Ingrid R. G. Waldron. There's Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. Manitoba: Fernwood Publishing, 2018. 184 pp. ISBN: 9781773630571.
State actors and private firms have disproportionately subjected Indigenous communities and communities of color in North America to air, water, and soil pollution, and systematically excluded these communities from access to healthy recreational and subsistence activities, both historically and today. Moreover, Canada and the United States have dispossessed Indigenous communities of their lands and lifeways and have engaged in multiple forms of the elimination of Native peoples (Wolfe 2006). However, there is a dearth of research and theoretical engagement that brings together both settler colonial theory and Critical Environmental Justice (CEJ) studies. Fortunately, Ingrid R. G. Waldron's theoretically rich and incisive analysis of environmental racism in Nova Scotia, Canada, expertly puts these frameworks into conversation, and thus pushes the field forward in considering these deeply enmeshed issues. Using settler colonialism and CEJ as a theoretical framework, Waldron contends that issues of environmental racism cannot be disentangled from racial capitalism, and other forms of systemic social structures "within which race, gender, income, class, and other social factors get inscribed in subtle ways to cause harm to mostly rural, remote, geographically isolated and, therefore, 'invisible' communities" in Nova Scotia (16). Building on her work with the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequalities, and Community Health Project (the ENRICH project), Waldron argues for expanding the lens of environmental justice in Canada by considering "how racist environmental policies, as well as other kinds of state policies, have enabled the cultural genocide of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized peoples" (10).
Waldron lists four objectives of her book: the first and main objective addresses the limitations of the environmental justice lens in Nova Scotia, and Canada more broadly, by "opening a discursive space for a more critical dialogue on how environmental racism manifests within the context of white supremacy, settler colonialism, state-sanctioned racial and gendered forms of violence, patriarchy, neoliberalism, and racial capitalism" (5). Second, the book aims to illustrate how environmental racism is a structural and systemic issue associated with the types of violence listed above. Third, colonial legacies and structural "pre-existing and long-standing social and economic inequalities," such as poverty and low educational attainment, undermine the capacity of communities to politically and legally oppose these pollutants, thus making the communities more vulnerable to environmental harms (6). Finally, Waldron documents "the long history of struggle, grassroots resistance, and mobilization in Indigenous and Black communities to address environmental racism" (6).
To achieve the book's objectives, Waldron builds off of David Pellow's four pillars of the Critical Environmental Justice framework, which pushes scholars to think intersectionally about the formation and impacts of environmental injustice (Pellow 2017). Indeed, while foregrounding race in all discussions of environmental racism is paramount, Waldron embraces Pellow's first argument that more attention ought to be paid to how multiple social identities might intersect to produce environmental injustice. Second, Waldron argues that the reformist agenda embraced by many environmental justice scholars and activists working within the present systems has generally failed, as it "leaves intact the power structures within which environmental racism manifests"; therefore, Indigenous and Black communities must engage in an unabashedly "transformative anti-authoritarian agenda" (9). Third, Waldron engages with CEJ's undertheorized idea of racialized and marginalized human populations as expendable and disposable, since states and industrial firms see them as "inferior, lacking in value" (9). Finally, Waldron embraces a multi-scalar approach, arguing that CEJ scholars "must understand the impacts of environmental justice from the cellular or bodily level to the global level and back... these issues can't be discussed separately from their impacts on the souls, minds, and bodies of Indigenous and racialized peoples" (9-10). Most excitingly, however, Waldron's engagement with settler colonial theory elucidates how all environmental justice struggles in what are currently Canada and the United States are affixed to the historical and contemporary practices of colonial systems. Waldron threads this theory throughout the book to illustrate how spatial arrangements of communities that result in the disproportionate exposure to toxins are intimately tied to settler colonialism and racial capitalism, not as discrete manifestations, but as the intended effect of structural formations hundreds of years in the making.
