States of Failure: Reading Environmental Harm in the Global South


Citizens of postcolonial states like Nigeria, India, Tuvalu, and Kiribati are often profoundly failed by the political structures set up to govern and protect them. But state failure is not where these citizens’ stories end. States of Failure: Reading Environmental Harm in the Global South argues that postcolonial writers and subaltern citizens make failure culturally and politically productive. They complain about failures of state protection and provision to pursue forms of weak agency, resist environmental harms like oil pollution, toxicity, and rising seas, and to imagine better environmental and political futures. The failure of postcolonial states to care for their citizens in the wake of environmental damage is well documented, as are states’ own complicity in producing that damage. Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive to read such failures as anything more than an occasion for straightforward negative critique. But by close reading an array of fictional and political texts, States of Failure shows that state failures are neither simple nor unidimensional; rather, failure appears in a range of forms through which writers, activists, and victims engage with the very states that have harmed them. Informed by environmental justice and global South environmentalisms which insist on the mutual imbrication of environmental and political problems, States of Failure considers state failure and environmental harm together to reveal the surprising plurality of failure’s uses and meanings in the wake of environmental damage.


The book’s primary cases include Bhopal, a central Indian city wracked by pesticide poisoning, Nigeria’s oil-devastated Niger Delta, and vulnerable low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific. These late twentieth and early twenty-first century cases are emblematic of the kinds of environmental crises that have disproportionately affected the global South. At the same time, their distinct experiences and histories of harm highlight how forms of failure recur in otherwise disparate contexts. Across the book’s chapters, I move between this repeating cohort of sites show that failures and the states imagined from them are structured by contradictory forms such as hierarchy, promise, and revision.


Hierarchy produces an uneven landscape of political enfranchisement, where robust citizenship and access to rights or protections are not universally available. However, this bleak form is contradicted by other forms. The state’s promissory form is a productive misalignment between experiences and expectations of state provision, one where popular expectations of official promises remain unmet. This gap reinforces failure as a primary way in which the state is imagined and experienced; but here, failure offers terms through which disenfranchised subjects make themselves politically visible. Finally, failure makes the state a form under constant revision, one imagined beyond its existing limitations. Each of the book’s chapters takes up one of these forms as they repeat in Bhopal, the Niger Delta, and the Pacific. Through a comparative, multi-generic Anglophone archive that weaves together literature, grassroots or popular documents, juridical cases, and national legislation, I show that even when the state has worked as a hierarchical form, authors and activists turn to it to articulate ideas about environmental redress and political improvement, giving it also its promissory and revisionary forms. These latter forms are generated by ideas of state intervention and provision, and thus by an idea of the state broadly termed welfarist in this project’s archive. Indeed, promise and revision index some paradoxical elements of postcolonial state welfare, as ecopolitical violence meets demands for unfulfilled promises in the present and proposals for better versions of state intervention in the future.


As repeating patterns of interaction between states and citizens, forms of failure emerge from the imbrication of rhetoric and expectation, perception and experience, as these circulate between the many kinds of texts that are produced in response to environmental degradation and political disenfranchisement. In the aftermath of Bhopal’s 1984 pesticide factory explosion, the ongoing oil pollution of the Niger Delta, and the imminent threat of rising seas in the Pacific, evoking state failure, whether to diagnose its exclusions or take advantage of its promises, becomes an aesthetic technology of resistance to longue durée environmental harms. By pluralizing failure, States of Failure uncovers an archive of subaltern complaint that refuses to cede ecopolitical pasts, presents, or futures to the singularity of bad forms.


As more and more of us are exposed to long term environmental harms and the intensifying effects of climate change, States of Failure proposes that failure is a crucial resource for theorizing the pursuit of different presents and better futures from within the material intransigence of environmental damage.

I am at work on two other projects, one on apocalyptic realism across the global South and the second on infrastructure and genre in the literature of global South megacities.