Scholar Sunaura Taylor on March 5 presented a talk titled "Disabled Ecologies: Living with Impaired Landscapes" at UC Berkeley co-sponsored by the Haas Institute's Disability Studies Cluster, the Departments of Art Practice, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.
Learn more about this event here, and check below for a transcript of the talk.
Karen just mentioned a lot of what has transpired over the past few years, but... So I graduated here from 10 years with a body of work that really was exploring the intersection between disability and animality. And through that visual work really also I came out of this program with the seeds of a project that I really hoped would turn into a book.
And that book came to be Beasts of Burden, and that... My thinking in that book was to really kind of challenge the ways in which disability movements and animal movements have been very much pitted against each other and also to think through the ways that we can understand ableism as a sort of expansive category or system of oppression that doesn't just impact disabled people or able bodied people, but actually really impacts the way that we think about nonhuman life.
And that's sort of the trajectory or the opening that kind of led to this work, I see them very much as very much related, that what I'm trying to do in this work is look at how disability shapes our understandings of the environment and shapes our relationships to the environment, particularly damaged environments.
So this work really grows out of conversations within feminist disability studies, people like Alison Kafer, Mel Chen, Eli Clare who've really been looking at this intersection between disability in the nonhuman, but also feminist new materialist works such as the work of Stacy Alaimo and Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway and such. So those are some of the conversations that I kind of see this work rooted in.
So I want to just begin with the above image. It's a black and white aerial photograph of a somewhat industrial arid landscape. One's eyes are immediately three dark and large rectangular shaped pools in the ground that take up a significant portion of the photo. At the bottom of the image is written figure 196, Hughes Aircraft lagoon, Tucson, Arizona.
And actually I just want to pause for a moment and say if anyone has any need to move or stretch, just please feel free to do that. And if I'm speaking too quickly, please let me know for access reasons.
So the dark substance in the lagoon is a mixture of chemicals Hughes had been disposing of since 1952. Before ending up in the lagoon, the chemicals, mostly airplane part degreasers such as trichlorethylene or TCE, would be used in the manufacture and cleaning of missiles that would maim and kill people in North Korea during the Korean War.
Over the three decades that these lagoons were used for waste disposal, the chemicals would at times overflow the lagoon, stressing and eventually killing the mesquite and cottonwood trees and other plant life in their wake. At the same time, more than 4000 gallons of TCE slowly flowed downwards through the less than 100 feet of porous earth, entering Tuscon's regional aquifer and altering the chemical make up of the groundwater. The chemicals traveled northwesterly, entering the sand, gravel, and clay that made up the aquifer's geological matter, moving with gravity towards the north flowing Santa Cruz river.
However, before the contaminates could reach the surface and enter the above ground water, they reached the municipal and private wells where they were pulled up and distributed across Tuscon's largely Mexican American south side and portions of the Tohono Oʼodham nation. Residents began to notice their plants would die when they'd water them. Their dogs and cats and farm animals began to become ill. The chemicals entered people's bodies as they drank or showered. Many people died of cancer, were diagnosed with chronic illnesses, or were born with disabilities.
As alarm grew, Hughes spokespeople and the Pima County health department declared people were sick not because of pollution, but because they were genetically disadvantaged, suggesting that they were predisposed to illness. Health studies were conducted, and the same contaminates were given to thousands of mice to see what the toxic effects would be.
When the contamination became undeniable, multimillion dollar treatment facilities were built to treat the groundwater. Community members, mostly women, fought for the Arizona Senate to approve $250,000 to establish the El Pueblo Health Clinic which would offer community members healthcare for TCE related concerns. While the funds were granted, numerous Republicans objected siting the community's phantom illnesses.
For more than half a century, the Hughes Aircraft lagoon has produced disability in various ways. Locally through contamination, internationally through Hughes use of missiles, rhetorically through legal and political frames, and across species and environmental boundaries from humans to aquifers.
I have laid out some of these various trails of harm and illness in order to identify what I am calling disabled ecologies, the webs of disability that are created spatially, temporally, and across species boundaries when ecosystems are contaminated, depleted, and profoundly altered. I understand disabled ecologies as the material and cultural ways disability is manifested and produced between and among human and nonhuman entities.
