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Will Meyer | Longreads | October 2019 | 14 minutes (3,738 words)
“Seen clearly, nature and landscapes are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are respites from these things,” observes legal scholar and environmental writer Jedidiah Purdy in his new book This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle For A New Commonwealth. This is an echo from his 2015 book After Nature, in which Purdy recalled the role of early American landscape paintings in a project of “collective self-creation”; these paintings, pioneered by the influential Hudson River School painters during the 1830s, obscured the settler violence inherent to the United States’ colonial project while presenting scenes from the fledgling countryside: the vistas, railroads, and faraway cities that were central to early imaginations of the nation. Not only were these images important to constructing a civic identity, they “yoked ideas of nature to nationalist and imperial projects and to new aesthetic and spiritual claims,” Purdy wrote — that is to say, seeing meant believing. Fusing together notions of landscape, nature, and narrative was critical to the success of the settler project — and remains so today, Purdy argues in This Land. Indeed, this violent visual history pulses through the slim book, which aims to make a case for a Green New Deal — “a commonwealth of shared dignity and mutual care.”
“There are many ways to claim a terrain — by force and by the force of the imagination, by cartography and by storytelling,” writes Purdy in the book’s preface, explaining that his project will be to trace the geographies of power, violence, and ecological degradation which are embedded within the landscapes of the United States. “The land and the wealth that began in it still carry the shape of history. The chasm between white and black wealth is rooted in control of property, and it abides there. The land remembers,” he says, historicizing the racial wealth gap. Purdy says he seeks to tell a “material story with an ecological face,” and at this he excels. Early in the book he writes harrowingly about the “forests and swamps” that enslaved people “battled” to build enslavers’ plantations in the South; and about how willow oak trees were planted in white neighborhoods, making the redline manifest and thus “giving Jim Crow an ecological echo.”
Purdy’s tour of land and dispossession meanders through many of today’s environmental hazards — from an Amazon logistics hub, to a national wildlife refuge occupied by far-right protesters, to the site of a massive chemical spill: in 2014, through a one-inch hole in a chemical tank, seventy-five hundred gallons of crude MCMH (a chemical used to “remove impurities from coal”) spilled into the Elk River in West Virginia. Purdy explains that the tank belonged to a company crudely (sorry) named Freedom Industries. The spill occurred just shy of two miles upstream from where a private water company, American Water, siphoned water to sell to three hundred thousand people, who were subsequently told not to drink, cook, or bathe with it. The cruel irony of American Water being poisoned by Freedom Industries is hard to miss — not for the corporate state’s utter lack of self-awareness, but for what it tells us about the environmental disrepair facing those of us who live downstream from the job-creating titans of industry, just exercising their freedoms. Today, landscapes are dotted with a patchwork of noxious infrastructure: Purdy surveys MCMH tanks and the coal mines they serve, the lead pipes that poisoned Flint’s water, and slaughterhouses with animal waste that seeps into rivers, all disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color.
It is in this light that Purdy situates his final chapter, “The Long Environmental Justice Movement,” which chronicles the tug-of-war between elite and egalitarian environmental politics, two sides that have been clashing for generations. Ever since the conservation movement was spawned by Teddy Roosevelt and his nativist ilk, who aimed to preserve the purity of the great Redwoods of the West as surely as that of the white race, any claims to be “preserving” the environment have been tenuous and fraught. One such inflection point came with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. The book “described a poisoned world where pesticides passed through the air, water, and soil, to enter the flesh of animals and people, and spread sickness and death,” writes Purdy. “But,” he adds, “Carson’s great elegy and polemic, which followed pesticides through their whole cycle of destruction, ignored the mainly Latino farm workers of California and Florida, who were directly exposed to pesticides in their work in the fields. The human victims of pesticides, in Carson’s telling, lived in iconic small-town and suburban American. They were implicitly white and Anglo.” Silent Spring, Purdy notes, garnered public support to pass monumental environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which were among a suite of laws that acted as a powerful rebuke of corporate power and represented the expansion of state power to protect the environment.
As a counterpoint to Carson’s political shortcomings, Purdy makes note of Wilhelm Hueper, the industrial toxicologist whose research deeply informed Silent Spring, for his environmental egalitarianism. Hueper, along with a slew of others, such as Alice Hamilton, the first woman faculty member at Harvard who studied the effects of lead and other poisons on workers in factories, laced their environmentalism with a class analysis, an understanding that would pave the way toward the Environmental Justice movement that exists today. One such figure was United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, who, before he died suddenly in 1970, “was preparing a proposal to include environmental issues in the union’s collective bargaining agenda with management.” However, it wasn’t long before the pendulum swung back towards the elite seclusion that had so defined environmental politics. Professional lobbying outfits backed by major foundations like the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resource Defense Council, and others didn’t rock the boat, and remained narrow in their approach. Purdy finishes the chapter by making an appeal for an environmentalism that centers economic and racial justice, and takes its cues from indigenous leadership.
