hester manages to pack in everything from oil drilling platforms disguised as palm-filled islands, to the ethics of cleaning oil-soaked birds with petroleum-derived products at oil-company funded facilities, to the effects of mechanization on banana shipping, and US Navy experiments on living on the seafloor—including having a dolphin deliver mail."

Halifax Examiner

"Having thoroughly researched the environmental impact of these ports, Dunbar-Hester makes the case that San Pedro Bay has become a sacrifice zone to oil distribution and expanding global trade, with some environmental mitigation considered a cost of doing business."

Library Journal

“Dunbar-Hester walks us through Southern California’s complicated coastal landscape to show how this region has been built as a place where ‘multitudinous life is juxtaposed with patterned violence.’ It is an invaluable lesson at a moment when we are grappling with solutions to rectify the deadly spaces that have been built in pursuit of profit and military power. As Oil Beach shows, looking at the world through a multispecies lens is necessary if we are to repair what have become destructive ecological relationships and values.”

Juan De Lara, author of "Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California"

Oil Beach accomplishes that rarest of feats: it transforms the way the world looks, bringing into view the hidden logic that structures the very ground beneath our feet. The story of the LA ports is hugely consequential and, in Dunbar-Hester’s hands, it’s also exhilarating, encompassing both the broad sweep of change and the small details that give meaning to our landscape. It’s unusual to find an academic book that’s hard to put down, but Dunbar-Hester’s smart, sometimes funny, and always eloquent voice is truly singular.”

Miriam Posner, University of California, Los Angeles

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Precariously Perched in a Port
Chapter 2: Yes, We Have No Bananas
Chapter 3: Coastal Translocations
Chapter 4: Aqua Nullius
Conclusion: Flux: Bridging to Futures
Appendix: Timeline of Legislation and Events

Author Events

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press