Enbridge Caught Not Telling the Truth about Line 5: Ho-Hum

Enbridge Caught Not Telling the Truth about Line 5: Ho-Hum

In not-even-remotely shocking news, the Detroit Free Press reported this past week that Enbridge knew about damaged protective coating on Line 5 for years before divulging that information to Michigan state officials. In response, some of those state officials are pretending like this is an unexpected breach of trust. Here, for example, is Valerie Brader, co-chair of the state’s Pipeline Advisory Board:

“We are deeply disappointed that Enbridge did not tell the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board in March the whole story about Line 5 coating deficiencies. . . “Enbridge owes the people of Michigan, the Advisory Board and the State an apology. This issue is too important to the people of Michigan to not tell the truth in a timely manner, and right now any trust we had in Enbridge has been seriously eroded.”

And here is the tough-talking-do-nothing Attorney General Bill Schuette:

“This latest revelation by Enbridge means that the faith and trust Michigan has placed in Enbridge has reached an even lower level. . . Enbridge needs to do more than apologize, Enbridge owes the citizens of Michigan a full and complete explanation of why they failed to truthfully report the status of the pipeline.”

How Brader or anyone else could have had any trust at all in Enbridge at this point is hard to fathom (as I explain below). And exactly what it is Schuette is asking for is anybody’s guess (what good is providing a detailed account of why they lied going to do?).

In fairness, not everybody was quite so shocked. The National Wildlife Federation’s Mike Shirberg, for example, knows the score:

“The fact that Enbridge has known about these breaks in coating for years is, unfortunately, less surprising than it ought to be,” Shriberg said in a statement. “It seems every month there is a new revelation about the deteriorating condition of Line 5 and Enbridge’s lack of transparency.”

Shirberg is right of course, but even his memory doesn’t reach back quite far enough. The really troubling thing about this latest example of Enbridge’s untrustworthiness is just how uncannily it reprises the circumstances that led to the infamous Line 6B rupture in Marshall in 2010—and that should worry everybody. On this blog, I’ve rehearsed the findings of the NTSB report on that spill more times than I can count. Every Michigander should know this history backwards and forwards. But for now, it’s worth recalling two of those findings in particular:

First, the NTSB report revealed that Enbridge knew about problems with Line 6B for years, but repeatedly determined that the defects their tests revealed did not pose any real threat. Thus the NTSB criticized them for: “Deficient integrity management procedures, which allowed well-documented crack defects in corroded areas to propagate until the pipeline failed.”

Secondly, Enbridge failed to communicate effectively with the public and first responders, which ultimately made the spill much, much worse than it otherwise might have been. That is, the NTSB criticized Enbridge for “Insufficient public awareness and education, which allowed the release to continue for nearly 14 hours after the first notification of an odor to local emergency response agencies.”

The NTSB attributed both of these failures to what it called Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” from its own safety processes and procedures.

So what does Enbridge have to say in response to this latest discovery on Line 5? Here’s their spokesman Patrick Duffy:

“The coating damage was determined not to present any threat to the safety of the pipeline at any time,” he said.


“We regret that this miscommunication may have caused confusion for state officials and the public. We are committed to being transparent on all matters related to the safe operations of our pipelines in Michigan.”

You read that right. Just like with Line 6B, Enbridge didn’t bother telling anybody about the defects they discovered on Line 5 because they determined internally that those defects aren’t a problem. And just like with Line 6B they failed to communicate honestly and openly with the public and local officials. So here we are again. This is not a disappointment or a breach of trust. This is a pattern of behavior that runs very deep.

What makes all of this even worse is that Enbridge has for the past 5 years taken every opportunity to tell us all how very much they have learned from the Marshall spill (even though history shows they don’t learn from their mistakes), how it’s something they’ll never forget (even though they can’t even tell the truth about when it happened) and how much it has transformed the company (despite so much evidence to the contrary— and more and more— including this latest). But despite all the lip service and weird fetishistic iconography they’ve created to convince us that they’ve changed, their actions suggest otherwise.

