Deep below the ground in Tucson, Arizona, lies an aquifer forever altered by the detritus of a postwar Superfund site. Disabled Ecologies tells the story of this contamination and its ripple effects through the largely Mexican American community living above. Drawing on her own complex relationship to this long-ago injured landscape, Sunaura Taylor takes us with her to follow the site’s disabled ecology—the networks of disability, both human and wild, that are created when ecosystems are corrupted and profoundly altered.

What Taylor finds is a story of entanglements that reach far beyond the Sonoran Desert. These stories tell of debilitating and sometimes life-ending injuries, but they also map out alternative modes of connection, solidarity, and resistance—an environmentalism of the injured. An original and deeply personal reflection on what disability means in an era of increasing multispecies disablement, Disabled Ecologies is a powerful call to reflect on the kinds of care, treatment, and assistance this age of disability requires.

Sunaura Taylor is Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the American Book Award–winning Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation.

What motivated you to write this book? How does it draw on your own story?

There are some books that one just always know they are going to write. You may not really know what the book will end up being, but somehow, some part of it has always been there ready to emerge.

For me, Disabled Ecologies is that book. There are two reasons for this. The most obvious is that this book tells the story of defense industry contamination that I grew up understanding was likely the cause of my own disability. While I always wanted to return to this history and learn more about what happened, what led me to want to write about it was that this story fundamentally formed my perception of two personal obsessions: nature and disability.

While my own story and connection to the site became somewhat more complicated as I was researching for the book, the central lessons that I learned as a child hearing about this pollution—that disability is political, collective, and ecological; and that injury to the environment is inseparable from injury to human beings—became all the more vital and relevant.

What do you mean by “disabled ecologies”?

The concept of disabled ecologies emerged in the earliest years of this project as a way of identifying relationships of injury and resistance across humans and nature, so that we can think about them as interconnected and even inseparable. Disabled ecologies became a method, or way of mapping the connections between human injury and ecological injury.

Disabled ecologies names the very material human and nonhuman trails of injury that emerge from sites of environmental harm. This book follows the trails of human and nonhuman injury caused by three decades of defense industry pollution in Tucson, Arizona. But this book also follows longer, more expansive trails of disablement, some of which are less physical, but still have profound material impacts. In other words, I follow the ways narratives of disability are deployed in the stories that circulate around environmental events. I examine how concepts of disability were used in the narratives told about the contamination in Tucson; how disability was deployed by both sides in litigation; the way it was taken up in public health assessments to deny or deflect blame; or by city officials to perpetuate racist stereotypes of the largely Mexican American community that was impacted by the pollution; and of course I follow the ways disability was talked about and understood by community members who were impacted themselves.

Why is it important for us to examine our current moment of environmental crisis through a critical disability lens?

Bringing disability into the environmental conversation is important partly because it is already there. Conceptions of health are, for example, central to environmental disciplines and movements in a variety of ways, whether we are taking about healthy ecosystems or healthy communities.

What critical disability studies has shown for decades is that disability, and related concepts like health and illness, are powerful malleable concepts. When left unmarked and depoliticized, these concepts can be wielded in myriad ways for a variety of ends, some of which may be liberatory and some of which may be extremely exclusionary and ableist.

Given this, it seems vital that environmentalism reflect on what these concepts are doing within environmental arenas. Disability studies, for example, can provide tools to critically engage with the idea of health, not simply as the consequence of harm, or the outcome of damage, but to ask questions like: What histories, politics and projects are various definitions of health invoking or perpetuating? How and when is health leveraged to naturalize or justify exclusion, containment, or abandonment? What do those people and environments deemed unhealthy need to live and thrive in the long-term?

This book makes the case that ideas of disability, ablebodiedness, and ableism are already key concepts shaping human relationships to the more-than-human world. In this Age of Disability—this period of increasing ecological injury from the climate crisis and extinction—it’s more important than ever to ask what our disabled multispecies world needs to survive.

How does your book map out paths of connection, solidarity and resistance? How is this also a story of hope and opportunity?

Some people may hear the word disabled and immediately feel that it is foreboding—that this must be a doomsday story of our irrevocably broken world. To me disability does not need to be this way. That is what is powerful and essential about the experience of disability. Disability can in fact be resistance to the very systems of violence and exploitation that so often cause it.

We can see examples of this in the incredible organizing of environmental justice activists on the Southside of Tucson that I describe throughout this book. The community was remarkably successful considering what they were up against, and their vision of justice was expansive. This story offers important lessons for us in our current moment about how to fight for both injured human communities and injured nature.

If we are living with disabled ecologies (which at this point we all are), then we need to grapple with creating the conditions for disabled people and disabled ecosystems to make good lives together.  And this ultimately is what really interests me — how we can learn from what disability activists call crip brilliance, to challenge systemic exploitation to live good disabled multispecies lives.

What is one key learning you hope readers will take away from your book?

Injuries to nature and injuries to human beings are inseparable. And our health and wellbeing are inseparable as well. Following the paths of disabled ecologies can help us recognize this, so that we can learn how to respond with care and interdependency instead of ableism and abandonment.