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If You Smell Something, Say Something!: Sensing Underground Gas Leaks in Environmental Justice Organizing


While the underground has long been understood as presenting epistemological, sensory, and accessibility difficulties, usually these are tied to the capacity (or not) to see, hear, or feel changes, to sense vibrations, or to produce actionable visualizations or models (Ballestero 2019, Kinchy et al 2018, Reddy 2020). In order to do so, bodily sensation is often abstracted and made opaque by scientific epistemologies and technocratic management of infrastructure systems. This presents a political problem for activists seeking to contest extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, for the political process also frequently begins with experience. This talk follows ethnographically socialist and environmental justice activists as they attempt to “make smellable” (and thus actionable) aging natural gas distribution systems in Providence, RI and Boston, MA. Along with Washington D.C., Providence and Boston have among the most antiquated natural gas delivery systems in the U.S., characterized by cast iron pipes that slowly leak and less frequently explode. Finding underground gas leaks presents a different sensory problem, as it requires an intimate ability to detect and represent changing urban “smellscapes.” Yet activists do not want these systems simply noticed, as doing so would lead to their replacement, “locking-in” fossil fuel infrastructure for the forseeable future. Can smell help make underground infrastructure into less of a background site of administrative management and more of a site of struggle over environmental and climate futures? Can smell connect our understanding of gas leakage and environmental justice struggle at hydrofracking extraction sites, liquified natural gas ports, urban infrastructure distribution systems, and private, monopolistic and exploitative energy companies? Drawing on geographies of infrastructure systems, underground worlds, and feminist theoris of corporeal/affective/technic interfaces, I query whether and how gas detection orients activist bodies into interfaces with underground infrastructures, and with what political effects.


Kai Bosworth, Ph.D., is assistant professor of international studies in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He holds a B.A. in environmental studies from Macalester College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in geography from the University of Minnesota. Bosworth is the author of “Pipeline Populism: Affective Infrastructures of Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century,” which examines the possibilities and limitations of pipeline opposition movements in the central United States in grounding the popular politics of climate justice. His ongoing research examines the implications of the underground—mines, caves, aquifers, burial sites and infrastructure systems—for how we think corporeal feminisms and environmental justice politics.