Environmental Justice: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_Like all edited collections, Environmental Justice contains a wealth of information on very different struggles and places, but I liked how it brought together politics, poetics and pedagogy. From the introduction by Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein (3-14), this starts with some of the basic history, as how environmental struggle emerged has shaped it and is as much part of the complexities of its definition as anything else:

In the last several decades, environmental justice movements around the world have grown out of convergences between civil rights movements, antiwar and antinuclear movements, women’s movements, and grassroots organizing around environmental justice issues.

It’s defining moments, cited in every background:

1987 report sponsored by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ), that ‘found race to be the leading factor in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities and determined that poor and people of color communities suffer a disproportionate health risk.’ (4)

1991 – First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.

One definition:

Environmental justice movements call attention to the ways disparate distribution of wealth and power often leads to correlative social upheaval and the unequal distribution of environmental degradation and/ or toxicity. (5)

Another good definition [from Environmental Justice Literature to the Literature of Environmental Justice, Julie Sze, 163-180]:

Environmental justice is a political movement concerned with public policy issues of environmental racism, as well as a cultural movement interested in issues of ideology and representation. Environmental justice challenges the mainstream definition of environment and nature based on a wilderness/ preservationist frame by foregrounding race and labor in its definition of what constitutes “nature.” It places people, especially racialized communities and urban spaces, at the center of what constitutes environment and nature (Sze, 163).

Soenke Sehle rephrases this as she writes about pedagogy, I love both of these definitions as they bring together people and place, networks and connections:

One of the core challenges of environmental justice education is to translate the mantra of ecology (all is connected) into a web of concrete relations that includes not only ecological but cultural, economic, and political processes. Different concepts of nature correspond to actual contradictions between different and competing notions of environmental politics. (338)

There is more on the differences between the environmental and environmental justice movements, also between city and country, city and sprawl:

Much of mainstream environmentalism goes hand in hand with an uncritical acceptance of the ongoing cultural, economic, and political shift toward suburbia: many environmentalists have yet to embrace the city as an ecologically sound alternative to the sprawl at the heart of ongoing suburbanization and are, it seems, quite unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Even though the history of ecology is closely intertwined with the history of empire, environmentalism as a social and political concern is often given an exclusively “metropolitan” genealogy, omitting experiences of colonial (settler) states and histories of popular resistance. (334)

These themes of city and wilderness, colonialism and empire and struggle, are picked up in different ways by all of the different pieces in the book.

Devon Peña  from a roundtable on environmental justice on economics, culture and value:

Under the capitalist system we have a very complex set of struggles that are emerging around the commodification and privatization of water. You see, for the Pueblo Indian and the Hispano Mexicano alike, water was not a commodity. It was not the exchange value that was important. So that water was treated not as a private property right, that you could sell and separate from the land. Rather, water was seen as a communal value and an ecological value that sustained a way of life in place. (22)

and

We need to find a pathway to ecological sustainability and social justice. My answer to that is that those ways are already there. In thousands of local efforts to create democratic workplaces, to create production processes that aren’t based on the destruction of the environment or the worker…. I urge my colleagues at the table to think how environmental justice is, in a way, moving away from the literature of toxicity to the literature of sustainability. (23)

It is hard, no? To move from toxicity? Because it kills, it kills people and it kills communities. I like this call though, to do both. To identify what is destroying lives, and to theorise how we might rebuild them, what we need to create something better. This is Terrell Dixon on the challenges involved — because toxicity works to destroy what is needed to create something better:

I emphasize that what we can call the toxicity chain is not only physical, that the way we have degraded our environment, our own bodies and those of other citizens, also creates a web of mistrust where government and corporations come under suspicion. The result is deep divisions along lines of class, ethnicity, and gender. once they see how all of this stems from how society works, or fails to work with toxicity, students come to recognize how toxicity fractures the potential for community. (24)

I like that this book tries to embody the different ways of knowing and being in the world. It is full of academic articles, but these come after the roundtable of activists, the words of people in struggle. This foregrounding of community voices is also key to environmental justice struggle and engaged scholarship. From Mei Mei Evans:

Personal testimonies have been the lifeblood of the environmental justice movement, bearing witness as they do to the material effects of policy-making, not on the corporation’s or the government’s bottom line, but on human lives. These witnessings, in other words, are not abstractions or analyses; rather, they are the chronicle of the consequences of environmental injustice. (29)

From here on to specific stories. A handful, and not even representative. The story of Point Hope, Alaska made me sick, a painful anger and sorrow in my stomach. A physical thing. This is where the logics of technology for profit divorced from any ethical frameworks of sense of responsibility to human beings or the earth lead.

In 1957, far away from Point Hope, nuclear scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established Project Plowshare, a national program to explore “peaceful” uses of nuclear bombs. Plowshare intended “to highlight the peaceful application of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that [was] more favorable to weapons development and tests.” In order to create favorable world opinion Plowshare advocates proposed the use of nuclear bombs for civilian construction projects. Nuclear bombs could improve a “slightly flawed planet” to allow for easier extraction of natural resources and to create waterways. (106)

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=316321
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=316321

They wanted to test this, and settled on using bombs to create a new harbor at Cape Thompson, 30 miles South of Point Hope. I found a graphic online.

The Atomic Energy Commission called the plan to create the harbor at Cape Thompson “Project Chariot.” The original Project Chariot plans called for the equivalent of 2.4 million tons of TNT to excavate the mile by half-mile harbor and the mile by quarter-mile entrance channel, an amount of TNT 160 times that which was dropped on Hiroshima. (106)

I can’t even write that without wanting to throw up. Project Chariot was not actually carried out as planned, instead they used the site to study how radioactive materials dispersed through waterways. The military and defense implications of that are clear. And ugly.