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Purdy’s book begins by discussing the inhumanity of ICE and ends by describing the misguided uselessness of the Department of Homeland Security as a jobs program. Peppered throughout the book are acknowledgements both that climate change will accelerate migration as well as the inevitable need for a politics that supersedes the nation state: “a world order can be built from an alliance of commonwealths.” The premise for such internationalism rests on the idea that everyone in the world “has an equal claim to thrive.” In many ways, however, the book falls prey to a similar conceit of the Green New Deal itself: it stops short of calling for the abolition of capitalism or, for that matter, borders. Writer and journalist Ben Ehrenreich, for instance, has called for open borders in order to avoid the “death of millions and a world fractured by nationalism” (which Purdy most certainly opposes); a demand that, in my view, seems pragmatic.
Purdy is a brilliant analyst, able to astutely diagnose society’s coming calamities — for example, the possible breakdown of global supply chains or resource wars brought on by extreme weather — but often fails to make demands that are outside of a general reader’s comfort zone (which, according to an interview, might be his intention). While Purdy rightly wants to decouple our ecological needs from the market, the book, purely by way of omission, could lead a reader to believe that the Green New Deal is the end point, rather than the starting point.
In the middle of the book, Purdy gives an account of preparing for Hurricane Florence, which hit the southeast in September 2018, where he “perched safely but uneasily on the edge of catastrophe.” The storm killed 41 people, he notes, along with 5,500 hogs and three million chickens and turkeys. What Purdy doesn’t mention is that while prisons in North Carolina and Virginia evacuated, South Carolina elected not to evacuate their prisons and jails that were within the mandatory evacuation zone. Despite Governor Henry McMaster’s “promise” not to “gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina,” he asserted that MacDougall Correctional Institution, one such prison in the storm’s path, was “the safest place for those people to be at this time.” The people inside were left to languish. CNN reported that two South Carolina mental health patients drowned in a prison transport van after the storm “overtook” the vehicle. The guards transporting Windy Newton and Nicolette Green stood atop the van’s roof until help arrived, saving themselves after, according to the cold language of the Sheriff’s press release, “attempt[ing] to extricate the persons being transported.”
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In a recent piece for Jacobin, Brett Story and co-author Seth Prins cite the work of Craig Gilmore and Rose Braz, who wrote about how youth environmental justice activists in southern California expanded the idea of toxicity to include police and prisons in the early 2000s. “They identified police, pollution, and prisons as the biggest threats in their communities,” Story and Prins write, adding that “The Valley’s youth considered toxic threats from chemical sources akin to the toxic effects of hosting over half the state’s new mega-prisons,” pointing to both the mental and physical health consequences of mass incarceration. Purdy does not discuss prisons, save for a passing mention of the “carceral state” in the book’s first chapter. For example, he spends significant time describing the impact of coal mining on rural Appalachia but omits the prison boom taking place above literal mountain coal mines, something Story describes at length in her book Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power in Neoliberal America, in which she sets her gaze on the expanding carceral state’s reach into unexpected places.
Story tells the story of Inez, Kentucky, in 1964: a town of just 500, a hamlet in the poorest all-white county in the country. There, from the front porch of an unemployed sawmill operator and father of eight who, according to a government film, earned only $400 in all of 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, announcing a slew of federal programs designed to lift all boats. Despite the success of the war LBJ waged and, more recently, Trump’s bravado about bringing coal back, prospects are still not looking good for Eastern Kentucky. Coal is nose diving and Martin County, where Inez is located, is the eleventh poorest county in the country by median household income. In 2016 there were fewer than 7,000 miners in Kentucky, the lowest number since 1898. One place the state has seen a spike, however, is in its prison population, which is now at about 41,000, according to the Prison Policy Initiative — just shy of the 47,190 coal miners in 1979 at coal’s peak. Just twelve miles southwest of Inez, where Johnson gave his speech, is USP Big Sandy — the most expensive federal prison ever constructed. The facility required an additional $40 million dollars to ensure it didn’t descend into the mountaintop removal site, an “abandoned deep mine,” on which it was built in 2003, earning it the nickname “Sink-Sink.”
