The University of Arizona

A perfect storm: embodied workers, emplaced corporations, and delayed reflexivity in a Canadian 'Risk Society'

Deborah Davis Jackson


At the turn of the 21st century, an occupational disease epidemic began to unfold in Sarnia, Ontario, home to the petrochemical complex known as Canada's 'Chemical Valley.' Given the long latency periods for these diseases, the hazardous exposures that produced them would have occurred over a period of decades during the latter 20th century. This suggests a paradox: what accounts for unionized Canadian men working for decades in conditions that posed such grave risks to their health? Or, put in terms of Ulrich Beck's compelling and influential model: given that Chemical Valley during the second half of the 20th century constituted a quintessential "risk society" of the modern West, where were the forces of "political reflexivity" – resistance leading to change – typically provoked by the excesses of such societies? In this article, I seek to resolve this paradox with a political ecology approach that focuses on workers' embodied experience in the micro-environment of their workplace and community, as well as on the material and social emplacement of petrochemical facilities in the region. The analysis reveals a 'perfect storm' of converging ecological, cultural, political, and economic conditions that allowed local corporations to achieve extraordinary power. Consequently, even as activism for occupational and environmental justice was effecting change in similar industrial centers throughout Ontario and the Great Lakes region, these changes failed to take hold in Chemical Valley. The article concludes by suggesting that those 20th century power dynamics have continued into the 21st century, where reflexivity delayed might well have atrophied into reflexivity denied.

Keywords: embodiment, emplacement, risk society, petrochemical corporations, industrial workers, Canada, Great Lakes region

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