While work within disability studies has long examined the ways in which the environment constitutes disability, centering disabled ecologies helps expose how disability in turn shapes the environment. It is this more than human aspect of what we might call Hughes Aircraft's disabled ecology that I will focus on during this talk because Tucson's aquifer has in effect been rendered disabled by the contamination, a point that opens up generative possibilities for understanding how perceptions of disability constitute our understandings of environmental harm and the relational networks that this harm is situated within.
So in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Anna Tsing, Elaine Gan, and their fellow editors suggest that for humans and nonhumans alike, the condition of the Anthropocene could be articulated as suffering from the ills of another species as they detail climate change, pollution, and extinction are increasingly presenting as catastrophic changes to relational networks between living and nonliving beings. This attention to relational harms, and at times relational flourishing, is an increasingly important thread within current environmental humanities and feminist new materialist work.
My research reads such analysis as a call to disability studies to think with and respond to these environmental ills. I build off of this work while naming disability as an integral and urgent part of this relationality that is rarely, if ever, addressed, utilizing Alison Kafer's political relational model of disability which understands disability as experienced "in and through relationships." My research follows numerous scholars who are calling on us to stay with the trouble as Donna Haraway does or live in our messes as Anna Tsing does to suggest that responding to our current regime of environmental devastation in part demands that we must learn to live in and with multi species disability.
So in order to do this, my research follows three distinct paths of analysis. The first is that I ground my work in the Hughes Aircraft field site and the larger military capitalist regime it was a part of as well as in the particulars of Tucson's regional aquifer.
The second is that I trace the ways the environmental damage has been conceptualized by a broad range of scientists, policy makers, theorists, and activists through narratives of health and disability, focusing in this talk on how the word impaired has been taken out by the Environmental Protection Agency. I suggest that metaphors of health are arguably some of the most ubiquitous and impactful ways of talking about environmental harm, and I ask what critical disability perspectives can make of this.
Finally, utilizing disability theory and feminist eco criticism, I take seriously the possibility that narratives of environmental health are not mere metaphors, but rather should productively be viewed as moments of disability or of what I'm calling ecological disablement or the profound alterations to the capacities and functionings of an entity or system which limits its ability to sustain itself and others as it previously had and which alters its reproductive capacities.
So home of the Saguaro cactus, the quintessential symbol of the southwest, the city of Tucson sits in the Sonoran Desert surrounded by mountains on all sides. As a region that has experienced numerous cycles of conquest and colonization, Tucson is today a city with strong Latinx and native roots, both a deeply multicultural city and one with strong divisions over... sorry... over immigration policies and the role of borders.
Located at the intersection of these complex racial, national, and colonial dynamics, the area has also dealt with ecological consequences of being a growing desert city with limited regional water sources, spurred on by the arrival of post war technologies and the emergence of new high tech industry resulting from the increasing presence of the U.S. military after World War II. Tucson has witnessed not only a population boom, but numerous environmental crises as well from severe water shortages to the dangerous effects of industrial pollution to the increasing impacts of climate change.
So in 1951, Tucson became home of the Hughes Missile Systems Company which is now Raytheon, a major player in post war U.S. military industries. Hughes contracted out the newly built Air Force Plant 44 and within a year was manufacturing radar noses for F-89 Scorpion Fighter-Interceptor aircraft to be used against North Korea. In 1952, only a year after opening, the plant began disposing large amounts of contaminants such as TCE, 1,4-Dioxane, and chromium-6 into the lagoon, a massive pit with no liner. By the mid 1980s, the Tucson Water Department would be shutting down wells with more than 920 times the EPA's allowable levels of TCE.
As the contamination spread underground into the aquifer and then into neighborhood wells, the TCE plume as it eventually came to be known reached out 10 square miles from south to north and a mile and a half east to west. While many of those living in the area had been there for generations, many more had just relocated after one of the oldest and most vibrant Mexican American neighborhoods in Tucson, La Calle, had been demolished in a racist downtown revitalization plan. In addition, the plume impacted native land that the Tohono Oʼodham had long hoped to use for agricultural purposes.