And this leaves Patrick Duffy uttering nonsense the likes of which is probably making even our old friend Larry Springer blush. Duffy maintains that the company didn’t know about the missing coating in March. But he also concedes that the company’s engineers did know. Asked why officials told the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board there were no areas of exposed metal on Line 5, Duffy says such “statements were accurate to the best of their awareness”– whatever that means. He then chalks the whole thing up to “an internal reporting issue” before gaslighting the whole state, implying that concerns about exposed steel are just overreaction: “Enbridge has come to recognize that issues which do not present a threat to the safety of the pipeline can still present a strong concern to Michigan,” he says, promising that “we are adjusting our communication approach accordingly.” (Whatever that last statement means, I’m quite sure it’s not “we will tell the truth next time.”) You don’t have to be a professional psychologist to recognize this as the sort of incoherent gibberish a person generates when they’re completely full of shit.

It’s not clear what the state will do in the face of this completely predictable revelation. Unfortunately, my best guess is that the state won’t do much at all. But whatever the case, it’s long past time we should accept anyone– elected officials, members of the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, reporters, or anyone else paying the slightest attention– pretending to find Enbridge’s mistakes, missteps, misinformation, or misleading information to be anything other than business as usual.



On Backyards, Property, and New Mythologies of Belonging

On Backyards, Property, and New Mythologies of Belonging

[Note: this is the latest entry in a new series of short essays by Environmental Humanities scholars, writers, and activsts on the theme “Backyards”]


a. Social Science Fiction as Method

In Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase distinguishes between the genre of “futurism” and what he names “social science fiction.” Futurism strives to directly predict the future, “obscuring its inherent uncertainty and contingency” (26). Social science fiction, by contrast, mixes the imaginative capacity of science fiction to speculate about a world that might be, with the insights of social science about how actual lived experience is shaped by structural forces such as the political economy and social class. “To put it another way,” Frase writes, “it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism)” (27).

The project of the faculty and participants in this year’s Banff Research in Culture (BRiC) was to collectively think about the future from the particular to the general. BRiC is a themed research residency that brings together artists and researchers for several weeks at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. This year’s theme was “2067,” a date in the near future that was posed as a challenge to the liberal and nationalist self-certainties we knew would circulate during Canada’s 150th anniversary year. The affective fantasies and lived limits that shape our lives are the launchpad from which we speculate about the future-that-is-coming-to-be. We believe that to conjecture about the future necessitates theorizing the present, with all the blindness and ignorance that is constitutive of that attempt.

And so, in this post, we choose to offer up scenes that emerge from our own experiences as city dwellers, as professors, and as parents and children. From our similar subjectivities as first-generation academics, we tell some stories about the disconnect between our habits and desires. It is in telling stories that we create myths, myths that shape our perceptions and our praxis, myths that animate the reshaping and reimagining of political possibilities, both for the present and futures still to come.

b. Backyards (or, water, energy, housing, dreams, collectivity…)

Imre: I decide to get out of the house and go for a walk. It’s Sunday, late afternoon. Patches of thick clouds threaten rain. But they’re high enough, luckily, to let the Rockies peak over the horizon and into the suburb my mother calls home.

Calgary, Alberta is a city of suburbs. They ring every North American city, but not every city has them so nakedly on display as here on the bald, dry Prairies. The population density of Calgary is about one-third that of Toronto, one fourteenth that of Paris. Despite hopes that Calgary might grow denser over time, expectations are that 80% of growth over the next 20 to 30 years will be via suburban expansion on what is Treaty 7 territory. Where my mother lives the classic Canadian suburban houses jut their cavernous garages in front of the actual house, making it clear that automobiles have primacy here.

