Alice Mah, University of Warwick
Public consciousness of toxic pollution and environmental injustice has changed a great deal since Toxic News was first published in November 2015. The Oxford English Dictionary’s Words of the Year reflect the sweeping societal transformations of this period: the tears-of-joy emoji in 2015; “post truth” in 2016; “youthquake” in 2017; “toxic” in 2018; and “climate emergency” in 2019. Undoubtedly the Word of the Year for 2020 will be pandemic-related. Yet as Thom Davies and I reflected in our introduction to Toxic Truths: Environmental Justice and Citizen Science in a Post-Truth Age, published this summer: “It is difficult to make sense of a historical moment when you are caught in the middle of it – and difficult to tell if it even is a moment, or just a small part of something far bigger.”
For all the intensity of the current times, it is important to recognize that environmental injustice has a long history, stretching back through centuries of capitalism and colonialism. Four decades ago, Robert Bullard warned in his seminal book Dumping in Dixie that grassroots groups fighting against toxic exposures “should be prepared to remain in environmental justice struggles for years and possibly generations to come.” However, he also argued that it was also important for people to “know that there have been citizen victories.” Bullard was right. Despite generations of struggles for environmental justice around the world, including many citizen victories, toxic hazards remain concentrated in minority, low-income, and working-class communities.
Each of the papers in this issue of Toxic News speaks to the enduring tension between despair and hope for environmental justice in polluted fenceline petrochemical communities. Toxic News was originally inspired by the new energies and collaborations at the start of my 5-year research project, “Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry,” funded by the European Research Council. The contributions in this issue draw on research and collaborations that connect to the “Toxic Expertise” project, following the final workshop that we held online in September 2020, “Struggles for Environmental Justice.”
In the opening essay, Gwen Ottinger and Shannon Dosemagen discuss the legacy of the “bucket” for fenceline community monitoring campaigns. The bucket is a simple, affordable, and accurate air sampling device that has been used for decades in “bucket brigades” by people living in polluted fenceline communities around the world to measure air pollution. However, with the rise of new monitoring technologies and wider questions about the value of community monitoring for bringing about systemic change, the future of the bucket is uncertain. Ottinger and Dosemagen argue that it is important to carry on the tradition of the “bucket,” discussing how they have worked with a team of researchers and activists to collect, create, and curate resources for bucket users and fenceline community groups, housed on the Public Lab website.
Débora Swistun contemplates the long search for environmental justice in her hometown of Flammable in Argentina. Javier Auyero and Débora Swistun’s book Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown (Oxford University Press, 2009) has won multiple awards and changed local debates in Flammable. With a poetic sensibility, Swistun writes about how the book has taken on a life of its own, interwoven with hers, drawing her back from her studies to return to her hometown, where environmental suffering has continued despite changing environmental laws and policies. Swistun describes her recent engagements with collaborative “artivism” (activism through art) in the form of the Aerocene project, and her hopes for a future that will improve the lives of residents in Flammable.
While the world may finally be facing the endgame of fossil fuels, just transitions will not be easy. Lorenzo Feltrin outlines the paradox of “noxious deindustrialization” in the petrochemical town of Grangemouth, Scotland, where there have been massive job losses (employment deindustrialization) even though polluting industries remain active. In Grangemouth, the stark disparity between the wealth of Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire CEO of petrochemical giant INEOS, on the one hand, and the poverty and pollution facing residents in the town, on the other hand, has fuelled local resentments. Feltrin argues for the necessity of “wealth redistribution, shorter working hours, and a just transition to green production,” not only for Grangemouth, but also for other petrochemical and fossil fuel-dependent communities around the world.
In the final piece in this issue, Yuanni Wang and Loretta Lou ask the question, “Can a hot spring resort coexist with a chemical industry park?” Wang and Lou focus on the case of a chemical industry park in Jiangsu Province in China, describing the pragmatic efforts by an environmental NGO in Nanjing and local authorities to address environmental problems of toxic pollution, industrial hazards, and emissions. The prospect of developing a hot spring resort provided local authorities with the incentive to “detoxify” the chemical industry park, pushing for stricter environmental monitoring and practices. The authors conclude with a note of cautious optimism about the possibility of a greener future through balancing ecological and industrial tourism.
There are deep structural barriers to changing fossil fuel-dependent economies, including environmental racism, locked-in infrastructure, and the long-standing “jobs-versus-environment” dilemma. However, with escalating public pressure around the world to address the climate emergency and toxic pollution, there is hope for a more just and sustainable future, perhaps most evident, as Naomi Klein and others have argued, in proposals for a Green New Deal. There is also hope in the long histories of collective struggle for environmental justice, through the years and generations. There is hope in not giving up.
Cover image: photo by Callum Shaw, October 2019, Unsplash.