Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

by Julie Sze

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“Let this book immerse you in the many worlds of environmental justice.”—Naomi Klein

We are living in a precarious environmental and political moment. In the United States and in the world, environmental injustices have manifested across racial and class divides in devastatingly disproportionate ways. What does this moment of danger mean for the environment and for justice? What can we learn from environmental justice struggles?
Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger examines mobilizations and movements, from protests at Standing Rock to activism in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Environmental justice movements fight, survive, love, and create in the face of violence that challenges the conditions of life itself. Exploring dispossession, deregulation, privatization, and inequality, this book is the essential primer on environmental justice, packed with cautiously hopeful stories for the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300743
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/07/2020
Series: American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present , #11
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,166,160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Julie Sze is Professor of American Studies and Founding Director of the Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Davis. She has authored and edited three books and numerous articles on environmental justice and inequality, culture and environment, and urban and community health and activism.

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This Movement of Movements

The 2016 address by Robert Warrior (Osage) to the American Studies Association, delivered just after the U.S. presidential election, embodied American Studies scholarship and its relationship to activism. He asked, "Is American studies really a 'home' for Native American studies?" at the precise moment that public knowledge about the standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation around the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was at its height. Warrior channeled the concern and anger about DAPL and the election into a cultural expression of solidarity. He ended with a Round Dance to link the audience with Standing Rock in "a big circle of solidarity and hope" that connected "the animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman."

The battles at Standing Rock are exemplary of environmental justice struggles writ large. This observation may seem obvious, but it is not a simple proposition, given the particular Native and tribal issues involved. An estimated fifteen thousand people convened at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation under the auspices of the #NoDAPL campaign. (The name for the people known as the Sioux is Oceti Sakowin, meaning Seven Council Fires.) Thousands planted their flags and camped in solidarity against the pipeline. Indigenous struggles are at the core of climate change and environmental injustice fights, both against DAPL and in other pipeline struggles. The direct actions at Standing Rock included people from almost three hundred Native nations, the largest such gathering in history. Protesters temporarily blocked the construction of the United States' longest crude oil pipeline. The protests made national news when private security guards set dogs on protestors and the police used water cannons, chemical agents, and rubber bullets. Hundreds were arrested. Policing and violence are central features of the political authoritarianism that attacks indigenous movements with ferocity. In January 2017, one of President Trump's first executive orders expedited completion of DAPL and Keystone XL, another enormous pipeline. The Standing Rock camps were forced to disband in February. And in June, crude oil began pumping from North Dakota's Bakken Formation to Illinois, under the Mississippi River near sacred Lakota sites. Despite DAPL's construction, the fight continues. Activists have traveled or started camps across the United States, against pipeline construction and fracking operations in Nebraska, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Standing Rock stands for the Sioux nations and for broader struggles on Native lands against land-based violence. The fight at Standing Rock has great significance in our moment. In the context of (seemingly) ascendant capitalism, militarized violence, and environmental death, #NoDAPL signifies resistance. To argue that it represents environmental justice is to engage with and answer Warrior's question. American Studies is one ideal intellectual, albeit uncomfortable, home for environmental justice. This dynamic, what Warrior calls home/not home, is one that we need to engage with in order to meaningfully enact solidarity between Natives and non-Natives. His invitation to encircle and embody solidarity is a task fraught with meaning, since home is not always a stable ground but can mean displacement, expulsion, or a space of violence and trauma. Solidarity thus depends on understanding history, power, and difference derived from settler colonialism.

Environmental justice and environmental racism are limited yet essential frames for Indigenous land-based social movements. Native activists and Indigenous Studies have had both a foundational and contested relationship to the "people of color" frame that undergirds environmental justice movements. Native peoples and nations are not just people of color facing environmental racism. This distinction stems from their political and historical relationships to the United States vis-à-vis land rights and treaties. For Native peoples in settler colonial nations like the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Israel, their dispossession from the land is the fundamental starting point for injustice. Native nations must be at the root of serious engagement with environmental justice. As Native environmental justice scholar Elizabeth Hoover writes, "Indigenous communities have a unique stake in the history of environmental racism."

