Logo for Climate Social Science Network (CSSN)

News and Research

CSSN Scholar Publications

Water for whom? Desalination and the cooptation of the environmental justice frame in Southern California

September 29, 2022

Through an ethnographic study of a high-volume desalination proposal in California, CSSN Scholar Brian O’ Neill examines how environmental (in)justice politics at times serves rather than contests industry.


The environmental justice frame is a key feature of successful grassroots mobilization against the uneven distribution of environmental problems. However, what happens when this discursive framework is questioned, that is, when features of its established definition are made to serve, rather than contest, industry? The article examines this dynamic through an ethnography of a high-volume desalination (potable ocean water) proposal. Findings indicate community groups and non-governmental organizations make normative environmental justice arguments about the high costs of desalination, community disruption, and industrial burden. By contrast, organized labor and public sector actors align with the private sector to promote desalination, using a competing series of arguments about local independence, regional responsibility, and employment. Disentangling these discourses, the author argues that claims in favor of desalination are a part of what this paper calls a cooptation of the environmental justice frame that ultimately facilitates community division in favor of a class bias for a luxury commodity. Interpreting this socio-ecological problem through a political economic lens, this research contributes to discussions about industrial infrastructure conceived within public–private partnership frameworks, calling scholars, activists, and decision-makers to attend to how environmental (in)justice politics can take on surprising meanings amid the expansion of financial capitalism.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/ Luciano Santandreu