The US uses the Sonoran Desert both as a site to force non-white migrants to risk death and as a Hollywood film location to mimic Southwest Asia and North Africa through tropes of treasure hunting and fighting “terrorists,” a racist framing also deployed against Black and Brown migrants. This Western genre of representational imaginary—migration/voyage, treasure hunting, and killing disposable non-white people in the way of plunder—is not new. This is also the imagery of a wasteland full of riches, with only disposable nonhuman others in the way of European progress and self-actualization —imagery that has been used to justify violence and extraction from the Crusades to the colonialism of the Americas.1 Orientalist plunder, this time in the name of sustainable development instead of the holy cross or Manifest Destiny (though I would argue there is a continuum between these justifications), is now what is fueling the “white gold rush” of lithium extraction and deepening the devastation of colonial water drainage in the Southwest.
Desert Water Scarcity Is a Colonial-Made Crisis
In the 1840s, the gold rush and the US-Mexico War brought thousands of settlers seeking wealth fueled by biblical images of conquest across the Southwest into California, the Yukon, and the Pacific Northwest. Mining has a history of genocide, slavery, and violence in this region that is hidden, distorted, and in many ways unknown outside of Indigenous communities.2 Our lands bear the mark of this violence—from abandoned open-pits of toxic sludge that were once sacred mountains in Ajo, Arizona, to suffocating clouds of methane on Navajo Nation, to deforestation and drainage of water systems so extreme that the ground is collapsing in central California.3 The combination of mining, water drainage, and colonial development has led to massive deforestation and ecosystem collapse across the Southwest. These extractive processes are what has turned the Sonoran Desert, a region that has held Indigenous cities, vast agricultural societies, and continental trade routes since time immemorial, into a scene of death, a Devil’s Highway, for migrants who have no other safe alternatives.4
Indigenous peoples did engage and build upon the land, creating complex systems for food and technology trading, travel, cultural exchange, knowledge production, art, and religious practices. The difference between Indigenous engineering and colonial development is stark. Indigenous engineering often amplifies the diversity and complexity potential of the ecosystem to make it more resilient because the land is us and this relationship is sacred. Colonial development functions through resource extraction and depletion, destroying ecosystems because human supremacy dominates the land and nonhuman beings.5 You can see this in how Indigenous peoples relate to water, especially in the desert. The rivers throughout Arizona were massive before colonial water extraction through dams, pipelines, and diversion into mines, plantations, and cities. The rivers and Indigenous water systems made the region a critical beaver habitat. Anglo colonizers first came here as fur trappers and destroyed river ecosystems by overhunting.6 Imagine the Phoenix metropolitan area two hundred years ago, a lush river wetland within the desert, lined with miles of forests and streams created by beaver dams. Akimel O’odham people built massive irrigation systems to bring water into villages and farms through hundreds of miles of canals that were among the world’s most advanced engineering feats, considered far superior to European technology when Anglo settlers arrived in the mid-1800s. O’odham water systems allowed seeds to travel and trees such as native palms, ironwood, and mesquite to flourish. These trees replenish soil nutrients, boosting crops and the ecosystem. Plantation and corporate agriculture drain water and soil, leaving behind monocrops, methane clouds, and endangered species. White settlers attacked Indigenous access to water to colonize the desert. In 1870, settler diversion of the Gila river launched a forty-year famine that decimated O’odham and Pii-pash peoples.7 Settler demands for resources pushed many Indigenous peoples devastated by the water extraction-induced famine to the logging, mining, and farmworker industries, which all furthered the problem of water drainage and deforestation. Colonialism creates coercive situations where Indigenous and oppressed peoples must engage with extractive projects to survive. This tension is at the heart of the “jobs versus the environment” problem we still navigate.
My family is O’odham from Yuma, Arizona, where the Colorado River and the Gila River converged before dams limited their flows. Near Yuma, the Colorado River used to run thirty to forty feet deep and up to a mile wide.8 The Gila River was also massive in the 1800s. My elders have passed down oral histories of these sacred waters. I grew up with the river’s sweetness in my mouth through the nostalgia of my grandfather’s stories, which were actually his grandparents’ experiences told to him as a boy, of how the Colorado tasted on a hot day when poured from a clay olla very carefully so as not to stir the ruddy sediments resting at the bottom of the pot. Hence the river’s name in Spanish, colorado, the color of red earth. These were waters that held six-feet-long fish that weighed nearly a hundred pounds.9 But my elders passed down stories of the mid-1800s, before the dams and colonial diversion when fish in the Gila or Colorado could be almost twice that size. My generation may never know a fish that big in Southern Arizona because there are simply no longer rivers deep or wide enough to allow them to live. We pass these stories down as a form of mourning, weaving together current and scale so the fish may swim again, if only in our memories. We restore the rivers in story and action, just as my Northern California Indigenous friends talk about their ancestors’ June hogs, chinook salmon larger than a grown man that they are fighting dams and ranchers to see again.10
The US water grid depends on dams, reservoirs, lakes, wells, desalination factories, wastewater treatment factories, and a complex system of pipes that bring water that used to flow above and below ground into fields, homes, decorative landscaping, and businesses. The colonial water system can be in many ways defined by the modern toilet, where millions of people shit into fresh, potable water and flush it away as if drinking water too were merely waste and not the sacred source of life. This “shit in drinking water” mentality defines how water is managed and used throughout society, from natural gas fracking and lithium mining to needlessly maintaining endlessly thirsty golf courses and lawns. To be able to shit in drinking water is what the river and groundwater systems, the veins of North America, have been bled dry for.
Spanish colonizers first came to this region seeking minerals and enslaved Indigenous and African peoples in mines, missions, and plantations. Spanish and US colonizers drained, built over, or contaminated most of the natural water sources in the region. Colonial mining and farming techniques brought massive deforestation and water depletion. Mining requires vast amounts of water that becomes polluted by toxins in the extraction process. The gold rush brought hydromining and toxic metals and chemicals we are still dying from exposure to.11 And military bases, bombing ranges, freeways, mines, wind farms, solar farms, and racist border walls continue to drain aquifers and destroy sacred Indigenous archaeological areas, sacred sites, burial grounds, ecosystems, and scarce desert water sources. But a new gold rush is coming that threatens to suck the most arid regions of the Southwest dry for a short-lived technology marketed as a carbon solution that may not have much impact on climate change at all.
Lithium Mining: How False Climate Solutions Are Sucking the Desert Dry
Lithium is a metal inspiring what Forbes Magazine has called a white gold rush, decimating water sources around the globe for its current use in high-capacity batteries and military technologies.12 Lithium minerals naturally exist within rocks, clays, seawater, and saline brines. Over millennia, rain and runoff from thermal hot springs near ancient volcanoes leach lithium particles out of the rocks and soil and into pools, where the lithium sinks into clay basins. When the water in ancient lakes and springs evaporates, lithium also becomes part of the salty brine left behind. Many of the sites of naturally occurring lithium, such as primordial salt lakes, clay fields, and ancient hot springs, are sacred to local and Indigenous peoples. The body’s contact with lithium-infused waters and clays can be powerfully healing—spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.13 In Western medicine, for example, lithium is prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and depression. It is also added to drinking water to lower regional suicide rates.14 The healing power of lithium is part of sacred creation stories. This mineral that scientists say comes from star stuff is considered an ancestor to Indigenous peoples.15
The transition from fossil fuels to lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles is a continuum of the process of colonial development’s theft and burning up of our sacred ancestors. Indigenous resistance to lithium extraction has been exploding across the globe, from the Andean Atacama to Australia and now the US Southwest, as Indigenous water protectors step up to defend the sacred from a colonial gold rush driven by military and technological interests.16 But lithium is only a temporary transitional step toward whatever the long-term replacement for fossil fuels will be. The technology sector is already working on alternatives to lithium-ion batteries because they are too environmentally damaging to produce.17 Demand for lithium is driven by electric vehicles, which do not, in the long run, make a significant reduction to carbon emissions when you include their manufacturing processes and the electrical grid the cars need to charge up. At best, electric vehicles could only reduce global CO2 emissions by 6 percent, when they need to be reduced by 80 percent to mitigate global warming.18 The rush for lithium is not about environmental sustainability or mitigating climate change. The dash to destroy sacred Indigenous sites and finite desert water sources for lithium mining is merely a momentary blip in the consumption cycle, which will move on to a new product in a decade or two, leaving irreversible damage and water loss in its wake.
There are currently two main methods of mining lithium: hard rock mining and brine evaporation. Hard rock lithium mining involves drilling holes and blasting away mountains to remove lithium-containing rocks from the landscape. The rocks are roasted and covered in sulfuric acid to leach out the lithium. This is how current lithium mines in Australia operate, and it is the process proposed in Serbia that would destroy farms, historical sites, and rivers.19 Hard rock mining destroys the land surface, disrupts ecosystems, and creates toxic waste. It may also disturb groundwater, poison, or reduce access to water for farms and wells. Brine evaporation lithium extraction involves pumping ancient, salty, mineral-rich water from underground into shallow pools on the surface, where it evaporates under intense sunlight and dryness. This process is used in the Andean highlands of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Nevada.20 Pumping and evaporation drain non-renewable groundwater and change the balance of brine and freshwater that the fragile desert ecosystem and traditional Indigenous lifeways rely on.
Proposed lithium mines in Nevada and California intend to introduce new mining methods: clay leaching and brine ion exchange. Lithium-containing clays have previously not been profitable enough for companies to mine. Now, projects in Nevada and Arizona propose to extract lithium from clay by leaching it with sulfuric acid, killing ecosystems and sacred waterways. Producing the sulfuric acid on-site would emit toxic sulfur dioxide, polluting the air for local living beings. Radioactive material (such as naturally occurring uranium) underlining the mining sites could be exposed and released into the air, water, or soil. Brine ion exchange is another new risky extraction process proposed to mine lithium in the Salton Sea in California. Geothermal brine would be pumped from underground to flow past specialized beads that remove lithium ions from the solution. Then the beads are washed with an acid to remove the lithium and form a lithium-ion solution in a process that changes the water’s chemistry, potentially releasing toxic metals into fragile desert water systems, ground, and air.
Indigenous people in the Southwest have been here, standing between their sacred lands and waters and a surge of mining violence, before. This might be a new gold rush, but in many ways it is the same genocide. Indigenous worldviews work through a complex set of spiritual interrelationships that do not separate body from community or people from land and nonhuman beings. We understand that violence against the ecosystem is violence against the people. Ecocide and genocide are coconstituted and mutually reinforcing. If lithium mining causes the extinction of plant and animal species, it will also harm human life. What good is a fast battery if we cannot breathe air or drink water? A technocrat may respond that we could build battery-operated filtration systems to survive. But a justice-centered response would then ask the question: To whom and what will we be chained if we are not free to breathe or free to drink water without purchasing these machines? Can we call that kind of “survival”— without clean air, water, land, and ecosystem—a good life?
Ha’Kamwe’ is a sacred site of springs, creeks, homes, and arid mountains with iconic rock formations and ancient cacti within Cholla Canyon Ranch near Wikieup, Arizona, where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet within the Big Sandy River basin. The ranch is managed by the Hualapai Tribe. The ancestral homelands of the Hualapai people surrounding the site are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ha’Kamwe’ means “warm spring” in the language of the Hualapai people.21 Ha’Kamwe’ and the surrounding Big Sandy River Valley and adjacent mountains, hills, and deserts are part of the ancestral homelands of the Hualapai Tribe, as well as the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.22 Ha’Kamwe’ Spring is fed by water naturally stored underground in volcanic rocks that seal it off from the land surface above (a confined volcanic aquifer). Under pressure, water flows underground along a geologic fault and emerges from the spring. This sacred spring is a place for healing. In the words of a Hualapai elder, “this is holy ground.”23
Hawkstone Mining Ltd, an Australian company, is developing the Big Sandy Lithium Project to mine lithium-containing clay. The next stage of exploration drilling would surround tribal land, including Ha’Kamwe’, on three sides, destroying cultural sites and blocking access to the oasis for desert wildlife. Exploration drilling is less than seven hundred feet from the spring. The proposed mine includes a massive open-pit mine, a sulphuric acid plant, a fifty-mile slurry line to transport toxic material from the mine to Kingman, and intense pumping of finite groundwater in an extremely arid desert region for the slurry line. The extraction process will destroy many adjacent residents, tribal members, and farmers’ wells. The mine would also require the construction of numerous access roads and drill pads. Twenty-four-hour lights and loud noise will devastate the fragile wildlife system that depends on Ha’Kamwe’ Spring and Burro Creek for the only water sources in the region, such as bats, owls, eagles, foxes, deer, pollinators, and migratory birds. Other companies like Bell Copper Corporation and Bradda Head Holdings Limited. are also moving in to set up mines in the Hualapai region. The Hualapai people fear they will soon be surrounded with toxic sludge and pit mines instead of the majesty of the pristine Grand Canyon region, where they rely on tourism from visitors eager to see natural beauty, not the marks of environmental racism.
The Hualapai people look at existing open-pit mines in nearby Bagdad, Arizona, as a sign of what the lithium gold rush could bring to their sacred springs. Several generations ago, a non-native rancher planted a grove of Middle Eastern date palms around the spring, transforming Indigenous Hualapai lands into his orientalist vision of an oasis. Much of the drive for lithium extraction stems from the military-industrial complex in optics, lubricants, and space technology. The electronics industry fuels the second-largest lithium demand for batteries that charge computers, cell phones, and a myriad of cheap throwaway gadgets. Like the colonial quest for oil that drove the bombing of Bagdad in Iraq, this nexus of military, electronic, and transportation consumption seeks to destroy the Indigenous desert that colonists have tried to remake as a new frontier. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples in both places bear the brunt of resource colonialism in lost lives and ecosystems.
In 2018, Big Sandy Inc. started exploratory drilling to estimate lithium reserves and potential profits in the area. They drilled almost fifty times in exploration phases with no tribal or community consultation, no environmental or cultural impact assessment, which is allowed under the 1872 federal mining law. In June 2020, the Bureau of Land Management invited Hualapai Tribe to participate in consultation. The Hualapai tribal government accepted the offer and requested to serve as a cooperating agency, but the BLM did not respond. Then in November 2020, the BLM denied the tribe’s request to participate as a cooperating agency. In March 2021, the BLM released an environmental assessment for the mining project’s next exploration phase and now the Hualapai, other impacted Indigenous nations, residents, businesses, and farmers anxiously await the BLM’s decision. Meanwhile, the Hualapai caretaker of Ha’Kamwe’ Spring has observed more drilling farther from the site. This lithium project is still in the exploration phase at time of writing. NOW is the time to stop it!
