Environmental Politics as if People Really Mattered
By DAVID CORREIA
The New Mexico of 2012 is a much different place than the New Mexico of 1996 when La Jicarita began. Then, environmental conflict dominated politics in a way that it doesn’t today. A powerful mainstream environmental movement, led by deep-pocketed groups staffed by lawsuit-happy lawyers, threatened traditional forest practices and forest dependent communities throughout northern New Mexico. These enviromaniacs, as friend-of-La Jicarita logger and activist Ike DeVargas used to call them, made no distinction between corporate resource exploiters, ineffectual federal resource management bureaucrats, and forest-dependent land grant communities. The poor, according to mainstream environmentalists, were just as culpable of environmental degradation as transnational extractive firms and a much easier target. Their chief accomplishment in these years was the protection of a fictional Mexican spotted owl habitat in New Mexico. That the Mexican spotted owl didn’t live in New Mexico was merely an inconvenient fact that didn’t get in the way of a series of lawsuits that shut down forests throughout northern New Mexico. Thousands of norteno families cut off from wood harvesting suffered a cold winter while urban environmentalists celebrated their pyrrhic victory. The lawsuits had the ultimate effect not of protecting the forest for non-human species—the dubious claim of environmentalists—but instead hollowed out the Forest Service. Since the mid-1990s, the clever tactic of the Forest Service to defend itself against lawsuits has been to do nothing. The bureaucrats in the Forest Service, no ally of local resource users, realized that if they made no plans, sold no wood, permitted no new uses, they could not be sued. And so the Forest Service exists today in name only. The next time you’re in a Forest Service office to get a permit for firewood wood or for a Christmas tree, take a look around. It’s only receptionists telling tourists where to recreate.
The problems that provoked the start of La Jicarita in 1996—the lack of local management and forest jobs because of corporate control of forest resources and the paternalism of the Forest Service—were never really resolved. The same power struggles that existed then manifest now in dramatically different ways.
The Jemez, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, has burned twice and rained radioactive ash into the Rio Grande, which now delivers plutonium-laced drinking water to communities south of the labs. The most recent Jemez fire in the summer of 2011 revealed the nature of the relationship between LANL and northern New Mexico. It’s not just our local economy that is subsumed under the imperatives of the nuclear industry and state security, but our forests and water courses too that are sacrificed on the alter of military science.
Once all but dead, the uranium industry appears ascendant. Before uranium mining finally came to an end in New Mexico in the late 1980s, hundreds of open pit and underground mines leased by nearly a dozen transnational mineral conglomerates were operating throughout western and northern New Mexico. Thousands of miners worked in poorly ventilated mine shafts and today suffer from abnormally high rates of lung cancer. Of the 150 Navajo miners who worked until 1970 at a mine in Shiprock, New Mexico, 133 died of lung cancer or various forms of fibrosis within ten years. Today mining firms with new permits stand poised to resume uranium extraction in northwest New Mexico.
Unknown to us in 1996, hydraulic fracturing has arrived in New Mexico and promises to intensify the exploitive patterns of oil and gas extraction in northern New Mexico. In hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, oil and gas trapped in rock shale is extracted by injecting fracking fluid at high pressure into the shale. The fracking fluid is a slurry, comprised of liquids, various chemicals, and compressed gases. The rigs then extract the slurry, remove the oil, trap the gas, and dispose of the remaining fluid in above ground ponds. Critics of hydraulic fracturing note that the method contaminates groundwater because, among other things, the fracturing allows for the migration of gases and chemicals into groundwater. A 2010 Environmental Protection Agency study discovered arsenic in drinking water adjacent to drilling operations. Duke University scientists found flammable levels of methane gas in drinking water adjacent to natural gas wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling regions in Pennsylvania and New York.
If the La Jicarita of 2012 is to confront these transformations in environmental politics, then our focus must change as well. This is crucial because environmental politics in the new millennium often comes disguised as neoliberal economic development such as the New Mexico Spaceport. Indeed, because the boondoggle and potential environmental catastrophe of the Spaceport in southern New Mexico, a project that as far as we can tell appears designed solely to blast rich people into space, is emblematic of New Mexico’s new economic development strategy—and thus our collective environmental future—we must chart a different path to understand the relationship between economy and nature.
Because the barrios in Albuquerque, swelled in the last fifteen years with the ranks of young people fleeing the forced economic depression in northern New Mexico, have become a racialized killing field for the Albuquerque Police Department, we need to rethink the relationship between the city and country and between violence and environmental politics.
