The environmental justice frame is often a key feature of successful grassroots mobilization against the uneven distribution of environmental risks to marginalized peoples, as well as political representation. But what happens when this discursive framework is called into question – when the most basic features of its established definition are fractured? The author examines this dynamic through an ethnographic study (one year of participant observation, 60 in-depth interviews, and archival research) where high-volume desalination (the process of producing drinking water from the ocean) is proposed in California. On the one hand, specific community groups, NGOs, and dissident experts make normative environmental justice arguments about high costs (of “product water”), racism, community disruption, and increased industrial burden. On the other hand, a policy coalition formed at the nexus of the private sector, organized labor, and public sector makes a competing series of arguments about high costs (of imported water), local independence, regional responsibility, and employment. By unpacking these arguments, the article shows that cooptation of the environmental justice frame is located in financial logics. “Project finance,” combined with an emphasis on “performance-based contracts” for water is consequential and distinct from the more widely known neoliberal privatization paradigm. This research contributes to sociological and public policy discussions about industrial infrastructure siting struggles by bringing environmental sociology into conversation with economic sociology and political economy. Furthermore, it highlights how scholars, activists, and decisionmakers must attend to how environmental (in)justice politics take on surprising meanings based upon social and political context amidst the expansion of financial capitalism.
Brian F. O'Neil is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.