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Cumulative Effects: Reckoning Risk on Baltimore's Toxic Periphery Open Access

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This dissertation explores the historical and embodied dimensions of risk from the perspective of a community in south Baltimore, as well as the temporalities of injury that exceed risk’s future-oriented framework. Specifically, it is a historical ethnography of how residents, activists, industry representatives, and state bureaucrats over the past 200 years have reckoned with the management of future danger. South Baltimore has been a site of risk management since the 18th century, from quarantining lepers during America’s great waves of immigration to supporting nuclear deterrence with its Cold War chemical arsenal. And until 2016, it was the planned site of the nation’s largest trash incinerator—a development residents successfully fought by invoking their long-term exposure to toxics. Conventional approaches to the problem of risk are ill-equipped to understand this response, because they tend to fixate on the future as an arena of potential suffering. Instead, what is clearest in south Baltimore is the formative role of the past in shaping orientations toward environmental harm. Through a study of the campaign against the incinerator and the five generations of history that informed it, I therefore argue for the analytic value of cumulative effects, paying attention to how toxics build up in the body over time while also addressing the aggregate burdens of state-sanctioned exposure. These processes offer insight into risk’s limitations as a reparative discourse while also pointing toward a potential next life of the concept.I begin by tracking the governance of danger in south Baltimore over the past two centuries to understand how it has come to mean managing spectacular future vulnerabilities at the expense of slow, uneventful harm. One of my goals in doing so is to demonstrate that risk has not always behaved this way and that it might accordingly be revised to capture chronic problems. I then turn to the incinerator, illustrating how past experiences with exposure informed residents’ evaluations of its potential toxic burden. Along the way, I show that the campaign to stop the incinerator succeeded in part by stretching risk to account for cumulative suffering. And I consider what this phenomenon stands to teach scholars studying risk, environmental justice, and popular politics.Beyond troubling taken-for-granted notions of risk and its temporality, this dissertation also sketches the multiplicity of timescales at play in south Baltimore. To be more precise, I elaborate risk, renewal, and accumulation as three chronopolitical orientations drawn from the local particularities of late industrialism. Taken one at a time, each offers a tool for thinking anew about how time opens and closes itself to politics. And taken together, they suggest that what blocks or enables a particular political response to a problem is in part a temporal orientation and that people move between these orientations—sometimes quite consciously. In examining them, I take up calls from within the anthropology of history to attend to human past relationships in all their stunning diversity, while also demonstrating how multiple experiences of time, hope, and harm collect in ways that disrupt risk’s chronopolitical dominance.

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