Julie Sze, Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger (Oakland: U of California P, 2020), 144 pp.
What at first glance appears to be a short introduction to environmental justice from a distinctly American studies perspective turns out to be a more than timely meditation on the significance of environmental justice movements for the future of a planet in crisis. Julie Sze’s Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger comprehensively connects seemingly diverse environmental justice struggles (such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the responses to natural disasters in the cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Maria) and in doing so puts forward a fervent and compassionate call to imagine alternative futures outside of the neoliberal matrix of power to build a more equitable and habitable world.
Throughout the book, Sze structures her analysis of these environmental justice movements around two major areas: 1. their critical potential and 2. their creative and (re-)generative potential. Sze argues that environmental justice movements “help us understand historical and cultural forces and resistance to violence, death, and destruction of lives and bodies through movements, cultures, and stories” (4). Consequently, she compellingly shows how environmental injustice is rooted in the long histories of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and gender inequality, and further points out the intimate link between “race, indigeneity, poverty and environmental inequality” (5). Simultaneously, Sze focuses on the transformative power of the cultural imagination set in motion by these movements in creating cross-communal solidarities and imagining alternative futures that resist hegemonic narratives of neoliberal progress, privatization, and deregulation. In Sze’s words, these movements then offer “a set of cautiously hopeful stories” (13) for the future, thus highlighting their capacity for generating collective planetary imaginaries centered around notions of radical hope, mutual care, and responsibility, which are necessarily opposed to the dominant narratives of neoliberalism. With this dual focus in mind, the following paragraphs will briefly discuss each of the three chapters and their respective case studies.
Chapter One, entitled “This Movement of Movements,” examines the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline as “land-based violence” (26) on Native lands and illustrates how Indigenous struggles are central to discussions of climate change and environmental injustice. In her analysis of the protests at Standing Rock and the #NoDAPL movement, Sze exposes the historical and ideological roots of environmental injustice against Native populations by looking at several critical concepts of American Studies (such as the doctrine of discovery, Manifest Destiny, etc.). This part offers a particularly valuable introduction to readers unfamiliar with these concepts, and most of them reappear in a helpful glossary at the end of the book.
Aside from a site of “dispossession, production, extraction, and violence” (28), Standing Rock additionally represents a site of potentiality and possibility. According to Sze, Standing Rock “illustrates the psychic and cultural imaginary of environmental justice movements that provides a blueprint for cultural survival, resurgence, and solidarity […] between different communities of affiliation” (29). Sze succinctly shows how Standing Rock opens up the possibility to imagine alternative futures through storytelling, art, and the lived practice of the everyday, as well as through worldwide expressions of collective solidarity.
The interdependency of environmental justice struggles and the resulting necessity for cross-communal solidarities leads Sze directly into the second chapter entitled “Environmental Justice Encounters,” which examines environmental racism and water injustice in the context of Flint, Michigan, and the Central Valley of California. While these cases differ in their visibility in the media—Flint as an example of hypervisibility, the Central Valley as an example of invisibility—they are “linked by a collective resistance to neoliberalism and the politics of privatization, privation, and predation […] embedded into systems that devalue some lives over others” (53-54), highlighting the inherent link between race, neoliberal policies, and environmental injustice.
In this chapter, Sze also stresses the function of storytelling as a profoundly political act. Often dismissed as “an emotional or unempirical, subjective (and weak) approach versus the muscular truth of data and science” (56), storytelling becomes crucial to environmental justice movements precisely because it foregrounds emotional narratives and personal experiences. According to Sze, storytelling is “central to efforts to build and expand networks of solidarity, identify and process shared trauma, forge a sense of collective identity, and work collaboratively toward political transformation” (71). At the same time, it allows for “ruptures in the technoscientific façade of normalized and slow violence” (72). Consequently, personal stories but also artistic expressions (e. g., #HipHop4Flint) can render the experience of racialized violence against silenced bodies legible while connecting them to larger struggles and allowing for the emergence of intricate solidarities. Where democratic governance fails to provide adequate relief, environmental justice movements can help advance more radical alternatives on multiple levels.
The importance of storytelling as a political act is further solidified in the last chapter entitled “Restoring Environmental Justice,” which deals with the politics of natural disasters in the cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, and the destruction of Indigenous villages in Kivalina, Alaska, as a result of melting sea ice and erosion. In this chapter, Sze briefly introduces the concept of restorative environmental justice as a sustainable approach for the future. Restorative environmental justice, according to Sze, needs to be “based on environmental justice practices, principles, and worldviews” (78) and function as “a call for solidarity focused on accountability, art, and the continued search for freedom in a body or bodies shaped by the force of racism, capitalism, and technology” (87), thus merging lived realities and cultural production in the fight against environmental injustice on a planetary scale.
The narratives and connections that Sze draws across these various environmental justice struggles are fueled by the emphatic hope that “[a]nother world is possible” (29; emphasis in original). Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger thus provides hopeful visions of freedom and solidarity shaped by the lived experiences of environmental injustices across diverse communities. Instead of a purely factual analysis of these movements, Sze taps into their potential to recognize the commonality of these primarily local articulations of environmental justice struggles and the possibilities that can arise from them. This view of environmental justice movements renders Sze’s book especially pertinent to the current moment because, to conclude with Sze, “[o]ur triumph is survival, the choices we make and the stories we tell” (24).
Florian Wagner (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)