The connection between the white gold rush for lithium and the genocide of the nineteenth-century gold rush is direct for Paiute and Shoshone peoples. Peehee Mu’huh is the site of an 1865 massacre of Paiute and Shoshone people by US cavalry and a settler paramilitary death squad organized around Fort McDermitt. The settlers named the area Thacker’s Pass for Charley Thacker, a culprit of the massacre who also stole two Indigenous babies from the camp after murdering their sleeping families.24 But to the Paiute and Shoshone people, this area is sacred Peehee Mu’huh, place of the rotten moon, where traditional medicines and obsidian used to make tools are still gathered, and where endangered plants and animals reside. It is also a burial site that would be extremely painful to disturb for the descendants of the massacre survivors and their larger community.
But the lithium mining proposal threatens to destroy the area forever, including the massacre site, burial grounds, and the habitat of the critically endangered Crosby’s buckwheat and Kings River pyrg. The proposed mine at Peehee Mu’huh would have similar impacts to the project proposed at Ha’Kamwe’, such as an open-pit strip mine two miles wide and a mile long that would burn about 22,600 gallons of diesel fuel per day for both on- and off-site daily operations.25 The mine would also require an immense factory that would burn nearly one hundred semitruck loads of oil refinery waste sulfur daily to make the 5,800 tons of sulfuric acid the mine would need for daily operations.26
The irony of environmentalists driving the lithium gold rush by claiming it is a sustainable energy source is strikingly absurd and Orwellian. Daranda Hinkley, a young Pauite and Shoshone water protector, explains that “the country believes they need to transition to ‘green energy,’ to save the planet and cut down carbon emissions. They do not realize that in return for electric car batteries, aggressive lithium mining will harm the planet more in the process.”27 Proponents of electric vehicles claim that they will reduce carbon emissions. But the Thacker Pass mining project is an example of why this claim is problematic. The mine will produce more than 150,000 tons of carbon emissions annually, meaning it will create roughly 2.3 tons of carbon emissions for every ton of lithium it makes.28 The math for lithium as a climate change solution doesn’t add up.
Nevada is the driest state in the US. Residents fear the impact of mega-mining projects on their already overtaxed water tables. The mine would need to extract “more than 5000 acre-feet (1.7 billion gallons) of water annually from an aquifer in the Quinn River Valley which is already over-allocated by more than 30,000 acre-feet per year” to function.29 This amount of water extraction could dry local wells and springs, further impacting residents and endangered species. It will also reduce groundwater levels to create dust bowl conditions. The area is home to pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, sage grouse, golden eagles, and critically endangered species of snail and trout. Among the medicinal plants and traditional foods of the Paiute and Shoshone peoples that require this land to continue are exceedingly rare desert wildflowers and old-growth sagebrush. The mine will probably leach uranium, antimony, sulfuric acid, and other toxins. For the original peoples, ancestors, land, and nonhuman beings, this is a fight against genocide and ecocide, for an end to gold rush violence at long last.
The current Salton Sea was created in 1905 when settlers attempted to drain the Colorado River into the California desert, but instead sent river water into an ancient salt basin for over a year. Once created, the salty inland sea gained additional water from agricultural runoff, which also contained tons of toxic fertilizers, nitrates, arsenic, and pesticides. The Salton Sea began to shrink in the 1990s when contaminated runoff flows slowed down. The water became stagnant; toxic algae blooms killed off the artificial lake’s fish and migratory birds. Ongoing evaporation is reducing the sea to a thick salt slurry surrounded by thousands of acres of dried toxic dust that causes alarming rates of respiratory illness such as asthma for the local population. The attempt to extract agricultural value from the desert created both an ecological and public health disaster.
But there is a deeper history to this sea, which long ago was an ancient lake connected to the Colorado River. Over many thousands of years, the lake expanded and evaporated, leaving behind salt flats and creating sand dunes sacred to the Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Cocopah people. The area of the lake still contains significant archeological sites for Indigenous peoples and evidence of long-term habitation. Cahuilla peoples live in the communities around the Salton Sea, along with marginalized low-income migrants and communities of color who are priced out of urban centers like Los Angeles. Indigenous people and people of color form the front lines of those who will be most impacted by lithium extraction.
Lithium mining in the Salton Sea basin would require the construction of enormous toxic steam and waste-emitting factories, pilings, and geothermal energy plants. Mining companies also envision covering the desert, currently one of the last remaining inland water sources in the region for many of California’s migrating birds, with additional toxic battery and solar panel manufacturing plants.30 Another layer of risk for the region is that all of these facilities would be placed on active earthquake fault lines. Tampering with the groundwater and extracting deep underground geothermal reservoirs will undoubtedly increase earthquake activity, with potentially deadly impacts for local residents.
Lithium gold rush extractors often try to frame their environmentally destructive work with terms such as green energy, a just transition, sustainable development, and a variety of other deceptive and meaningless phrases to disguise what is, in essence, raw disaster capitalism.31 The white gold rush is motivated by a strange mix of environmentalists and progressives demanding these greenwashing catchphrases and corporate, tech, mining, and military industrialist profiteers who care little for the environment, justice, or Indigenous communities that stand in the way of potential profits, no matter how fleeting the lithium consumption economic moment is. In the Salton Sea, and its abandoned water resort communities such as Bombay Beach, these disaster colonizers see a new “Orient,” just as the military expeditions that mapped overland routes to the goldfields in the mid-1800s imagined biblical oases awash with orientalist images of Arab and Asian money in the great plains and deserts of the West. To Indigenous peoples, this might be a new gold rush, but the health and spiritual impacts feel like a repeat of the same old genocide.
Mines, Freeways, and Dams: The Nexus of Resource Extraction, Product Transportation, and Industrial Development
Thousands of years ago, Indigenous peoples built many of the road systems used today to traverse the continent. But people often misunderstand the ways Indigenous peoples moved and lived their lives. The stereotypes of Indigenous peoples are either of isolated, static villages fixed in time and space that never really existed or of romanticized simplistic forest sprites frolicking in a biblical Eden that also never existed. The historical reality is that Indigenous peoples lived much as we do today, going camping during fishing season, going to the beach in the summer, checking out cool events in nearby communities or enjoying the mix of cultures in dense social centers, traveling for business or adventure, and living a life that was at once very local but also influenced by regional and continental economics, politics, and cultures. The new world that emerges from the crisis of climate change will probably continue these timeless social practices, as Indigenous peoples have always done.
The difference between Indigenous ways of living with the land and colonial development is the scale and purpose for which movement happens. Indigenous peoples didn’t destroy entire rivers or flood whole valleys with dams that benefited the profits of a small minority.32 Nor did we blow up sacred mountains so that trucks could move goods ten minutes faster than they did before or cover sacred sites in excrement-snow just so rich people could ski on them.33 Mining is not new to the Americas, but the scale of it a thousand years ago was different than the scale of colonial invasion: slavery, oppression, man camps that disappear Indigenous women and two-spirits, and environmental catastrophe. The lesson of scale is also that instead of focusing on how to make the same extractive means work through mitigation, which often is just displacement of impacts onto those who are less valued, we need to move from reactionary defense against disaster colonialism to an offensive strategy of disaster decolonization.
It is time to imagine a world that centers Indigenous relations to land and refuses extractive energy and development as the goals of human life. The time is ripe for a return to the radical antidevelopment thinking of the 1960s and the Mayan Zapatista movement that advocates for convivial technologies, autonomy, and degrowth as part of an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist praxis.34 These antidevelopment critiques have been taken up by Indigenous peoples but have largely not merged with environmental and economic justice movements in colonial societies, where demands are often still focused on jobs, shortsighted mitigation, and assimilation into colonial development—not its abolition. It is still highly discouraged for scientists, even those who center activism, social justice, and climate justice in their work, to imagine alternatives to energy and industrial development as the goals of science and technology. We need to ask: What if our world was no longer extraction-centered? Would energy even matter so much? Would we really need so much of it? Could we live with fewer jobs and more land-based autonomy? Probably, if we radically transformed the oppressive structures of our societies.
These big questions are difficult to work through for most folks, who feel like they need to take action now to address climate change and are lured by the ease of supporting the false solutions offered by extractionists instead of struggling for real change. It’s easier to buy a Prius for your miserable commute to work instead of abolishing shitty jobs and collectively organize to transform the structure of the economy and people’s relationship to land. For folks who find the larger transformative work paralyzing, I offer instead an approach to policy as a middle ground. Start to focus on reforms that would dismantle the colonial state, racial capitalism, and their apparatuses instead of reinforcing them. And don’t fall for the ruse of putting a brown face on the problem, as if representation will change the nature of the colonial hydra. Consider how effectively that has worked for the third-world decolonization movement, which moved toward liberating nation-states in the twentieth century only to find that colonial debt, structural adjustment, disaster colonialism, and imperialism have maintained their structural colonial positionalities even though they now have leaders who look like them. Systems require systemic changes, not different representatives.
A concrete example of this is the limited policy focus of Green New Deal advocates. Many of these advocates focus on policies to reduce carbon emissions, such as transferring the energy grid to lithium and solar panels that are created through horrifically destructive mining and child slavery in Africa.
These demands leave the structures of extraction and colonial overconsumption intact. Frontline Indigenous communities are calling for a policy agenda that works toward dismantling the colonial and extractive relationship between the state and land. The Paiute, Shoshone, Hualapai, and many O’odham, Kumeyaay, and Cahuilla people are united in their demand to reduce the Bureau of Land Management’s colonial and extractive function over their homelands. The BLM controls much of the open space and natural lands surrounding tribal reservations and constitutes one of the largest public land managers. But the BLM has long been structured to serve the interests of capital and extractionists over the public and has a violent historical relationship with Indigenous peoples. Frontline Indigenous peoples who engage in policy advocacy have focused on strategies to shift the BLM’s responsibility from extractionists such as mining companies and developers to the people, especially Indigenous caretakers of the land and their neighbors, who will bear the brunt of environmental impacts. The movement against lithium mining is demanding the repeal of the US Mining Law of 1872, which governs most of the West and Alaska and established hard rock mining as the primary use of all public lands unless the land is specifically protected (like a national park).35 The law gives miners the right to dig on up to five acres of public land without notifying the government, avoid taxes or royalties, and only pay a very minimal extraction cost per acre. The law allows mines to avoid environmental protections and all requirements to clean up toxins or repair the land when the mine stops operation. The law also requires the government to prioritize mining claims over all other proposals for the land, regardless of impact. Ha’Kamwe’ and Peehee Mu’huh are both on BLM lands governed by the 1872 Mining Law.
So far, Green New Deal advocates and mainstream environmental groups have failed to get behind the demand to repeal the 1872 mining law. But this demand builds on the policy demands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which launched a historic defense against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Standing Rock was demanding the right of consultation, which included the right of refusal, on development projects in their historic homelands, not just within the boundaries of their reservation. This reform would have enabled the tribal government to reject the plans for the pipeline that has resulted in damage to burial grounds, farmlands, and the Missouri River. The right of consultation with enforcement of the right of refusal would allow Indigenous tribal nations a legal structure to fulfill their traditional vocation as caretakers and protectors of their homelands. If the federal government moved to allow Indigenous nations this right, many of the land defense struggles would have a different set of tools available to preserve sensitive ecosystems and confront environmental racism. This wouldn’t resolve all these struggles, in large part because federally recognized tribal governments since the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act have a long and complex history of corruption and complicity with mining and environmentally damaging development. But opening the door for a tribal right of refusal of projects that would negatively impact their environment or risk their public health would be an important step forward. It would also push non-Indigenous environmental groups to develop better relationships with Indigenous peoples, who could kick in enforcement and mitigation mechanisms that other frontline communities, such as low-income Black and Brown communities, would not have access to. These kinds of coalitions must be developed if our end goal is to stop environmental racism, rather than just move its impacts from one place to another.
My good friend and accomplice in the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice, Emma Harrison, sums up what all of us, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, must do in the face of this crisis: “Climate change and colonialism go hand in hand. That’s why decolonization is a better climate change solution than greenwashed energy technologies.”36 All over the world, Indigenous peoples are resisting mega infrastructure projects that benefit colonial development at the cost of destroying sacred lands, waters, and traditional lifeways. It is not traditional Indigenous peoples in rural reservation communities who need factories, space rockets, drones, bombs, hummers, disposable gadgets, and millions of electric cars. The need for massive electrification is not actually a basic human need—but clean water, healthy soils, and a thriving ecosystem are. We have lived since time immemorial without electrification. In Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, the radical union organizer related firsthand accounts of the Thacker Pass massacre. He also talked about his awe and amazement at seeing where the giant tracks of a prehistoric mastodon were followed in the fossilized mud by an equally ancient footprint of an Indigenous Paiute and Shoshone ancestor in the floor of the Carson Penitentiary prison yard when he visited political and Paiute prisoners later in his life. There is a lot of deep, intersectional work we need to do to bridge the struggles that Haywood and his International Workers of the World comrades represented—labor exploitation, migrants’ rights, racial and social justice, gender equity—with the decolonial struggles of Indigenous and formerly enslaved peoples. But the footprint of the mastodon hunter reminds us that climate change is not new. Indigenous peoples have been in these situations before because we have always been here, in our sacred places of creation. We will live through this, but only if we respect the land, as our traditional religions and teachings instruct us. These were lessons formed through other times—when the mastodons roamed our lands and we endured different crises, such as the birthing and death of the other worlds we acknowledge in our creation stories. They are our compass now as many of us find our paths back home and other communities in resistance come forward to forge new relationships with us through sacred site defense. Let us follow the steps of mastodon hunters in our roadmap to disaster decolonization; let us learn to live with the land instead of on the land once again.
- The Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice
- Protect Ha’Kamwe’
- The People of Red Mountain, movement to protect PeeHee Mu’hah
- A film in progress on the impacts of lithium extraction on Indigenous communities that the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice is collaborating on.
