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This guest post is published as part of our blog series related to the American Studies Association annual meeting November 7-10 in Honolulu. #2019ASA

By Julie Sze, author of Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger


Bong Joon- Ho’s acclaimed film, Parasite offers a trenchant and thrilling critique of capitalism. In it, a poor family (the Kims) that “infiltrate” a rich family (the Parks) through deceptions that veer into unexpected places. The poor son, is given a scholar’s rock by a friend who asks him to take the tutoring gig he has for the wealthy teenage daughter. He repeats that the rock is “metaphorical” and symbolizes wealth. The joke is, that the rock is not (only) a metaphor, it’s actually heavy.  Beauty, wealth and power is metaphorical and material in the rock (and society). The forces of nature and labor of the rock are invisible. Where did it come from and how is it moved?  

These questions, are political, cultural, economic, and environmental and connected to those I explore in Environmental Justice in A Moment of Danger. It examines how organizers, communities and movements fight, survive, love and create in the face of environmental and social violence that challenges the conditions of life itself, through many different struggles: for climate, environmental and health justice and against pollution and extraction in its myriad iterations. What does this moment of danger mean for environment and justice? What can we learn from struggles for environmental justice? Environmental justice movements –what they are, who is involved, and what they are fighting against– offer an ideal standpoint through which to understand historical and cultural forces, and, most importantly, resistance to violence, death and destruction of lives and bodies through movements, cultures and stories. The premise of the book is grounded in American Studies scholarship: unjust environments are rooted in racism, capitalism, militarism, colonialism, land theft of Native peoples and gender violence.

Each chapter draws on keywords and case studies. Chapter One examines indigenous land rights and sovereignty claims through the fight at Standing Rock. Chapter Two uses two case studies to illustrate neoliberalism and privatization: mass, government sponsored lead poisoning in Flint Michigan, and the Central Valley region of California facing air pollution, water contamination, pesticide exposures and other hazards. The last asks: What is being done to bring us to a more environmentally just U.S. and world? What is the role of imagination in dark times? It examines cultural projects of climate disruption, social art documentation and films to highlight anti-capitalism, solidarity, and anti-consumerismfrom Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Parasite is part of that tradition of cultural production I explore in the book. What separates the Kims and the Parks is nature, water and floods. While the Parks’ camping trip is simply rained out, the Kim’s basement apartment is overflowing with sewage bursting from the toilet and flowing in from the windows.  Environmental disasters- floods, wildfires, and hurricanes- hurt everyone. But they hurt the most vulnerable worse. The book explores the materiality of what these disasters mean: death, destruction, and chaos and the cultures of critique against such injustice. Environmental justice movements reject the inevitability of the moment to imagine a more just future for all, not just the rich.

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