So a typical case of environmental racism and native dispossession through contamination, the impacts of the pollution on residents went unacknowledged for nearly 30 years. Even after the area became registered as a super funk site in 1981. Instead, communities on the south side endured years of racist and classist accusations that their congenital disabilities and cancers were their own fault, again, for being genetically susceptible to illness, but also because of "poor reproductive choices or a consequence of diet and lifestyle." As one reporter noted in the early 80s, residents were told during meetings with city officials that they were getting sick "because of the chilis and beans they ate." And the mostly women organizers were dismissed as "hysterical Hispanic housewives."
It was only through a mixture of fierce community organizing, local investigative reporting, and a major litigation against Hughes, the city of Tucson, and numerous other parties that it began to be acknowledged that the alarming rates of cancers and congenital disabilities that the community was experiencing were caused by Air Force contaminated water.
So before we go on any further, it is necessary to take you on a detour to introduce everyone to Tucson's aquifer, which as you will see, I have become completely obsessed with. Because one of the many things that I have found compelling about aquifers is that people from all sorts of walks of life and educational backgrounds really don't really seem to know what they are. Are they a part of a city's infrastructure? Are they human made? Are they natural? Are they a mixture of the two?
So the above image is in fact a study I made in the early days of this project of a series of... hmm? Oh. Slide. Thank you. That would help. Thank you Karen.
So this image, not the other one, is in fact a study I made in the early days of this project, part of a series that I'm making of speculative aquifers. So I began this aspect of the project in order to track my own changing perception of what an aquifer is. Because I really didn't know what an aquifer was, and I wanted to be able to follow the ways in which I learned about it and how I would imagine it differently. So this is just a very blocky and rough watercolor with lots of blues and grays, and the layout presents the aquifer as resembling a dam or something of some kind. So some sort of combination of industrial or human made and natural environment.
So introducing an aquifer is also a surprisingly challenging task, as unlike many other natural environments, aquifers are rarely given names. So as hydrologist Fred Tillman who worked for the United States Geological Survey and who monitors the contamination at Air Force Plant 44 told me, "Hydrologists are not the most poetic people, at least not in any lyrical sense." If there's any hydrologists in the room, that might not be true, but this was his take on hydrologists.
An aquifer's namelessness is only part of the challenge. They are also not visible or navigable. Existing in the deep underworld below our own, we cannot see them or touch them. Tillman compared trying to visualize an aquifer to the study of outer space. We can piece together bits and pieces of information we can gather, but we must infer the rest. While aquifers are an essential part of human infrastructure across the world, they remain in many ways unknowable.
So in reality... Oh. Sorry. As anthropologist Andrea Ballestero's work on a Costa Rican aquifer suggests, this confusion is actually hardly accidental. If pressed to describe an aquifer, many typically imagine it as a sort of underground tank. Case and point, here's another slide of another early speculative aquifer shows a dark cave like opening that sits within an otherwise dark colored frame. So while not a tank, I clearly imagined the aquifer as a contained space.
However as Bellestero describes, the image of an aquifer as a container helps perpetuate the idea that it can be measured and analyzed to perfectly suit a community's infrastructural needs while erasing its fundamental entanglements with other ecosystems, an idea that conveniently benefits those industries and investors that would wish to exploit it.
So in reality, an aquifer is much more messy. So this watercolor is more sort of physiological and bodily with muted swirls and dabs of colors across the page. An aquifer is a complex network of porous and nonporous underground materials that are surrounded by and altered by water that can literally be thousands of years old and which is often moving wherever gravity is guiding it.
More akin to a sponge, here I have imagined a giant soggy sponge sitting within the Tucson Basin with mountains above and bedrock below painted in black. The water that makes up an aquifer occupies the available porous spaces between grains of sand, larger gravel, or impervious layers of rock and clay. But even in this example... But even this example fails to represent most aquifers' lack of borders, their porousness, and their extraordinary connectedness with the world above.
So in this aquifer, the sponge has been replaced with a network of colors and tendrils that move across the page, the same black above and below. An aquifer most often cannot be disentangled from other aquifers, or for that matter, from the above ground rivers, streams, and riparian ecosystems that it is connected to. Understanding aquifers this way demands that we recognize them as more than infrastructure, instead seeing them as vital parts of the ecosystems that make up the landscapes that we are enmeshed in.
So an aquifer's inaccessibility... and I of course use that word purposefully... is thus due in part to the fact that we cannot see, touch, or smell them. Its material formations deep underground and out of our human sensorial reach. It is also due to the ways that aquifers have come to be understood as worth thinking about only in terms of their water output.