The original suburb, Levittown, New York, is only 70 years old this year. It was designed to manage the social and political problem of returning veterans in need of homes. The suburb was also a racist project, intended to create all white communities, repeating in a new form the geographies of privilege and privatism long connected to property ownership. Today, in an era in which the demands they make on the environment are understood to be enormous and indefensible, suburbs are still burgeoning, especially in cities with poor transit service, and large immigrant populations.

I cut down side streets and through alleys until I reach one of the redeeming features of these newer suburbs, which is a network of snaking bike and walking paths that lead to the Bow or Elbow River. The path closest to my mother’s home is in a long green space that takes the place of some of the alleyways. There isn’t much to it—a small playground here, small trees plopped down there—and normally I hurry through these spaces until I can reach the river. Today, I slow down, drawn to the backyards I pass by.

The suburban backyard is a landscape of dreams of leisure and community, of family and nature. Sometimes people move to the suburbs due to the escalating costs of urban cores, or because they want a bigger space to raise their children. They seldom move because they want to mow the lawn; more often they move because of the promise of outside space that belongs to them and them alone. Backyards are small, private spaces dense with fantasies of the good life.

Wood slat or chain link fences separate the Calgary backyards. The artifice of these yards is as palpable as that of the parks. The grass (which is, by the way, the most widespread crop in the U.S. after maize and wheat) is neatly mowed. One after another, row-by-row, these backyards corral individuals and families into discrete pockets of activity and belonging. I occasionally see people in their yards, but for the most part they’re empty. The path is empty, too—no cyclists, no joggers. 

Will backyards continue, in the future, to define a certain vision of the good life?

We may not see the political when we look at these tidy little parcels of land, but in some ways, backyards are amongst the most deeply political spaces on the planet. Many of the problems troubling the world come together here, in this aspirational space of childhood adventures and weekend BBQs. Backyards are about property, availability of housing, abundant resources, and access to jobs and money. They signal the (apparent) reality of a middle class existence without conflict, and the appropriate division of work and leisure. Backyards transform driving into a quotidian practice, a way of moving about that is hard to imagine ever coming to an end (didn’t we always have cars)? For many immigrants, like our own parents, backyards are signs of having, at last, made it.

Will backyards continue, in the future, to define a certain vision of the good life? In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “In the suburbs of Doha and Dubai, middle-class families pride themselves on their lawns. If it were not for the white robes and black hijabs, you could easily think you were in the Midwest rather than the Middle East” (64). Science fiction films and novels rarely imagine the future of backyards (there are no backyards in Blade Runner 2049, and apparently, in its vision of Los Angeles, there never were any). Perhaps they are such banal spaces that writers and directors jettison them as extraneous to the future (though sometimes, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, they become necessary sites of cultivation and survival). But this is a mistake. A failure to politicize backyards is a failure to contend with some of the most powerful affective forces that animate social life today.

c. Youth and Property

Eva-Lynn: My son Sebastian stays a night with Imre’s mother. He wakes up in the morning to the birds chirping loudly outside his window. No cars. No people walking by. He drinks a cup of coffee on the back deck, looking out over the grass, the cherry tree, and the raspberry bushes. “Wow, this is really nice,” he says. “Who knew?”

Our children have little experience of the suburban spaces in which Imre and I grew up. They were raised in cities, and have had the benefits of travel to different cities and a university education. These young men are acutely aware of their privileged upbringings, and yet are overwhelmingly anxious about what they will do when they graduate with their liberal arts degrees, where they will find work, and where they will be able to afford to live.

Whenever Sebastian comes to Toronto from Montreal, he says that he likes the city and feels at home. The problem is, he doesn’t have a home there. I sold the only one he had. His dad and I divorced, and I couldn’t afford to maintain our dilapidated house, with squirrels in the roof and raccoons perched in the tall trees in the overgrown backyard. It was in the desirable west end, near Dufferin Grove, a neighbourhood that is known as “more hippie than hipster.” Yet my kids’ geographical centre was not the predominantly white farmer’s market and park, but the large apartment complex across the street from our house. It may have detracted from the residential street feel of the rest of the neighbourhood, but Sebastian and his little brother took advantage of the flat mown grass to play soccer with the Tamil, Tibetan, Chinese, Somalian, Mexican, and Syrian kids that lived there. In the summer, women sat on the benches and chatted, pushing strollers back and forth to quiet their babies. It was an open urban yard, a place for the residents, crowded in their rental units, to congregate. Recently I asked Sebastian what happened to Shiv and Shradup, two of his friends from the buildings. The first still lives there, but the second has moved to the suburbs of Mississauga.

