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Like Oil and Water: Fracking, Groundwater, and Racialized Landscapes in California’s San Joaquin Valley

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California’s arid San Joaquin Valley was once inundated by lakes and wetlands. Through settler colonial and racial capitalist formations of contamination and private property, a range of canals and aqueducts drained those lakes in the late nineteenth century. Now, the Valley’s air and water are contaminated by pesticides, nitrates, and hydrocarbons from oil extraction and large-scale agriculture. Building from archival research and participant observation with environmental justice activists, I trace the emergence of contamination as a material-discursive formation that shifts through time and space. This approach brings together settler colonial, racial capitalist, and feminist science studies in order to trace both the impacts of racial logics on environments, and the consistent re-articulation of those racial logics through environmental projects. Hydraulic infrastructure, then, was not only an economic project but functioned within a larger logic of contamination that further articulated racial formations and settler sovereignty claims. Yet chemical contamination can also induce responses, intimacies, and collectivities in powerful ways; environmental justice activists consistently highlight the intimacies, relationships, and futurities that propel them. I trace two related themes: (a) the production of knowledge and doubt, and (b) the production of racialized landscapes of disposability or value, within US imperial and settler colonial formations. Ultimately, I argue that a critical analytic of contamination can trace how racial categories are ecologically produced and reconfigured, not only through differential relationships to land, but through changes in the land itself. Further, rather than assuming that with enough data or knowledge, justice can be served through the state apparatus, I show that attending to what is produced as unknown opens a frame to go beyond asking for a more responsible or reliable account of what is or was, toward purposefully asking what could have been or what could be.

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This item is under embargo until January 26, 2024.