Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Josiah J. Rector


This dissertation is an environmental history of Detroit, Michigan from the 19th century to the present. Recent scholarship on the history of capitalism has largely ignored the problem of environmental inequality, and the negative externalities of economic growth. In contrast, studies of the environmental justice movement have richly documented race, class, and gender inequalities in environmental risk exposure. However, they have neglected the relationship between the development of the environmental justice movement and the restructuring of American capitalism since the 1970s, including deindustrialization and the shift to neoliberalism. Bringing these fields together, this dissertation connects Detroit’s long-term economic transformation to the accumulation of environmental health risks in urban neighborhoods. It argues that environmental conflicts in metropolitan Detroit have historically determined who would pay for the negative externalities of industrial and real estate development. Over the course of the 20th century, corporations, real estate developers, and affluent white residents increasingly shifted the environmental costs of regional growth onto working-class and low-income communities of color.

Between the Civil War and World War II, Detroit’s industrialization generated massive air, water, and soil pollution. Because of housing and job segregation, African Americans disproportionately paid the costs of this pollution, in the form of lower property values and higher rates of disease. After World War II, the movement of capital out of Detroit enabled manufacturers to reduce regulatory compliance costs, while leaving a legacy of polluted brownfield sites that the city could not afford to clean up. While manufacturers disinvested from Detroit, they used the threat of job loss to divide workers and environmentalists. In response, United Auto Workers (UAW) leaders formed a coalition for “Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs” with civil rights and environmental groups. In the 1980s, this coalition broke down in the context of ongoing deindustrialization, metropolitan racial segregation and inequality, and the neoliberal restructuring of the United States economy.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the decline of industrial unions altered the political economy of environmental justice activism in Detroit. Increasingly, the movement divided into non-profits and organizations based in a shrinking public sector. The dependence of non-profits on private grant funding became problematic in the 2000s, as local foundations began to support a policy of urban triage, as expressed in the 2010 Detroit Works Project and the 2013 Detroit Future City plan. Meanwhile, as Detroit became one of the epicenters of the nation’s subprime mortgage foreclosure crisis, more and more Detroit residents became vulnerable to losing their homes, or their ability to pay water bills. Neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, and austerity exacerbated environmental health risks for low-income Detroiters, especially African American women and children. This trend culminated in 2012-2015, when the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shut off water for over 100,000 residents. From auto manufacturing to subprime lending, processes of capital accumulation in Detroit have produced negative externalities for vulnerable populations. For the majority of Detroiters, this dissertation ultimately argues, the history of capitalism has not been a story of accumulating wealth, but of accumulating risk.