Our house went for well over asking in the crazy Toronto real estate market. In an instant, my debts were erased. I had money for university for the boys, and for a down payment. Imre and I bought into a 12-unit townhouse development built on top of a mid-century social services building. That space was retrofitted to house two start-up companies, full of tech guys and foosball tables. We live where the provincially funded daycare used to be. After we’d moved in, a Portuguese hydro guy came to check our meter, and said that he had rolled his trike in what was now our living room.

It’s a beautiful condo, but it doesn’t work as a space to live when the three boys are back in Toronto. Last summer Sebastian came for two weeks and slept in a tent on the rooftop terrace. When he left, he said, “Thanks for having me, Mom.”

I said, “You don’t have to say thank you, this is your home too!”

Neither of us is sure that it is, though. He has one drawer where he leaves an extra pair of jeans and some t-shirts. That’s it. Everything else he owns is in his shared rental house in Montreal. So what’s he going to do when he graduates next year? Where is he going to live?

Imre and I both left home to go to university, and never went back. Neither of us thinks that kids should live with their parents after they leave home. I think that maybe we don’t get it. Don’t get what it is to be a young adult in a city like Toronto, where the rental market is small and the prices unaffordable (the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the second quarter of 2017 was $1,861). Don’t get what it is to graduate with a liberal arts degree instead of Commerce or Business. Don’t get how culturally specific and privileged our assumptions are. Don’t get how lonely we will be once the youngest leaves.

If Sebastian feels at home in a city that he can’t afford, where do we feel at home? We’ve always thought of ourselves as city people, thrilled by the chaotic energy of Mexico City or Beijing. We believe in density, in the artistic and creative energies let loose by cosmopolitan urban modernity (even if we don’t believe in Richard Florida’s vision of the creative economy). Yet the gentrification of Toronto leaves us unsure of whether we really are urban—with dense condo development coming at the expense of rental units, community housing, and social services; with the growth of entrepreneurial hubs and start-ups and hipster shops; with immigrants moving to the suburbs, with its crummy infrastructure and woeful public transit.

We kid ourselves that what we have is what we deserve.

We don’t understand where the young people that frequent these places get their money, though we know that the twenty-somethings living in our building are subsidized by their parents. The young adults that we know—PhD students, sessional instructors, new parents, recent graduates—are moving to Hamilton or other smaller cities, trying to buy into those markets before they, too, hyper inflate.

Buying—a city like Toronto is about private property. We middle-class professionals imagine the need to own the place that we live in, and worry that our children won’t be able to. If we don’t own it—and we don’t because the bank does with the size of our mortgages nowadays—someone else does. We seem to accept that, despite crowding, increased disparity between rich and poor, and the winnowing out of working youth in the downtown core, that it’s ok to have, for instance, empty storefronts. In our neighbourhood, businesses are forced out because of the high property costs, and then the places stay empty for months or even years. What if the city council didn’t allow this, if those spaces were immediately turned into something public? Why do we imagine that a storefront needs to continue to be used only for retail? In a city with a long winter, where are the indoor spaces to congregate that don’t entail spending money?

All of us property owners: we kid ourselves that what we have is what we deserve.