Aquifers are tellingly not covered by the 1972 Clean Water Act for example, which in a typically anthropocentric move protects only navigable waters, bodies of waters that humans could ride a vessel upon. Indeed, the only federal environmental law that I have found that attends to aquifers is the Safe Drinking Water Act, but only in as much as it covers the groundwater people drink. The act does not mention aquifers, instead referring to groundwater wells, highlighting the infrastructural. Aquifers as natural environments or ecosystems remain mostly unprotected under federal laws.
While aquifers cannot be seen, continual effort is made to represent them. Surveyors and scientist map and diagram them trying to render visible something that inherently is not visible. They do this in order to understand everything from which way contamination will likely flow to where the best spot for a well might be. Often aquifers are rendered as simple textbook drawings like the one above. This image shows a layer of earth beneath us that is not saturated with water, the vadose zone, the porous layer that is saturated with water, the aquifer, followed by the impermeable layer or bedrock where water cannot pass through. And you can see in a little simple illustration of a well that goes down into the porous rock area that's saturated with groundwater.
Other representations are far more specific. This diagram for instance is labeled figure three generalized geologic section of the upper Santa Cruz Basin and is specifically of the Hughes Aircraft area. The scientific rendering maps the depth and length of the various geological structures in the basin and identifies different sediments through a variety of dots and lines.
Another shows the geohydrology study area along section VB which is also situated within this study site. The diagram maps the aquifer through visual interpretations of well drillings, again representing various sediments with different dots and lines. So this particular map is interesting as in the legend that is included there's a pattern for the parts of the aquifer that are inferred.
However, the maps that are most commonly associated with Tucson's aquifer are maps like the one... that will shortly be above... are maps like this. Maps that show a contaminated plume of toxic chemicals that must be contained and managed. This TCE plume is usually displayed over an aerial map of south Tucson and is shaped like a feather or a gigantic sperm depending on where your imagination takes you. The plume does not represent the shape of the aquifer, but rather represents where geohydrologists believe the contamination to be located.
These maps also locate the facilities where the groundwater is brought in for treatment, a word that perhaps takes on additional meaning when one considers in the language of ecological risk assessment, Tuscon's groundwater is impaired. So impaired waters are defined by the EPA as "the detrimental effect on the biological integrity of a water body caused by an impact that prevents obtainment of the designated use." In the field of ecological risk assessment, the definition is broader. Ecosystems are impaired if their condition has departed from an acceptable state in a way that is ecologically or societally significant.
According to the EPA, close to half the rivers and streams in the United States are impaired waters. However, this number does not include the one thirds of lakes and ponds, the two thirds of bays and estuaries that are also impaired. As these impaired waters are largely attended to by the Clean Water Act, these statistics additionally do not cover non navigable waters such as the nation's aquifers.
So the word impaired is of course compelling to me coming from disability studies because of its foundational role in developing the field. The social model long ago framed impaired as being the material reality of differing embodiments with disability being understood as the way impairment is turned into deficiency or obstacle as a consequence of the way that society's organized socially, politically, and also environmentally.
Perhaps because of this early division, impairment has largely been presented as more objective, more biological, and more scientific than disability. And yet, as Michael Ralph has outlined, despite it's perceived objectivity and roots in science, the medicalization of the word actually originates in changes to the U.S. life insurance industry that emerged after the abolition of slavery. Deploying a medicalized idea of impairment as a way of attending to different risks associated with freed slaves, impairment became a way of upholding racist hierarchies and defining which lives were conceived as less valuable.
So such a history opens up questions of how and why the term impairment came to be used by scientists assessing ecological risk, itself a deeply racialized phenomena as environmental justice activists have long shown. So work such as Ralph's has challenged the traditional framings of impairment by examining the political and historical processes that have shaped the concept. Similarly, many critiques of the disability impairment divide have emerged over the years which suggests that the social model fails to engage with how impairments themselves are socially constructed.
Yet, impairment is still persistently used as a placeholder to name the more material and embodied aspects of disability and is also routinely used to mark conditions in other contexts or other eras that may be culturally inaccurate or ahistorical to name as disability, but are recognized as being relevant to disability studies or akin to the experience of disability. Thus, the concept of impairment, while no longer being viewed as a pre social biological fact, does remain illusive. Yet, as my research shows, it is this very flexibility that allows impairment to generatively point to new arenas of engagement for disability studies that may otherwise go unrecognized.
