We Refuse to Die was part of the exhibition, Unsettling Matter: Gaining Ground, at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, August 2023 - January 2024.
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The Valley of the Shadow of Death: Environmental Health in Sarnia, ON

September 22, 2023

The anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre spent her formative years in a convent in Sarnia, Ontario, just down the road from my hometown of Petrolia, the self-proclaimed birthplace of the modern oil industry. Referring to a time decades before the petrochemical industry arrived on the shores of the St. Clair River, Voltairine describes the city I would come to know.

“It had been like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul, where ignorance and superstition burnt me with their hell fire in those stifling days.”

Like Voltairine, I hated growing up in the Sarnia area, but also like Voltairine, I was shaped by it — marked by the experience of living in an environment that rewarded ignorance and complacency, where oil was unironically called “Black Gold” and where politics was seen as the sole province of urban elites. One of my first jobs was as a tour guide at a working oil field, where I only wish I could say I was giving subversive tours. My consciousness was stifled — confined by the social world I lived within.

Environmental Injustice in Sarnia

I caught my first glimpse of what I would later understand as the spatial politics of petrochemicals when I was 16 years old, itching to leave this hellscape forever. A friend and I, both training as competitive distance runners, thought it would be fun to do a 16 mile long run from Sarnia’s Chemical Valley back to Petrolia. When we were dropped off in front of the Shell Chemicals Plant on Lasalle Line, I turned around to read a sign: Aamjiwnaang First Nation. I had lived in the area for most of my life, but it had never occurred to me that people lived inside Chemical Valley — nor had I ever been told the story of how the expansive territory of the Aamjiwnaang was whittled down to a toxic sliver of land in what could almost too literally be called a Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Recent studies have exposed the environmental injustices that the residents of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation face, including high rates of cancers, asthma, heart disease, and the lowest rate of live male births in the world. This community has endured acute incidents like “the Blob,” where, in September 1985, Dow Chemicals spilled almost 3000 gallons of perchlorethylene, a carcinogenic dry cleaning chemical, into the St. Clair River, contaminating the waterway for nearly thirty years. But the effects of chronic pollution – “continuous, routine, low-dose exposures to contaminants that are within legally sanctioned limits” — have shown to be just as noxious.

As a teenage distance runner logging 60 miles a week in the orbit of one of Canada’s biggest petrochemical complexes, I sucked in more than my fair share of benzene and sulfur dioxide. These days, I spend about a third of the year in Sarnia, where my daughter goes to school. During her school days, I work on projects like this one from a library two miles from the plants. But while I’ve been engaging with the spatial politics of fossil fuels for over a decade, until recently I had never thought about how the air I breathed growing up might have impacted my health.

Searching for a Smoking Gun

A few months ago, as we were ramping up production for We Refuse to Die, I had a sudden heart attack. It happened while I was running a 5 km road race, only a few hundred meters from the finish line. Heart attacks are by definition surprising, but this one was especially confounding to the doctors who investigated my case. Why would a 36-year old life-long runner who doesn’t smoke, has low LDL cholesterol, optimal weight and blood pressure, and no family history of heart disease have enough plaque buildup in his cardiovascular system to cause a potentially fatal blockage in his LAD artery?

It feels too convenient – even sickeningly opportunistic – to even suggest that the answer to my cardiologists’ questions is “chronic exposure to industrial pollution,” given that my heart attack coincided with the rush to launch this new collaboration, which seeks to build solidarity between communities living with the noxious effects of petrochemical facilities that are connected to the same pipelines as Sarnia’s plants.

It is, of course, completely unknowable whether or not my heart disease is a consequence of my time in the Sarnia area, just as it is completely unknowable why another competitive runner from Sarnia, only one year younger than me, was diagnosed with leukemia in her early 20s, just after winning her event at the Canadian Olympic Trials. For a while it seemed like a righteous cause to seek out proof that the petrochemical industry was to blame for my heart attack, but I quickly came to realize that trying to determine the root cause of any of these cases is a fool’s errand. Not only is it impossible to trace the localized impacts of chronic pollution at the scale of the individual, but trying to do so is individuating. When I try to prove my case at this level of analysis, my testimony works against my motivations for sharing it, exposing me to both self-doubt and discrediting by others. Maybe it was pollution, but maybe it was a fluke, or maybe it was all the steak I ate. It is far easier for me to blame myself than the corporations that, viewed from any distance, are clearly causing enormous harm in and beyond Sarnia.

I’m now convinced that industries love it when we try to pin our illnesses on them. When we target specific bad actors, we narrow the scope of our ambitions, expelling precious energy in protracted legal battles within court systems that were built to protect them. We also lose sight of the pervasive and untraceable ways in which we are all being sacrificed, extinguished in highly differentiated ways and at different timescales, in the “vampire-like” process of capital accumulation.

As Beatrice Alder-Bolton and Artie Vierkant argue in Health Communism, when we accept that illness, disability, and premature death are not symptoms of capitalism’s malfunction, but requirements for its smooth functioning, we can begin to see that “health under capitalism is an impossibility.” Becoming conscious that we’re all living dead under capitalism is not a reason to despair, but a reason to struggle. It reveals a solid foundation for hitherto unimagined solidarities across generations and geographies, between workers and the out-of-work, citizens and migrants, elders and children, living and dead.

Becoming the Smoking Gun

But what do we do with these solidarities? While it is understandable that for many environmental justice activists, the answer is in holding industries accountable to current regulatory standards, Laura Pulido cautions activists to resist “assuming the state to be a neutral force”:

“Far too often the state is seen as an ally, or neutral force. Indeed, even when people lose faith in the state, they often still turn to it because there is no other apparent alternative. Much of the EJ movement has become too implicated in the state itself. What is needed is to begin seeing the state as an adversary that must be confronted in a manner similar to industry. This suggests a two-pronged struggle, against both polluters and the state, which will certainly not be easy.”

If we accept that the goal of our struggles is not appeal to the state to hold industries accountable, but to take on both industry and the state — which, by means of legislation and resource allocation, shores up the structures that produce the racialized environmental injustices faced by communities and workers — we can get to the business of building the counterpower we need to effectively challenge the system itself.

This underpins the motivation at the heart of We Refuse to Die: not to prove our specific cases to the state, but to construct rituals, infrastructure, and stories that hold together all of us, living and dead, as one collective force — stories that orient our grief, anger and pain like a barrage of bullets from the barrel of a gun.

The communist poet Muriel Rukeyser invoked this idea in her 1940 documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” which grapples with the legal battles following the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931 in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, one of the worst environmental health disasters in US history, which killed somewhere between 476 and 1000 mine workers, most of them African American.

The subcommittee subcommits.
Words on a monument.
Capitoline thunder.
It cannot be enough.
The origin of storms is not in clouds
our lightning strikes when the earth rises
spillways free authentic power
dead John Brown’s body walking from a tunnel
to break the armored and concluded mind

In the case of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster (and every other), looking for true justice through the justice system is a dead end road. Subcommittees always subcommit, offering little more than “words on a monument.” But behind the booming “thunder” of state inquiries is the lightning that produced them — an “authentic power” that exceeds every effort to control or instrumentalize it. When we come to realize that we are the storm, the living embodiment of the dead abolitionist’s body, walking from the same tunnel from which hundreds of dying men also emerged in 1931, we unleash our collective power with the force of the living dead.

- Steve Lyons for Not An Alternative

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