The pollution of Indigenous waters: Nicole Van Lier, ‘Regulating Improvement: Industrial Water Pollution, White Settler Authority, and Capitalist Reproduction in the St. Clair–Detroit River Corridor, 1945–1972’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 2022


Abstract: This article explores the postwar racialization of socionatural metabolisms as Michigan consolidated its capacities to regulate water pollution in the St. Clair–Detroit River corridor. These unceded waters flow through the traditional territories of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Mississauga, and Wyandot nations, as well as the heavily industrialized, urbanized, and racially segregated geographies of southeast Michigan. Drawing on archival records, I examine discursive constructions of White settler and Indigenous water metabolisms that coarticulated with Michigan’s growing concern that unchecked water pollution posed a metabolic barrier to industrial manufacturing. I situate these representations against the state’s emerging objective to reconcile two interconnected forms of waste: (1) the material degradation of water attributed to Michigan’s advanced capitalist economy, and (2) the wasted economic potential long used to denigrate Indigenous societies that “failed” to extract capitalist value from nature. This case study demonstrates how Michigan’s discursive approach to managing a potential crisis of capitalist reproduction also reconfigured the logic of improvement as the racial and economic basis for settler colonial authority over nature. “Improving” nature was not only about facilitating access to nature for capitalist production, but reproducing—indefinitely—the ecological conditions on which capitalist production relied. This article builds on two lines of inquiry in critical geographic scholarship exploring mutually constitutive relationships between race and socionatural metabolisms, and between settler colonialism and environmental degradation, to interrogate the postwar discourses flowing through water management in southeast Michigan, a region where water remains at the center of multiple racialized dispossessions and their ongoing contestation.

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