So what are critical disability studies scholars and activists to make of impaired waters? Such language could easily be understood as yet another use of the kinds of ableist metaphors that disabled activists have long critiqued, ones that could be situated alongside phrases such as crippled economy or paralyzed by fear.
Yet such a framing seems less useful when we consider that the word begins to make an appearance in environmental literature in the 1970s, the same decade that the environmental health movement was forming, a movement that centered the relational dynamics between harmed environments and harmed populations. The 70s also saw environmental scientists beginning to make a case for the scientific basis for what became known as ecosystem health.
So in the 1990s, the usefulness of such metaphors was actually hotly debated. Scientists who promoted a frame of ecosystem health were beginning to map out the similarities between diagnostic challenges at the level of the individual and the whole ecosystem. Opponents on the other hand argued that health made little sense at a level of organization beyond the individual, an idea widely challenged by the concept of public health of course, and that unlike individuals, ecosystems have no generalizable or normative optimum state.
Interestingly from a disability studies perspective, those who challenge these critiques often pointed out the social and cultural dimensions of health, explaining as one piece put on the history put it that "definitions of health are constantly evolving" and "that social contexts strongly conditioned what is considered to be healthy." While definitions and approaches to ecosystem health are still hotly debated, today a variety of government agencies, scientists, and others work to address ecosystem health.
So humanities scholars and environmental activists also deploy the language of health to refer to environmental damage, invoking elaborate disability and illness metaphors to make sense of contamination and depletion, or more ubiquitously, in their descriptions of ecosystems as damaged, maimed, scarred, ill, or dying, or increasingly when theorizing the Anthropocene as monsters or mutants. For instance, Anna Tsing suggests we must become familiar with the art of living on a damaged planet which in part means attending to the monsters that have been birthed from it. Bruno
Latour points to the mutation of the atmosphere caused by climate change. Outside of academia, Bill McKibben has compared our permanently altered planet to a sick patient whose body is no longer working as it used to, while Naomi Klein has likened our current environmental crisis to reproductive disorders.
While ecological metaphors of health are often traced back to conservationist Aldo Leopold, such a genealogy erases indigenous epistemologies that have long understood the environment as kin or as an extension of one's body. Native scholars such as Leanne Simpson, Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, and Winona LaDuke for instance understand nature not as separate from human culture, but as family that can be maimed and made ill.
For example, Simpson argues that native people must form relationships to their ancestral lands regardless of whether these lands are protected national parks or densely polluted cities. Simpson asks how someone can be close to the land if it is so polluted that it poses a risk? Her answer is simple. If the river is too polluted to swim in or eat from, you can still boat across it. She says, "You do not abandon your mother when she is sick. You do not abandon the land because it is contaminated or encroached upon."
So what all of this shows is that a broad spectrum of scientists, policy makers, environmental humanity scholars, and indigenous communities on some level recognize the landscapes we inhabit as increasingly impaired. Thus, one of the interventions of this research is to point to an urgency of bringing this work into conversation with critical disability perspectives.
I want to follow and build off of these various ways of thinking with ecological health as a material reality and take seriously the possibility that processes of the ecosystem impairment, illness, and mutation are not mere metaphors, but rather could be generatively understood as part of the disability experience or what I'm calling ecological disablement.
So to explore what ecological disablement might mean, I'd like to return to Tucson's aquifer. My archival research reveals that the term impaired is repeatedly used in the documents from the 1970s that are concerned with the region's dwindling water resources. These references are to impaired groundwater. Nope, not aquifers. Groundwater that has been over pumped. So the 1970s were a tumultuous time in Arizona's water policy as decades of exploiting the aquifer from cattle farming, agricultural use, and a growing population had drastically depleted Tucson's aquifer which at the time was a sole source of drinking water for the area.
Reliance on groundwater had also devastated traditional agricultural methods practiced in the area by the Tohono Oʼodham whose ancestors had for centuries created complex irrigation systems that relied on rainwater harvesting through the use of the region's many washes and flood plains.
