Environmental Violence in New Orleans: Finding Culpability in Forgetting

In January 2018, Beau Evans released an article entitled “46 tons of Mardi Gras beads found in clogged catch basins,” detailing the efforts and struggles of city officials and communities of New Orleans in cleaning up the waste in the city’s pivotal if ineffectual storm drainage system. The act of mass littering, much like the creation and maintenance of unsustainable architecture, is a form of environmental violence. Environmental violence encompasses everything from ecologically-damaging policies and practices, to humanity’s effects on climate change, and even to the human impacts felt as a result of environmental degradation. Interestingly, environmental violence is defined as a one-way street: it concerns the human impact on the environment, the world, and even on themselves or other humans. Despite the churning destructive wrath that hurricanes and other natural disasters bring upon the world and its biomes, it is we, humans, who are the perpetrators of environmental violence. 

When considering the City of New Orleans, evidence of environmental violence lies not just in the beads clogging the catch basins, but also in the spiked lead levels in the soil. It can be found in the levies that buckled and tipped from the force of Hurricane Katrina, the public service announcements that promised the levees would hold, and the private meetings in which engineers admitted they wouldn’t. Award-winning Director Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke chronicled the events of Hurricane Katrina. Lee collected testimonials, interviews, and footage of the devastation, aftermath, and strength of the survivors, compiling them into a narrative (or series of narratives) to tell a story both affective and effective. In the documentary, we see a damning indictment of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who confess that the levees could not withstand even a Category 3 hurricane. The Corps likewise lied to residents by telling them to rest assured that the levees would be rebuilt to pre-Katrina condition, a condition that while supposedly strong, tipped over and broke unleashing immeasurable damage and catastrophe (Lee). New Orleans, the land, remembered what the Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly fails to, that New Orleans is a land of water. 

Surrounded by water on all sides, built atop wetlands and swamps, New Orleans is marvelously solid though thoroughly unsustainable. According to Rebecca Snedeker, one of the writers and activists behind Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, the numerous pumps, pipelines, and canals lauded by some as feats of life-supporting infrastructure have proved to be life-draining in practice, sinking the city deeper down, thus rendering the city more prone to flooding, oxidizing the soil, and requiring complex maintenance (that often goes awry); Snedecker likens New Orleans to a “cement lily pad” borrowing the name from Monique Verdin, a Houma photographer (Snedeker 156). A sustainable future for New Orleans, with open canal streets, mindful reforestation of the swamplands, and an end to excessive groundwater pumping would conversely keep the city afloat (Snedeker 158). Such a future would acknowledge the City’s nature and attempts to work within it, as opposed to against it. We must not forget that only by remembering the land and what sustains it can we hope to forge a sustainable future. 

In “Echoes in the Bone”, the second chapter of the book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach discusses how memory, when performed, can empower the living; Roach also argues that “violence is the performance of waste” (Roach 41). To get to the heart of what Roach means by this and why these observations and definitions matter, we must start by breaking down the internal components of these claims. 

