New publication: What is “water privilege”? And how do we perpetuate it in our everyday language, to dismiss the problems of people who lack water access?

When I began work on the Detroit Water Stories project, back in 2017, I was puzzled why more people living in the city and suburbs were not aware of or perturbed by the mass water shutoffs that had already impacted close to 100,000 households, since 2014. This was, after all, an issue that the United Nations had condemned in no uncertain terms as a major violation of human rights, after the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department started disconnecting water for residents who could not pay their bills — and in the richest country of the world, no less!

So began one of the first studies of our project, which was recently published as a chapter in an amazing edited book, titled “Water, Rhetoric and Social Justice: A Critical Confluence” (2020) and published by Lexington Press (Rowman & Littlefield).

While the book tackles water justice issues from a number of perspectives, our team’s chapter, titled “Naturalizing Environmental Injustice: How Privileged Residents Make Sense of Detroit’s Water Shutoffs,” looks at the central issue of how everyday language perpetuates social privilege when it comes to access of vital natural resources like water — and dismisses the concerns and voices of those who don’t enjoy access. The term “privilege” is widely used these days — sadly, often wrongly — and we extend its application to the context of environmental resources. Basically, we argue in the chapter that privilege is both social and environmental; not only does having water privilege mean that you don’t need to worry about never having personal access to water, it also means that environmental entities like water are gradually devalued, downplayed, and treated as mere market goods.

Data for this chapter was collected over two academic semesters by student researcher teams at Wayne State. Both undergraduate and graduate students were trained in research design, interviewing, and qualitative data analysis, and asked to reach out through their personal and professional networks to interview metro Detroit residents—people living in the three counties of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties specifically—who had either experienced problems related to water access or knew of people who had. Several students also visited public spaces and events, such as the Detroit riverfront and Belle Isle, to approach random passers-by and talk to them about their experiences with water access and security. In total, 46 Metro Detroit residents were interviewed for this chapter—of whom 25 were Detroit residents and 21 were suburban residents who lived in the tri-county area.

Our findings demonstrated four key frames used by participants in both urban and suburban contexts to make sense of their access to water. These ranged from emphasizing residents’ personal responsibility to manage water supplies and pay their utility bills on time, to shifting across paradoxical roles of the government as both problematic actor and solution-provider, to underlining the need for civic action and solutions, to relying on relatively narrow community boundaries for denying the real scope of the water crisis or mis-characterizing that crisis in a way that can marginalize very real concerns of water (un)affordability.

In essence, our chapter unpacks how social privilege works in insidious ways to naturalize environmental injustice. Understanding these sense-making frames used by privileged residents will enable grassroots activists and progressive policymakers to address constituents often opposed to the affirmative actions that environmental justice involves. Unearthing the discursive devices that allow such residents to see environmental injustice as “not my problem” or even as “inevitable” or “just desserts” will enable activists to design communication campaigns to better speak to residents’ sense of naturalized privilege. In fact, even before the final version of this chapter appeared in print, I used the main lessons from our study to design a social justice workshop for our community partners, Detroit Jews for Justice, to help them figure out how best to encourage advocacy among their constituents and to pierce through the fog of water privilege.

A pre-print version of this chapter is available for download at the Detroit Water Stories project website, as long as it is used for non-commercial and educational purposes only. Please cite this work as: Mesmer, K., Aniss, M., & Mitra, R. (2020). Naturalizing environmental injustice: How privileged residents make sense of Detroit’s water shutoffs. In C. Schmitt, C.S. Thomas, & T.R. Castor (Eds.)., Water, rhetoric and social justice: A critical confluence, (pp. 149-170). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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