So one of the things that happens to an aquifer when its water table recedes is that it loses reach. Losing reach is a hydrological concept that identifies what happens when the water in an aquifer can no longer reach a stream, river, or water body on the land's surface. As an aquifer's water is pumped away, plants and trees that grow along the riverbed become stressed and die.
So in the Tucson Basin for instance has seen large die offs along the Santa Cruz River in the past because of pumping, and there is evidence that before the aquifer was pumped away that the Santa Cruz River used to flow much farther and for a much longer period than it does now. So photographs from the early 20th century actually showed dense forests of mesquite trees and cottonwood trees that used to line the Santa Cruz. So after it was pumped, the vegetation became much sparser and the river much drier as the aquifer receded.
So perhaps because I have a hard time reaching things myself with my own impaired arms, I am captivated by this image of aquifers, streams, and riparian ecosystems being unable to reach each other. So thus here and yet another of my speculative aquifers, I have drawn dozens of caricatures of my disabled hands and arms growing from the aquifer reaching out in a drastically unsuccessful effort to grasp the treeline riverbed.
So thinking with the concept of losing reach, we can see how ecosystem impairment can overlap with various models of disability. When considering this social model for instance, it may seem difficult to see how problems of depletion or contamination or extinction for that matter could be said to be caused by the way that society is organized by social, political, and structural dynamics.
Yet ecologists themselves have already pointed to the social and political aspects of ecological impairment. Returning to the definition of ecological impairment mentioned earlier may prove useful. So ecosystems are impaired if "their condition has departed from an acceptable state in a way that is ecologically or societally significant." So the inclusion of phrases such as acceptable state and societal significance point to social organization. What social forces are at work in defining an acceptable state? What sorts of things are taken into consideration and what aren't when defining what harmed ecosystems have societal significance?
As we have seen when it comes to aquifers, an acceptable state has everything to do with them continuing to be of use to humans. So groundwater is impaired based not on whether it loses reach with other ecosystems, but on when its depletion poses a risk to human consumption needs. In fact, looking closely at how different ecosystems are defined as impaired, we can find again and again that like with legislative definitions of human disability in the U.S., the inability to work, to be able to labor and produce capital is essential for how and when ecosystems are defined as impaired.
So all of this opens up a variety of questions. Which impaired landscapes are considered societally significant enough to be treated with multimillion dollar treatment facilities? Which, due to various values, policies, and power inequalities, are not deemed societally significant and thus excluded from systems of care and therefore a risk of further harm?
So ecologist Glenn Suter II, the author of the above definition of ecological impairment, argues that an impaired ecosystem needs different support systems than an unimpaired one. He writes, "Just as a paraplegic and a blind person need difference assistance, an impaired ecosystem needs difference management."
Social and political dynamics are also at work in another kind of aquifer that has come to my attention throughout my research, sensitive aquifers. So I want to return to the photograph of the Hughes Aircraft lagoon. The image was taken in 1979 as part of an aerial mission for an EPA sponsored initiative called the Surface Impoundment Assessment or SIA project. So part of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the goal of the SIA was to locate and assess sources of potential groundwater contamination across the country.
After weeks of searching, early last year I was able to find the contact information for one of the chief hydrologists who have worked on the SIA in the late 1970s for Arizona. James Lemon was in his early 30s when the EPA's SIA investigation began and was working with the Arizona Department of Health Services, an agency that oversaw everything from public health to environmental quality concerns, a situation that was common at the time before the creation of the EPA separated environmental issues from the broader public health issues.
Lemon and another young hydrologist James Ingall were assigned the job of finding and documenting Arizona's groundwater contamination. In fact, Lemon was in the airplane when this photograph was taken, guiding the photographer to exactly where the impoundments at Hughes Aircrafts could be found. Lemon and Ingall's work is in many ways what brought the TCE contamination to life.
So Lemon generously agreed to be interviewed by me, and then even more generously actually offered to give me his entire archive of documents from this whole period of time when he was there. These documents have become one of the central sources of my investigation, in part because they offer insights into the SIA investigation and in other parts of the site's history that have really not been told, but also because of the ways that the archive narrates various views on Tucson's aquifer. So these documents sometimes present the aquifer as akin to a bank, a valuable reserve that can be accessed when needed if managed well. But they also persistently render the aquifer as a vulnerable body in need of treatment, specifically a sensitive body.