Living in our posh beautiful condo, Imre and I indulge a new fantasy, one that entails a return to the more suburban spaces of our own childhoods. We visit the town of Guelph, and are delighted by the public spaces filled with dogs and kids and people our age. We imagine having what we had wanted to avoid by buying a condo: a sprawling house with a backyard for the dog, space for friends to spend the weekend, and a basement apartment in case one of the boys needed a place to live for a year or two. The move away from the backyard finds us craving one again, to our own great surprise.

d. Towards New Mythologies of Backyards

“Myth does not deny things,” Roland Barthes’s tells us at the end of Mythologies in “Myth Today.” “On the contrary, its function is to talk about them” (143). The work of myth is to take abstract nouns—nouns like nation, justice, democracy and the individual at the centre of the debates that comprise the political—and to try to render them concrete. From being a violent, troubling invention of history, the nation, for instance, becomes something to which marginalized groups aspire, since it is imagined as the proper (and only) form for collective belonging. Barthes writes: “A conjuring trick has taken place; [myth] has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance” (142-143). Put bluntly, “myth is depoliticized speech” (143)—speech that drains the political from concepts, which are then re-entered into politics as nature instead of history.

The Right is expert at the operations of myth, nudging and nuancing it to achieve its aims and outcomes. The Right has developed a deep and well-rehearsed vocabulary of myth, through which it generates appeals to common sense, produces proverbs and constructs apparently unalterable hierarchies. Like parents who respond, “Just because, that’s why!”, the Right knows how to employ tautology to render social constructions as natural givens.  Barthes describes Right-wing myth as “essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything, all aspects of the law, or morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of entertainment” (148).

What about the Left? The Left’s task has always been to show how language shapes the world, and to reveal the processes by which depoliticized speech operates to create a specific, jaundiced view of social and political structures. If myth is depoliticized language, then the Left adopts an opposite mode. But this critical task has a limit. Because of how it has configured itself in relation to myth, the Left is clumsy at making anything like a myth of its own; it can’t easily “fabulize,” remaining “stiff and literal” when it tries to generate myth in response to the Right. As Barthes puts it, “left-wing myth is inessential”:

the objects which it takes hold of are rare—only a few political notions—unless it has itself recourse to the whole repertoire of the bourgeois myths. Left-wing myth never reaches the immense field of human relationships, the very vast surface of ‘insignificant’ ideology. Everyday life is inaccessible to it: in bourgeois society, there are no ‘Left-wing’ myths concerning marriage, cooking, the home, the theatre, the law, morality, etc. Then, it is an incidental myth, its use is not part of a strategy, as is the case with bourgeois myth, but only of a tactics, or, at worst, of a deviation; if it occurs, it is as a myth suited to a convenience, not to a necessity. (147)

Barthes characterizes the Left as, at best, a kind of anti-Right, as dependent on the ideas of the Right even as it rejects them. Much of what constitutes Left politics is a softened myth of the Right (certain variants of socialism) or something akin to a left-libertarianism whose energy comes from a rejection of all that is myth. What is missing on the Left is myth as strategy or tactic. The Left cannot but see myth as artificial, constituted and so as something that has to be taken apart each and every time it is encountered.

We believe that Left-myths need to be created that are as powerful as those of the Right. The first step towards imagining them is to recognize the myths that already hold a powerful grip on us. To understand their power is to be able to create new myths that are convinced of the truths they profess, while yet holding open the critical desire to challenge myth. Might it be possible to generate a myth as powerful as that of the backyard and of property? A myth of a commons and a collectivity that can counteract the hold that this space has on our sense of what is safe, normal, and natural? This is a more deeply political act than one might have ever imagined.

Imre Szeman is co-editor of Energy Humanities: An Anthology (2017) and Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (2017). On Petrocultures, a collection of his recent work, will be published in 2018.

Eva-Lynn Jagoe is author of The End of the World as They Knew It (2008) and Take Her, She’s Yours (forthcoming). She is associate professor of comparative literature and Latin American studies at the University of Toronto.


Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: The Noonday Press, 1972.

Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2016.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Toronto: Signal, 2016.



