The Critical Classroom – “Regulatory Alchemy: How the Water Cycle Becomes Capital in the California Desert”

Julia Sizek (University of California, Berkeley)

In my paper, “Regulatory Alchemy: How the Water Cycle Becomes Capital in the California Desert” (available online now, and in Antipode 55:6 in November 2023), I track the regulatory underpinnings of a controversial water project in Southeastern California alongside its public perception. Examining the project’s environmental paperwork as a representation of nature and a means to enable greater extraction, I argue that the project is not the result of corruption, but rather how the environmental impact reporting process is supposed to work.

This article could be taught in a course on environmental politics, political ecology, legal geography, natural resources, or the politics of water.

One of the core arguments of the article is that the regulatory processes undergone by corporations are narrative constructions. In other words, environmental impact reporting is an argument, just as films can be arguments.

Methodologically, this article provides insights into legal and financial geography methods through using SEC filings and environmental impact statements as the basis for tracking Cadiz Inc.’s operations and their narratives of the project. This approach could be used by undergraduate or graduate students in formulating their own research questions in service of an ethnography of a corporation or proposed project.

This article also uses popular culture references to understand how ordinary people theorize the relationship between Cadiz Inc.’s project and the state. Drawing on the films Chinatown (1974) and There Will be Blood (2007), I argued that the project was popularly depicted as a corrupt Chinatown situation, when the Cadiz Inc. proposal is both legal and immoral, perhaps more like There Will Be Blood. Using this approach, undergraduates could analyze popular media—including film, novels, and images—for their arguments about environmental issues. Below, I suggest resources that could be used (aside from those discussed at length in the article) to think about the relationship between fiction and argument in relation to the politics of water and extraction.

“Joshua Tree Park approaching thunderstorm 02 2013” (source: photo by Tuxyso CC BY-SA 3.0 via https://commons.wikimedia.org/)

Resources

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), directed by Thom Andersen. This film essay by Thom Andersen argues, among other things, that modernist architecture has become a villain in films about Los Angeles.

Pumzi (2009), directed by Wanuri Kahiu. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPD-mvR6C-M&ab_channel=Phathom] This short sci-fi film considers a future after the “water wars”, offering a critique of sustainability politics through Afrofuturism.

Dune (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve. This popular film offers another alternative to thinking about the politics of water, extraction, and sustainability, and scenes could be paired with Pumzi.

Dark Waters (2019), directed by Todd Haynes. This legal thriller considers the politics of water pollution, corporate wrongdoing, and government regulation through a dramatization of the discovery of a cancer cluster in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

There’s Something in the Water (2019), directed by Elliot Page and Ian Daniel. This documentary shows how Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia are affected by water pollution.