- Defend O’odham Jewed, o’odham water and land defense movement
- Henry Schaller, “Crusader Orientalism: Depictions of the Eastern Other in Medieval Crusade Writings,” Summer Research 327 (2018) ↩︎
- Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States vol. 3 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014); Simon J. Ortiz, From Sand Creek, vol. 42 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000). ↩︎
- Conrad J. Bahre, A Legacy of Change: Historic Human Impact on Vegetation in the Arizona Borderlands (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991); Arizona Superfund Research Center, “Community Outreach Effort: Ajo, AZ,” February 16, 2005, accessed December 15, 2021, https://superfund.arizona.edu/highlights/community-outreach-effort-ajo-arizona; Lois Henry, “The Central California Town That Keeps Sinking,” High Country News, May 25, 2021, https://www.hcn.org/articles/south-water-the-central-california-town-that-keeps-sinking; Klee Benally, “Covid-19, Resource Colonialism & Indigenous Resistance,” Indigenous Action, April 22, , 2021, https://www.indigenousaction.org/covid-19-resource-colonialism-indigenous-resistance. ↩︎
- Winston P. Erickson, Sharing the Desert: The Tohono O’odham in History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2021); see also the following historical and anthropological museums: Huhugam Heritage Center (http://www.grichhc.org), Pueblo Grande Museum (https://www.phoenix.gov/parks/arts-culture-history/pueblo-grande), Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (https://www.nps.gov/cagr/index.htm), and “Hostile Terrain 94” at the Museum of Us (https://museumofus.org/exhibits/hostile-terrain-94). For the renaming of the sacred Hia Ced O’odham route to Devil’s Highway, and the impacts of colonialism on the water resources along the route and the risk to migrants, see Bill Broyles, Gayle Harrison Hartmann, Thomas E. Sheridan, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Mary Charlotte Thurtle, Last Water on the Devil’s Highway: A Cultural and Natural History of Tinajas Altas (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014); see also Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story Back Bay Books, 2008. ↩︎
- Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the wild. University of California Press, 2005.; Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.; Erickson, Winston P. Sharing the desert: The Tohono O’odham in history. University of Arizona Press, 2021. ↩︎
- Sauder, Robert. The Yuma Reclamation Project: irrigation, Indian allotment, and settlement along the lower Colorado River. University of Nevada Press, 2009. ↩︎
- Wilson, John Philip. Peoples of the Middle Gila: A Documentary History of the Pimas and Maricopas 1500s-1945. Gila River Indian Community, Cultural Resource Management Program, 2014.; DeJong, David H. Stealing the Gila: The Pima agricultural economy and water deprivation, 1848-1921. University of Arizona Press, 2009.; DeJong, David H. “Forced to Abandon Their Farms: Water Deprivation and Starvation among the Gila River Pima, 1892-1904.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 28, no. 3 (2004): 29-56. ↩︎
- Boime, Eric. “Navigating the Fluid Boundary: The Lower Colorado River Steamboat Era, 1851-1877.” Southern California Quarterly 93, no. 2 (2011): 175-200.; Lingenfelter, Richard E. Steamboats on the Colorado River, 1852-1916. University of Arizona Press, 1978. ↩︎
- Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “About the Endangered Fish.” Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.coloradoriverrecovery.org/general-information/about-fish.htm ↩︎
- Admin. “June Hogs – The Legend of the Super Salmon.” OUD Magazine. January 16, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.odumagazine.com/june-hogs-the-legend-of-the-super-salmon/; Dancing Salmon Home. Film, 60. https://dancingsalmonhome.com/ ↩︎
- Chatterjee, Pratap. “The Gold Rush legacy: Greed, pollution and genocide.” Earth Island Journal 13, no. 2 (1998): 26-26.; Chatterjee, Pratap. Gold, Greed and Genocide: Unmasking the Myth of the’49ers. Project Underground, 1998. ↩︎
- Koerner, Brendan I. “The Saudi Arabia of Lithium.” Originally titled, “The Lithium Gold Rush.” Forbes Magazine. November 6, 2008. Accessed Dec. 15, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/forbes/2008/1124/034.html?sh=7059fd494dee; See also Kohl, Keith. “The Lithium Gold Rush is Underway: Tesla is the tip of the iceberg.” Energy And Capital. May 6, 2016. https://www.energyandcapital.com/articles/the-lithium-gold-rush-is-underway/76552 and Frankel, Todd C. and Peter Whoriskey. “Tossed Aside in the ‘White Gold’ Rush: Indigenous people are left poor as tech world takes lithium from under their feet.” Washington Post. December 19, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/tossed-aside-in-the-lithium-rush/ ↩︎
- Lowe, Jaime. Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind. Penguin, 2017. ↩︎
- Lowe, Jaime. Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind. Penguin, 2017. ↩︎
- Brito-Millán, M., A. Cheng, L. Quintanilla, E. Harrison, R. Sugla, and A. Martinez. “No comemos baterías: solidarity science against false climate change solutions.” Science for the People. Vol. 22, no. 1 (2019): 33. https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/vol22-1/agua-es-vida-solidarity-science-against-false-climate-change-solutions/; Lowe, Jaime. Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind. Penguin, 2017.; Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice and Sofie Wang. Salt to Stars: the environmental and community impacts of lithium mining. http://www.the-ciej.org/salt-to-stars-comic.html ↩︎
- See Cartier, Tian and Martín Longo, dir. En El Nombre de Lithio. 2021; Argentina: Calma Cine and Farn. Film, https://enelnombredellitio.org.ar and I encourage readers to explore the coalition Yes to Life, No to Mining and the partner organizations for case studies and information on Indigenous and community resistance to lithium extraction around the globe, including Australia, Serbia, and the U.S. https://yestolifenotomining.org/. Full disclosure, my collective the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice is an active member of this coalition. ↩︎
- https://www.advancedsciencenews.com/what-comes-after-the-lithium-ion-battery/ ↩︎
- Sigla, Rishi. “How Green is Green Technology?” Tomorrow Unlocked. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.tomorrowunlocked.com/green-rebound-effect/#toggle-gdpr; Brito-Millán, M., A. Cheng, L. ↩︎
- Yes to Life, No to Mining Coalition. “On the Frontlines of Lithium Extraction: YLNM Lithium Communique #1.” Yes to Life, No to Mining. September 21, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://yestolifenotomining.org/latest-news/ylnm-lithium-communique/; Allam, Lorena. “Failures at Every Level: changes needed to stop destruction of Aboriginal heritage after Juukan Gorge.” The Guardian. October 18, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/19/failures-at-every-level-changes-needed-to-stop-destruction-of-aboriginal-heritage-after-juukan-gorge; Boffey, Daniel. “Rio Tinto’s past casta a shadow over Serbia’s hopes of a lithium revolution.” The Guardian. November 18, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/nov/19/rio-tintos-past-casts-a-shadow-over-serbias-hopes-of-a-lithium-revolution ↩︎
- Kaunda, Rennie B. “Potential environmental impacts of lithium mining.” Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law 38, no. 3 (2020): 237-244. ↩︎
- Protect Ha’Kamwe’ is the website and instagram account to follow for information directly from Haulapai land and water protectors. https://www.protecthakamwe.org/ ↩︎
- From the Hualapai Tribe’s comment on the Big Sandy Exploration Project Phase 3 Environmental Assessment, Hualapai Tribe Office of the Chairperson. “Comments on Sandy Valley Exploration Project (Phase 3) Environmental Assessment, NEPA Number DOI-BLM-AZ-C010-2021-0029-EA.” June 10, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/60fb36c796a4113520cf78ab/t/611dcfe5ce0f38366ca3227d/1629343726546/Hualapai+Comments+-+EA+for+Sandy+Valley+Exploration+Project.pdf ↩︎
- Statement by tribal elders on https://www.protecthakamwe.org/ ↩︎
- Autobiography of Big Bill Hayward, the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor organizer, recorded the testimony he heard directly from the massacre survivors in his memoir that documented the brutality of the mining industry and other fields he worked to organize. See Haywood, William D. Bill Haywood’s book: the autobiography of William D. Haywood. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2018. ↩︎
- Protect Thacker Pass. “Information.” Protect Thacker Pass.org. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.protectthackerpass.org/info-2/ and Protect Thacker Pass. “Fact Sheet Three” Protect Thacker Pass.org. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.protectthackerpass.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Fact-Sheet-v3.pdf ↩︎
- Protect Thacker Pass. “Information.” Protect Thacker Pass.org. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.protectthackerpass.org/info-2/ ↩︎
- Hinckley, Daranda. “Peehee Mu’huh Speaks.” This is Reno: Local News and Events. August 31, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://thisisreno.com/2021/08/peehee-muhuh-speaks-opinion/ ↩︎
- Protect Thacker Pass. “Fact Sheet Three” Protect Thacker Pass.org. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.protectthackerpass.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Fact-Sheet-v3.pdf ↩︎
- Protect Thacker Pass. “Fact Sheet Three” Protect Thacker Pass.org. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.protectthackerpass.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Fact-Sheet-v3.pdf ↩︎
- Cantú, Aaron Miguel. “In Search of ‘Lithium Valley’: why energy companies see riches in the California desert.” The Guardian. September 27, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/27/salton-sea-california-lithium-mining ↩︎
- Cantú, Aaron Miguel. “In Search of ‘Lithium Valley’: why energy companies see riches in the California desert.” The Guardian. September 27, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/27/salton-sea-california-lithium-mining ; Brito-Millán, M., A. Cheng, L. Quintanilla, E. Harrison, R. Sugla, and A. Martinez. “No comemos baterías: solidarity science against false climate change solutions.” Science for the People. Vol. 22, no. 1 (2019): 33. https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/vol22-1/agua-es-vida-solidarity-science-against-false-climate-change-solutions/; Harisson, Emma. “Electricification will not stop climate change. It will displace thousands of Indigenous people.” Medium. April 22, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://ejharri1.medium.com/electrification-will-not-stop-climate-change-it-will-displace-thousands-of-indigenous-people-45dd7fa8dbcf; Salomon, Amrah. “Decolonizing the Disaster: Defending land & life during Covid19.” Political Theology Network Symposium. October 24, 2020. Accessed Dec 15, 2021. https://politicaltheology.com/decolonizing-the-disaster-defending-land-life-during-covid-19/ ↩︎
- Fuck dams. ↩︎
- Akimel O’odham Youth Collective. “O’odham Zombies March Against the 202.” Censored News. June 25, 2013. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2013/06/oodham-zombies-march-against-loop-202.html; Akimel O’odham Youth Collective. “ADOT is racist! O’odham resistance against the Loop 202.” Akimel O’odham Youth Collective Blog. November 17, 2014. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://aoycblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/adot-is-racist-oodham-resistance-against-the-loop-202/ ↩︎
- Illich, Ivan, and Anne Lang. “Tools for conviviality.” (1973).; Esteva, Gustavo, and W. Sachs. “Development. The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power.” Population and Development Review 18 (1992): 1.; Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash. Grassroots postmodernism: Remaking the soil of cultures. Zed Books Ltd., 2014.; Esteva, Gustavo, and Carlos Perez. “The meaning and scope of the struggle for autonomy.” Latin American Perspectives 28, no. 2 (2001): 120-148. ↩︎
- Earthworks. “The General Mining Law of 1872. Polluter of water, provider of pork.” Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.patagoniaalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/1872MiningLaw.pdf ↩︎
- Harisson, Emma. “Electrification will not stop climate change. It will displace thousands of Indigenous people.” Medium. April 22, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://ejharri1.medium.com/electrification-will-not-stop-climate-change-it-will-displace-thousands-of-indigenous-people-45dd7fa8dbcf ↩︎
Social and environmental justice are critical to water infrastructure and technology; without them, climate action relief is impossible. Approximately 80 percent of the US population resides in cities, and the number of global residents living in cities is expected to increase to seven billion by the year 2050.1 In the United States and in many countries around the world, anti-Black and anti-poor policies have historically restricted low-income, poor, Black, and brown residents to floodplains and areas of lower elevation. As a result, these communities are often at greater risk of and exposure to flooding, receive little to no investment in updated and maintained water infrastructure, and have fewer resources to dedicate to recovery when their homes and communities inevitably flood. In fact, this has led to massive relocation and displacement over time. Remembering Hurricanes Maria (2017) and Katrina (2005), in addition to the estimated $161 billion USD (Katrina)2 and $90 billion USD (Maria)3 in damages, 44 percent of Black residents who left New Orleans never returned,4 displaced to Texas (25.5 percent), elsewhere in Louisiana, or elsewhere in the South. Relatedly, in Chicago, insurance claims for flooding damage increase as households of color increase.5
As climate change continues to escalate the frequency and intensity of massive storms resulting in flooding, Black and brown communities will continue to be displaced, exacerbating neighborhood decline and human, social, and economic capital loss in places like Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and other “shrinking cities.” Furthermore, persistent population loss and migration means a loss of the cultures and characteristics that shaped these cities in the first place. It means loss of employment for those displaced, closure of businesses, and an inability to fill open positions where businesses remain. At a macro level, it means a decline in tax revenue and city budgets.
One of the ways cities are trying to manage the increases in stormwater is with green infrastructure (GI). Frequently, GI appears along streets or sidewalks, integrated with the right-of-way, or as larger installations in parks, schools, or trails. While GI may be part of the solution, it’s also critical to recognize the historic and contemporary processes that drive GI more broadly. An analysis of 119 city planning documents for locating GI, intentionally designed vegetation, technology and materials for an intended purpose, and criteria and rationale from nineteen US cities showed 84 percent of the cities including criteria related to existing floodplains and other hydrology. However, while all cities in the sample emphasize criteria related to cost, land, or economic development, less than 1.2 percent of criteria mentioned environmental justice—a pattern that spells trouble for marginalized communities. Given that non-white residents make up 43 percent of residents in urban areas,6 ignoring the increased likelihood of flooding and the populations it will most impact is bad economics and bad climate policy.
- Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Urbanization,” Our World in Data, September 2018 (revised November 2019), https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization ↩︎
- National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency, Office for Coastal Management, “Fast Facts: Hurricane Costs,” n.d., accessed November 10, 2021, https://coast.noaa.gov/states/fast-facts/hurricane-costs.html ↩︎
- Richard J. Pasch, Andrew B. Penny, and Robbie Berg, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Maria (AL152017), February 14, 2019, https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL152017_Maria.pdf ↩︎
- Narayan Sastry and Jesse Gregory, “The Location of Displaced New Orleans Residents in the Year after Hurricane Katrina,” Demography 51, no. 3 (March 6, 2014): 753–775, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0284-y ↩︎
- Marcella Bondie Keenan, Preeti Shankar, and Peter Haas, “Assessing Disparities of Urban Flood Risk for Households of Color in Chicago,” Illinois Municipal Policy Journal 4, no. 1 (2019): 1–18 ↩︎
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Racial and Ethnic Minorities Made Up about 22 Percent of the Rural Population in 2018, Compared to 43 percent in Urban Areas, 2018, updated October 13, 2020, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=99538 ↩︎
In November 2021, the Flint water crisis was resolved from the state’s legalistic perspective. A federal judge awarded city residents a $626 million-dollar settlement for damages that dovetailed with the January 2021 indictment of former Michigan governor Rick Snyder. “Although this is a significant victory for Flint,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer Corey Stern told journalists, “we have a ways to go in stopping Americans from being systematically poisoned in their own homes, schools, and places of work.”1
In Michigan, what Kwame Holmes theorizes as necrocapitalism (to underscore the value-generating potential of anti-Black violence and death) precipitated the commoditization and distribution of water along the contours of reinforcing systems of value anchored in Black disposability and death.2 While necrocapitalist logics result from recent financialization, the exposure it caused is not unprecedented. Indeed, the Flint crisis was presaged in the 1920s and 1930s by the emergence of municipal water infrastructures under Jim Crow segregation, which here includes not only the formal apartheid regime of the South, but also the de facto segregation of the Jim Crow North. Combining neglect and intentional exclusion, Jim Crow water systems, especially those in the South, exposed Black communities to water contaminated by pathogens.
