My Petrochemical Love

For women of color on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, everyday environmental and climate activism is entangled with intimate lives.

It is April, and it is hot and humid in New Orleans. I am on my way to the Broad Theatre to watch My Louisiana Love, a documentary produced by Indigenous storyteller Monique Verdin. This is the first day of the first annual Fossil Free Fest, a week of art, food, music, film screenings, and conversation. The fest is dedicated to creating an open space for Gulf Coast communities to contend with fossil fuel philanthropy and imagine a #FossilFreeCulture. As a newcomer to the city, I am eager to meet some of the women of color who organized the fest and care deeply about environmental, energy, and climate justice.

Line illustration of factory and hearts.
Image description: An illustration features one continuous blue line looping to form two overlapping hearts on the left side, then going on to form the outline of a factory with plumes of smoke billowing from smokestacks.

The lights dim in the theatre, as I hurriedly search for a seat. Once the documentary starts, I listen to Verdin narrate the pain of losing both her father and boyfriend to disease, depression, and suicide in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Her courage and vulnerability blow me away. The film’s focus on her love life makes the narrative of coastal land loss, environmental degradation, and belonging in the Houma Nation all the more compelling. Stricken by the emotional impact of the film, I share what I learned with my boyfriend, a trombone player and Black native from the Lower Ninth Ward. I later convince him to accompany me back to the festival to watch short films that use visual storytelling and performance art to raise awareness of hurricanes in the Caribbean and water protectors in the Gulf. So begins my journey as a feminist scholar-activist and environmental educator in Gulf Coast Louisiana.

I am a feminist political ecologist, Black geographer, and environmental anthropologist. My autoethnographic research explores women of color’s everyday “activism” as they resist environmental racism, advocate for climate justice, and navigate relations with Gulf Coast energy and petrochemical industries. These male-dominated industries bring in billions annually as a result of Louisiana’s generous severance and industrial tax exemption policies, large port system, extensive pipeline network, right-to-work policies, and the national demand for petroleum products. Nevertheless, Louisiana is still a poor state with a history of racialized and gendered inequality and political corruption (see for example, Zebrowski and Zebrowski Leach 2014). According to the US News and World Report, Louisiana ranks #50 among all states in terms of quality of life indicators including health care, environment, incarceration, opportunity, education, the gender pay gap, reproductive and maternal health, and infrastructure.

There is no escaping oil and gas in Gulf Coast Louisiana (see for example, Mann 2017). The Gulf of Mexico is the largest petroleum-producing region in the United States. Louisiana ranks in the top five petroleum producing states and is home to 88 percent of offshore oil rigs in the United States. Louisiana is also home to an over 90-mile stretch of land with over 200 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as the “Petrochemical Corridor” and also as Cancer or Death Alley. Multinational fossil fuel companies represent the state’s largest industrial activity with much petroleum converted to petrochemicals in parishes along the Mississippi River. Oil and gas, including the plastics derived from refined petrochemicals, directly contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions; human rights abuses; and air, water, and soil pollution (see for example Schleifstein 2020; Mitchell 2020). Even coastal restoration is funded by oil and gas settlements.

How might the intimate lives of my interlocutors propel or constrain their everyday environmental and climate activism?

So, what counts as “activism” or “resistance” in a state dominated by petroleum and petrochemicals? As an ethnographer, I use these concepts to describe strategies and discourses that directly or indirectly contribute to political or social change. I am interested in tools that allow frontline communities of color to survive and thrive in post-apocalyptic sacrifice zones (see Jessee 2019). I am also interested in how women’s love for community inspires political consciousness raising and grassroots organizing. I did not, however, always know that this was the direction my research would take. Salsa dancing with petroleum engineers, while embracing my embodied knowledge as a feminist methodologist, forever changed how I think about everyday climate activism (see for example Keating 2016).

I love to dance, and previous research experiences in Louisiana taught me the value of local bars (and churches) for meeting community members. To my surprise, some of the best dancers I encountered at salsa, bachata, and reggae parties in New Orleans were petroleum engineers or workers in the oil and gas industry. This presented a conflict of interest since I simultaneously desired to dance with these men and participate in actions (divestment campaigns, pipeline protests, plant moratoriums) that would destroy their careers. One dancer and petroleum engineer from the Congo perfectly embodied this contradiction. When we met, we debated the merits of the fossil fuel industry as he twirled me on the dance floor. I accused him of killing grandmas when he suggested I use my knowledge as a scientist to make a lot of money in the oil and gas industry. He also suggested I use fossil fuel funds to later support environmental causes as a philanthropist. Although I enjoyed dancing with him, we never developed a meaningful friendship because of a perceived fundamental difference in values.

Once I reviewed my fieldnotes, I similarly realized that my reflections on women’s everyday acts of resistance and strategies of refusal were intimately tied to my melodramatic musings on my dating life and how my gendered and racialized body was (mis)read in environmental spaces (see Roberts-Gregory 2020). I continually navigated tensions and contradictions as a result of the intersections of my identity, my desire for companionship, and the competing epistemological and ethical camps that frame my research endeavor. This realization, theorized from my own observations and bodily knowledge, opened a new way of framing my research. Did the women I interview share similar experiences? How might the intimate lives of my interlocuters propel or constrain their everyday environmental and climate activism? Most importantly, was my aversion to men working in fossil fuels a bit self-righteous?