Eastern Kentucky has been the site of a prison boom; four federal prisons have been built in central Appalachia since 1992. “Prison development has been used in this region to respond to various crises at once,” Story writes. These crises include “deindustrialization, structural joblessness, and low-wages,” all of which led to the deterioration of the region’s “material well-being.” Story examines the monopolization of the coal industry and the distress that has come from its unraveling, and looks further back, to the colonial land speculation that initially put the region in the hands of capitalists who had their eyes set on mineral rights as early as the late 18th century. “By privileging the absentee monopoly landowners over local residents,” she writes, “the state paved the way for private industrial development, and thus the rise of deep mining.” Story describes how sociologist Rebecca Scott has referred to Central Appalachia as “an internal colony, an internal periphery of the world capitalist system, and a ‘national sacrifice zone.’” In 2000, in Martin County, just miles south of Inez, some 306 million gallons of coal sludge oozed down 100 miles of waterways. The EPA deemed the Inez Spill “the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States.” Story notes that the spill “surpassed” the infamous 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill “thirtyfold.”
Beyond the “several [prisons] literally on top of coalmines,” per Story, a 2017 Truthout exposé put the extent of toxicity in context: “According to a GIS [geographic information system] analysis of a 2010 dataset of state and federal prisons by independent cartographer Paige Williams, at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site on the National Priorities List, with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.” This list is long, but it is worth quoting a few examples from the investigation.
Prisoners at Avenal and Pleasant Valley State Prisons in California’s Central Valley are at heightened risk of becoming sick from valley fever, an infection caused by inhalation of a soil-borne fungus. Over the past decade, more than 50 state prisoners have died from the disease, and prisoners continue to get sick.
In 2014, intense rains caused the basement of Escambia County Jail [in Florida] to flood, resulting in a gas leak and explosion that killed two prisoners and injured dozens of others. The incident illustrates the risks faced by prisoners in flood-prone areas, risks that could be elevated in coastal areas due to sea level rise.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, thousands of prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans were abandoned for days without assistance before being evacuated. Prisoners were left in locked cells, some standing in sewage-contaminated water.
Seven of New Jersey’s 13 state prisons are located directly on Superfund sites. Many of these same prisons are in close proximity to other contaminated sites as well.
The Rikers Island jail complex [in New York City] is situated on a toxic waste landfill site. Several lawsuits have been filed against the facility by prison staff who have become ill due to the conditions there. There have also been frequent methane gas explosions related to the landfill. New York is planning to close down the jail. [New York’s City Council voted to close Rikers last week.]
[In Pennsylvania], Fayette State Correctional Institution is located on part of what used to be a massive coal preparation plant and adjacent to a massive coal ash dump. Prisoners at SCI Fayette have been complaining of higher rates of respiratory, gastrointestinal, skin, and thyroid problems that may be linked to coal dust inhalation as well as water contamination (though the water supply comes from further upstream), but it is difficult to tie their conditions directly to the contamination.
Paul Wright, a former prisoner in Washington state, has been making these connections for over three decades. While inside at McNeil Island prison, Wright started filing public records requests and, with the help of Ed Mead, another prisoner, founded Prison Legal News, to publish the findings — and allow prisoners and families to speak up about the criminal legal system. “Sure enough, we got all kinds of stuff back saying that the prisons were literally sources of toxic pollution,” he told Truthout of the requests. “The prison ecology issue turns that whole thing on its head because in these cases it’s the government that’s chosen to build these prisons on toxic waste sites or allowed them to become sources of toxic waste. And it is literally holding people at gunpoint at these sites and exposing them,” he said. Since his release 2003, Wright’s reporting and advocacy on the environmental issues plaguing prisons continues, now with the Prison Ecology Project.
Story’s book tracks the shifting landscapes of carceral geography under neoliberalism: from gentrifying cities like Brooklyn and Detroit to private buses that take loved ones to visit the incarcerated in upstate New York prisons, Prison Land shows how the prison state has drastically expanded at the same time the social one has receded. This is despite crime rates dropping drastically over the same period, which prompts Story to ask: if prisons aren’t expanding to stop criminals, as the myth goes, then what are they for? Story posits in the book’s introduction that the “prison functions to both produce and manage social inequities in late-capitalist American life.” In Detroit, multi-billionaire Dan Gilbert took advantage of a “skyscraper sale,” essentially colonizing the downtown business district in his image, prompting police to pick up the houseless and drop them off in faraway neighborhoods. “Aggressive state tactics to combat crime have similarly been rationalized by the myth of a frontier in need of taming,” Story writes, drawing a clear parallel between the colonial violence the United States is founded on and the real estate boom prompting gentrification today. As the book shows, a politics of personal responsibility — central to a neoliberal ideology — has been used to justify locking people up as well as rationalize the jobs created by prison investment; thus distracting from the shriveling of state resources, anti-poverty programs, good jobs, and so on — the types of investment a Green New Deal could potentially incubate.
