Category Archives: Environment & Justice

Essential Writings from Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.

From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:

If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.

And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)

I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.

She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes

In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)

It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:

There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)

It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:

Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning.  (78)

It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.

“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)

I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:

By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)

And this is, indeed, a very good question:

I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)

I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:

Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)

She returns later to this topic:

Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)

It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.

All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)

There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:

The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)

She describes the two worldviews at play:

The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)

Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.

Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)

Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.

Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)

Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…

One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.

That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)

From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.


As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)

A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:

Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)

The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…

It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)

More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…

Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)

I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.

This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.

I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.

I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)

All of that. We need all of that.

This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.

[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]




Sustainable Communities, Environmental Justice

Having worked for an organization for so long that organized for environmental justice, it is interesting coming to grips with this breadth of literature and various academic framings brought to it. Wonderful, also, to have time to think, to read theory, to better learn the history I have only heard in snippets and reminiscences. And ‘sustainability’ is, of course, n even bigger buzzword that everyone must at least pretend to care about, so this book seemed a valuable addition.

Julian Agyeman looks at the different framings between environmental justice and sustainability, sees the two as essentially sitting at the opposite ends of a continuum. This is because EJ organizations have mostly risen from grassroots activism in the civil rights movement, fighting to expand the traditional environmental discourse. Sustainability is in many ways the traditional environmental discourse. It needs a lot of expanding. So on the one hand there is the Environmental Justice Paradigm (EJP) as outlined by Taylor (2000), and on the other, the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) of Catton and Dunlap (1978).

Apologies for these acronyms, but typing is work, right? And apologies I haven’t dropped the citations, but I think I will need them.

While far distant from one another, Agyeman argues there exists a nexus between the two of cooperative endeavours (drawing on Schlosberg 1999) to work together on common issues, but it needs to be developed. Agyeman argues that the Just Sustainability paradigm is one way to do so.

I quite love the term cooperative endeavours. It is really in working together towards a common goal that common ground is built and paradigms shifted. It takes time of course.

So in building a paradigm that can bridge the two, Agyeman uses a ‘discourse analytic and interpretive approach’  to look at EJP and NEP. He cites Brulle (2000:97) in a quote I particularly liked:

the discourse of a movement translates the historical conditions and the potential for mobilization into a reality that frames an organization’s identity. This identity then influences the organization’s structure, tactics and methods of resource mobilization.

I like how this highlights just how important our words are in shaping our organizations and the struggle they undertake, though I’m not too sure how much ‘reality’ and our understanding of reality  and how we act to change that reality overlap. That seems to carry a weight of philosophy in it. Carmin & Balser come from a slightly different interpretive approach, where ‘experience, core values and beliefs, environmental philosophy, and political ideology contribute to interpretive processes that take place within environmental movement organizations that in turn shape the selection of repertoire’. Agyeman is combining the two here to look at these paradigms, the discursive with the interpretive. I’m still not quite sure I get the difference as these are approaches I am unfamiliar with. Anyway.

Environmental Justice

So a brief history recap of EJ — I feel like collecting these, they all highlight slightly different things: EJ concerns have been around since 1492, but the seminal struggle in the current EJ movement as self-defined really was the battle in Warren County, NC to stop the dumping of PCB-contaminated dirt into a local landfill. Cole & Foster (2001) describe EJ’s foundations as the civil rights movement, antitoxics movement, academia, Native American Struggles, labor movement & traditional environmental movement. Really, it is a focus on environment from a social justice frame. I’m not sure how well it captures the richness of it, but I am partisan.

He goes on to cite Laura Pulido, whose work I admire immensely, and who sought to broaden out understandings of racism and how these undergird privilege. He doesn’t much mention how she situates this geographically — the spatialities of white privilege are so key to EJ, but I know I am a geographer.

Back to the theorisation of EJ, and some useful definitions — Agyeman and Evans (2004) argue that it has two

distinct but inter-related dimensions… a vocabulary of political opportunity, mobilization and action. At the same time, at the government level, it is a policy principle that no public action will disproportionately disadvantage any particular social group. (19)

It has been (somewhat) successful in fighting top-down knowledges, in challenging experts and opening up the research process to be ‘more transparent, accountable, and democratically informed’ (21). It has redefined environmental issues to not just include wildlife, recreational and resource issues, but issues of justice, equity and rights. It has both procedural justice aspects and substantive justice aspects.

I’m always a bit wary of framing as anything more than a tool in a box full of other tools, I feel that this kind of approach needs some level of suspicion, self-awareness, so I feel the need to look more closely at Dorcetta Taylor’s 2000 article, also Devon Pena’s critique of it. But later. For now, the other end of the spectrum.

