Article Alert- Environmental Justice Storytelling: Angels and Isotopes at Yucca Mountain, Nevada

Donna Houston’s “Environmental Justice Storytelling: Angels and Isotopes at Yucca Mountain, Nevada” in this issue of Antipode (March 2013), touches on the difficulties and triumphs of rendering often invisible, massive, or otherwise difficult to fathom forms of twenty-first century waste manifest via storytelling. While there is considerable ongoing research in scientific and health circles in making environmental and bodily pollutants visible to the senses, this article investigates storytelling as an activist and communal technology for doing the same thing differently, and thus with different effects: “The tasks of witnessing, storytelling and memory work create a space through which the “unimaginable” of environmental pollution and unequal environmental protection can be expressed. Environmental justice storytelling provides a framework for understanding how multiple realities of environmental injury come together in ways that are not always readily discernible through policy or scientific practice.”

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Moreover, storytelling about pollution and environmental ills experienced by the storytellers can make invisible victories “visible” as well: ““Most environmental victories”, Solnit points out, “look like nothing happened; the land wasn’t annexed by the army, the mine didn’t open, the road didn’t cut through, the factory didn’t spew effluents that didn’t give children asthma” (2004:74). We might add here that the high-level nuclear waste dump has not been constructed. For Solnit, what lives on, and what becomes important to environmental justice struggles elsewhere, is the presence of stories that remind us that actions count. In other words, people are making decisions all the time about the kinds of worlds that they
want to live in and they are imaginatively and practically striving towards them. Stories about environmental justice can carry these diverse ideas along together to produce different environmental imaginaries (both good and bad) in and of a damaged world.”

Storytelling is a technology of making nuclear waste a certain type of phenomenon. The term phenomenon comes from the Greek phainomnenon, the “thing appearing to view,” based on phainen, “to show.” Phenomena must be brought into view in order to exist as entities, and storytelling is one such technology. In Meeting the Universe Half Way, Karen Barad insists that technologies become an inextricable part of the phenomena they “bring into view.” Thus, the nuclear waste of storytelling will be a slightly different nuclear waste than that described by Geiger counters and policy documents. This multiplicity of the same object is also what Annemarie Mol finds in The Body Multiple, where the same disease is a slightly different but related thing in different parts of the hospital she studies. The question remains what kind of waste is the nuclear waste of storytelling, and how does it differ importantly from the  stories engineers tell about it? How does it round out the ontological entity we call “nuclear waste” to include elements missed by technical language and instruments? Houston’s answer might be that it adds essential elements of justice, memory, emotion, and public knowledge to an otherwise incomplete technical object.

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Abstract:  This paper discusses the productive role of storytelling in community struggles for environmental justice. The individual and collective task of environmental justice storytelling highlights where the politics of pollution intersect with geographical imaginations. Storytelling takes on a productive role in transforming localized and individual emotions and experiences of environmental injustice into public knowledge that is performed in the world. This paper draws on a case study of nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. I focus on how storytelling enacts scenarios of environmental witnessing and transformation that hold together a plurality of presences, absences, action and imagination, past histories and hope for the future.