The University of Arizona

The new politics of environmental degradation: un/expected landscapes of disempowerment and vulnerability

Anna J. Willow


Acknowledging environmental degradation as a profoundly political phenomenon, this article examines how uninvited environmental change transforms people's understandings of and relationships to the natural world. Drawing on qualitative research conducted in a semi-remote Canadian Anishinaabe community and among Euro-American residents of Ohio who oppose local shale energy development, I trace parallels between the disempowerment and vulnerability experienced by people with very different assumptions about the world and their place in it and very different positions within the global political economic system. While environmental justice scholars have revealed compelling correlations between social and environmental inequity, I argue that investigating environmental degradation's sociocultural impacts among relatively privileged groups can encourage more dynamic explorations of conjoined environmental/social/political systems and expose ongoing structural shifts. My comparative analysis seems to suggest that ever-increasing segments of the world's population now contend with environmental challenges that they did not authorize, and do not benefit from. I thus conclude by calling for additional investigations of environmental degradation in unexpected places and the implications of extensive inequity for global sustainability.

Key words: Energy, environmental degradation, environmental justice, fossil fuels, hydraulic fracking, landscape, North America, shale gas

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