America was founded on the principle that man should exert dominion over the Earth, the animals, and his fellow men. We’re still struggling to rid ourselves of this pernicious theology, and the planet is telling us to hurry up.
By J.T. Roane
Spraying ponderosa pine with carbaryl in Bitterroot National Forest Campgrounds, May, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service/Flickr)
My grandfather had no idea he poisoned his family. As he sought to hold onto his farm, perched on a hill with springs and brooks that fed the nearby Potomac River, in a climate of permanently dwindling agricultural prices, he sprayed his fields with the pesticide carbaryl. Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, began marketing the pesticide — branded as Sevin Dust — in the late 1950s. Although it is impossible at this stage to connect my grandfather’s stomach cancer or my mother’s infertility definitively to his use of carbaryl, in all likelihood Sevin Dust contributed to both.
Carbaryl is still among the most widely used chemicals for lawn care and industrial agriculture in the United States, and the Environmental Protection Agency lists it as a “likely human carcinogen.” Yet most of us continue to eat foods sprayed with carbaryl in fields tilled primarily by poor immigrants who face regular exposure. We continue to spray it on our lawns even as it contributes to a spiraling decline in bee populations. Even Ortho, the massive gardening company, recently acknowledged that similar chemicals, known as neonics, likely contribute to bee population decline and decided to remove them from their products; still, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, the two largest producers of these chemicals, continue to deny their impact.
While there is plenty of reason to urge Union Carbide, Dow, and other companies to terminate the use of carbaryl, we should consider such a tactic as part of a much wider effort to re-make human social connections and human relationships with the Earth in the aftermath of what is becoming ever more clearly the toxic 20th century.
Despite the gains of mid-20th-century activism and organizing, black and indigenous communities, among other marginalized communities, continue to face the most dramatic effects of the environmental catastrophe justified by dominion and its secular afterlives.
We have to hold corporations accountable and acknowledge that, like my grandfather, many of us unwittingly engage in a much deeper destructive and exploitative relationship with the Earth, which, as community organizer and anthropologist Wende Marshall describes it, is defined by the Western-Christian ideology of dominion — the notion that the Earth is to be conquered, that its resources are the province of man and should be exploited. From the origins of the country, this dominionist way of thinking — privileging profitability and exploitation over other forms of stewardship — also sowed the seeds of the nation’s deep racial inequality.
Virginia colonists, in particular, alchemized an early program of Indian removal and African slavery, which they used to conquer the swamps, rivers, and forests of most of the Southeast. In the process, they seeded a peculiar social geography in which indigenous and black communities suffered the brunt of deforestation, monoculture, industrialization, and the deterioration of riverine and wetland ecologies.
I first considered the notion of dominion and its impact on the environment as a high school student at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School in the early 2000s. In particular, a phenomenal educator, Kevin Goff, disabused me of any notion of Virginia’s Tidewater region where I was reared as a pristine environment. What on first glance appear to be undisturbed forests, on more careful inspection, reveal themselves as large swaths of pine trees planted by loggers who had already destroyed native deciduous forests. What I understood as my grandfather’s quaint farm has subsequently come into view as a toxic site.
Soon, I began to question my inherited notions of health and wellness: Cancer, thyroid diseases, and diabetes are matters of environment, as much as of individual history or genetics. I am deeply afraid that once we scratch the surface, we will find we are all being made sick by what is all around us.
Indeed, despite the gains of mid-20th-century activism and organizing, black and indigenous communities—among other marginalized communities—continue to face the most dramatic effects of the environmental catastrophe justified by dominion and its secular afterlives. Climate change is already disproportionately affecting black communities as well as other groups incorporated near the bottom wrung of the nation’s social hierarchy. As the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, makes clear, two decades after the 1987 United Church of Christ’s release of “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” poor black communities suffer the brunt of toxic stewardship, with innumerable costs to health and well-being.
We continue to separate issues of climate, environment, history, and social justice at our own collective peril.
We continue to separate issues of climate, environment, history, and social justice at our own collective peril. And yet there is hope, especially among those made most vulnerable under the toxic legacies of dominion: On a sultry August day in 1980, Audre Lorde bequeathed to us one of her innumerable literary jewels when she invoked the imagery of “an army of one-breasted women” descending on Congress to demand an end to carcinogenic hormones in beef. Having endured a radical mastectomy as treatment for breast cancer, Lorde wrote through a radical vulnerability in The Cancer Journals, full of insight and clarity about the costs of silence, about gendered pressures of conformity, about a world re-imagined through the transformative power of new collective action: “Your silence will not protect you.”
Lorde’s invocation models the potential of new collective and political identities we must create to survive life after dominion. Within my own family, we must take stock of the ways notions of ownership and domineering of land harms the rivers but also quite evidently our own health and well-being.
While it is too late for my grandfather and the innumerable people who have suffered premature death due to environmental destruction and toxins, we must re-claim the land and the waterways, consider re-planting the forests, and dispense with the notion that it is ordained by God to simply use and destroy the planet and its resources. To survive our own toxic century we must depart from dominion.