"Looks like Urine" and "Smells Like Sewer":
Sensory Claims-Making and Environmental Injustice
Canary in a coalmine... use a mask! (David & Angie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/studiomiguel/3946174063 )
In the face of a regulatory system that asserted the safety of the Flint, MI water supply, in early 2015 resident Ashley Holt declared that her water “look[ed] like urine”, “smell[ed] like sewer”, and did not taste normal. Environmental justice (EJ) scholars and activists have long recognized the value and power of experiential “lay” knowledge held by fenceline communities. While expert science employs disembodied, technocratic knowledge to assess harm, individuals in environmental justice communities experience harm through bodily interactions with the environment. These individuals and communities gain power and legitimacy both by facilitating collective action to resist hazards in their communities and by creating their own set of knowledge claims around harm. A strong body of research in environmental justice and public health examines the ways in which “lay” knowledge serves as an effective collective action frame, empowers communities, and ultimately successfully challenges environmental injustices. Very little research, however, has closely examined the ways in which the sensory experiences of EJ communities – those sounds, smells and tastes that can be associated with environmental harm – contribute to politics around environmental justice. Drawing insights from scholarship of environmental justice frames, material feminism, and science studies, this paper reveals ways in which sensory knowledge has been incorporated into environmental justice claims-making by examining several recent EJ case studies, including the water contamination crisis in Flint, MI and poor air quality in Pittsburgh, PA. Although U.S. policy frameworks actively and passively discredit such bodily, experiential claims, these ideas have served as a powerful component in contemporary EJ struggles.
Kate Darby is a teacher-scholar focused on understanding and addressing environmental injustice. She has applied this lens to research on smelter activism in El Paso del Norte, food provisioning in rural Pennsylvania, public transit access, and water scarcity in Northern Arizona. Darby’s research has appeared in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Local Environment, Geoforum, Environmental Justice, Social Science and Medicine, and Ecology and Society. Her recent work aims to better understand and document the lived experiences of those facing environmental injustices in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on individuals’ corporeal engagement with hazards through the odors, pain, foul-tasting water, and visual assaults. She is committed to developing and sharing pedagogies and strategies for centering social justice in environmental studies and related disciplines. Darby earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology (Environment, Science and Technology and Urban Ecology focus) at Arizona State University and is currently an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University.
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