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Rejecting Fate: The challenge of a subaltern community to the creation of a sacrifice zone in Can Sant Joan, Catalonia
Philosophy and History, KTH, School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE), Philosophy and History of Technology, History of Science, Technology and Environment. (KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory)
2018 (English)Independent thesis Advanced level (degree of Master (Two Years)), 20 credits / 30 HE creditsStudent thesis
Abstract [en]

It was my first visit ever to the neighborhood association – in February 2017 – and the phone rang again in the contiguous room. “I’m sorry” apologized José Luis “but our colleagues are not here yet and I need to answer the phone”. Manolo, who stayed with me, responded to my curious look: “we just sent the monthly invoice of the cooperative committee of funerals and this month is higher than usual. Three people died only last week. The neighbors are calling to check if the invoice is right, and some of them are trying to postpone the payment. But we try not to do exceptions, it’s the only way to keep working”. When José Luis came back, they both explained to me what exactly was the cooperative committee of funerals. Facing an increase in the number of deceased people and the high expense that is usually incurred by families in burial services, in 1987 the neighborhood association came up with the idea of creating a group of people that would share those costs. The project, though, would only make sense with widespread support from the community. Despite the strict age limit of 50 years old, almost 4.000 people responded when the call was launched, and the number of associates has remained steady through the years. This anecdote reflects very well the identity of the Can Sant Joan community, to which José Luis and Manolo passionately introduced me during that first meeting. The two men talked straight about the many social and environmental problems that the neighborhood had faced during the years and the ways in which the community had organized to confront them. Yet, they did not speak in a plaintive way, their speech challenged corporate and institutional power and claimed fearlessly for social justice. The Can Sant Joan community – not unlike many others in the Vallès region – has faced many adversities of different kind since its very creation, but its inhabitants have always confronted them and have restlessly fought for improving the living conditions in the neighborhood. Can Sant Joan stands out among other sacrifice zones in the Vallès area because of the long list of locally unwanted land uses that is burdened with, but especially because of its strong subaltern identity that has led the community to partially revert their condition.

My research is grounded on the acknowledgment of Can Sant Joan’s environmental and social burdens, as a representation of all those communities around the world whose livelihoods are contaminated and impoverished in the name of neoliberal capitalism, and especially to those that decide to stand up and fight against power inequalities and social injustices. I foresee my research not just as an intellectual exercise, but as a process grounded in real life experiences of contamination and neglect that ultimately seeks to make a difference in the community, where it starts. This study is, thus, a transdisciplinary – almost antidisciplinary – piece where different disciplines with ambitions of challenging the sociopolitical status quo in order to achieve social and environmental justice intertwine. My research is built on existing literature in the fields of subaltern environmentalism – and other forms alternative environmentalism – political ecology and environmental humanities. Much have been written about polluted communities in different fields, but there are still crucial gaps that need to be filled. My ambitions are to better understand the sociopolitical processes that lead to the creation of sacrifice zones, to expand the definition of violence by uncovering different forms of slow violence that take place in them, to analyze the environmental movements embraced by affected communities, and to evaluate the potential benefits

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that a subaltern environmental movement could have to those communities. The outcome of my research will be shared with the movement against waste incineration of Can Sant Joan and with the community in an attempt to realize the main aspiration of my research: to inform and enhance the activist movement in the neighborhood. This will be done by co-organizing at least one public event in the neighborhood together with members of the movement against incineration, in which the outcomes of my research will be presented to the local audience. Additionally, I keep personal relationship with the key informants, who have been integrated in the activist-scholar circle of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory. If successful, this study could be the first stage of an action research in which local activists would not only be treated as a group of study, but their needs and actions would reframe the questions and scope of my research. In turn, the local movement against incineration would make use of the research outcomes in order to reach its goal, eventually creating a symbiotic feedback process potentially fruitful for both parts.

This study is organized in seven chapters and six interludes. In chapter 2 I present the rationale behind the choice of case study as a research methodology, introduce the writer to the case study design, and share the ethical considerations at stake. Chapter 3 contains the theoretical toolbox where I conduct a literature review of the material that serves as theoretical frame for this study. I start with different visions on subalternity to later define subaltern environmentalism, and pointing out to some commonalities among different forms of alternative environmentalism. Then, I explore the concept of sacrifice zone and present the street science process that is being used by affected communities in order to uncover the infliction of slow violence in a variety of forms. In chapter 4 I introduce the reader to the case study through a short historical revision of the origins of Can Sant Joan and the development of the neighborhood until our days. Thereafter I thoroughly analyze the socio-political positionality of the community in different terms to verify if Can Sant Joan is a subaltern community. Chapter 5 is dedicated to discussing the neighborhood of Can Sant Joan as a sacrifice zone, as well as different forms of slow violence that the community has suffered. First, I revise the long list of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) that the community has been burdened with and uncover a pattern based on political criteria for the placing of those LULUs. Thereupon, I analyze the different forms of slow violence that Can Sant Joan is being inflicted, including environmental, structural and narrative violence. In chapter 6, I document the movement against waste incineration in the cement plant that is taking place in Can Sant Joan, present the main forms of activism that the movement is using, and discuss the features that make it fit into the frame of subaltern environmentalism. Then, I discuss the central role of street science and forming coalitions: while the former is used to contest narrative violence and legitimize the claims of the community, the latter enhances public visibility and helps to forge a common subaltern identity that goes beyond the borders of the neighborhood. The study concludes with chapter 7, where I summarize the outcomes of this thesis by answering the research questions posed in chapter 2. Finally, I briefly present potential future research in Can Sant Joan that could keep contributing to the mobilized scholarly fields and to the movement against incineration as well, and close with a short update of the last months of struggle. The study is complemented with a series of six

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interludes inspired by the Toxic Bios1 project, which compiles in an interactive open access online platform toxic autobiographies from communities affected by environmental injustices in several European countries and beyond. In the interludes the scale of the unit of analysis shifts from the community of Can Sant Joan to the individuals affected by the studied phenomena and thus, I use storytelling in order to complement my research with insights from a different perspective. In the first interlude, I highlight the importance that bodily experiences of toxicity can have in contesting narrative violence through toxic storytelling and I discuss the new guerrilla narrative methodology. The rest of the interludes comprise six toxic autobiographies by six different members of the local community that are to different extents active in the movement against waste incineration in Can Sant Joan.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2018. , p. 108
Series
TRITA-ABE-MBT ; TRITA-ABE-MBT-18269
Keywords [en]
political ecology, environmental justice, environmental humanities, subaltern environmentalism, slow violence, sacrifice zones, environmental humanities
National Category
Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-225837OAI: oai:DiVA.org:kth-225837DiVA, id: diva2:1196323
Presentation
2018-04-17, Stockholm, 12:21 (English)
Supervisors
Examiners
Available from: 2019-02-04 Created: 2018-04-09 Last updated: 2019-02-04Bibliographically approved

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