Human geographer Kai Bosworth has always been fascinated by environmental social movements surrounding land ethics, especially in the rural American Midwest and West.
Now Visiting Assistant Professor of Environment and Society, Bosworth has brought to the Institute his study of the new forms of environmentalism emerging from struggles over oil pipelines. His research strives to understand the ways in which such movements confront issues of racism, nationalism, and settler colonialism in North America.
As Bosworth explains, recent anti-pipeline activism across the Great Plains has kicked off a new paradigm of social movements. While Native American nations in the region have long opposed extractive industry through their historic land base, new environmental organizations opposing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines have been largely middle-class, rural, and white. These recent endeavors to join environmental justice movements have the potential to reinforce historic racial, economic, and national partitions.
“For many of the individuals and groups interested in protecting land and water, transformative demands for environmental justice—especially those made by Native Nations—appeared to be difficult or challenging,” he says. “My research investigates why this is the case, and how such a response could be countered in such ‘people's movements’ or forms of environmental populism.”
Bosworth hopes that his research will reveal what environmental activism looks like on the ground, the coalitions that help it to work best, and what actions can be taken to change its orientation to justice.
“I hope my work paints an adequate picture of the complex, and sometimes surprisingly hopeful social movements, emerging in a rural region often assumed to be bereft of progressive politics,” he says. “We should be particularly interested in how the strategies of the climate justice movement, at least in North America, have been transformed through building power with Native American nations and grassroots community organizations, rather than policymakers and lobbyists.”