Because Los Alamos National Laboratory, after more than half a century of nuclear weapons development that has turned most of northern New Mexico radioactive, can now improbably claim to be New Mexico’s expert environmental stewards, we must interrupt the inexorable enrolling of nature into the ongoing project of military violence.
The new La Jicarita intends to do this work in solidarity with other fellow travellers: the many writers, activists, scholars, students, and residents in New Mexico who have been working tirelessly on issues of environmental justice.
We begin this new phase by defining the political commitments of the new La Jicarita. First, we reject the notion of an environmentalism sin gente in which nature is defined, and discovered, only in places where humans are absent. Instead nature is literally remade in places like Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the South Valley, or the northeast heights of Albuquerque as in the forests around Truchas. Ike DeVargas forcefully made this point in the 1990s when he encouraged Santa Fe-based environmentalists to recognize and fight for nature in the city as much as in the forests of the north. “If they care so much about nature,” DeVargas once asked in an interview, “then why don’t they stay in Santa Fe and fight for nature there instead of coming up here. I’ll tell you what, I’ll put down my chainsaw if they put down their cell phones, turn off their computers, and trade in their SUVs.” His point was to argue for a more critical environmental politics than one that imagines a pristine, virgin nature that needs protecting. Rather nature often comes disguised as a political construction in which some people claim to speak for a nature unrecognizable to the people who actually live there.
Second, and related to our first point, we reject the idea that environmental issues are only those limited to conflicts over forests, water, air, and land—whether in the city or the country. We believe anti-immigration policies must be confronted on principles of both social and environmental justice. Other policies that erode local and traditional communities, reinforce inequality, enrich corporations, and ignore problems of environmental health and welfare are all part of our environmental politics. Thus, police violence and the prison industrial complex are issues of environmental justice. Zoning and subdivision ordinances are environmental issues. The fact that access to healthy food is distributed unevenly across space leaving poor communities trapped in “food deserts” illustrates to us the fact that the very structure of the city is also an environmental issue.
Third, we reject the bourgeois notion that the individual is the privileged political actor in society. Ours is a collective struggle in solidarity with communities and activist organizations fighting against the green capitalist logic of ‘selling nature to save it,’ a corrosive politics that motivates so much contemporary environmental activism rooted in individual consumption choices. La Jicarita has long been part of a network of organizations, community activists, and coalitions working together on important political struggles around the social impacts of production, distribution and waste. We continue this work and believe that the new structure of La Jicarita offers a platform that can connect organizations and activists and amplify new voices in our ongoing effort to stifle the reactionary ones.
Fourth, we need to rethink how to react to a world in which nature has become apocalyptic and its management the domain of technocrats. Deepwater Horizon in 2010, Fukushima in 2011 and the massive Jemez fire this past summer reveal a new pattern of environmental politics and technonature. Nature-as-disaster brings into the present an apocalyptic future in which the spectre of ecological annihilation haunts environmental politics. The result is that democratic processes are suspended and our collective socio-ecological futures are entrusted to the authoritarian techno-managerial apparatuses of state bureaucracies, the military, and the corporations. Political debate about alternative environmental trajectories is evacuated from the public sphere and left to the technocratic experts who give us free market “solutions” like the Kyoto Accord. At La Jicarita we believe that nature, now more than ever, is a political problem, not a managerial or economic one.
Lastly, the new La Jicarita is no longer only a newspaper or a website. The new La Jicarita strives to become the place where radical political action can be considered and debated, where new tactics in the struggle for environmental justice can be hatched, and where disparate groups and interests can find common ground in a broad-based movement to bring a better New Mexico to life. What the new digital form does provide is an ability to publish material more quickly than in the past. Rather than a monthly hard-copy newspaper, the new La Jicarita will be updated frequently and editorials will appear weekly. In the weeks and months to come, new features on the site—RSS feeds, twitter and facebook, for example—will make it easier to connect with La Jicarita readers, writers and allied organizations. New approaches to story telling and reporting—interactive photo essays, podcasts and audio interviews to name just a few—will augment the website. In addition, we hope to also develope an annual scholarly issue of La Jicarita. It too will be offered free online. But don’t mistake our digital transformation for what it is not. We do not subscribe to the idea that technology and social media clear a liberatory path for political struggle. In our view, if we allow technology and social media to replace the face-to-face work of political organizing, we’re all in trouble. Rather we hope that our new digital incarnation merely augments the existing political organizing of which we have long been a part. The new La Jicarita like the old La Jicarita believes in a environmental politics as if people really mattered.