We’ve got a ton of hero/villain narratives underway around the water contamination problems of Flint, Michigan. But there’s always a risk of post hoc storytelling here. As storytelling beings, we gravitate to narratives like that. But inevitably the heroes and villains are embedded in deeper institutional structures that are a necessary precursor to the problem, and fixing problems like this, broadly, requires fixing the conditions that allow this villainy to exist and require this heroism to fix it.
This is one of the important insights of the “solutions journalism” movement, and this is precisely what I love about the work Laura Bliss at Citylab, including this piece on Flint and the problems of places like it:
One crucial concept is environmental federalism, the basic enforcement structure underlying America’s big environmental protection laws. The federal government sets environmental standards, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act. States are the “primacy agencies” charged with implementing and enforcing those standards on a local level. Local governments and public water districts are supposed to comply with the state (and, by extension, the feds).
But environmental federalism creates some common trip-ups. First of all, “local and state politics always affect compliance,” says Teodoro. Local governments might determine that the cost of complying with federal and state standards is simply too high, too burdensome, or too politically onerous. For instance, compliance might require raising water rates, a risky move for local leaders seeking reelection. Or maybe the local population served by the water agency is politically marginalized, and thus deemed unworthy of the funding necessary for compliance.
Bliss is explicit in not excusing Flint’s villains. But her work shows why it’s important to go one step beyond and look at the institutional structures that push things in Flint’s direction.