Violence is a poison, introducing toxins, producing waste byproducts, and expending limited resources in what Roach calls, borrowing from Bataille, “catastrophic expenditure” (Roach 41). Violence and superfluous expenditure (i.e. wasteful spending) are interlocked. To return to the tons of Mardi Gras beads clogging the catch basins, the violence is starkly evident. The beads, at one point carried by the tourists who flocked to the historic city for an unforgettable time, are themselves discarded and forgotten. Discarded but not disappeared, these beads piled up in critical areas, threatening lives and livelihoods not to mention the city’s coffers and infrastructure. The beads themselves, symbols of celebration and disposability, are cheap and plastic, often distributed at no or low costs. They are easily, without hesitation, tossed aside when their brittle nature betrays them, or the sun comes up, or the hangover hits. The tourists leave New Orleans but the beads remain. Ultimately, it is the City of New Orleans and its peoples that are forced to reckon with the memory, the tonnage of beads, and the millions of dollars their removal will cost. So powerful are the desires of tourists for consumable, forgettable, and disposable culture, and so effective the violent performance, that nowhere in Evans’ article does he mention a burden on tourists to consider the waste they leave behind. Instead, the burden falls on New Orleans residents who must “step up” to clear their own neighborhoods of catch basin debris (Evans). Many local residents spearhead litter collection operations, often as part of charitable and/or sustainability missions, however the tourists have left by then. As part of Roach’s own breakdown of his quote, that “violence is the performance of waste” Roach describes violence as a performance due to the existence of an audience to witness or even receive the violence (Roach 41). Violence requires a victim (or victims), and its existence draws attention to itself. Whether it’s the Army Corps of Engineers maintaining and defending their ineffectual levees or tourists disregarding their bead debris, or any other act of violence for that matter, there is always an audience to witness the violence and the waste resulting. If memory can be performed to “empower the living” as Roach states, the case of the discarded colorful beads proves that the opposite is also true. The performance of forgetting and ignorance serves to disempower and even enact violence upon the living. 

To return to Roach’s statement about the performance of memory potentially being empowering, it’s important to keep in mind that memory is not set in stone. Memory is intangible, yet realer than real. Both fixed and fluid. When we invoke memory in ways that move, challenge, encourage, or propel us we often make use of effigies. An effigy can be anything or anyone, it is a surrogate (i.e. the replacement of something/someone) that stands in for the original.  They may be physical representations of disliked politicians, or could be immaterial like the insistence that something is in accordance with what a respected departed community member would have wanted. The dead make powerful surrogates and effigies, but they are not the only group or individuals who can be conscripted into serving some purpose according to Roach (Roach 36). We are also not the sole possessors of memory, for within nature itself memories are embedded. 

Memory is quite empowering, environmentally-speaking. Climate change, long debated among politicians but accepted as scientific fact, profoundly affects our realities in many ways that are getting increasingly difficult to ignore or forget. Even blockbuster thriller films from nearly 20 years ago such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) reckon with the West’s willingness to forget or ignore climate catastrophes and the role that governments, institutions, and individuals play in creating and mismanaging them. The same goes for the ecologically-damaging extraction of oil and other resources, not to mention the tangible long-known and injurious effects of disposing industrial waste improperly. Green sustainable policy and movements are still being stonewalled in the halls of power; despite a majority consensus among US adults that climate change is real and will affect US citizens in the next 10 years, 59% already believing the effects are currently being felt, (Yale Climate Opinions Map 2021), remarkably little is achieved when it comes to curtailing the root causes of human-driven climate change. Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the strength that today’s climate movements find in the memory, veneration, and critique of the contributions of past activists. Denial of climate change is not only unpopular nationally, but inevitably serves violent ends, obfuscating blame from the culpable actors and institutions, preventing both introspection and retrospection, in addition to reliably ensuring that natural catastrophes will not be properly prepared for.  

While the discarded beads may represent forgetting on the part of individuals, or even tourist culture as a whole, Rebecca Solnit, the other writer behind Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, points out that the lies and forgetting done by those with power is “another thing altogether” (Solnit 147). These lies, obfuscations of fact and justice, result in lasting legacies. Environmentally-speaking, Solnit discusses how the scientists who were studying connections between lead (the heavy metal) and human health lied regarding the health risks of lead contaminants (Solnit 150). Because using lead in gasoline and paint was deemed useful and profitable, the health risks were hidden from the public and disregarded. In the saturated city of New Orleans the lead easily infiltrated the water supply in certain areas, making testing a regular requirement for children, who are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of lead poisoning (Solnit 150). The scientists and those raking in profits weren’t affected personally by the lead runoff, so they forgot or ignored the problem, so long as it wasn’t their problem. When those people and institutions with power and influence forget something, don’t report on it, or misrepresent reality (i.e. the levees will be strong and at pre-Katrina strength) the lasting legacies are grievous and violent. 

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