Hydronarratives: water and environmental justice in contemporary U.S., Canadian, and Pakistani literature and cultural representations
This dissertation examines cultural representations that attend to the environmental and socio-economic dynamics of contemporary water crises. It focuses on a growing, transnational body of “hydronarratives” – work by writers, filmmakers, and artists in the United States, Canada, and the postcolonial Global South that stress the historical centrality of water to capitalism. These hydronarratives reveal the uneven impacts of droughts, floods, water contamination, and sea level rise on communities marginalized along lines of race, class, and ethnicity. In doing so, they challenge narratives of “progress” conventionally associated with colonial, imperialist, and neoliberal forms of capitalism dependent on the large-scale extraction of natural resources.
Until recently, there has been little attention paid to the ways in which literary texts and other cultural productions explore the social and ecological dimensions of water resource systems. In its examination of water, this dissertation is methodologically informed by the interdisciplinary field of the energy humanities, which explores oil and other fossil fuels as cultural objects. The hydronarratives examined in this dissertation view water as a cultural object and its extraction and manipulation, as cultural practices. In doing so, they demonstrate the ways in which power, production, and human-induced environmental change intersect to create social and environmental sacrifice zones.
This dissertation takes an interdisciplinary environmental humanities approach, drawing on fields such as indigenous studies, political ecology, energy studies, cultural geography, and economic theory. It seeks to establish a productive convergence between environmental justice studies and what might be termed “Anthropocene studies.” Dominant narratives of the Anthropocene tend to describe the human species as a universalized, undifferentiated whole broadly responsible for the global environmental crisis. However, the hydronarratives examined in this dissertation “decolonize” this narrative by accounting for the ways in which colonialism, capitalism, and other exploitative social systems render certain communities more vulnerable to environmental catastrophe than others.
By attending to these issues through problem water, this dissertation has significant implications for future research in contemporary, transnational American and postcolonial literary studies, the environmental humanities, and the energy humanities. It demonstrates the potential for a focus on representations of resources in literary texts and other cultural productions to better grasp the inequitable distribution of environmental risk, and instances of resilience on a rapidly changing planet.