Ernest B. Wilson’s 1931 The Water Supply of the Negro provides an important snapshot of drinking water infrastructures under Jim Crow. Wilson studied wells across eight communities spanning Georgia’s coastal plain and Piedmont regions, including Dudley in Laurens County as well as Augusta and Athens. According to the study, more than one hundred thousand Black Georgians drank from shallow wells exposed to contaminants linked to waterborne diseases. This had devastating effects.
For example, in 1926, in the course of four months after moving to a rented farm in rural Madison County, seven members of one farming family became sick with typhoid fever. Although five recovered, two succumbed to the disease. Endemic to much of the South through the early twentieth century, typhoid remained dangerous, with the violent vomiting, diarrhea, and fever of the condition inducing severe dehydration. The devitalizing and unequal water supply under Jim Crow drove Black exposure, susceptibility, and death.3 Dangerous wells were not only prevalent in communities like Madison; they also remained an essential source of water in growing urban centers like Augusta and Athens. Although 80 percent of Augusta’s Black residents connected to the municipal supply, the remaining 20 percent, confined to the west end, lacked access to purified water. The deliberate exclusion of 20 percent of Augusta’s Black community from municipal water supplies was compounded for Black renters confined to inadequate housing governed by the confining spatial economy of Jim Crow. According to Wilson, despite adjoining land, on “one street three houses have been built on a double lot only a hundred feet in width” with “all three of these houses” using “a common well” that had “been condemned by the Board of Health” and a “common privy” of the “dug pit type” that leached into the water.4
Exposure to deadly water under Jim Crow resulted from the profitable spatial arrangement confining Black communities to small, overdeveloped parcels while ignoring contemporary understandings of healthful drinking water. The poisoning of Flint—along with the ongoing crises in Newark, New Jersey; Jackson, Mississippi; and many other predominantly Black communities around the US—reveals the enduring legacy of Jim Crow logics in contemporary necrocapitalist infrastructures.
- Tyler Clifford and Kanishka Sing, “Federal Judge Approves $626 Million Flint, Michigan Water Settlement,” Reuters, November 11, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/legal/litigation/federal-judge-approves-626-million-flint-michigan-water-settlement-2021-11-10 ↩︎
- See, e.g., Kwame Holmes, “Necrocapitalism, Or, The Value of Black Death,” Bully Bloggers, July 24, 2017, https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/necrocapitalism-or-the-value-of-black-death-by-kwame-holmes ↩︎
- Thank you to Maira Liriano at the Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture for connecting me with this source. Ernest B. Wilson, “The Water Supply of the Negro,” Bulletin of the University of Georgia 31, no. 3a (1931) ↩︎
- “The Water Supply of the Negro,” 35 ↩︎
Is it fixed yet? Can you trust the water now? That’s the question everyone has for Flint, almost eight years into a water crisis that has left behind continuing uncertainty and apprehension about the toxicity of the city’s water supply. Flint is a postindustrial city in the American Midwest with a remarkable history of union and civil rights movements that is now notorious for struggles centered on environmental justice. In 2014, while Flint’s municipal operational budgets were submerged in debts, surrounding counties saw an opportunity to generate revenue through the construction of a new water pipeline. Although the construction costs would translate to millions of dollars of debt held in municipal bonds, Flint’s unelected emergency managers overrode all objections and colluded in a speculative logic of future financial benefit, with catastrophic consequences for Flint. In order to transition to the new pipeline, the emergency managers approved a switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a decision that resulted in lead contamination and other health hazards Flint residents continue to reckon with today.
Behind the notoriety of the crisis, which captivated national media outlets during the 2016 election season, lies a ponderous and painful pursuit of repair. Lawsuits have proliferated, but the inherently conservative structures of legal claim-making and negotiation come with their discontents. Recently, a consolidation of several class-action lawsuits resulted in a settlement proposal of $600 million, which Flint residents have found problematic for a number of reasons.1 Less well known is a 2020 lawsuit against three banks that claimed the underwriters of the bonds for the disastrous pipeline project hold some responsibility for exposing Flint’s residents to harm.2 The plaintiffs’ argument has had little legal traction so far—as one attorney put it, no one in the courts is prepared to take this unusual category of defendant seriously and “invent a new type of liability” anytime soon.3 This legal indecision has naturalized relief over justice, dispersing and individualizing the risks of infrastructural failures such that Flint residents themselves have had to become the ad hoc architects of a safe and reliable system of water provision.
Today many Flint residents continue to drink bottled water, much of it donated by corporation Nestlé to “points of distribution” that have spread across the city, known locally as “PODs.” Humanitarian paradigms of relief like this, which rely on volunteered labors of care, exploit social bonds of community while leaving the deep antisociality of infrastructure bond markets intact. As early as four o’clock in the morning, in the hot humidity of summer or harsh chill of winter, cars start lining up to wait at the edges of the church parking lots that temporarily turn into PODs once a week. Residents will be able to pick up anywhere between twelve to forty-eight liters of bottled water at a time. This water has been extracted from aquifers in rural Michigan; a truck driver drives over one hundred miles to the PODs from the Nestlé warehouse to drop off the pallets of water bottle cases, tightly wrapped in plastic. At PODs, the social costs of water commodification are easy to see and feel. Lifting cases of water day in and day out, sometimes even without a car to move water from POD to home, is physically as well as emotionally heavy work. But the commodification of water in Flint has intersected with the less visible but no less significant process of the transformation of water and its infrastructures into assets.4
The infrastructure bond market depends on the asset form as a technology of trust—one, however, that concentrates power and choices over environmental and social questions into narrow and coercive channels of reciprocity. The right of bond writers to be protected from liability and trust one another as financial agents is currently less disputable than the right of an entire city’s population to access water and trust it is safe to drink. Destin Jenkins calls this prevailing arrangement the “paradox of debt,” where the maintenance of essential infrastructure becomes tethered to financial technologies and conventions that depend on racism to ideologically prop up an exclusive system of trust and control.5 The current water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan, grimly recapitulates that, as in Flint, the asset-ization of water disproportionately exposes Black communities to risk and invalidates elected Black leadership.6 When the value of infrastructure is fixed firmly in the asset form, there is less room to spell out fully the collective values around which cities might wish to organize infrastructure—values like racial justice, public health, and ecological sustainability.7 The trust that enables infrastructure bonds calls for a counter-strategy of distrust that questions the hidden premises of environmental management and re-orients questions of trust more explicitly around environmental justice. Flint’s unique history has positioned the city’s communities to integrate tactics from labor and anti-racist organizing to comprehensively challenge the financial “common sense” that underwrites the development of environmental crises and infrastructural capacities.
- Bob Brown, Leon El-Alamin, Latisha Jones, Claire McClinton, Mona Munroe-Younis, Juani Olivares, Benjamin J. Pauli, Dan Scheid, Nayyirah Shariff, Laura Sullivan, and Monica M. Villarreal, “A Long Way from Justice: Reflections from Flint on the $600 Million Settlement Proposal,” Environmental Justice 13, no. 6 (2020): 222–224 ↩︎
- Kayla Ruble, “Flint Residents Sue Investment Banks, Accuse Them of Helping Create Water Crisis,” Detroit News, October 7, 2020, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2020/10/07/flint-residents-blame-water-crisis-investment-banks-lawsuit/5912871002 ↩︎
- Steve Carmody, “Judge Hears Banks’ Request to Dismiss Flint Water Crisis-Related Lawsuit,” Michigan Radio, August 3, 2021, https://www.michiganradio.org/law/2021-08-03/judge-hears-banks-request-to-dismiss-flint-water-crisis-related-lawsuit ↩︎
- Emerging work on the “asset economy” argues that asset ownership is displacing commodity-driven forms of inequality. See Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings, The Asset Economy: Property Ownership and the New Logic of Inequality (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020). ↩︎
- Destin Jenkins, The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021) ↩︎
- On Benton Harbor, see Louise Seamster, “When Democracy Disappears: Emergency Management in Benton Harbor,” DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race 15, no. 2 (December 2018): 295–322, https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/3ahtb ↩︎
- For an account of how urban policy has shifted to privilege private over public financial techniques to meet operational needs, see Robert Lake, “The Financialization of Urban Policy in the Age of Obama,” Journal of Urban Affairs 37, no. 1 (2015): 75–78, https://doi.org/10.1111/juaf.12167 ↩︎
Since the time of its first white settlers, the US West has been paradoxically imagined as a place of infinite natural abundance and looming resource scarcity. In the era of accelerating drought brought on by fossil fuel-induced climate change and water mismanagement,1 long-standing resource anxiety increasingly manifests as discourse about imminent “water wars.” Yet while many dread such conflict, others may welcome it: white supremacist and armed militia groups are increasingly embracing claims of environmental scarcity—stoking fear, building membership, and threatening violence in media-grabbing spectacles.2 A recent example from southern Oregon demonstrates that such extragovernmental context is vital to water-policy considerations.
In the spring of 2021, extreme drought across southern Oregon led the Bureau of Reclamation to declare, for the first time, that no water would be diverted from Upper Klamath Lake to supply regional farms. In anger and dismay, some locals blamed regional Indigenous peoples such as the Klamath Tribes, who maintain water rights to protect culturally important species such as salmon and lampreys. With the recently-won uneasy peace around water-rights threatened, many began to fear the resurgence of the “farms versus fish” binary that speciously claims conflict is inevitable.3
Enter People’s Rights—a network of “militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracists, preppers, anti-vaxxers, and others” cultivated by far-right activist Ammon Bundy and his sympathizers.4 Threatening to break open the canal gates, they set up a “water crisis info center” that locals wryly called “the circus tent.” Print and television media were quick to report this spectacle with little historical context or critical commentary. The New York Times heralded a “new water war” brewing in the West.5 Neon sign-like headlines warned: “Ammon Bundy Coming Soon,” even though no more than a handful of supporters ever arrived and Bundy remained nowhere in sight.6
Redubbing the “water crisis info center” a “circus tent,” locals deflated the crisis discourse that has long propped up far-right spectacles, from the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (2016), the standoff at Bundy Ranch (2014), and the semi-staged melodrama of the State of Jefferson separatist movement in the 1940s to nineteenth-century journalistic support for settler militias’ extreme violence against Indigenous peoples.7 Locals recognized the circus tent as another spectacle in this longer history of anti-Indigenous violence, an old pattern reshaping itself in an era of climate chaos.
Researchers have documented that the genocidal and environmental warfare of “settler colonialism” has made the region what it is today.8 Settler colonialism is an ongoing structure of invasion and extraction animated by a logic of elimination and an unending drive to acquire more resources.9 Settler miners, loggers, ranchers, and homesteaders have attacked Indigenous peoples by targeting their natural and cultural resources, burning agricultural fields, exterminating bison herds, and polluting fish habitats.10
Informed by this historical context, Klamath Tribes members identified the People’s Rights’ bravado as a credible threat of cultural genocide. Opening the canal gates would result in another massive fish die-off, and Klamath Tribal member Joey Gentry made the stakes clear: “If the fish die, our people die.”11 As climate collapse accelerates, so, too, does the threat of environmental discourse like “water wars”—which perpetuates and justifies violence and ecofascism.12 The “circus tent” critique warns that ecofascism is dangerous despite—nay, because of—its sensational but superficial rhetoric.
The tent came down unceremoniously at the end of the summer of 2021, after the Klamath Water Users Association, the Klamath Tribes, and local community organizations denounced People’s Rights as ill-informed outside agitators with no real solutions, intent on putting the community at risk to promote a reactionary political agenda. This de-escalation reminds journalists, academics, and policy-makers not to take for granted the inevitability of “water wars”: in doing so, we may inadvertently legitimize militia agitation by granting the agitators their premise. Instead, we must amplify events like the intertribal Run4Salmon13 and consult the leadership of Klamath river communities such as the Yurok, Klamath-Modoc-Yahooskin, and Karuk Tribes, who conduct multidisciplinary research on the interconnections of aquatic ecosystems, prescribed fire, and community mental health.14 The “circus tent” case teaches us to be prudent with the language we use, to prepare ourselves to defuse white supremacist scare tactics, and to follow the lead of communities that are pursuing waterways based in relations of care and responsibility.