I eventually recognized that these entanglements were central to theorizing how women of color protect the environment and navigate relationships with oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Gulf Coast women of color’s intimately complex and at times contradictory relationships with extractive and polluting industries manifest in a variety of ways. For example, Gulf Coast “water protectors fight oil pipelines and improper disposal of industrial waste even when their kin and loved ones receive paychecks from these same industries. Some women of color openly acknowledge they were raised on petroleum money or received academic scholarships directly or indirectly from oil and gas. Even female environmental artists and feminist Indigenous storytellers must choose whether to accept philanthropic dollars from Shell, Entergy, or Exxon when they work for conservation organizations or Louisiana art institutes.

Over time, I interviewed Black and Indigenous women who shared stories of how their love lives support or impede their environmental activism. One Indigenous woman disclosed how she was not able to participate in anti-pipeline protests until she broke up with a controlling, abusive partner. Another woman of color disclosed how she used money earned entertaining men in the oil and gas industry to support the fight against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Another Black woman discussed fighting to regain custody of her son from his father after he was kidnapped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This experience later inspired her to later fight exorbitant water bills issued by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board on housing properties flooded by the storm. Listening to their stories, I realized relationships are complicated. The distinction between villains and superheroes is not cut and dry.

Everyday acts of refusal and climate activism can be as mundane as having a tough conversation with a partner or brother.

I know a Black activist from Death Alley who decided to fight petrochemical companies after her ex-husband, who worked at a local fertilizer plant, died from cancer. She and her neighbors in St. James and St. John worry about how plastic facilities and refineries poison the air, contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions, and increase their vulnerability to COVID-19 infections. These women equally teach me that everyday acts of refusal and climate activism can be as mundane as having a tough conversation with a partner or brother who works in the industry or strategically code-switching in order to access resources (i.e. grants) from environmental organizations and philanthropies that receive fossil fuel money. It can be as spectacular as protesting pipelines or organizing the March Against Death Alley. Most importantly, it is speaking truth to power without ever labeling yourself an activist.

Using the tools of autoethnography, I also realize that my gender, race, and sexuality cannot be divorced from how I navigate climate policy spaces and theorize power inequalities in environmental governance. For example, Black male professors and married men at academic and policy conferences including the World Forum on Climate Justice in Glasgow and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP25 in Madrid flirt with me and proposition me for sex. White men in these spaces tend to ignore me. This reality also follows me into the field. In Louisiana, some community members flirt with me and, honestly, I flirt back in a friendly yet professional manner to build rapport and access information. I also met individuals working for oil and gas through dating apps like Tinder. I asked men who worked offshore about their experiences working away from family and learned about their skills in carpentry and harvesting crawfish. I even used my byline on Tinder and my Instagram stories to attract attention to environmental and climate justice and share information about local environmental struggles (see for example, Calma 2019).

The sexualization of my racialized and gendered body, through the paradox of my simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility (see Mowatt, French, and Malebranche 2017 for more on this topic), impacts how I come to understand what it means to be a Black feminist climate activist and climate communicator in my personal life. For example, I remember the gardener and transplant from California I dated last year who was devastated to learn the extent of pollution in Louisiana when I advised him to not swim in Gulf Coast beaches that were covered in toxic algae blooms. I was fortunately able to catch a ride with his roommate and evacuate to Atlanta when New Orleans was threatened by street flooding and Hurricane Barry. I dated a shift supervisor at a lab who tested diesel fuel and other chemicals to ensure they met Environmental Protection Agency safety specifications. Although I always worried about his exposure to carcinogens, I appreciated the financial stability his job provided since so many other friends struggled financially as gig workers in Louisiana’s hospitality and service industries. I later invited him to a 350 meeting and shared information about the climate crisis and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion. Talk about intimate activism!

For me, environmental, climate, and energy justice goes beyond the familiar pipeline protests, plastic bans, divestment campaigns, online petitions against criminalization of water protectors and anti-protest laws, renewable portfolio standards, climate lawsuits, and policy work. Environmental and climate activism is also about acknowledging the everyday choices we make to secure pleasure, professionalization, financial security, intimacy, and companionship as members of frontline communities. It is how we leverage our personal relationships to protect and emotionally fortify present and future generations. Climate activism consequently looks like Indigenous and Black women teaching youth of color about green infrastructure, growing plants as medicine, and engaging mutual aid through carpooling. It is choosing to not use Styrofoam at community meetings in parishes that lack recycling programs, and packing rice—a Louisiana cultural staple—in hurricane evacuation bags. It is having the courage to be the dissenting voice as a token female environmental engineer at Shell or taking a new job to regulate the industries that formerly employed you as a petroleum engineer. It is advocating for a just transition for oil, gas, and petrochemical workers and centering their financial needs so they can feed their families.

My feminist research teaches me that there is no separation between the public and private, intimate and professional, emotional and analytical, and personal and political (see for example, Weems, 2018). By acknowledging women of color’s everyday environmental and climate activism, I push back at Eurocentric, positivist, and masculinist notions of who gets to talk about climate change, what counts as climate science and activism, and how we center gendered expertise when we plan for climate disaster. Most importantly, my ongoing analysis inspires me to push back at climate stories that applaud the fierce female fighters from frontline communities and demonize the male moneymakers who are conscripted into working in oil and gas. My truth is a bit messier.

Frances Roberts-Gregory is a vegan ecowomanist and PhD candidate in Society & Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a founding member of the Feminist Agenda for a Green New Deal and a resource developer for the New Orleans and C40 Women4Climate Mentorship Program. In 2021, she will start a new position as assistant professor of cultural anthropology and co-director of the Spelman College Food Studies Program. Reach her via Facebook or Twitter @BlackngreenPhD.

Cite as: Roberts-Gregory, Frances. 2020. “My Petrochemical Love.” Anthropology News website, April 22, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1387

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