Atmospheric Coalitions: Shifting the Middle in Late Industrial Baltimore

  • Chloe Ahmann Cornell University
Keywords: atmosphere, problem-space, toxicity, climate change, social movements, jurisdiction, late industrialism, United States


STS scholars offer the atmosphere as an antidote to the homogenizing Anthropocene. They teach us that atmospheres are good to think because they are both diffuse and differential; they reflect the scale of planetary problems without forgetting that those problems manifest unevenly. The atmosphere has, then, become a useful tool for theory work. But it is also being picked up on the ground as a model for grassroots coalition building. This article follows one group we might call an atmospheric coalition, which coalesced to fight a trash incinerator proposed in south Baltimore City. That incinerator would have had a major impact on the local air, particularly due to heavy-metal toxics that land close to their source. But it also would have affected a large regional airshed and released thousands of tons of greenhouse gases. Taking a cue from these multi-scalar impacts, the coalition to stop the incinerator both used the medium of air to trouble insider/outsider dichotomies and valued an uneven distribution of power, letting youth from the frontline community lead. Participants, in other words, built a flexible alliance—and they utilized its flexibility. Sometimes it was advantageous to call the incinerator “everyone’s problem.” Sometimes it was necessary to underscore its differential effects on local people. And sometimes the transience of atmospheric claims worked to transfer jurisdiction over the plant from one group to another. In the process of exploring these maneuvers, I argue that activists used the atmosphere to define a problem-space with pliant parameters of authority and vulnerability.

Author Biography

Chloe Ahmann, Cornell University

Chloe Ahmann is an Assistant Professor of in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell. Her work is set in Baltimore, and considers what efforts to think and enact environmental futures look like from the sedimented space of late industrialism. For more information and links to recent publications, see


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