Story cites a journalist, Sylvia Ryerson, who reported on the requirements one must possess to be hired at a new federal prison in Kentucky:
All applicants would be drug-tested and put through an extensive background check that would go back seven years or to their 16th birthday. All new hires would need a clean credit history and no criminal record. All new hires would have to be younger than 38 years of age. There would be a rigorous physical exam and interview process. County residents would be given no preference in the hiring process, and a four-year college degree and previous institutional experience were “highly recommended.”
Additionally, 40% of the people employed in the prison would be “brought in,” leaving only 60% of the jobs for locals to compete for. As Ryerson put it, “the prison was proposed as a federal jobs creation program — with no guarantee of jobs,” ultimately exposing the prison for the sham it is. Story notes in her extensive field work that no one she interviewed was motivated by retribution or punitiveness in their enthusiasm for building prisons, merely jobs, despite the prison boom’s shoddy record in actually delivering them. In her aforementioned Jacobin piece with Prins, Story calls for a “Green New Deal for decarceration”; both to ensure those who are under state supervision aren’t forgotten — yet again — by policymakers during the creation of a massive social spending regimen, but also because the people who could benefit the most from policies proposed by a GND (such as a jobs guarantee and social housing) are the same people whose lives are intertwined with the carceral system — inside the prison, in the rural areas where they are built, and in the cities where the vast majority of prisoners are from. In many ways, the GND could act as a counterweight to the neoliberal status quo that disinvested in social programs, opting for prisons, border walls, and tech cities. In Purdy’s words, recalling Rosa Luxemberg, it’s commonwealth or barbarism.
Still, an accounting of the carceral’s state toxicity to the environment would be lacking without acknowledging the role of police and prisons in leveling force against environmental activists (or climate refugees for that matter). As I’m editing this essay, The Guardian has revealed the extent to which anti-pipeline protesters have been surveilled by a police fusion center in Oregon. Fusion centers — which authorities use to mine data to easily share between local, state, and federal law enforcement — are an outgrowth of the post-9/11 security boom, which explains why these activists are being labeled “extremists” by the state. This is, of course, just the latest example. Last month, the same newspaper exposed how the FBI targeted environmental protesters in domestic terror investigations. Through public records requests and a subsequent lawsuit, The Guardian learned that a 64-year-old woman in Idaho was seen as a “threat to national security” for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience in an effort to halt the Keystone XL pipeline. The same force has been used against indigenous Water Protectors, notably at Standing Rock, in an effort to stop construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which was completed in 2017. The Intercept’s exhaustive reporting exposed the lengths to which not only law enforcement but also private mercenary forces went to “defeat pipeline insurgencies” that caught the world’s attention in 2016. It’s not only pipeline protesters in the U.S.; from the recent state-sanctioned slaughter of environmental activists around the world to the deep history of the surveillance and policing of social movements — namely those led by people of color — this is a systemic problem that will likely get worse: The Guardian reported (in 2014) that the Pentagon was preparing for “mass civil unrest” due to climate change, and was planning to target environmental activists.
If anything, police, militaries, borders and prisons pose numerous threats to the environment. The text of the Green New Deal resolution states that it will “clean…up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites”; so by definition, just on environmental grounds, this will likely significantly impact prisons, ensuring that those under state supervision are not exposed to toxins. Still, as the California youth activists understood, our understanding of toxins must go beyond industrial waste, and consider the effects of prisons and police. “The question,” Story writes, “is not simply how to close down existing spaces of detention, but also how to transform the kind of society for which the prison is required in the first place.” In other words, environmental justice demands abolition, nothing less.
The final scene in Story’s documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, based on the same research as her book, shows a stunning vista with the sky pink from the sun; over soft classical piano, the camera rolls down a rural road in upstate New York, between trees, telephone poles and the occasional house. This goes on for what feels like minutes, until Attica Prison subtly appears on the left side. The scene recalls the landscape paintings of California artist Sandow Birk, whose parodies of the Hudson River School depict gratuitous western landscapes, each one with a prison buried within its gaze; guard towers and barbed wire encased within mountains, farm fields, and rivers — begging one to ask: what would a just landscape even look like?
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Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.
Editor: Dana Snitzky