Plastic Pollution and the Neoliberal Arts

Plastic Pollution and the Neoliberal Arts

[Note: this is the first post in a new series of short essays by Environmental Humanities scholars, writers, and activsts on the theme “Backyards”]

A number of recent journal articles and scientific reports have sounded the alarm about the proliferation of plastic garbage. The figures are staggering. According to the Guardian, humans bought 480 billion plastic bottles in 2016, with this figure expected to rise to close to 600 billion by 2021. Fewer than half of these were collected for recycling, and ultimately most of this plastic finds its way to a landfill or to the ocean. This has led to plastic pollution across the world’s oceans and beaches, as well as microplastic contamination of the food web and the hydrological cycle. Microplastics have now been detected not only in seafood, but also in consumables such as beer, honey, and sugar, and plastic particles have been found floating freely in the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Many scholars in the environmental humanities have been considering this issue—from Patricia Yaeger’s 2010 essay in PMLA to more recent work by Stacy Alaimo and Michelle Huang— as have a number of artists working across a variety of media. Chris Jordan, for example, in a series of photographs that has become iconic within the contemporary environmental imaginary, documents the shocking accumulation of plastic in the stomach contents of decomposing Pacific seabirds, while others have incorporated plastic detritus directly into their work, from Judith and Richard Lang’s plastic assemblages to installation pieces like Pam Longobardi’s Bounty, Pilfered (2014) and Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Marine Debris (2013).

Pam Longobardi, Bounty, Pilfered (2014). Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 2015.

At the College of Wooster, where I work, students have taken up this problem as it has manifested itself in our communal backyard, through both works of public art and political engagement with institutional policy. In 2013, students strung together paper cups across the campus to draw attention to the problem of single-use disposable containers, and that same year they organized to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. As part of the latter effort, the student environmentalist group Greenhouse crafted an enormous water bottle out of chicken wire and filled it with a week’s worth of bottled water purchases, as a means of rendering visible the sheer magnitude of the problem even at a small liberal arts college. The visual aid helped to draw a sufficient number of signatures to the group’s petition to the administration, and the effort to ban bottled water was ultimately successful—with one notable exception: to this day, SmartWater—a product consisting of “vapor distilled water and electrolytes for taste”—remains on sale in vending locations across the college.

Mark Dion, Cabinet of Marine Debris (2013). Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 2015.

While the elimination of all electrolyte-free bottled water constitutes at least a symbolic victory for student environmental activists, SmartWater’s continuing presence on campus is indicative of a deeper problem. SmartWater remains on the shelves because the college is bound to an exclusive beverage agreement with the Coca-Cola Company, which “worked with us”—as the director of campus dining and conference services euphemistically put it—to phase out bottled water on campus. But that phasing-out ultimately applied only to the Dasani brand of “purified water”—itself weirdly “enhanced with minerals for a pure, fresh taste”—while SmartWater remained available. In this regard “working with us” amounted to effectively disregarding students’ actual concerns and undermining their efforts to reduce plastic waste.

But as Laura Merrell, a student at the college at the time, astutely noted in a letter to the student paper, even if the effort had been a complete success, and SmartWater and Dasani had both been removed from campus, all the other Coca-Cola products—bottled, as we know, in plastic—would still have remained. If the college was truly committed to confronting the problem of plastic pollution, Merrell wondered, then “why stop at water?” Why remove “the healthy drink available in plastic bottles (water), and leave sugary, unhealthy drinks such as Coca Cola”? These are excellent questions, which get at two distinct yet related problems for colleges and universities in the age of neoliberalism: namely those of student health and well-being on the one hand, and institutional environmental impact on the other. In regard to student health, one might well wonder why any Coca-Cola product is allowed on campus at all. To extend Merrell’s logic a bit further: it has become more or less uncontroversial to ban the sale and even the use of tobacco products on college campuses, but why should we stop at cigarettes? If the well-known health risks of tobacco products have made it virtually unthinkable to sell them on campuses, why shouldn’t increasing evidence that high-sugar processed foods and beverages are responsible for accelerating epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and an array other health problems—while at the same time providing no health benefits whatsoever—justify a similar policy with respect to the harmful products (and even more harmful packaging) “soft drink” companies like Coca-Cola are pushing?

