Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown

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Surrounded by one of the largest petrochemical compounds in Argentina, a highly polluted river that brings the toxic waste of tanneries and other industries, a hazardous and largely unsupervised waste incinerator, and an unmonitored landfill, Flammable's soil, air, and water are contaminated with lead, chromium, benzene, and other chemicals. So are its nearly five thousand sickened and frail inhabitants. How do poor people make sense of and cope with toxic pollution? Why do they fail to understand what is objectively a clear and present danger? How are perceptions and misperceptions shared within a community?

Based on archival research and two and a half years of collaborative ethnographic fieldwork in Flammable, this book examines the lived experiences of environmental suffering. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, residents allow themselves to doubt or even deny the hard facts of industrial pollution. This happens, the authors argue, through a "labor of confusion" enabled by state officials who frequently raise the issue of relocation and just as frequently suspend it; by the companies who fund local health care but assert that the area is unfit for human residence; by doctors who say the illnesses are no different from anywhere else but tell mothers they must leave the neighborhood if their families are to be cured; by journalists who randomly appear and focus on the most extreme aspects of life there; and by lawyers who encourage residents to hold out for a settlement. These contradictory actions, advice, and information work together to shape the confused experience of living in danger and ultimately translates into a long, ineffective, and uncertain waiting time, a time dictated by powerful interests and shared by all marginalized groups.

With luminous and vivid descriptions of everyday life in the neighborhood, Auyero and Swistun depict this on-going slow motion human and environmental disaster and dissect the manifold ways in which it is experienced by Flammable residents.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The authors have accomplished an astounding analysis of the destruction-physical and psychological-of a people living in poverty, their world dominated by a multinational corporate giant whose toxic waste pollutes their everyday lives. This superb and moving political ethnography captures the meanings of contamination to the residents, who live in disaster-immobilized by the toxic uncertainty, powerless confusion, and mistake that ultimately normalize risk and danger."-Diane Vaughan, author of The Challenger Launch Decision

"In this stunning book, Auyero and Swistun dissect the 'slow-motion human and environmental disaster' wrought by the noxious mix of economic dispossession and extreme pollution in a slum of Buenos Aires. By disclosing how residents experience 'toxic uncertainty' in everyday life, they show why this poisonous habitat not only assaults their individual bodies, but also ravages their social defenses and cultural immunity. With its deft integration of fieldwork, social theory, and narrative, Flammable is a signal contribution that will be widely discussed, often emulated, but not surpassed for a long time to come."-Loïc Wacquant, author of Urban Outcasts

"This brilliant ethnography of a polluted shantytown opens a new theoretical and topical frontier for urban poverty studies. The authors show how impoverished, poisoned residents, compelled to scramble for their daily economic survival in the context of larger political economic forces, are buffeted by competing discourses of agents of the state and civil society. They become trapped in a misrecognized toxic environment that imposes tremendous and ongoing physical suffering, psychic anxiety, and paralyzing uncertainty on them."-Philippe Bourgois, author of In Search of Respect

"A powerful study of environmental abuse and 'toxic suffering,' this will acquaint readers in a personal way with a troubling and too-common plight."—Publishers Weekly

"...Distinct from much of the social movement literature, and also the ethnographies of the poor."—Contemporary Sociology

Publishers Weekly
Sociology professor Auyero (Poor People's Politics) and Argentinean anthropologist Swistun combine their divergent backgrounds and research skills to present this case study of Swistun's home, a crowded Buenos Aires shantytown called Flammable with a poor, highly polluted environment. Complicated by the false optimism they receive from the government, media and lawyers ("having shit in your drinking water" is good, lawyers say, "because you can get a lot of money out of it") residents understand contamination, but they "interpret the information in different and sometimes contradictory ways." The authors see this "social domination" as the major instrument keeping residents from meaningful protest or organization; even residents aware that Shell Oil dumps toxic waste into their community are subtly re-informed by "many misinterventions" that obscure the source of the problem (are companies to blame, or the government? high-transmission electrical wires? poor personal health habits?). A powerful study of environmental abuse and "toxic suffering," this will acquaint readers in a personal way with a troubling and too-common plight.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195372939
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/10/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 913,905
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Javier Auyero is Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of, among other books, Routine Politics and Collective Violence in Argentina.
Débora Alejandra Swistun received her BA in Anthropology from the University of La Plata, Argentina.

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Table of Contents

1. Villas del Riachuelo: Life amid Hazards, Garbage, and Poison
2. The Compound and the Neighborhood
3. Toxic Wor(l)ds
4. The (Confused and Mistaken) Categories of the Dominated
5. Exposed Waiting
6. Collective Disbelief in Joint Action
7. The Social Production of Toxic Uncertainty
Conclusion: Ethnography and Environmental Suffering
1. Villas del Riachuelo: Life amid Hazards, Garbage, and Poison
2. The Compound and the Neighborhood
3. Toxic Wor(l)ds
4. The (Confused and Mistaken) Categories of the Dominated
5. Exposed Waiting
6. Collective Disbelief in Joint Action
7. The Social Production of Toxic Uncertainty
Conclusion: Ethnography and Environmental Suffering

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