- Bradley W. Parks, “What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Drought,” OPB: Oregon Public Broadcasting, May 13, 2021, https://www.opb.org/article/2021/05/13/drought-oregon-climate-change; Emma Marris, “The West Can End the Water Wars Now,” Atlantic, June 5, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/06/oregon-water-drought-conflict/619109; Andrew Morris, “California’s Water Mismanagement Leads to Farming Crossroads,” San Diego News Desk, September 18, 2021, https://www.sandiegonewsdesk.com/2021/09/californias-water-mismanagement-leads-to-farming-crossroads ↩︎
- Oliver Milman, “Climate Denial Is Waning on the Right. What’s Replacing It Might Be Just as Scary,” Guardian, November 21, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/21/climate-denial-far-right-immigration ↩︎
- Jessica Fu, “Tensions Rise in Klamath Basin as Feds Further Reduce Water Allotments to Farmers,” Counter, May 21, 2021, https://thecounter.org/klamath-basin-feds-water-allotments-drought-releases-usbr-farmers-fisheries; Gary Pitzer, “When Water Worries Often Pit Farms vs. Fish, a Sacramento Valley Farm Is Trying to Address the Needs of Both,” Water Education Foundation, August 24, 2018, https://www.watereducation.org/western-water/when-water-worries-often-pit-farms-vs-fish-sacramento-valley-farm-trying-address-needs ↩︎
- Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, Ammon’s Army: Inside the Far-Right ‘People’s Rights’ Network, A Special Report by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network (Kansas City, MO: Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2021), https://www.irehr.org/reports/peoples-rights-report ↩︎
- Mike Baker, “Amid Historic Drought, a New Water War in the West,” New York Times, June 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/01/us/klamath-oregon-water-drought-bundy.html (subscription required) ↩︎
- Ryan Sabalow, “Ammon Bundy Coming Soon: Federal Water Cutoffs Igniting Rebellion in Northern California,” Sacramento Bee, May 27, 2021, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/water-and-drought/article251710398.html (subscription required) ↩︎
- Stephen Beckham, Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 1996); Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) ↩︎
- Cutcha Risling Baldy, “Why We Gather: Traditional Gathering in Native Northwest California and the Future of Bio-Cultural Sovereignty,” Ecological Processes 2, no. 17 (June 2013), https://doi.org/10.1186/2192-1709-2-17 ↩︎
- Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019). ↩︎
- Kyle Whyte, “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice,” Environment and Society 9, no. 1 (2018): 25–44. ↩︎
- Jeremy Raff, “‘If the Fish Die, the People Die’: Water Wars in America’s West,” Al Jazeera, 10 November 10, 2121, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/11/10/if-the-fish-die-the-people-die-water-wars-in-americas-west ↩︎
- April Anson, “No One is a Virus: On American Ecofascism,” Environmental History Now, October 21, 2020, https://envhistnow.com/2020/10/21/no-one-is-the-virus-on-american-ecofascism. See also Peter Staudenmaier, Ecology Contested: Environmental Politics Between Left and Right (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2021) ↩︎
- Run4Salmon (website), Winnemem Wintu Tribe, http://run4salmon.org ↩︎
- Karuk Tribe, Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, 2019, https://karuktribeclimatechangeprojects.com/climate-adaptation-plan ↩︎
As of 2000, forty-seven thousand large dams were choking, rerouting, and fracturing more than 60 percent of the earth’s rivers.1 These dams, while providing fossil-free sources of power through the generation of hydroelectricity, can have catastrophic impacts on fisheries, aquatic and terrestrial life, and nearby human communities. Dams have displaced approximately eighty million people worldwide; if the people whose lives have been impacted beyond immediate displacement were also counted, such as those whose traditional and/or land-based agricultural or fisheries foodways have been disrupted, then the number would be much higher.2
The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in subarctic Canada is a recent example of the social disruption and displacement that megadams impose on Indigenous and land-based peoples. Not only does the development of the Muskrat dam require the displacement of the Innu people,3 but it will also, according to an environmental-impact report, increase methylmercury in surrounding waters.4 Canada’s massive James Bay hydroelectric projects of the twentieth century exemplify the disastrous impacts of increased levels of methylmercury: the construction of the dams poisoned the food chains that the surrounding James Bay Cree relied on. The catastrophic social and environmental damage caused by megadams led the World Bank, once an enthusiastic supporter of large dams, to conclude in 2000 that “in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid” to secure the developmental benefits of large dams.5
Other social impacts of dam building besides displacement and the destruction of traditional foodways include: the creation of man camps, which are directly linked to increases in violence against Indigenous women and girls;6 increased racial discrimination; and, the destruction of ancestral burial sites and important cultural objects. Indigenous resistance to dams in North and South America is often met with threats of violence. For example, the award-winning Honduran Indigenous and environmental rights leader Berta Cáceres was murdered barely a week after she was publicly threatened for opposing a hydroelectric project.7
As climate change intensifies and the need for renewable sources of power increases, many countries are turning to hydroelectricity’s low carbon generation as part of their energy solutions. However, conceiving of climate change as solely an emissions issue fails to address the unjust cultural, political, colonial, and economic power relations that both contribute to climate change8 and shape megadam development. Currently, more than 3,500 hydroelectric dams are being planned or built globally.9 This is particularly important in the North and South American context, as the US, Brazil, and Canada are three of the top four largest producers of hydroelectricity in the world—making the impacts of large dams a very salient issue for this report’s focus on justice, self-determination, and Indigenous sovereignty in relation to water and technology in North and South America. Brazil leads the way globally with 256 large dams built or planned.10 In addition, 412 large dams are proposed, are under construction, or have been built in the Amazon Basin.11
Too often, hydroelectricity is still considered a “renewable” resource – for example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration12 and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy13 continue to consider hydropower a renewable source of energy – despite the fact that the lands and waters that dams flood are not renewable, nor are the human and more-than-human lives they disrupt and displace. Approaching hydroelectricity from an environmental justice perspective means understanding and working against the intertwined relationship between colonialism, violence against Indigenous people, and dam building. Consider, for example, the Pick-Sloan Plan, which supported the construction of five dams along the Missouri River in the 1940s. The dams flooded seven Lakota and Dakota reservations, forcing thousands of people to relocate, and enabling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to seize 550 square miles of Native land through eminent domain.14
Defending the self-determination and rights of people who are threatened by development-based displacement must be prioritized as part of climate change solutions – especially given that support for dams tends to come from economically and politically powerful global actors.15 Decolonization, landback, and Indigenous sovereignty are crucial parts of environmental justice. It is critical that policymakers in colonial nation-states like the US, Mexico, and Canada listen to the Indigenous and land-based peoples who would be impacted by proposed hydroelectricity development before projects are approved; uphold treaties with Indigenous nations; and honor and respect Indigenous sovereignty. Relationships with the land, water, and more-than-human life should first and foremost be initiated from a place of consent, reciprocity, and relationality. To this end, megadam projects should be opposed and undamming projects – like the one advocated for on the Klamath River that would liberate the river, create better conditions for spawning salmon, and re-make Indigenous traditional ecological practices possible – should be supported.16 Further, I urge policymakers to understand that Euro-American/Western developmental and extractive frameworks are only one type of approach to managing human relationships with the environment,17 an approach shaped by specific cultural values – and an approach that climate change shows is not working. There is a need to honor and respect cultures and relationships to land, water, and energy that are not extractive. In many Indigenous and non-Euro-American cosmologies, water is life, not merely a resource to be extracted – for example, the Lakȟótiyapi declaration “Mní Wičóni” means water is alive.
- Victor Villalobos, “Megadam: ‘Obsolete Technology’ Wreaks Havoc across the Americas,” resilience.org, October 25, 2019, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-10-25/megadam-obsolete-technology-wreaks-havoc-across-the-americas ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Colin Samson, “How a Controversial Dam Threatens Rights of Canada’s Indigenous Innu People,” Conversation, July 5, 2016, https://theconversation.com/how-a-controversial-dam-threatens-rights-of-canadas-indigenous-innu-people-62054 ↩︎
- Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, “US Demand for Clean Energy Destroying Canada’s Environment, Indigenous Peoples Say,” Guardian, June 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/22/us-clean-energy-demand-destroying-canadian-environment-indigenous-peoples-say ↩︎
- Christopher Shulz and Bill Adams, “The World Commission on Dams: Then and Now,” FutureDAMS, November 20, 2020, http://www.futuredams.org/the-world-commission-on-dams-then-and-now ↩︎
- Kyle Edwards, “‘How we treat women’: Worker Camps Make It Possible to Build Infrastructure in Remote Locations in Canada. Is It Worth the Human Cost?,” Maclean’s, May 13, 2019, https://www.macleans.ca/how-we-treat-women ↩︎
- Jonathan Watts, “Berta Cáceres, Honduran Human Rights and Environment Activist, Murdered,” Guardian, March 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/03/honduras-berta-caceres-murder-enivronment-activist-human-right ↩︎
- As Potawatomi scholar of Indigenous environmental justice Kyle Whyte writes, “climate change is an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism.” For more on the interconnected systems contributing to climate change, read the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice’s (CIEJ) essay “No Comemos Baterías: Solidarity Science Against False Climate Change Solutions.”
Kyle Whyte, “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” English Language Notes, 55.1-2 (2017) ↩︎
- Reality Check Team, “Hydropower Dams: What’s behind the Global Boom?,” BBC, August 6, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45019893 ↩︎
- John Vidal, “Why Is Latin America So Obsessed with Mega Dams?,” Guardian, May 23, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/may/23/why-latin-america-obsessed-mega-dams ↩︎
- David Hill, “More than 400 Dams Planned for the Amazon and Headwaters,” Guardian, May 6, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/andes-to-the-amazon/2014/may/06/more-400-dams-amazon-headwaters ↩︎
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Electricity explained: Electricity in the United States. 18 March, 2021. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us.php ↩︎
- Rocío Uría-Martínez, Megan M. Johnson, and Rui Shan, U.S. Hydropower Market Report (Oak Ridge, TN: U.S. Department of Energy, January 2021), https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2021/01/f82/us-hydropower-market-report-full-2021.pdf ↩︎
- “Water Is Life: Nick Estes on Indigenous Technologies,” Logic 9 (December 7, 2019), https://logicmag.io/nature/water-is-life-nick-estes-on-indigenous-technologies ↩︎
- Christopher Shulz and William M. Adams, “In Search of the Good Dam: Contemporary Views on Dam Planning in Latin America,” Sustainability Science 16 (January 2021): 255–269, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00870-2 ↩︎
- Ivy Huwald, “Undamming the Klamath,” Humboldt Geographic, 1, no. 17 (2020), https://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/humboldtgeographic ↩︎
- Nicholas Cannariato, “‘Our History Is the Future’ Puts Standing Rock in Broader Native American Story,” NPR, March 6, 2019 ↩︎
The twenty-first century has pulled aquifers up from the relative obscurity they enjoyed in the twentieth century; increasingly, people across the world realize that 99 percent of available freshwater1 sits underground (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2015). This awareness is linked to increased water extraction. Since the 1950s, the world’s use of subterranean water has increased fourfold. Aquifers currently face unprecedented pressures leading to depletion, salinization, and pollution (Konikow, 2011). In 2016, a group of international organizations called for an overhaul of groundwater governance (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2015). Specifically, they invited audiences to avoid irreversibly damaging aquifer systems and called attention to the fact that doing so requires public guardianship and collective responsibility based on science (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2015:3).
What if achieving the goal of securing the future of aquifers required something else, something like a fundamental shift in our imagination?2 What if the most powerful thing we could do is stop talking about groundwater and instead speak of aquifers? Some might say this is merely a semantic shift. I suggest the opposite. Aquifers are radically different formations than groundwater.
Groundwater, as a substance, can be quantified and turned into a decontextualized unit of a liquid: a number of liters or gallons. Think about how groundwater is allocated. Different actors negotiate a certain quantity of water during a particular period of time, abstracting the liquid without attending to much more than whether they have reached the quantity they have committed to use or escaped having to make the commitment in the first place. This is the case in the Central Valley in CA, for example, where decades of unregulated groundwater extraction have left whole towns without water.3 Thinking in terms of groundwater quantity enables this kind of dissociation from territory, history, economic systems, and social organization. Water’s historical and spatial connections are severed to make it an input in a production or consumption process.
Aquifers, on the other hand, are spatial formations characterized by dynamic movement and deep relations. Aquifers are dynamic and spongy architectures sucking and seeping, swelling and shrinking, absorbing and oozing (Ballestero, 2018). They require people to stop and think about their form, realizing that they need to think water and stone together, inseparably. Aquifers privilege movement, the difficult and never frictionless encounter between water and stone. They remind us of the dynamic interconnection between life in the surface and subsurface worlds. They exist as a kind of choreography where technical, scientific, gender, emotional, legal, political, and economic aspects are always activated, always part of the world (Ballestero, 2019b). When we think about aquifers, we face emplaced formations with legacies that persist. Aquifers are place specific and hold historical ties. They are intertwined with lively dynamics—human, geophysical, more than human. Reducing groundwater to quantified units masks those legacies; aquifers, on the other hand, resist that erasure through their persistent connection to place. Imagine the Río Blanco aquifer on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It sits at the doors of the country’s most important port, a site where most of the exports start the international travel they undertake as part of the commodity chain they are part of; it undergirds a community aqueduct association led by a fearless woman who has made history by becoming the first to be elected president of the aqueduct association; it erupts into people’s backyards as its extremely high water table constantly reminds residents of its vulnerability to pollution; it inspires children who draw their relation to water in order to create the logo of the commission that is dedicated to its protection; it inspires negotiations between community water providers and logistics companies lodged in the area who put have to confront measures of financial profit with the risk of depleting the aquifer. Aquifers are all of these relations, conflicts, and possibilities. Always more than a number of liters per second or foots per acre.
Dropping groundwater and embracing aquifers has another effect. It moves discussions away from scarcity (diminishing units of groundwater available) and moves it towards emplaced justice; justice for humans but also for the non-human beings with whom we share our world. A focus on scarcity locks us into the quantity discussion. A focus on justice opens our horizon to consider multidimensional relations as they happen in time and space; in Rio Blanco, Costa Rica; in the Imperial Valley in California, USA, in Andra Pradesh, India. Yes, a complex and challenging route, and yet, the only serious one we can take considering our current condition. The only serious one if we want to reroute the future history of water today (Ballestero, 2019a).
- Fresh water is naturally occurring water that has low enough concentrations of salt to make it usable and drinkable by humans and other animals not adapted to live in the Ocean or consume salty water ↩︎
- Anthropologists have studied the multiple forms, values, and institutional arrangements through which water participates in social worlds. For a review see Ballestero 2019c ↩︎
- La Ganga, María L., Gabrielle La Marr LeMee, and Ian James. 2021. “A Frenzy of Well Drilling by California Farmers Leaves Residents without Running Water.” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/projects/california-farms-water-wells-drought/ ↩︎
Ballestero, A. (2018). Spongiform. Theorizing the Contemporary. Retrieved from https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1447-spongiform
Ballestero, A. (2019a). A Future History of Water. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ballestero, A. (2019b). Underground as Infrastructure? Figure/Ground Reversals and Dissolution in Sardinal. In K. Hetherington (Ed.), Environment, Infrastructure and Life in the Anthropocene (pp. 17-44). Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Ballestero, A. (2019c). The Anthropology of Water. Annual Review of Anthropology 48:405-421.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). (2015). Shared Global Vision for Groundwater Governance 2030 and A call-for-action. Retrieved from Rome:
Konikow, L. F. (2011). Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea‐level rise. Geophysical Research Letters, 38(17).
The Colorado River is a living ecosystem of self-sustaining waterways stretching from tens of thousands of feet high in the Rocky Mountains traveling through the Sonoran and Mojave deserts and flowing into Mexico. These beautiful and unruly waters comprise rivers, tributaries, confluences, and bends flowing in from snow melt, groundwater, and aquifers. Over the past century, the US empire has violently undermined Indigenous lifeways and water sovereignty on the Colorado River through calculated legal manipulations and environmental degradation.1 The prevailing “Law of the River,” which mandates that Native American tribes collectively own 30% of the Colorado River’s waters,2 has amounted to a form of colonial datafication predicated on overallocated and depleted waterways and the repudiation and disavowal of Indigenous governing structures.3
The Colorado River’s widely publicized “megadrought” crisis provides the most recent excuse for the expansion of colonial datafication or artificial intelligence (AI) of its waterways. Since the year 2000, an 86% depletion of snowmelt runoff has contributed to declining water levels and cracked and dry lands. White anxieties over this water shortage have inflected a hydropolitics of exclusion during a time of crisis.4 As part of these political currents, venture capitalists and tech companies are responding with promises of new innovations in AI and machine learning (ML) to solve impending drought and scarcity.5 Undergirding their AI and cloud-based innovations is a colonial water and land allotment grid, the legal-quantitative pretext for the ongoing extraction and overallocation of the Colorado River.6
The idea that the Colorado River is a singular, quantified water system derives from colonial history. Over the past two centuries, white settlers have terraformed the Colorado River Basin guided by violent beliefs of manifest destiny–that westward expansion was justified and inevitable–and terra nullius–meaning “territory without a master.” What began as religious drivers to conquer and expand transformed, over time, into the scientific prowess of the US empire. Where religious settlers used biblical imagery to justify dispossession of lands and waters, modern settlers mobilized the capitalist values of efficiency and optimization to occupy land and commodify and trade water, a mastery through numbers that codified extant ideologies of racial and religious superiority.