So numerous documents consistently refer to the area as sensitive aquifers. At first I presumed that a sensitive aquifer must be an aquifer that is at risk of over drafting. But as I learned, a sensitive aquifer is actually an aquifer that lies less than 100 feet below the surface, making it vulnerable to contamination. Hughes' toxic lagoon sat on top of just such one aquifer area.
So the word sensitive is surprisingly lively and certainly feminized. I imagine the geological formation, sediments, and ancient water that make up the aquifer as a sort of 19th century invalid, sensitive to its environment, to external influences. From the Latin senses to feel, the word's earliest uses reflect perception and feeling. To be sensitive is to be endowed with sensation. It was not until 1816 that it was first recorded as meaning easily affected.
However, as Mel Chen has noted when reflecting upon living with multiple chemical sensitivities, the labeling of something as sensitive also reflects society's tendency to individualize social and environmental concerns. As Chen writes, "The individuated property-assignation of 'I am highly sensitive' furthers the fiction of my dependence as against others' independence. The question then becomes which bodies can bear the fiction of independence and of uninterruptibility.
Like the designation of the south side community as genetically disadvantaged and predisposed to illness, the designation of Tucson's aquifer as sensitive linguistically places the burden of responsibility on the aquifer versus on the exploitative regimes of militarization and extractivism that created the contamination.
Considering the interruptibility and dependency of bodies and aquifers helps lead us back to relationality, to entanglements, and to the concept of disabled ecologies. Moving from the more diagnostic frame of impairment used by ecologists towards what Alison Kafer would call a political relational model of disability allows us to understand not only the interconnectedness of bodies and the ecosystems, but also exposed the vulnerability of humans, species, and ecosystems to the same systems of injustice. In this case, the military and the racists settler, colonialist, and anthropocentric systems and perspectives that allow the south side to be seen as a dumping ground.
I have found throughout this research that the people who understand these entanglements the best are of course those who were impacted by the contamination on the south side. These community members have fought not only for safe water and compensation for the harm they and their community have experienced, but they have fought for the very health of Tucson's aquifer and the broader desert ecosystem.
South siders are indeed some of the only people I have come across who deeply understand the aquifer and its entanglements. Many residents have worked literally for decades to make sure that it is being treated, even in cases when the clean water is simply pumped back into the aquifer versus being cleaned and served to the public. This is also more striking when one considers that these same people have had loved ones die, have themselves become chronically ill from drinking the aquifer's water. While residents often do associate Tucson's water with death, the aquifer itself is treated with care and kinship. To return to Leanne Simpson's framing, south siders have continued to find ways of being close to the aquifer.
So what would happen if politicized disabled communities began doing something similar? If we understood our ill and sick, monstrous and mutant, impaired and disabled landscapes as part of our expansive disability community? Or if we saw our own human disability as an aspect of these larger human and nonhuman webs of disabled ecologies? By centering communities and ecosystems that have become disabled due to injustice, this research asks us to think through how and when we can recognize the importance of the aesthetic, political, and ontological possibilities of disability while also attending to the violence disability emerges from.
Understanding damaged environments as disabled or impaired is certainly complicated as it risks perpetuating the idea of disability as a negative, as something that should be cured, or as a problem to be solved. In another vein, it also risks relativizing environmental harm. One could imagine, for instance, corporate polluters co-opting the idea just as they have conceptions of environmental resiliency or adaptation. Yes, ecosystems are changing, becoming disabled, but what's wrong with that? Isn't disability a natural part of life? They will adapt and be resilient. Yet I believe disability studies and disability communities are uniquely positioned to be able to theorize the potential of bodies, species, and ecosystems to adapt, change, and be resilient without depoliticizing or relativizing such changes and the violence that brings them about.
So following disability scholars such as Nirmala Erevelles, I argue that for the radical potentials of disability to be fulfilled, critical disability perspectives must grapple with the injustices that cause disability, human and non. Disability activists, scholars, and artists have long theorized what it means to live with loss, limitation, vulnerability, interdependence, and adaptation. So what kinds of insights can this collective crip knowledge offer to conversations about how to live with and respond to our current regime of environmental devastation? How can the ingenious ways of living that disabled people have for so long developed be put to use to help think through how to care for, respond to, and indeed create access for our increasingly impaired landscapes? So these are less questions that I want to address myself than conversations that I hope disability communities will take up.