- Racial Capitalism and Nature
On November 26, 2018, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Abolitionist Law Center filed a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that the Bureau of Prisons carried out for the construction of a federal prison in Letcher County in eastern Kentucky.1 The prison was sited to be built on a former coal mining site, a now-common occurrence, as politicians continue to argue that prisons can help rural communities recover from the ravages of deindustrialization and the loss of mining jobs. The lawsuit argues that prisoners were not considered rightful parties in the EIS, a deadly exclusion given the extremely high rates of cancer and other diseases in eastern Kentucky due to mining, mountaintop removal, and other factors.2 Activists with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons succeeded in bringing together civil rights groups, mainstream environmental organizations like Greenpeace, conservation advocates, and prison abolitionists to oppose the prison; indeed, they might have won already, as several Department of Justice officials have recently told Congress that the proposed prison seems needlessly expensive given recent declines in federal prisoners.3 On June 17, 2019, citing "significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns on the [End Page 1155] proposed action," the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officially withdrew its proposal for the prison.4 While this decision can still be reversed, prison proponents face a powerful and growing coalition of abolitionists, current and former prisoners, and environmental activists.5
To be sure, prison abolitionists, environmental advocates, and environmental justice activists working together is not a new phenomenon. As David Pellow documents in What Is Critical Environmental Justice?, activists with Critical Resistance, the California Prison Moratorium Project, the Rainforest Action Network, and Friends of the Kangaroo Rat worked together at the turn of the century on a campaign to stop the state of California from building a prison in Delano, California.6 The Movement for Black Lives and Dream Defenders have also recently issued statements connecting police and environmental violence.7 The Indigenous Environmental Network and many organizations and activists involved in the struggle against Dakota Access and other pipelines have highlighted the environmental dimensions and violence of settler colonialism.8 By connecting struggles against racial capitalism and environmental violence, these activists have not only successfully brought together unlikely allies. They have also worked to expose the nature of racial capitalism and colonialism, showing that racial capitalism and colonialism can be understood as particular ways of organizing nature that facilitate capital accumulation amid air pollution, toxic prisons, catastrophic climate change, and health crises. Moreover, these recent movements demonstrate a growing attention to the environmental dimensions of the structures and systems that sustain racial capitalism and (settler) colonialism: prisons, police, and pipelines, among others.
Mirroring these movements, actions, and forms of organizing, scholars in American studies and allied fields have been documenting the connections between environmental justice movements and struggles against racial capitalism and colonialism. Julie Sze and Lindsey Dillion, for instance, have considered antiblack police violence and the proclamation "I can't breathe"—inspired by Eric Garner's last words before he was killed by police—in the context of disproportionate asthma rates present in communities of color.9 Even more, scholars have worked to understand racial capitalism and colonialism—especially settler colonialism—as technologies that produce nature itself. Inspired by Cedric Robinson's theorization of racial capitalism and expanding on Jason Moore's call to consider capitalism "as a world-ecology" and as a way to organize...