What Are Violent Environments?

Helicopter flying across a blue sky with black smoke

Edge Effects recently shared a call for our new themed series on Violent Environments. In this post, we expand upon this theme by offer reading and listening recommendations to spark scholarly connections. We hope that they illustrate the scope of the violent environments theme and inspire contributions from wide ranging disciplines, academic or otherwise.

On January 18th, the police took the life of an environmental activist for the first time in recorded U.S. history. The land defender, whose chosen name was Tortuguita, was protesting the construction of a police training facility on 200 acres of Weelaunee Forest—the traditional land of the Muscogee people—and the former site of a prison farm in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Days following the police murder of Tortuguita in Atlanta, private security forces shot at Puerto Rican environmental activists who turned to direct action to secure their collective right to the land. One activist was struck with a bullet while defending the people’s right to enjoy the archipelago’s picturesque beaches, the target of a new class of crypto-colonizers who seek to enclose and privatize public space.

These examples remind us of the urgency of thinking critically about how violence—in its many forms—is wielded against environmental movements and acted upon ecosystems. Just as crucially, we are called upon to consider how sites of struggle and strategies of resistance inform movement against oppression and articulate alternative visions of eco-social relations.

Such considerations are central to our forthcoming series on Violent Environments. Environmental violence is both sudden and prolonged; acute and cumulative; hypervisible and invisibilized; direct and structural; material and epistemic. From the use of force to coerce conservation and suppress environmental activism, to the perpetuation of environmental harm through state-sponsored extraction and pollution, to the weaponization and militarization of nature, this series will explore the environment as a medium of violence, as a means of violence, as the stakes of violence, and as the product of violence.

Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes, Verso 2019

In Our History is the Future, Nick Estes masterfully traverses centuries of history to explain the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Weaving past and present, Estes connects both the routing of the pipeline through a critical waterway to the Oceti Sakowin Nation and the unprecedented resistance movement that the Oceti Sakowin led to centuries of settler colonial violence and Indigneous resistance. As Estes demonstrates, the police response to Water Protectors mirrors the tactics of repression that the US government has used for centuries in failed attempts to erase Indigenous people and their culture. More acutely, he details the physical, cultural, environmental, and epistemological violence entailed by resource extraction – and the incredible power of Indigenous refusal.

Rebecca Laurent

Toxic Prisons and Climate Change,” Brown Girl Green podcast, 2022

What’s the connection between prison abolition and the environmental justice movement? Though activists have long articulated the toxicity of carceral environments—both in their impacts on the health of incarcerated folks and the health of local ecosystems—the contemporaneous growth of environmental and abolitionist movements has inspired renewed conversation about intersectional organizing against environmental racism and the prison industrial complex. From shutting down the construction of prisons on polluted land to documenting health problems caused by toxins in carceral settings, Brown Girl Green host Kristy Drutman interviews an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and explores these overlooked relationships.

Kristen Billings

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, AK Press 2020

Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ experimental guidebook traces practices of care and politics that marine mammals such as dolphins and whales can teach humans. Drawing on Black feminist practices, Gumbs connects the histories of chattel slavery and its ongoing effects to the hunting and exploitation of marine mammals to uncover strategies to survive the violent environments created by these extractive and militarized conditions. Seeing marine mammals as kindred species to Black ancestors, Gumbs declares that undrowning is the practice of breathing in unbreathable circumstances such as modern-day capitalism. Instead of breathing as individuals within an unbreathable atmosphere, Gumbs asks what a multispecies form of breathing could look like if it is organized around the principle of collective care. Through the central motif of breath, Gumbs promotes a political and aesthetic practice of survival on the planetary scale as well as in the frame of human politics.

Kuhelika Ghosh

For ‘Peace, Quiet, and Respect’: Race, Policing, and Land Grabbing on Chicago’s South Side” by Teona Williams, Antipode 2021

In her 2021 article, Williams unveils the violence immanent in the University of Chicago’s deceivingly peaceful, picturesque campus. Indeed, Williams explores how violence is perpetuated through the tropes of “quiet” and “safe” urban greenspace by detailing the exclusionary—and violent—policing practices used to create and control access to these spaces. Police brutality, Williams argues, is enmeshed with toxic ecologies, as the urban environment is racialized, gendered, and inescapably violent.

Rebecca Laurent

Shaving the Beasts: Wild Horses and Ritual in Spain, John Hartigan Jr., University of Minnesota Press 2020

University of Texas–Austin anthropologist John Hartigan Jr.’s book Shaving the Beasts: Wild Horses and Ritual in Spain investigates the chaotic, traumatic tradition of “rapa das bestas,” or shaving the wild horses of the Iberian Penninsula. Hartigan not only ethnographically describes the unsettling process of how humans assert their domination over horses by shearing their manes, culling herds, and periodically selling bodies for meat—much like Thom van Dooren explores violent-care in crane and crow conservation—but also pushes boundaries to ethologically explore how the horses perceive this ordeal. He further speaks about this book and his other work in animal studies on multiple podcasts, including episodes with This Anthro Life and New Books Network

Bri Meyer

War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring by Edmund Russell, Cambridge University Press 2001

Environmental historian Ed Russell’s foundational work on the co-productive relationship between military and agricultural technology remains an essential text on how the violence of war reaches far beyond immediate conflict zones. In War and Nature, he traces the close relationship between the U.S. military and chemical industry, particularly in the creation of compounds for killing enemy combatants on the battlefield and the crop field. This relationship was not merely material, in the development of new insecticides; it was also ideological, yielding approaches to both warfare and farming that would have devastating consequences for people and the environment. Yet this “total war” did not go unopposed: Russell also takes care to highlight “backfires,” notably the birth of the modern environmental movement associated with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Ben Iuliano

Featured image: A helicopter moves through a sky stained by plumes of black smoke