Rachel Phillips (University of British Columbia) and Susanne Soederberg (Queen’s University)
“Making and Mastering Violent Environments: Following the Infrastructures of Accumulation in Coastal Louisiana” (published in the January 2023 issue of Antipode) takes up recent calls to flesh out the relationship between capitalist development and infrastructural violence. Through a historical materialist analysis of flood infrastructure development along the southern coast of Louisiana over the last two hundred years, it explores how class power is embodied and expressed in infrastructure projects. We hope this article will be useful for students in upper-level undergraduate classes in political ecology, environmental studies, or geographical political economy.
The article uses the concept of “violent environments” to explore how centuries of infrastructure projects in Louisiana have helped to produce environmental harms that disproportionately affect poor and racialized coastal residents. By tracing the historical entanglements between coastal protection infrastructure and capital accumulation across several temporal arcs—from the expansion of the plantation regime and the emergence of petro-capitalism up to the present day—the article also interrogates how the politics, power, and paradoxes underpinning infrastructure development and environmental violence have shifted over time.
Together, these themes should encourage students discuss and debate the role that infrastructure plays in facilitating accumulation, amplifying the inequalities of capitalist development, and shaping violent environments:
—How and why do ostensibly protective infrastructure projects become violent, and for whom?
—How do the interests of private actors, and the actions of the capitalist state, shape the dynamics of infrastructure development? How and why might this feed into the production of environmental violence?
—What would it take to disrupt the harmful effects of infrastructure development? What would alternative infrastructural futures look like and require? Where are the political openings?
“Accretion” [https://culanth.org/fieldsights/accretion] – This short essay by Nikhil Anand explores the idea that infrastructures accrete, coming into being ‘on top of already existing infrastructures that both constrain and enable their form.’ It draws crucial attention to the complex sets of human and non-human relations, multilayered historical dynamics, and material conditions that shape infrastructure development.
“Following the Infrastructures of Empire” [https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2019.1677990] – In this article, Deborah Cowen lays out an approach to “following the infrastructure” that will help students think about historical methods and the longstanding entanglements between infrastructure and accumulation in racial capitalism.
“Investigating Infrastructures” [https://www.societyandspace.org/forums/investigating-infrastructures] – In this Society and Space forum, contributors analyze the politics of infrastructure from a variety of critical perspectives. Highlighting a wide range of socio-technical systems that enable connection and circulation in different places, these pieces will prompt students to dig into the power relations embedded in infrastructure.
“Losing Ground” [https://projects.propublica.org/louisiana/] – This interactive story from ProPublica allows readers to explore the dramatic environmental changes that have taken shape in coastal Louisiana over the last hundred years. It illustrates the environmental impacts of the various infrastructures that we cover in our piece—especially levees, canals, and pipelines—and digs into the scientific projections of future coastal erosion.
“Oil and Water” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZicy75k9Ic] – This short video from Vice covers the contemporary coastal erosion crisis in Louisiana and looks at the destructive legacies of levee development and oil and gas drilling. Offering a look at the contemporary landscape of environmental destruction and precarity in Louisiana, it highlights some of the tangible outcomes of the historical processes and power relations explored in our piece.