January entry: What to Do When Paradise Stinks
Column Description: Image to Image: Musings on Faith, Media, and Story is a monthly column that illuminates old and new ideas about media ecology from a Christian perspective. Dr. Mitchell will explore what it means to bear God’s image and Christian witness in a mediated world, with a particular focus on the relationships between theology, media, and orthopraxy across different Christian traditions.
By Chase Mitchell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, East Tennessee State University
What to Do When Paradise Stinks
My city has a problem. It smells bad. No—it smells like death. Last night my wife and I went through our now-typical routine of “battening down the hatches.” We put duct tape around the edges of our windows and doors; turned five air purifiers, strategically dispersed throughout our house, on full blast; and prayed that the noxious stench that nightly invades our home wouldn’t disrupt our sleep. It did. We awoke at 3 am, as we do on many nights, to a smell that I can best describe as a dumpster fire fed by paint thinner. The culprit: the Bristol, VA city landfill. Residents have dubbed it “the beast.”
Twenty plus years ago, Bristol, VA leaders decided to put a dump smack in the middle of the town, in an old limestone rock-quarry, surrounded by neighborhoods. Because landfills are designed to capture and burn off dangerous and noxious gases, the argument went, it would be okay. Citizens petitioned against the move but to no avail. For years the emissions intermittently affected the poorest neighborhoods nearest the site. Such environmental justice—putting the most vulnerable at risk—is unacceptable in any case, but the problem went unaddressed for decades because the most-affected did not have the resources or voice to challenge those in leadership positions.
Since mid-2020, however, more residents have suffered from the city’s chronic poor decision-making and mismanagement of the landfill. Middle-income and higher-income neighborhoods are daily assaulted with the smell. A community Facebook group was created last year for residents to share their experiences, advocate for a solution, and generally vent their frustration. In a city with a population of just over 40k, the group has over 6k active members. I produced a brief documentary on the problem, titled Defeating the Beast, during the Christmas holiday. The problem is technically complex and—given Bristol, VA’s financial straits—impossible to solve without federal aid. You can read more in this excellent article by my friend Sarah Wade in Southerly Magazine, which is dedicated to environmental (in)justice in the South.
There are at least two ironies. The first is that Tennessee residents are suffering from a problem that they had no say in creating and have no political recourse in solving. Bristol, TN, and Bristol, VA are twin cities. The yellow dividing line that runs the length of our main street, State Street, is the state line. The dump is less than a mile from the line, and some of the most affected neighborhoods are on the TN-side. The two cities have different city councils, police departments, and school systems, but share a library, chamber of commerce, and water system. I grew up in Bristol, and we are—in spirit and in practice—one city. I cross the state line daily to shop, run errands, and see friends. And so it is especially frustrating that more than half of city residents do not have a vote in all this.
The second irony is that Bristol is known as “A Good Place to Live.” We literally have a massive, lighted sign at the east end of State Street that says as much. Indeed, it has always been a great place to live—at least for most residents—until recently. In fact, when city planners were considering a name for the town in the 1850s, they considered “Paradise” because the topography, geography, climate, and people were so pleasant. Ultimately, they went with Bristol out of admiration for the industrial and pioneering spirit for which Bristol, England was known. Sadly, our long history of being a good place to live, work, and raise families is being threatened. Those who can afford to move are selling up and buying in neighboring towns, or simply evacuating if they can’t sell their homes. (In what is a sellers’ market elsewhere, Bristolians’ home values have plummeted.) It’s no longer the Bristol I love, and much less Paradise.
Since this began, I’ve been shocked at how much our sense of smell is taken for granted. Unlike our other senses—sight, hearing, touch, and taste—we don’t usually think about or notice the olfactory unless it encounters something unpleasant. Also, smell is not generally conceived of as “media,” beyond perhaps the kind of novel 4D experiences at theme parks in which customers are herded into a theater that sprays perfumes to supplement other stimuli. But just because technology and market forces haven’t yet led to Smell-O-Vision in every American’s home, that doesn’t mean we should neglect the olfactory. If media is rightly understood as the sensory means by which we encounter God, and I believe it is, we must integrate our sense of smell into theological discussions of mediated environments. The toxic fume cloud that is affecting our homes, our health, and our quality of life reminds me that death stinks. God breathed life into us. The beast, aptly named, breathes death.
But there is hope in Christ. Area ministers have done much to find a solution and help the vulnerable. They’ve spoken at council meetings on behalf of the oppressed; advocated at the state and federal levels for aid; organized community events; written to local, regional, and national media for coverage; and raised money to provide air purifiers for “the least of these.” Their witness has not gone unnoticed. I’ve spoken with many folks who wouldn’t identify as Christians, but who are nonetheless moved by the compassion of their believing neighbors. They’ve worked together, hand-in-glove and in love, to care for one another. Despite the apparent morass, God is at work. In His time and by His Spirit, we will defeat the beast.