In the nineteenth century the USGS violently occupied and datafied land, water, and Indigenous communities, defining and occupying the Colorado River Basin in the process. This historic big data project catalyzed several key laws partitioning Native land for settler ownership: the Homestead Act, the Railway Act, and the Dawes Act (also known as the General Allotment Act).7 These laws dispossessed Native land and water and broke up collective property systems that predated settler systems. Corresponding laws – the “Law of the River” galvanized in the 1922 Colorado River Compact – transformed water from an abundant ecosystem to scarcity-driven units of acre/feet trade.8
The colonial water grid primed the Colorado River for AI expansion and for the continued use of AI as a water commodification system. The circularity extends to the fact that AI systems deplete water resources–they require enormous amounts of water to build and maintain servers and data centers.9
In broad definition, AI is a technical and political program that consolidates resources and decision-making power within the hands of a few entities through computational algorithms.10 These entities hold power and license over massive databases, material infrastructures, and digital technologies. Visions of Manifest Destiny are taken for granted and frequently invoked by AI figureheads like Alex Karp, Jeff Bezos,11 and Elon Musk12 and by companies like IBM, Google, and Microsoft.13 AI solutions are not just technological solutions dreamed up by idealistic engineers. They are a land and water grab by new contenders for settler power. These proposals intentionally blur distinctions between water innovation and water law. Artificial intelligence reifies the settler colonial water and land allotment grid.14
While computational and predictive resource governance often takes up the guise of numerical objectivity, it has historically been anything but, encoding instead the social ideologies of colonial capitalist modernity:15
- AI and ML water programs are neither neutral nor objective. These are tech innovation nodes that consolidate money, power, and decision making authority over water resources.
- AI is neither autonomous nor sentient; AI and ML systems are the Frankenstein’s monster of water data management, avatars of a continual manifest destiny approach to transforming water into a scarce resource with discrete, calculable use-value.
- AI cannot “solve” any water crisis because (it is neither autonomous nor sentient and) AI developers’ leading definition of water crisis is a crisis of inefficiency, a framework that reifies extractive and deleterious water governance on the Colorado River.
- In AI/ML R&D, strategic partnerships between tech companies, water governors, and research institutes are blurring distinctions between water innovation and water law in order to consolidate wealth and power.
In practice, AI/ML is foremost a mega tech R&D funding category primarily organized around profit-seeking without public accountability; governments, venture capitalists, and scientific houses are pouring money into AI and ML climate and environmental management innovations, including janus-faced “AI for good” programs. By citing the heading of AI/ML, water research institutes and university laboratories can rapidly acquire large sums of money.
In these innovation hubs, companies such as Intel and Microsoft are working with local water governors such as the Central Water Conservation District and the Nevada Water Authority to develop and employ AI water solutions without public input and consent nor sustained conversations with Native governments. Their suite of innovations include SMART Water Grids, AI to Optimize Utility Processes, and water financialization tools, primarily Blockchain, for trading water futures.16 Hubristic generative AI proposals that would alter local water allocation and distribution contexts are projected to reach 1.5 trillion USD in revenues by 2033.
Reinforcing these innovations is the myth that the Colorado River water crisis is a crisis of inefficiency. A 2019 Water Foundry report citing the Secretary of Interior as “watermaster”17 describes the Colorado River Basin as “a strategic testbed” that is “used to determine the feasibility of emerging and novel digital technological solutions for the water sector.” This view of the Colorado River Basin as a datafied laboratory reinforces the spatial arrangements of the white settler state, that the waterways are a singular, datafied system feeding innovations for profitable water trade. Within this virtual system, AI/ML proponents acknowledge the problems of scarcity, overallocation, and poisoned water. However, they state the cause of these problems to be “inefficiency” rather than direct outcomes of the stratified histories of colonial occupation, and thereby avert engaging with what actually caused the water crisis.
The myth of inefficiency is thereby both a catalyst for the expansion of AI and a distraction from addressing the colonial water laws driving the devastation of overallocation and overdevelopment of the Colorado River. Colonial data systems and predictive technologies are predicated on capitalist drivers of profit and growth; for this reason, the pursuit of “efficiency” via these systems can only exacerbate the devastation. There is danger of capture by the “adaptation regime,” a “historically specific configuration of power that governs the landscape of the possible intervention in the face of climate change.”18
There is further epistemic confusion about the teleological promises of AI–water system designers commonly define it as fully sentient, able, predictive, and intelligent.19 AI is neither sentient nor autonomous. AI often refers to patchworked data analysis procedures and computing processes used to make predictive interpretations. Similarly, machine learning or ML refers to compilations of algorithmic models such as clustering algorithms, CNNs, and LLMs that analysts use to shape data patterns. In reality, the data systems and procedures comprising AI and ML are often clumsy guesswork misaligned with human judgements of reality.20 Akin to the patchworked corpse of Frankenstein’s monster, the technical terms “AI” and “ML” are referents for a jumble of datasets, algorithms, and computing procedures sewn together for specific and particular ends.
Furthermore, cloud computing cannot supersede land relations. All AI and ML systems abide by extant economic assumptions and data processes that reinforce colonial and capitalist relationships to land and water.21 Even innocuous uses of AI and ML in water management (such as salinity level mapping) assume political frameworks including legal codes, data ownership, and economic frameworks such as optimization, that are often unexamined in their calculated presentation. Additionally, all AI and ML systems depend on human labor and natural resources. Data centers alone consume large amounts of water and electricity and often alter existing land and water policies to justify these scales of resource consumption.22
A danger in AI/ML water systems is in how easily experimental design can alter water allocation and pricing policy. For example, researchers at Penn State recently designed a sorting algorithm to establish “archetypes” of water consumers.23 While seemingly innocuous, this system design places the burden of conservation on individuals instead of demanding accountability from the colonial and capitalist systems that exacerbate drought and scarcity.24 It is an example of an algorithmic design mechanism that can have lasting policy consequences. Across localities, AI is being developed in ways that confuse data concepts and technological PR with political and environmental truths. Artificial intelligence in the water domain is a convoluted technical and political program where unexamined data innovations and data acquisitions can quickly augment decisions and policies about living resources. The premise of AI innovation in water is that land and water are inefficient, necessitating an endless and devastating pursuit of efficiency and predictive accuracy. By chasing an abstract frontier, AI powers are designing an artificial future for the Colorado River to avoid contending with its living history.
- Recently: Arizona v. Navajo Nation, 21-1484, 2023; “Supreme Court: US Not Responsible for Water Rights; Navajo Nation Still Battling for Water,” Native American Rights Fund, June 22, 2023, https://narf.org/scotus-az-v-navajo-amicus/ ↩︎
- Please read: Andrew Curley, “Our Winters’ Rights”: Challenging Colonial Water Laws,” Global Environmental Politics 19, no. 3 (2019): 57-76 ↩︎
- Globally, water protectors and Indigenous communities continue to lead resistance against colonial-led water devastation, fossil fuels, and extractive economic systems, see: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, 2020); Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019) ↩︎
- Matthew S. Henry, Hydronarratives: Water, Environmental Justice, and a Just Transition (University of Nebraska Press, 2023) ↩︎
- For example: Catherine E. Richards et. al., “Rewards, Risks and Responsible Deployment of Artificial Intelligence in Water Systems,” Nature Water 1 (2023): 422-432, https://www.nature.com/articles/s44221-023-00069-6; “Experts advise governors on how artificial intelligence and other tools can allow water in Colorado River Basin and elsewhere to be better managed.” “Advancing data to better manage Western water,” Big Pivots, July 5, 2023, https://bigpivots.com/advancing-data-to-better-manage-western-water/, accessed September 3, 2023; “Water rights, artificial intelligence, wildfire resiliency among highlights at American Bar Association meeting Aug. 3-8 in Denver,” ABA, July 19, 2023, https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2023/07/ag-garland-to-speak-at-annual-meeting/, accessed September 3, 2023 ↩︎
- For further reading: Theodora Dryer, “Settler Computing: Water Algorithms and the Doctrine of Equitable Apportionment on the Colorado River, 1950-1990,” Osiris 38 (2023): 265-285, https://doi.org/10.1086/725187. ↩︎
- Teresa Montoya, “#WeNeedANewCountry: Enduring Division and Conquest in Indigenous Southwest,” Journal for the Anthropology of North America 22, no. 2 (2019): 75-78. For further history of how theft of Indigenous water was critical to settler land policy in the nineteenth century, see: Nick Estes, Our History is the Future (New York: Verso, 2019), chs 2-3 ↩︎
- Theodora Dryer, Amrah Salomón, Andrew Curley, Teresa Montoya, Erika Bsumek, “The Colorado River Compact at 100 Years,” panel at the Association of American Geographers, Denver, CO, 2023 ↩︎
- “Report: Data centers guzzling enormous amounts of water to cool generative AI servers,” siliconANGLE, September 2023, https://siliconangle.com/2023/09/10/report-data-centers-guzzling-enormous-amounts-water-cool-generative-ai-servers/ ↩︎
- My analysis of AI in water is informed by my sustained research into histories of data architectures and algorithms in environmental contexts. See: Theodora Dryer, “Seeds of Control: Sugar Beets, Control Algorithms, and New Deal Data Politics” in Algorithmic Modernity, ed. Morgan Ames Oxford University Press, 2023; “Big Data Stream,” Logic Magazine, September 1, 2021, https://logicmag.io/kids/; Designing Certainty: The Rise of Algorithmic Computing in an Age of Anxiety (PhD diss, University of California, 2019); “Algorithms under the Reign of Probability” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 40, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 2018): 93-96 ↩︎
- “The High Frontier and Jeff Bezos’s vision of American Imperialism,” Political Economy Research Centre, November, 2022, https://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/the-high-frontier-and-jeff-bezoss-vision-of-american-imperialism/ ↩︎
- “Elon Musk and a Breakdown of his Global Empire,” Orange County Register, June 4, 2023,https://www.ocregister.com/2023/06/04/elon-musk-and-a-breakdown-of-his-empire/ ↩︎
- “Frontier Model Forum,” OpenAI, https://openai.com/blog/frontier-model-forum ↩︎
- My critique of AI is a critique of the dominant white supremacist and colonial power structures of AI and does not extend to anti-colonial data and Indigenous data sovereignty research. Indigenous AI and Indigenous Data Sovereignty are respective movements and research directives, see: “Indigenous AI,” Indigenous AI Working Group, https://www.indigenous-ai.net/; “Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Governance,” University of Arizona, Native Nations Institute (NNI), https://nni.arizona.edu/our-work/research-policy-analysis/indigenous-data-sovereignty-governance ↩︎
- Please read: Yarden Katz, Artificial Whiteness: Politics and Ideology in Artificial Intelligence (Columbia University Press, 2020); Iván Chaar López, “Sensing Intruders: Race and the Automation of Border Control,” American Quarterly 71, no. 2 (2019): 495-518; Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020) ↩︎
- Each one of these innovations involves policy changes related to water pricing, water usage, water ownership, and water access ↩︎
- “The Secretary of the Interior acts as watermaster of the Lower Colorado Region, managing the delivery of all water below the Hoover Dam.” ↩︎
- Kasia Paprocki, “Threatening Dystopias: Development and Adaptation Regimes in Bangladesh,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 108, no. 4 (2018): 955-973 ↩︎
- For example, a recent AI/ML water design report states: “Here we define AI as a machine-based ‘intelligent agent’ capable of interacting with its environment with the aid of sensors, interpreting information for decision-making and autonomously taking actions to achieve goal-oriented outcomes via a human or robotic actuator, while ML refers to the subset of algorithmic models that learn and predict outcomes through passive observation of the environment.” ↩︎
- Tega Brain, “The Environment is Not a System,” Research Values 7, no. 1 (2018) https://doi.org/10.7146/aprja.v7i1.116062; Luke Stark, “Artificial Intelligence and the Conjectural Sciences,” BJHS Themes 3 (2023): 1-15, doi:10.1017/bjt.2023.3; Cindy Kaiying Lin and Steven J. Jackson, “From Bias to Repair: Error as a Site of Collaboration and Negotiation in Applied Data Science Work,” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 7, no. 131 (2023); https://doi.org/10.1145/3579607 ↩︎
- Xiaowei Wang, Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (MacMillian Publishers, 2020); Krista Chen and Cindy Lin, “Myth of Tech Equalizer: Labor and Environmental Implications of Data Centers in Taiwan and Singapore,” Presented in ICA Conference, Toronto, CA, May 27, 2023 ↩︎
- Mél Hogan, “Data Flows and Water Woes: The Utah Data Center,” Big Data & Society 2, no. 2 (2015) https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951715592429; “AI Programs Consume Large Volumes of Scarce Water,” University of California, Riverside, May 11, 2023, https://www.enn.com/articles/72524-ai-programs-consume-large-volumes-of-scarce-water ↩︎
- Matthew Carroll, “Colorado River Basin: Machine Learning Approach May Aid Water Conservation Push,” Penn State, January 26, 2023, https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/colorado-river-basin-machine-learning-approach-may-aid-water-conservation-push/, accessed September 3, 2023 ↩︎
- Renee Obringer and David D. White, “Leveraging Unsupervised Learning to Develop a Typology of Residential Water Users’ Attitudes Towards Conservation,” Water Resources Management 37 (2023): 37-53, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11269-022-03354-3 ↩︎
Mexico City is digging in to prepare for a wetter—and rapidly sinking—future. Like Jakarta and New Orleans, much of the metropolis of twenty-two million is literally falling under the weight of its own growth. A century of unrelenting groundwater pumping has led to runaway land subsidence, with no clear short- to medium-term solution.1 This undermines the city’s combined sewers and drainage canals (which carry stormwater and sewage together) even as the climate crisis brings more frequent and intense rainstorms. In response, the government has undertaken ambitious tunneling projects to drain the city. While initially transferring the city’s flooding problems elsewhere, they are themselves unlikely to be sufficient to weather the storms to come. This means that the city’s streets will continue to flood. The key political question, however, is whose streets will bear the brunt of this flooding.