Although the book primarily discusses theories of environmental justice, settler colonialism, and structural racism, the chapters also offer important lessons grounded in empirical work. Chapter 1, for example, provides perhaps the most accessible and actionable writing about Waldron's experience with the ENRICH project. Through her ethnography, Waldron underscores the importance of community-based participatory research, especially working with Indigenous and other marginalized communities. Moreover, this chapter provides empirical evidence backing Waldron's assertion that environmental justice scholars and activists must work to dismantle the structures that enable environmental racism and systemic injustice, not simply reform them.
Chapter 2 provides the reader with an in-depth analysis of the relationship among settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and environmental injustice, illustrating how EJ activists and scholars in Canada have failed to grapple with land value as deeply inscribed with racial ideologies, and thus have used a rather limited environmental justice lens in their work. The theoretical discussion of these intersecting issues provides the grounding for Waldron's assertion that environmental racism "is a visible manifestation of racial capitalism" (49). Building on the discussions from the previous pages, Chapter 3 draws upon George Lipsitz's "white spatial imaginary," to illustrate how certain spaces are deemed expendable by the state as well as industrial firms (Lipsitz 2007). Waldron argues that this type of ideological mapping results in material impacts on Indigenous and other marginalized communities of color. Specifically, Waldron argues that "environmental racism must be theorized and articulated as a form of spatial violence in the way that in enacts authoritarian control over knowledge systems, bodies, and spaces" (65).
Chapter 4 discusses the main pillars of the environmental justice framework, explores how more inclusive democratic consultation by government agencies can help mitigate risk, and applies these ideas to specific cases in Nova Scotia. But most importantly, this chapter discusses how Nova Scotia's unique racial history is more similar to that of the United States than to the rest of Canada. Therefore, Canadian environmental justice scholars must consider race as a primary factor in the placement of polluting industries and environmental toxins in Indigenous and other marginalized Nova Scotian communities.
In Chapter 5, Waldron's most compelling contribution involves reframing environmental health inequalities using a more holistic lens. Waldron argues that researchers must move beyond mere quantitative research to better understand the multiple, overlapping, and interacting stressors that impact the physical and mental health of Indigenous and Black communities. Indeed, environmental justice scholars' primary focus on toxins and pollution has obscured other important aspects, such as intergenerational trauma, forced migration, land dispossession, and disrupted lifeways and interactions with more-than-human beings, which carry profound psychological, physical, and social impacts (see, for example, Hoover 2017 and Whyte 2018). Waldron's holistic, multi-scalar focus moves CEJ studies in the right direction and offers lessons for other scholars.
Chapter 6 provides multiple case studies of environmental injustice and, moreover, narratives of resistance by Indigenous and Black Nova Scotian communities. However, though these case studies, as well as those in Chapter 4, provide important information and examples, they read more as a collection of reports without a clear narrative thread, which could cause the reader's attention to wane. Finally, Waldron's conclusion discusses the implications and efficacy of possible policy solutions, as well as how Indigenous and Black communities can undertake multi-pronged actions and solutions to environmental injustice in their communities.
This book is essential reading for scholars and activists interested in real and lasting environmental justice. However, though Waldron is clear and concise in her writing, many parts of the book engage dense theoretical language and therefore might be less useful for a non-academic audience. This could have been mitigated by employing a narrative storytelling writing style supported by empirical ethnographic evidence. Nevertheless, There's Something in the Water is a critical and very welcome book that pushes the boundaries of CEJ studies, and, just as important, puts settler colonial studies in conversation with the pressing environmental health issues Indigenous and other marginalized communities historically and continue to face.
Gregory Hitch, Brown University
Hoover, Elizabeth. The River is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Lipsitz, George. "The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape." Landscape Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2007): 10-23.
Pellow, David Naguib. What is Critical Environmental Justice? Polity Press, 2018.
Whyte, Kyle. "Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice." Environment and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2018): 125-144.
Wolfe, Patrick. "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native." Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2006): 387-409.