To find out, the USGS scientists constructed twelve plots demarcated with two-by-fours. On some plots they sprinkled the radioactive sand transported to Alaska from the Nevada Test Site…. On other plots the scientists sprinkled pure forms of radioactive isotopes… (Edwards, 107)

After the experiments they bulldozed everything into a huge mound. They didn’t tell the Inupiat tribe hunting and fishing in the area anything.

The tribe is still fighting. The many forms of cancer that emerged? Doctors would consistently blame those on lifestyle choices, like smoking. The complicity, or perhaps just blindness, of doctors is visible in case after case. They are so geared to seeing medicine as an individual problem, health something we must take control over as if we lived in neutral spaces. But there are no neutral spaces.

There is a lot more to find if you begin digging into the generation and disposal of nuclear and other toxic waste.  Like the way we are dumping toxic waste on the Pacific islands. This made me physically sick as well, not least because this is the kind of thinking facilitated by development capitalism:

Here, at different times, the previous colonizers and others in the nuclear arena (governments and commercial operatives) have proposed that nuclear and toxic waste be thought of by Pacific Islanders as a form of development — as a way to enter the global economy. It has been presented as their niche market, as they say in globalization discourse. (Kuletz, 130)

I didn’t know how the Western Shoshone at their annual protests of the Nevada nuclear test site (whose sands were used to poison Point Hope) created solidarity around the issue of nuclear waste, inviting people from Kazakhstan (victims of the USSR’s bombing tests) and the Pacific Islands. This Fourth World indigenous network gives some glimmers of hope.

In describing the Marshall Islands’ decision to accept waste from the US, as opposed to all those nations part of the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement (NFIP), it is interesting how Kuletz describes a new geography:

We need to see this situation spatially because it is quite literally a reorganization of space (not to mention identity) linking the Marshalls to the United States and thereby breaking the unity of Pacific Island resistance to Western neocolonial power. Space here is organized along missile corridors, training theaters, and restricted zones, as well as the construction of radioactive contamination zones, such as the Bikini Atoll or the Kwajalein lagoon, which has been polluted by depleted uranium as a result of the missile tests. (Kuletz, 137)

I found much to think about in terms of what I am working on in ‘Sustaining the “Urban Forest” and Creating Landscapes of Hope: An Interview with Cinder Hypki and Bryant “Spoon” Smith, by Giovanna Di Chiro. I very much like the format of interviews as a way to bring activist voices into conversation. In describing Baltimore — and these divisions of race and class that are so central to environmental justice, that are capable of fracturing community:

Baltimore, Maryland, one of the nation’s oldest industrial cities, is characterized by its residents as a “city of neighborhoods.” The friendly descriptor “neighborhood” invokes the notion of commitment, connection, belonging, and investment; the positive side of “community.” However, “neighborhood” also signifies the potent racial divisions — sometimes degenerating into communalism — that characterize the city’s social climate. Baltimore’s neighborhoods are primarily delineated by race and income, and residents of each neighborhood clearly recognize the unofficial boundaries that demarcate the separate sections of the city. (de Chiro, 286)

And a few words on how to move forward:

I don’t think we can transform broad political systems until we know we can transform a little bit of our own neighborhood. (Cinder Hopki, 298)

…you know how you referred to neglected and abandoned urban areas as “geographies of sacrifice”? As a poet, that term really catches at my heart. I think of all these wastelands that we’ve polluted…I would like to say that art and greening can help create “geographies of possibility,” and “geographies of hope.” (Hopki, 306)

I really liked the poetics section, I like reading about novels. Yet it always makes me feel that I would rather be the novelist than the critic, that I would be better going to the source. I have a longer list, now, of books to read, starting with Solar Storms by Linda Hogan. My next post is looking more closely at the chapter on ecocriticism by T.V. Reed but really, this section set me working harder than ever on the short stories and new novel. You know, the things I do in my free time. Being a self-supporting writer seems even crazier than becoming an academic. But both feel far away, though I did earn $10 this month for a story.

And finally the section on pedagogy. I loved this, the discussions of creating a curriculum and thinking through how to teach environmental justice brought to life far better the key ideas and themes as well as the central debates than any literature review I have read.  And as a teacher, I loved thinking about ‘Teaching for Transformation’ as explored by Robert Figueroa, and the openness of Steve Chase’s article on teaching environmental justice at Antioch. I loved how they built off of popular education, and how Chase turned a moment of crisis is turned into a moment of learning that we all can share and use to improve our practice. This was invaluable.

All together I love the ways that this volume embodied a holistic approach — not just in bringing together politics, poetics and pedagogy (which would be a lot), but in bringing many voices and worldviews and struggles together through talks, testimony, articles and interviews. It is definitely a volume to learn from.

Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein (2002) Environmental Justice: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Chapters quoted:

Environmental Justice: A Roundtable Discussion with Simon Ortiz, Teresa Leal, Devon Peña, and Terrell Dixon, by Joni Adamson and Rachel Stein (15-28)

‘Testimonies’ – From Mei Mei Evans (29-31)

Radiation, Tobacco and Illness in Point Hope, Alaska: Approaches to the “Facts” in Contaminated Communities, Andrea Simpson, 82-104

The Movement for Environmental Justice in the Pacific Islands — Valerie Kuletz, 125-144

Sustaining the “Urban Forest” and Creating Landscapes of Hope: An Interview with Cinder Hypki and Bryant “Spoon” Smith, Giovanna Di Chiro, 284-307

Notes on Cross-Border Environmental Justice Education – Soenke Sehle (331-349)

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

2 thoughts on “Environmental Justice: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy”

Leave a Reply