Where the Waters Divide

Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada

2014 Lexington Books

where the waters divide cover

This timely and important scholarship advances an empirical understanding of Canada’s contemporary “Indian problem”. Where the Waters Divide is one of the few book monographs that analyze how contemporary neoliberal reforms (in the manner of de-regulation, austerity measures, common sense policies, privatization, etc.) are woven through and shape contemporary racial inequality in Canadian society. Using recent controversies in drinking water contamination and solid waste and sewage pollution, Where the Waters Divide illustrates in concrete ways how cherished notions of liberalism and common sense reform — neoliberalism — also constitute a particular form of racial oppression and white privilege.

Where the Waters Divide brings together theories and concepts from four disciplines — sociology, geography, Aboriginal studies, and environmental studies — to build critical insights into the race relational aspects of neoliberal reform. In particular, the book argues that neoliberalism represents a key moment in time for the racial formation in Canada, one that functions not through overt forms of state sanctioned racism, as in the past, but via the morality of the marketplace and the primacy of individual solutions to modern environmental and social problems. Furthermore, Mascarenhas argues, because most Canadians are not aware of this pattern of laissez faire racism, and because racism continues to be associated with intentional and hostile acts, Canadians can dissociate themselves from this form of economic racism, all the while ignoring their investment in white privilege.

Where the Waters Divide stands at a provocative crossroads. Disciplinarily, it is where the social construction of water, an emerging theme within Cultural Studies and Environmental Sociology, meets the social construction of expertise — one of the most contentious areas within the social sciences. It is also where the political economy of natural resources, an emerging theme in Development and Globalization Studies, meets the Politics of Race Relations — an often-understudied area within Environmental Studies. Conceptually, the book stands where the racial formation associated with natural resources reform is made and re-made, and where the dominant form of white privilege is contrasted with anti-neoliberal social movements in Canada and across the globe.

Editorial Reviews

Dialectical Anthropology:

[This book] provide[s] valuable grist for the mill of critical scholarship that is attempting to meaningfully theorize the complex nexus of water, space, nature, and capitalist dynamism. The fact that geographers, environmental historians, anthropologists, technology theorists, and others are increasingly engaged in this task means that . . . [this book] will be sure to spark the interest, and merit the attention, of a growing interdisciplinary scholarly community.

Canadian Journal of Sociology:

The great strength of this book is that it systematically names and explores how neoliberalism is a racial formation highlighting not simply how water policy disadvantages First Nations communities but also how concomitant water practices privilege the environmental and social conditions that most white Canadians take for granted. Overall, Mascarenhas illuminates how environmental racism is produced in a contemporary Canadian context through neoliberal water governance operating under racial logics that continue to privilege mostly white communities. The author challenges the common stereotype that poor water services on First Nations reserves are simply “their own fault.” In contrast he unpacks how neoliberal discourses shape access to clean water in ways that ensure Indigenous communities have limited control, and that normalize sustained underinvestment by the federal government. While some technical aspects of the book (a thin index and typographical errors) are a minor concern, Where the Waters Divide makes a significant contribution to theorizing the relationship between Indigenous exclusion and white privilege, and should be considered an important achievement. This book would be appropriate for courses in globalization and economic life, Canadian studies, environmental issues, critical race theory and Indigenous issues.

Maurie J. Cohen, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy:

A general awareness exists about the extent to which neoliberalism over the last thirty years has systematically undermined an array of public services from education to health care in North America and elsewhere. Where the Waters Divide reminds us that privatization and deregulation are similarly enfeebling our ability to protect natural resources. The case of fresh water in Canada exposes the social dimensions of emergent scarcity crises and presages the difficult struggles that will be at the heart of sustainability governance in coming decades.

Laurie Adkin, University of Alberta:

Michael Mascarenhas looks under the hood of neoliberal water regulation in Canada to reveal the connections between this ideology’s supposedly colour-blind prescriptions for economic growth and efficiency and the deepening racial inequalities they produce—above all, for aboriginal communities. This book is an urgent plea to non-native Canadians to “see” the environmental racism that is rooted in the colonial origins of this country and that the last thirty years of neoliberal governance have only worsened. Where the Waters Divide is a critical read for scholars of environmental and indigenous politics, and for those engaged in water policy debates, as well as a call to action for environmental justice.


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