Considering the extent of the hazards to both student health and planetary ecosystems—the Coca-Cola Company alone accounts for 100 billion plastic bottles every year, making it the top offender in the crisis of plastic pollution—the most reasonable course of action would seem to be a campus ban not only on bottled water, but on all the various “beverages” with which soft drink companies flood our markets and media landscapes. But what is “reasonable” here—on my campus as it is throughout the realm of American higher education—is largely determined by what Wendy Brown has identified as an ascendant “neoliberal rationality,” one that not only “disseminates market values” into every area of contemporary life but that entails “the dramatic curtailment of public values, public goods, and popular participation in political life.” This is all exceedingly obvious in the exclusive beverage contracts to which most colleges, universities, and even public elementary and high schools are bound—contracts that often involve not only exclusive “pouring rights” for a single purveyor, but a “volume commitment” that actually requires the campus community to consume a minimum amount of product over the life of the contract. And neoliberal rationality is similarly apparent in both the achievement and the undermining of the Wooster student initiative to challenge the force of the contract and remove plastic water bottles from the campus. The removal initiative itself reflects a political imaginary circumscribed by neoliberal criteria, with environmental activism reduced to negotiation with administration and its corporate sponsor for the removal of a particular item from the array of commodities available for purchase, while the continuing presence of SmartWater reveals the concerted corporate-institutional opposition to even that attenuated effort at political activism. Given that what is at issue is quite literally a livable future—in terms of individual health and the viability of human societies under conditions of global environmental disruption—it is all too evident that the very idea of the common good has been radically subordinated to the prerogatives of the market.

“You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.” Stanley Kubrick, dir., Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

According to this market logic as it plays out here at the college, to disassociate from Coca-Cola (or Pepsi, or whoever) would be as unthinkable as disbanding the college’s iconic troop of bagpipers. In this regard it is perhaps unsurprising that in 1997 those same bagpipers were actually featured in a Coca-Cola advertisement.

The ad implies that the fun of college, of bagpiping, and of drinking Coke are linked in a way that is all but self-evident. It shows that the cultural significance of Coca-Cola—the view of it as something to be consumed and enjoyed and celebrated, on college campuses and everywhere else—runs deeper than any contract; but this cultural significance and the logic of the contract are mutually reinforcing. Here at the college, the presumed self-evidence of Coca-Cola’s necessary role in American life works hand in glove with the ever-intensifying predominance of neoliberal rationality to undermine student activism and to shape institutional food policy, in both regards with consequences quite contrary to the notion of a common good that the liberal arts college had been intended to foster.

One way to re-center a notion of the common good on college campuses—institutional backyards to many of us—would be to reclaim control over what we literally consume there. This would require reclaiming in the first place a notion of political action beyond the neoliberal logic of consumer choice, such that the corporate sponsors of higher education could no longer curtail and undermine student agency by reshuffling the commodities in the cooler. Rather than choosing between Dasani and SmartWater, Coke and Pepsi, could we imagine a campus experience free entirely from the political, social, economic, and ecological toxicity of these corporate purveyors? Just as many campus communities, mine included, have decided that cigarettes have no place in their shops and vending machines, we could also render soft drinks—with their well-known health and environmental hazards—a thing of the past. To take such deliberate action with respect to food and drink would contribute to a conception of education as Henry David Thoreau once imagined it, as a chance “to solve some of the problems of life”—from climate change and human health to the revitalization of democracy—“not only theoretically, but practically.” By rejecting not just bottled water but beverage contracts and the beverages themselves, we would signal a commitment to confronting the linked crises of public health and planetary-scale plastic contamination, as well as the neoliberal rationality that drives them both.

John Levi Barnard is an assistant professor of English at The College of Wooster