- “They’re Killing Us, and They Don’t Care”Environmental Sacrifice and Resilience in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer principally to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in everything we do.—James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Collected Essays, 422–23
Violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action.—Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, 21
On November 1, 2019, I was in a cab with my colleague and friend Michelle Garvey, inching along an unmarked, potholed part of River Road in Louisiana’s St. James Parish. Lost and with no place-name to guide us, we alternated between checking a set of coordinates on Google Maps and peering at the sugarcane fields passing by. Suddenly, our hosts came into view at the top of the levee. Joe Underhill and John Kim, two Twin Cities professors, had been leading a group of students, academics, activists, and artists down the river from Lake Itasca for three and a half months as part of a riverlong project called Anthropocene River. The project was organized by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a Berlin-based cultural institute; several of Berlin’s Max Planck Institutes; [End Page 98] and US-based scholars and community members. For weeks, they had been discussing the Anthropocene, or “the geological epoch of humankind,”1 by diligently tracking the visible and invisible effects of national and local management, environmental projects, large-scale agriculture, industrial shipping and refining, and more.
After scaling the levee, we were met by three other paddlers who canoed us from the riverbank to Plaquemines Island, a small stand of black oak and sand in the middle of the Mississippi just twenty miles downriver of Istrouma (Baton Rouge).2 On the island, our new collaborators had already made camp and dinner around a fire. Michelle and I had joined for just the last and most toxic leg of the group’s Anthropocene journey: a seven-day paddle through Louisiana’s Petrochemical Corridor. This stretch of the river, from Istrouma to Bvlbancha (the Choctaw name for New Orleans) is colloquially known as Cancer Alley because of how ill the locally embedded and multinationally incorporated refineries make the area’s residents. While the harm done by industry is front and center in the name, the culpability for harm—and by proxy, anthropogenic climate change—was clearly abstracted by decision makers in this part of southern Louisiana. Knowing this, I wanted to understand exactly how the Mississippi, Turtle Island’s main artery and beating heart, was being read by environmental justice–oriented folks through the lens of the Anthropocene.3
For me, this concern was specifically linked to the experiences of Southeast Louisiana’s Vietnamese American commercial shrimpers, with whom I have worked for five years through a local nonprofit, Coastal Communities Consulting (CCC).4 Vietnamese Americans make up 40 percent of the workforce in Louisiana’s shrimp fishery,5 and like so many Southeast Louisianians, their lives and livelihoods are directly impacted by structural and economic changes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. After every hurricane, flood, and oil spill, my collaborators point to the assumption of their resilience, saying that the state forces fisherfolk to survive increasing violence “so they don’t have to help us.”6 As an ethnographer, I have traced this resilience imperative, which was cemented in the region as tacit policy following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has reverberated across Southeast Louisiana’s temporal and spatial landscape ever since.7 For the folks I work with, their resilience is specifically attached to their storied “innate” ability to better survive increasingly devastating disasters, given their [End Page 99...