#NoDAPL was primarily a youth- and women-led Native movement. Indigenous youth are at the forefront in climate justice activism. Their activism is focused on connecting the present with the past and future in historically and culturally distinct ways. This chapter reappraises the histories and theories of environmental racism and the role of Native struggles as fundamental to environmental justice, particularly in Indigenous conceptions of nature and of human and more-than-human life based on interconnection. This worldview is radically anti-capitalist. In assessing the significance of Indigenous resistance to pipelines, Julian Brave NoiseCat (Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen) and Anne Spice (Tlingit) write, "Indigenous peoples are more than cameo extras. They are central protagonists in the fight against the forces of capitalist expansion, who would destroy the land and water, and trample indigenous sovereignty, all for the purposes of resource extraction." Indigenous peoples are central in this fight because of their legal status and because large reserves of natural resources are located on Native lands. Native reservations cover 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about 20 percent of the nation's oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves. Indigenous peoples represent 5 percent of the world's population, but their lands are home to 80 percent of worldwide biodiversity and are rich with natural resources. Thus, Indigenous lands hold economic "value" to outsiders and are prime targets for extraction and top-down economic development.

This chapter provides an overview of Standing Rock, drawing from activists, scholars, and allies who foreground Indigenous land rights and sovereignty claims. The chapter examines dispossession, production, extraction, and violence to understand climate justice, war and militarism, and police violence. Standing Rock and #NoDAPL represent the possibilities and perils of solidarity in a moment of great disruption in the lives and lands of Native peoples. To adapt a question from Indigenous scholar Candis Callison (Tahltan), how does Standing Rock come to matter as an iconic battle for environmental justice?

The pains wrought by the pipelines cannot be separated from Indigenous histories exacerbated and put into sharp relief by the violent response of militarized police in the service of government and capital. Standing Rock also illustrates the psychic and cultural imaginary of environmental justice movements that provides a blueprint for cultural survival, resurgence, and solidarity. It is an Indigenous struggle that generates solidarities between different communities of affiliation, and it is also an Oil War in which policing and violence draw poisonous breath from the War on Terror. Counterhegemony at Standing Rock and beyond is enabled through understanding history and making transformative community through art.

#NoDAPL remains important for the Sioux nations, for Native nations throughout the United States and around the world, and for others who affiliate through solidarity. The protests and communities it created (both actual and virtual) enacted a renewed sense of possibility and purpose, in which media, arts, and cultural associations held special significance. Media, arts, and cultural associations "expand common-sense understandings and inspire a belief in collective agency, if only they have a popular connection." #NoDAPL, like the Chicano movement, Zapatistas, Wobblies, and many others, successfully used the printed word and image in radical and open-ended ways to "imagine a more radical, non capitalist non colonial world."

Another world is possible. It existed, however briefly, at Standing Rock.


In From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement, lawyer Luke Cole and legal scholar Sheila Foster describe the "tributaries" that laid the foundation for the environmental justice movement: civil rights movements, anti-toxics campaigns, academics, the labor movement, mainstream environmentalists, and Native American struggles. They suggest that these converged to become the river that was the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Reappraisals of decades of policy change, however, point to major limitations in the efficacy of the environmental justice movement, which are painfully clear in the context of federal environmental policy weighted almost entirely on the side of industry.

To reclaim the radical heart of environmental justice, defanged by two decades of state incorporation and eviscerated at the federal level, I start where Cole and Foster leave off, their "last tributary," the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and transformative politics. The notion of a single environmental justice movement is not accurate now (if indeed it ever was). Environmental justice movements have grown larger, diverse, and global in ways that were not readily visible in the 1980s and 1990s. The notion of Indigenous perspectives as "tributaries" to environmental justice downplays the centrality of these struggles in the United States and globally. NoiseCat and Spice write, "Indigenous worldviews, at Standing Rock, and elsewhere, disrupt the capitalist conception of 'natural resources' that sees 'environment' to be extracted for profit." They echo the argument of political scientist Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives/Weledeh Dene) that "For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die." Standing Rock is especially significant for the centrality of youth, who called for rejection of patriarchy, sexual violence, and corporate capitalism on what Native peoples call Turtle Island or Mother Earth.

Native perspectives are central to the environmental justice movement, evidenced in the 1991 "Principles of Environmental Justice." In Critical Environmental Justice, sociologist David Pellow argues that the 1991 principles are radical in that they oppose racism, patriarchy, the excesses of the state and market forces, speciesism, imperialism, and ecological harm while recognizing the inherent worth of nonhumans. The principles begin:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice.