While flooding patterns owe much to local rainfall distribution, topography,2 and the design of infrastructures, policymakers and the public in cities around the world frequently overlook the ways the operation of drainage infrastructures exacerbates the effects of already inequitable flood protection for marginalized residents. Mexico City’s long struggle against flooding shows not only how the operation of drainage systems exacerbates inequity but also points to ways more equitable operating protocols might be implemented to effectively socialize not just the costs of flooding (as is often done through insurance schemes), but the spatial distribution of floodwaters themselves.
The Mexico City metropolitan region is built largely on a series of artificially drained lakes in a closed basin with no natural rivers flowing in or out. Decades of excessive groundwater extraction have caused the city to sink, rendering major drainage canals nearly useless. The region therefore depends instead primarily on one of the world’s largest and most complex deep drainage tunnel systems to artificially drain water from the basin every time it rains. These tunnels—ranging between four and seven meters in diameter—snake deep underneath the city and capture water from both the city’s rivers and local sewers, which themselves carry a toxic mix of sewage, industrial waste, and—during storms—rainwater. The system, known as the Deep Drainage System (Sistema de Drenaje Profundo), is like a subway network for stormwater and sewage, which nearly every inhabitant depends on, but no one sees.
The system’s primary tunnels were inaugurated in 1975 and immediately reduced flooding in downtown Mexico City, which had previously faced regular and catastrophic floods. Nevertheless, the city’s subsequent growth rapidly outpaced the government’s expansion to the system. This growth meant that even typical storms (occurring multiple times a year) would generate far more stormwater than the system could handle. The core problem was that the government had expanded the urban area served by the tunnel system without expanding the capacity of the system’s backbone: its outlet conduits, which gathered the entire system’s water and ejected it from the watershed entirely.
As a result, these outlets increasingly became bottlenecks during heavy storms, which caused backups throughout the drainage system. By 1999, the system was in a generalized crisis, as evidenced by a disastrous overflow of water from an oversaturated drop shaft of the tunnel, which flooded Ejército de Oriente, a working-class neighborhood on the city’s eastern periphery. In the wake of a series of similar disasters, government engineers began to carefully ration access to the drainage system to avoid letting it become oversaturated. This improvised operational practice had previously been largely unheard of; the engineers who built the system did not imagine—or design—the system to operate in this way.
Engineers rationed access to the system primarily through the closure of floodgates that control the flows of sewers into the drainage tunnels. Much like metering the onramp to a freeway, the closure of floodgates caused backups of sewage and rainwater into local neighborhood sewers, routinely resulting in floods. This process of rationing was, however, highly political. Under pressure from politicians, engineers would routinely leave floodgates open in the richest and most central parts of the city—allowing them priority access to drain their waters—while closing floodgates in the poorest peripheral neighborhoods. This operational practice often meant “sacrificing” these neighborhoods—a phrase engineers themselves often used—to floods of up to a meter (and sometimes even more) of sewage and rainwater. These neighborhoods served as de facto detention basins to temporarily hold stormwater that protected the rest of the city from more intense flooding.
The human and material toll of these floods was severe, as they would regularly triple commute times, cause infections, and ruin homes for residents with little or no savings. Some residents were forced to invest in extraordinary adaptations like meter-tall floodgates for their doorways, while others simply abandoned their first floors during the rainy season.3 Due to these recurrent floods, these neighborhoods became sacrifice zones: areas the government disproportionately exposed to toxic health effects and property damage—not to mention psychological trauma—in order to protect the health and wealth of more privileged areas of the city.4
In 2019, the government inaugurated a new outlet tunnel that promised to reduce the drainage system bottleneck and therefore the necessity of such rationing and the associated floods in the metropolitan region. Known as the Eastern Outfall Tunnel (Túnel Emisor Oriente), this tunnel has largely succeeded in reducing backups (and therefore the need to ration access) in the metropolitan drainage system even if smaller floods still occur due to local drainage network incapacity. Nevertheless, this project has simply displaced the problem of flooding elsewhere, farther from the city: the tunnel is now centrally implicated in a flood in September 2021 that killed fourteen and gravely affected thirty thousand residents in the Mezquital Valley, where it discharges Mexico City’s waters.5 Both to avoid such downstream floods and deal with increasingly intense storms due to climate change, the government will soon need to ration access to the drainage system once again. If left uncontrolled, the city’s continued expansion into undeveloped areas will also generate more stormwater, similarly accelerating a return to rationing.
Nevertheless, there is no reason that such rationing must necessarily disproportionately sacrifice the poor, as has been the historic government practice. A more equitable approach to managing rationing during these critical storm events would be to close the floodgates of the city’s tunnel system in a relatively even pattern designed to induce widespread flooding across the city’s vast low-lying region (which includes much of the wealthier city center), rather than simply in its poorest peripheral neighborhoods. Spread over wider areas, floods might be kept within manageable depths of ten to twenty centimeters, which could be easily contained with minor adaptations of doorways and driveways. The result of such an equitable rationing of access to the city’s drainage system would mean that more of the city would flood on a given night with a heavy downpour, but the actual level of floodwaters would be much lower for everyone.
The result of such a redistribution of floodwaters would be the creation of what we might call collective sacrifice zones. The term recognizes that environmental harms produced by collective forms of life (e.g., cities) should be borne collectively, by spreading environmental harms across the population as broadly and equitably as possible.6 “Equitable” here does not mean equal, however. Indeed, equity would demand closing the floodgates (and therefore risk flooding) in those areas with the greatest wealth first and disproportionately, precisely because they are the zones where residents and businesses have the most means to adapt to and recover from flooding—and these are also the areas that have long benefited disproportionately from the system’s discriminatory operations. Rather than forcing the poor to adapt first and most radically to a changing environment, equity demands that those with the most means to adapt be first in line to receive the brunt of increasingly severe disasters.
The physical design of the city’s drainage infrastructure does not prevent city engineers from rationing access more equitably. The fact that they do not do so (despite, ironically, often being from the very same neighborhoods that are regularly flooded) has everything to do with the political pressures they face to protect the wealthiest parts of the city from flooding, whose residents can threaten the state with costly lawsuits out of reach of poorer residents. The only way to reverse this tendency is to collectively organize and build the popular power to pressure the state to operate the system more equitably, despite almost certain opposition from the residents and business owners of the city’s wealthier urban core.
To be clear, the operational strategy described here should be a recourse of last resort. It does not diminish the urgent need for new and expanded infrastructures to separate, retain, and reuse stormwater, as well as a deliberate slowing of the city’s growth via a national decentralization strategy that channels investments away from Mexico City.7 Nevertheless, it will take years for such decentralization to bear fruit, and building infrastructures of the scale needed to completely eliminate flooding is impractically costly. This means that severe storms will continue to overload the drainage system. Yet while flooding may be inevitable in such circumstances, the inequitable distribution of floods across the space of the city is far from preordained. A change in operations could produce a far more equitable distribution of flooding in the city during such rain events.
Designers and policymakers in cities elsewhere have much to learn from Mexico City’s inadvertent experiment with managing a drainage system pushed far beyond its normal operating capacity. Mexico City’s drainage system is, of course, unique: it has controls built into it—and a network-wide interconnectivity—that allow for the relatively straightforward and precise redirection of water throughout the system, even when it is overwhelmed. Not every city has (or could develop) a similar level of control over their floodwaters, but for those that do, it is essential to examine how these systems might operate differently. These operations may well be the key to socializing flooding, such that it is no longer the poor who bear the disproportionate burden of adapting to a rapidly changing environment.
- Estelle Chaussard et al., “Over a Century of Sinking in Mexico City: No Hope for Significant Elevation and Storage Capacity Recovery,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 126, no. 4 (April 2021), https://doi.org/10.1029/2020JB020648 ↩︎
- In areas of the city with rapid land subsidence, “topography” is not a constant, but a constantly varying product of local geology and the history of groundwater extraction ↩︎
- For more on this history and these operations, see Dean Chahim, “Governing Beyond Capacity: Engineering, Banality, and the Calibration of Disaster in Mexico City” American Ethnologist (forthcoming) ↩︎
- The term “sacrifice zone” is typically used somewhat more narrowly to describe communities (disproportionately poor and, in the US context, inhabited by people of color) living alongside toxic industries, military installations, and their waste, whose well-being is sacrificed in the name of broader political and economic objectives. See Steve Lerner, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010). The kind of sacrifice I am describing here is more intermittent—floodwaters come and go—but residents face much of the same ongoing health effects and trauma and are similarly stuck in place ↩︎
- Dean Chahim, “La Tragedia de la Inundación en Tula fue una Decisión Política,” Washington Post, September 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/es/post-opinion/2021/09/20/tula-inundaciones-rio-causas-hidalgo-mexico ↩︎
- Referring to toxic contamination, Lerner (2010, 300) puts it this way: “If sacrifices must be made for the greater economic good in a democratic republic, then surely they should be evenly shared.” ↩︎
- For examples of the kinds of structural changes needed to improve water management in the basin, see Centro para la Sustentabilidad Incalli Ixcahuicopa, Repensar la Cuenca: La Gestión de Ciclos del Agua en el Valle de México (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2009). https://agua.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/Repensar-la-cuenca-La-gestion-de-ciclos-del-agua-en-el-Valle-de-Mexico.pdf ↩︎
On the second night of Storm Uri’s landfall in central Texas in February 2021, I could see downtown Austin’s lights ablaze from the highest point of my neighborhood on the other side of I-35, the highway that runs north and south along the eastern edge of the city center.1 On the side of the divide that I stood on in the historically redlined neighborhoods of East Austin, the power had gone out.2 As infrastructure collapsed for most of Austin, people had to figure out how to slow the inevitable damage to their homes: it got so cold for so long that the pipes froze. Who would bother to insulate in a city that spends most of the year trying to shed heat?
The threat of COVID-19’s spread prevented households from joining together to share heat and food and resources. Rather than risk walking to warming stations or shelters, mothers suffocated in their cars with their babies as they ran the engines for heat; others managed to secure hotel rooms at inflated costs; still more huddled in designated “warm rooms” within their homes and hoped for the best. Members of Austin’s unhoused community, which had visibly ballooned since March 2020, were ushered into warming centers, if they were willing to go, though many chose to stay with their belongings for as long as they could. The conditions of the pandemic, under which hesitancy around proximity to others became exacerbated across socioeconomic lines, shaped disaster relief mobility: people reorganized in space around multiple safety concerns, including aqueous, thermal, and viral threats.
The acute conditions of extreme cold posed a very different set of challenges, however, from those that were to come as temperatures rose again and the city thawed. Frozen water pipes that had burst now emptied out, streaming down walls, onto bathroom floors, and into basements. Water heaters, placed on the exterior of buildings, exploded. The city’s water table plummeted as everything drained out, and those who had evacuated their homes weren’t around to manually shut off the city valves. Austin Water, the city’s public utility provider, was overwhelmed by the “tens of thousands of private infrastructure failures” that strained the public system as it ran at two and a half times normal usage, eventually forcing a water outage.3 First, the city released a boil-tap-water notice for some South Austin neighborhoods serviced by the Ulrich Water Treatment Plant, which had lost power; a day later, the notice went citywide. For those who had been living without power, or those whose pipes had burst, this posed additional challenges for access to basic needs in the days that followed: a final, weary challenge after multiple failures of governance and infrastructure to prepare for Uri’s arrival.4 In fact, Austin city audit reports detailing emergency management showed that only 12 percent of recommendations for disaster preparedness and community resilience following the 2018 Colorado River flooding event had been implemented, including adequate notification to residents about widespread power and water outages.5
In the aftermath of the storm, as people took stock of what they had lost, or were lucky not to have lost, the disproportionate impact on communities of color across Texas, in Austin, and in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods within the capital city became clear on several fronts. Those living in older homes with less insulation; those reliant on public transportation; those in multigenerational households; those with a higher likelihood of having chronic health issues; those living in historically redlined neighborhoods with fewer medical emergency facilities—all experienced vastly different capacities for resilience set out by the social and political geographies of the city. In this instance, water marked those capacities for resilience as it froze, flooded, disappeared from, and grew toxic in Texas homes during one of the most disastrous storms ever to have hit the state.6 Extreme weather amid a climate crisis must no longer be treated as unusual or unexpected, but rather a condition of our time that water policy must urgently address.
- Texas Tribune Staff, “Texas Power Outages: Nearly Half the State Experiencing Water Disruptions as Power Grid Operator Says It’s Making Progress,” Texas Tribune, February 18, 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/18/texas-winter-storm-power-outage-ercot ↩︎
- Redlining refers to a New Deal-era policy that classified neighborhoods by estimated mortgage-loan risk and industrial-use zoning. In Austin, city services for Black residents were consolidated in the East Side in 1928, along with waste-treatment facilities. See Eliot M. Tretter and Moulay Anwar Sounny-Slitine, Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Segregated City (Austin, TX: [Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, 2012); and Cecilia Ballí, “What Nobody Says About Austin,” Texas Monthly, February 2013, https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/what-nobody-says-about-austin ↩︎
- Jonathan Lee, “Austin Water Responds to ‘Demoralizing’ Water Outages,” Austin Monitor, March 4, 2021, https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2021/03/austin-water-responds-to-demoralizing-water-outages ↩︎
- Joshua W. Busby, et al., “Cascading Risks: Understanding the 2021 Winter Blackout in Texas,” Energy Research & Social Science 77, no. 1 (July 2021): 1–-10, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2021.102106 ↩︎
- City of Austin, Office of the City Auditor, Disaster Preparedness: The City Was Unprepared to Respond to Winter Storm Uri (Austin, TX: City of Austin, 2020):, 10–-15, https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Auditor/Audit_Reports/Disaster_Preparedness_November_2021.pdf ↩︎
- Amal Ahmed, “Why Texas Wasn’t Prepared for Winter Storm Uri,” Texas Observer, 22 February 22, 2021, https://www.texasobserver.org/why-texas-wasnt-prepared-for-winter-storm-uri ↩︎
We are facing an accelerating water transition. Justice is not assured. In North America, ecosystemic disruption, infrastructural failure, and social inequity remain deeply entangled.1 The “color of water”2—the racialized dimensions of water policy—has been evident in Flint, Michigan, and other majority-Black cities with lead-tainted water, like Newark and Baltimore; in the Colorado River Basin, where severe drought disproportionately impacts Latinx farmworkers and Indigenous communities like Navajo Nation, where 30 percent of families lack running water; and in groundwater contamination from fossil fuel extraction in rural, low-income communities across Appalachia and the Intermountain West.
