The Ecopolitics of Truth and Sacrifice: An Ethnographic and Theological Study of Citizen Science, Environmental Justice, and Christian Witness in Coal’s Sacrifice Zones

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2021

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Abstract

Pursuing the good life today is costly. Contemporary conceptions of freedom, flourishing, and progress depend on using vast amounts of natural resources like coal and oil: Oil is used to drive to church, fabricate children's toys, and import food; coal illuminates school classrooms and powers ventilators. These things constitute our lives. Yet, at the sites where these resources are extracted, stored, processed, used, and wasted, people get sick and die young, babies are born with congenital defects, lands are appropriated, rivers and soils are polluted, and habitats are lost. The environmental harms produced by our resource-intensive economies are concentrated in places scholars call “environmental sacrifice zones.” This project in constructive religious ethics examines these dynamics and seeks to understand the conditions and possibilities of confessing God as the giver of life while securing our lives through participation in economies that sacrifice others’ lives and lands. How should Christians bear witness to God’s life-giving economy of creation and salvation in a world littered with sacrifice zones?

Resources to answer this normative question are derived from analyzing the creation care organization Restoring Eden’s response to several of coal’s sacrifice zones and bringing fieldwork-derived concepts into constructive dialogue with theology, theory, and critical nature-society studies. Through ethnographic research and an extended case study of Restoring Eden’s citizen science community health studies in coal’s sacrifice zones in Central Appalachia, Chicago, and Birmingham, this study brings the practical wisdom of practitioners into academic debates. Though many residents in these sacrifice zones believed their poor health resulted from living near coal mines, waste sites, and coal plants, there was no scientific data about the correlation between community health and proximity to coal industrial sites. This absence inhibited efforts to end the sacrifices. Restoring Eden partnered with scientists, residents, activists, and volunteers from Christian colleges to fill this gap by making the human costs of coal visible in numbers, charts, and graphs that were then published in health journals. Coal industry personnel and their allies launched a campaign to discredit the group’s findings, politically defang them, and endow a research institute to provide knowledge that would favor industry. I contend that this case reveals the degree to which effective, concerted environmental action to contest sacrifice zones depends on local environmental knowledges that bear authority in public deliberations over coal issues.

My descriptive argument is that Restoring Eden’s citizen science studies integrated faith, science, and environmental action through the concepts of creation, sacrifice, truth-telling, and witness. They responded to what they perceived as the false sacrifice of human and nonhuman creatures through developing a form of ecopolitical witness they called “citizen science as restorative truth-telling.” Their integration of empirical, moral, and theological meanings of witness shows how science could be practiced to love God, neighbors, and creation.

The study begins by describing how the Restoring Eden projects foregrounded environmental knowledge production as a site of environmental practical reasoning about how to transform sacrifice zones. It then argues that sacrifice zones should be understood as sites of conflict between rival political ecologies of sacrifice: an extractivist ecology of sacrifice that sustains “our” lives and lands by putting “their” lives and lands to death and a Christological ecology of sacrifice that loves falsely sacrificed creatures by inventing practices that enable sacrifice zones to be transformed into sacred zones. Finally, science is shown to be enmeshed in these rival ecologies, and a set of practices to democratize and pluralize environmental knowledge is proposed as an aid to concerted action in response to extractivism’s sacrifice zones. This account of ecopolitical witness is contrasted with the technocratic theory of action often manifested by a climate change framework: Ecopolitical witness ought to begin not with the hole in the sky but with the holes in the ground, in our societies, and in our hearts.

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Juskus, Ryan (2021). The Ecopolitics of Truth and Sacrifice: An Ethnographic and Theological Study of Citizen Science, Environmental Justice, and Christian Witness in Coal’s Sacrifice Zones. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23060.

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