These principles collectively ask the questions: What and where is justice for people of color and colonized peoples? What are the sources of environmental racism and injustice and what can be done to promote environmental justice? Movement activists focus on a more capacious timeline than policy-makers and scholars, arguing that the historical and cultural roots of environmental problems stem from five hundred years of colonization and racism.

Environmental justice movements ideologically center agency, voice, and recognition to reject practices based on exclusion, hierarchy, and domination. Agency, voice, and recognition of history are core precepts for a more just future. This belief runs through environmental justice movement manifestos, which foreground the notion that "we speak for ourselves" and that the environment is "where we live, work, play." These manifestos demonstrate the worldviews of environmental justice movements: the 1996 "Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing," the 2002 "Principles of Working Together" and "Principles of the Youth Environmental Justice Movement," the 2002 "Bali Principles of Climate Justice," and the 2008 "Principles of Climate Justice."

The Indigenous Environmental Network was a key player at all the historical gatherings where the various principles were hammered out. IEN is, in the group's words, "an alliance of Indigenous Peoples whose Shared Mission is to Protect the Sacredness of Earth Mother from contamination and exploitation by Respecting and Adhering to Indigenous Knowledge and Natural Law." IEN members have a broad regional and global view of how their problems are linked to global Indigenous struggles. Indigenous communities, their lands, food sources, ways of knowing and being in the world, and bodies — including animals, land, air and water — are at the front lines of pollution and development. Indigenous nations are oftentimes the proverbial canaries in the mine, particularly vulnerable at the first sign of danger that signals the negative health impacts of pollution to other, non-Native peoples.

Environmental justice scholars have traced the environmental, health, and justice implications on Native bodies and communities: Superfund sites and other contamination on Awkesasne land, elevated breast-milk contamination in Arctic Native nations, nuclear dimensions (Native Navajo uranium miners, testing on Shoshone land, and burying of uranium at Yucca Mountain), cross-border (Native/non-Native and U.S./Mexico) air and water pollution, the effects of dam construction, and other consequences. Indigenous worldviews contrast with notions of land, air, and water as environmental resources, or with capitalist and neoliberal notions of ecosystem services based on economistic use value. #NoDAPL is part and parcel of these struggles.


In January 2016, Dakota Access LLC, owned by the Texas company Energy Transfer Partners, announced approval for its application from the North Dakota Public Service Commission to transport 450,000 barrels of oil a day. That amount is more than half of the Bakken oil field's daily crude oil production. DAPL transports hydraulically fractured (fracked) crude oil from North Dakota to pipelines in Illinois. Fracking is a highly contentious method of oil production because of higher risks of earthquakes, in addition to oil spills and water contamination.

DAPL was originally planned upriver from the predominantly white city of Bismarck, but the route was revised to pass upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, crossing Lake Oahe, tributaries of Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River twice, and the Mississippi River once. Initially, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved DAPL without a comprehensive environmental review, drawing opposition from three federal agencies, the Standing Rock Sioux, and other tribes. Lake Oahe is the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation's water supply. Because of public attention and political pressure, on December 4, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not approve a permit for the pipeline to run beneath Lake Oahe (reversed by President Trump's executive order after the inauguration), but it was built and opened in early 2017. The legal fights continue, even as oil flows through the pipeline.

Many concepts are critical to understanding DAPL and #NoDAPL. These include capitalism, the doctrine of discovery, Indian Wars, Manifest Destiny, neoliberalism, repatriation, and sovereignty, as identified in the #Standing Rock Syllabus, compiled by Indigenous scholars and non-Native allies. Dispossession, production/extraction, and violence are useful starting points for understanding environmental justice at Standing Rock.


What does dispossession mean at Standing Rock? As NoiseCat and Spice explain,

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is part of a centuries-long indigenous struggle against dispossession and capitalist expansionism.... As indigenous people put their bodies on the line to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, they are fighting for their sovereignty while offering an alternative relationship to land, water, and each other."

Scholar-activists Jaskiran Dhillon and Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux) situate DAPL as an extension of nineteenth-century Indian Wars.


Excerpted from "Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger"
by .
Copyright © 2020 Julie Sze.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction. Environmental Justice at the
Crossroads of Danger and Freedom

1. This Movement of Movements

2. Environmental Justice Encounters

3. Restoring Environmental Justice

Conclusion. American Optimism, Skepticism, and
Environmental Justice

Selected Bibliography

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