The concept of just transition often refers to social safety net programs, such as worker retraining and economic diversification initiatives, necessary to support fossil fuel workers and communities facing economic precarity amid the emergence of renewable energy. But just transition can also describe adaptive measures necessary for communities to respond to and thrive amid shifting hydrological conditions—floods, droughts, and aging water infrastructures. Just transition has deep roots in the US labor and environmental justice movements, referring to an alternative economic system that prioritizes environmental sustainability, social equity, and dignified work. The climate justice movement refers to just transition as “the shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy” that prioritizes “redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations.”3 This vision is capacious, emphasizing issues like food sovereignty, regenerative ecological economics, a commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial futures, and the democratization of environmental decision-making.
For the water transition to be truly just, we must rethink the notion of relief, which implies reactive, short-term solutions to a deeper set of crises. This does not merely mean a renewed focus on proactivity—the anticipation and management of risk—but rather a shift away from the ephemerality of top-down disaster aid. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated water equity crises in almost every measurable way. Yet pandemic relief policies in the US have largely offered short-term, technocratic solutions that fail to address root causes of systemic inequity. The EPA’s loosening of enforcement and compliance with water-quality law, in response to the pandemic, did not address water equity issues. FEMA’s relief for flood insurance renewal premiums expired three months into the pandemic. The HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May 2020, offered funding for potable drinking water in Indigenous communities and grants for drinking water and wastewater assistance programs in low-income communities, but only through the end of the fiscal year. The CARES Act, passed into law in March 2020, included no climate or pandemic relief policy related to water.
Rethinking relief means reconsidering the way we frame water crises. If we reframe Flint as the result of a racialized politics of abandonment through the privatization of public services in communities of color, it becomes clear that monetary settlements and infrastructure upgrades are but short-term, targeted responses to deeper patterns of institutional violence.4 If we properly understand Indigenous peoples’ experience of drought in the Colorado River Basin as a legacy of settler colonialism, then justice means the restoration of Indigenous cultural, political, and territorial sovereignty and increased tribal participation in drought response planning.5 In fossil fuel-rich states like Wyoming, rather than protectionist water policy supporting new dams and reservoirs, justice would mean responding to the state’s outsize role in the climate crisis and allocating resources to support an equitable transition to a low-carbon energy economy.6
In sculpture, relief describes the lowering of a field to make the artwork’s features more obvious and notable. In geography, relief describes heterogeneous topographies, landscape features less apparent on traditional political maps. To put something into “sharp relief” is to render it visible and urgent. A new grammar of relief in water policy would materialize histories of violence, dispossession, and exploitation. It would respond to diverse experiences of climate change and the demands of frontline and fenceline communities. It would be oriented toward building just, sustainable futures by responding to uniquely local needs and histories of trauma and exploitation. Water policy that is place-based and community-driven, and that deliberately avoids the reproduction of uneven power relations, can play a transformational role in institutional responses to the climate crisis.
- DigDeep and the US Water Alliance, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan,” 2019, https://www.digdeep.org/close-the-water-gap ↩︎
- Christopher F. Petrella and Ameer Loggins, “Standing Rock, Flint, and the Color of Water,” Black Perspectives, November 2, 2016, https://www.aaihs.org/standing-rock-flint-and-the-color-of-water ↩︎
- Climate Justice Alliance, “Just Transition: A Framework for Change,” n.d., accessed December 8, 2021, https://climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition ↩︎
- Laura Pulido, “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 12, https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2016.1213013 ↩︎
- See Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future (New York: Verso Books, 2019); and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019) ↩︎
- Angus M. Theurmer Jr., “Wyo Looks to Store, Divert More Water as Lake Powell Dries Up,” WyoFile, July 27, 2021, https://wyofile.com/wyo-looks-to-store-divert-more-water-as-lake-powell-dries-up ↩︎
These are CIEJ’s guiding principles for Green New Deal supporters who believe in expanding the GND cosmovision beyond US / Global North-centric techno-optimism.
Don’t reduce the problem to temperature and CO2.
Climate change refers to a long-term change in weather patterns, including temperature, precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes. The earth has moved through various climate changes over time; yet today, this issue is associated with human-made pollution that puts current lifeways and ecosystems at risk of collapse from the overall warming of the planet due to the burning of fossil fuels for industrial development. Carbon and temperature are powerful data currencies, so the data exchanges of policy, science, and economic industries reaffirm these points as a distraction from the deeper causes of climate change: colonialism and extraction. Climate action plans, reports, and statements typically start by citing the 1.5°C warming threshold given by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as motivation for their proposals to reduce carbon emissions. Statistical projections, led by software companies like Microsoft that profit on extractive industries, focus narrowly on carbon and temperature. These statistical projections are used to control climate policy through future generations, until at least fifty years from now. But simplistic CO2 reduction “solutions” and statistical modeling fail to deconstruct and heal the abusive relationship—characterized by colonial and capitalist-driven extraction—we have with the earth. An exclusive focus on CO2 and temperature as the core problems to mitigate, which comes from a decontextualized reliance on the IPCC report, sidelines the historical, dynamic, and cultural roots of climate change. It fails to address the oppressive systems that perpetuate not only climate change but also related destructive problems like contamination, extinction crises, water wars, and so on. We need to move from decarbonizing to decolonizing.
Don’t confuse “radical” with “large-scale.”
The state of California recently mandated that by 2035, only electric passenger vehicles will be sold in the state. This large-scale plan to limit access to non-greenwashed technology is not a climate solution nor an environmental solution. Plans claiming to implement “radical” climate action generally mean that their actions—widespread electrification, renewable energy production, and other green technologies—are more directly related to reducing carbon emissions than to blatant capitalist schemes that avoid carbon reduction like carbon trading. But describing a “radical” relationship between carbon emissions and technology limits the potential scope toward an analysis of technology and capitalism. In the case of the electric vehicle, because the manufacturing of the vehicle and lithium-ion batteries is so environmentally destructive, and because both the manufacturing process and the electrical grids the cars depend on will continue to produce massive amounts of carbon emissions, the cars will not have a significant enough impact on carbon emissions to prevent global warming. Changing the energy source or production technology still does not change the fundamental causes of climate change: ever-increasing energy and material consumption examples fueled by ongoing colonialism and capitalism. Because they leave the roots in place, these superficial solutions—even and especially when implemented at a large scale—allow consumption and extractive practices to morph, with unknown rebound environmental effects. We agree that we need radical change—but by radical change we mean tearing out the colonial capitalist foundations of climate change via land back and abolition.
Don’t use extraction as a solution to extraction.
Anti-imperial environmental justice is not just about divesting from fossil fuels; it’s also about divesting from extracting other damaging materials in other regions. Climate solutions must be wary of using selective analyses that only critique one resource extraction in order to make claims to provide “good,” “new,” or “green” consumer options. Extracting more and different natural resources to create new consumer options to offset the extraction of another resource just increases extraction. For example, mining lithium for electric car batteries only destroys the water sources in the driest and most ecologically vulnerable regions of the world; it does not solve climate change. Electric cars are false solutions that continue extractivism and overconsumption. They do not actually reduce carbon emissions when you take the entire manufacturing process and electrical grid impacts into consideration. Extraction is a problem because it creates pollution and destroys the environment. There is no such thing as a clean mine, a clean factory, or a clean plantation; mines, factories, and plantations—and the accumulation and consumption that drive them—are the problems. Helium and hydrogen, for example, are being promoted as “clean energy” sources—yet hydrogen is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the same global warming problems as fossil fuels, and helium is often obtained as a byproduct from oil mining. The solution is reducing accumulation and consumption, not accumulating and consuming something else.
Don’t displace impacts onto others.
We can’t center only US-frontline communities at the expense of other communities around the world in line with the genocidal logics of environmental racism and toxic colonialism that drive displacement and migration. Our consumption of “green” technologies, like our consumption of fossil fuels, negatively impacts communities of concern down the supply chain domestically and abroad. The large-scale development of solar panels as a new energy grid component is an example of this problem. Solar panel production requires intensive mining of rare minerals, which is devastating the African environment and oppressing African peoples through coercive child labor, enslavement, and exploitative mining labor practices. The wide-scale implementation of home and business solar panels and solar energy fields in the desert comes at the cost of Black and brown lives abroad. Imperialism disconnects marginalized communities across geographies that bear the burden of environmental destruction and labor exploitation in order to produce and consume these goods and resources. Instead, we need to center transterritorial Indigenous, Black, colonized, and impoverished communities in our movement for climate justice. Protecting the earth requires global accountability and resistance to the greenwashing of imperialism. Selective protection means collective oppression.
Don’t let today’s demands make tomorrow’s justice impossible.
Abolition requires us to imagine a world that is not yet here, a radical futurism beyond bondage, incarceration, and disposability. Similarly, addressing the full extent of climate change requires us to imagine beyond colonialism, capitalism, racism, and extraction. Policy and advocacy goals accommodate capitalism, colonialism, and extraction and limit us to a reactionary defensive stance where we are always compromising and losing ground—even as we “win” policy campaigns. This undermines our ability to move proactively toward liberatory and healing futures. The colonial state is not our solution. Consumerism and work are not our solutions. Don’t structure your resistance around capitulating to the powers from above; instead make power from below—beyond consumerism, beyond work, beyond the state. Make sure that what you ask for today is not contradictory to the decolonial abolitionist future.
Do decolonize and rematriate everywhere.
Capitalist and colonial relations exploit peoples and land. A Western philosophy enforces a binary separating people from land, but for many Indigenous cultures and communities, people and land are one and the same. Multiple forms of colonial, capitalist, and heterosexist exploitation of people/land has commodified and made resources out of peoples/lands. To decolonize is to rematriate lands/waters and to break down the foundations of the nation-state: the military, which both pollutes and violently maintains imperial, colonial, and extractive relations over people and resources, borders, prisons, police, education, and so forth. To restore life and to value the dignified relationship among peoples/lands is to take back the lands/waters that have been distanced from our communities in service of capital. To rematriate is to nurture a sacred relationship among original caretakers of the lands through nonpatriarchal roles and leadership. To defend autonomy is to honor those who still live and thrive on their ancestral territories and who continue to defend their autonomy in the face of encroaching theft. Land back.
Do abolish the conditions that create energy demand.
We are not addicted to fossil fuels; we are addicted to energy, whether it’s converted from tar sands or solar cells, whether it’s stored in hydrocarbons or lithium-ion batteries. Moving from fossil fuels to supposedly green/renewable energy will not transform the extractive nature of a capitalist economy, nor will it reduce ever-increasing energy demand, whose root cause is the need for ever-increasing production, consumption, and profit, including the capitalist construction of wage-labor jobs. In fact, mining industries that still cause emissions are now benefiting from transitions to different types of energy. As abolitionism calls us to abolish the conditions—social, economic—in which harm occurs, we must identify the conditions that structure energy use itself. Only by challenging those conditions can we build new social discourses shifting from energy demands toward equitable energy relations.
Do transform what labor means.
Labor demands are often in conflict with the environment because jobs are conflated with extraction. Work under capitalism extracts from and dehumanizes the worker through systems of ableism, racism, and sexism. Jobs should be abolished. Workers should be liberated from jobs so that our activities are not centered around making profit, but rather around making life possible and meaningful for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Decolonization requires us to abolish jobs and reimagine dignified labor as individual and collective efforts and activities beyond extraction, beyond profit and benefits, beyond inclusion and assimilation into colonial, capitalist, and white supremacist projects, and beyond work. Instead of jobs, we want a relationship with our tools and environment that is convivial—that cultivates our creativity and our interdependent autonomy.
Do be accountable to our local, regional, and global connectedness.
The GND focuses on US policies, yet associated transitions in US labor, technological, and economic sectors impact communities around the world. Climate change resistance strategies must go beyond nation-state policies and limited US-centric electoral solutions because the sprawling reach of energy and resource extraction persists beyond borders and beyond fossil fuels. While many intend to be inclusive of transnational and transterritorial communities in their organizing, greenwashing often obscures how US imperialism continues to wage violence in pursuit of mineral resources. Organizing for environmental justice only within a settler-colonial fraction of the globe will devastate the rest of the world on its behalf. We must transform the boundaries of what “environment” means and extend a localized consciousness to a global interconnectedness.
Do cultivate local systems of interdependence.
As Nishnaabeg activist scholar Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson states, the alternative to extraction is “deep reciprocity. It’s respect, it’s relationships, it’s responsibility, and it’s local. If you’re forced to stay in your 50-mile radius, then you very much are going to experience the impacts of extractivist behavior.”1 We must turn toward local systems and resources to break the cycle of globalized extraction-based consumerism and to truly build interdependent, sustainable relationships with the environment and people around us. In essence, this hyperlocalizing means we need to stop consuming products from outside our communities so we can then create local work to meet those needs while sustaining our communities. From a decolonial stance, this also means recognizing whether we are settlers and working to return land to the original peoples. If we are where we are because of bondage and fugitivity, then we also must support land back and develop anticolonial relationships with original peoples. We believe decolonization is also abolitionist, antiracist, antiheteropatriarchal, and anti-ableist; we believe decolonization centers sacred and nonhuman beings, and can be created locally in ways that connect to others globally in transformative ways. Cultivating interdependent, sustainable relationships with the local environment and people around us breaks the destructive cycle of globalized extraction-based consumerism. We can and must form both local and global relationships that break colonial and extractivist cycles.
- Naomi Klein, “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson,” Yes! Magazine, March 6, 2013, https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2013/03/06/dancing-the-world-into-being-a-conversation-with-idle-no-more-leanne-simpson ↩︎
Our intervention is to create non-competitive, activist-centered, and capacious solidarity network building in the production of knowledge about climate change and environmental justice.
We’ve all had a long experience of seeing others plagiarize or improperly cite our work. Most of us are coming from marginalized identities within the formations of knowledge production, as femmes, queers, people of color and indigenous folks, immigrants, women, parents, folks with disabilities, folks who grew up in poverty, and folks who are deeply imbricated with solidarity networks, frontline communities, and who are committed to abolition, liberation, and ecological rationality. We are often more impacted by the theft of our work than those who are differently privileged than us. We encourage you to be in a responsible relationship with us and cite the editors, reports, and stories on this site properly.
However, we also are resisting settler formations of property that claim knowledge is individual property, especially knowledge that critiques systems that harm us and furthers the work of resistance and liberation. We support each other’s growth and the struggles we are all connected to. We encourage you to explore each of these contributors’ other work, to connect with the communities and struggles represented in these stories, and to take action to protect water and defend the sacred.
We want these words and our work to travel and to be of use for those in the struggle. We do not want to create for the sake of inflating the budgets of the non-profit industrial complex nor the salaries of high profile intellectuals. We do this work because it matters to our communities and the folks we organize in solidarity with. We hope that you take it and build on it. We hope it informs your struggle and helps you resist and create change in the places and relationships you are in.