The Sustainability Discourse and Sustainable Communities

There is a growing consensus, Agyeman argues, that:

sustainability is at least as much about politics, injustice, and inequality as it is about science or the environment. (43)

I hope that’s true.

I really love charts that summarize the literature by theme at a certain point in time and bring some clarity to an enormous field, even if I problematise it later. So first, Agyeman’s ‘Characteristics of a Sustainable Community’:

Then a summary of the differences between Broad-and Narrow-Focus environmentalism (from place-based environmental problems to both local and complex nature of problems but expanding on ideas of empowerment of citizens — parallels Gould et al’s (2004) distinction between biocentric and anthropocentric environmentalisms, without making any value judgements between the two)

Just Sustainability in Theory

So the hope is that the JSP can bridge the gap between the EJP and the NEP. The first is the framework emerging out of threats to local community and from popular, grassroots community movements, the second a sustainability discourse that is largely institutional and expert, the first communitarian discourse , the second individual knowledge and the skills to decipher academic jargon (81).

So. A summary of the Just Sustainability Paradigm, and some of the ways it might be measured and how we are doing by such measures. These are useful in the funding and policy world, but I kind of hate them. But I remind myself they are useful in the funding and policy world.

He starts with the existence of the Genuine Progress Indicator as apposed to GDP from Redefining Progress. I really do hate GDP, the drive for constant growth and all that is left out of it. Some of that is listed in this description of the GPI from their website:

The GPI starts with the same personal consumption data that the GDP is based on, but then makes some crucial distinctions. It adjusts for factors such as income distribution, adds factors such as the value of household and volunteer work, and subtracts factors such as the costs of crime and pollution.

As of 2004 we were stagnating…

We need something new and better. So what is this JSP then?

  1. A central premise on Developing Sustainable Communities
  2. A wide range of progressive, proactive, policy-based solutions and policy tools
  3. Calling for, and has developed, a coherent ‘new economics’ (predicated on ‘sufficiency’ is happiness, not more stuff, see McLaren 2003)
  4. Much more of a Local-Global linkage
  5. More proactive and visionary than the typically reactive EJP

ooh, I bet that last point might rankle with a few folks.

For bullet pt 1, Agyeman builds on the Environmental Justice Research Centers’ 1997 conference and publication healthy and sustainable communities: Building model Partnerships, which is no longer to be found online, so I shall quote his bullet points. I really like these bullet points, but really they are just another reframing of the original declaration I suppose:

  • Grassroots community groups want to see sustainable development that is not only environmentally and ecologically sound but is also just.

  • They support a sustainable economy that improves the vitality and self-sufficiency of their community and its residents.

  • They view education as a key ingredient in long-term community health and sustainability plans

  • They advocate the right of all people to a safe and secure livelihood, including the right to education, safe and affordable housing, and adequate health care

  • They promote democratic access to and control over natural resources

  • They demand that all groups are included as equal partners in development decisions

  • They promote government and corporate accountability to the public for decisions about production and consumption

  • They support the acquisition and preservation of open space in our community

  • They promote respect for cultural diversity, Mother Earth, and the spiritual connectedness among all living beings.

  • The support the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment

  • They support public policy decision making based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free from any form of discrimination. (100-101 EJRC 1997: 4)

So to compare the two in their theorists, their central premises and focus, their approach, their policy solutions, their planning practice, policy tools, attitudes towards markets — everything you need, in short, to think very practically about how implementation works and to fight for its implementation and to know where you stand vis-a-vis the other side, which is dead useful:

Just Sustainability in Practice

He develops a Just Sustainability Index, which ranks people on discourses around equity, justice and sustainability, then looks at range of issues being tackled. I confess, I most loved this as just a list of awesome work being done and the very broad nature of the issues:

Land-use Planning (Urban Ecology, Oakland; Bethel New Life, Chicago; The Bronx Center Project)

Solid Waste Management (The Green Institute, Minneapolis; NYC Environmental Justice Alliance; Reuse Development Program, Baltimore)

Toxic Chemical Use (use of Right to Know, Toxic Use Reduction, Precautionary Principle, Clean Production: The Silicon Valley Toxics Colaition; Alaska Community Action on Toxics; Toxic Use Reduction Institute, Lowell MA)

Residential Energy Use (National Centre for Appropriate Technology, Butte Montana; MA Energy Consumer’s Alliance; Communities for a Better Environment, Oakland CA)

Transportation Planning (LA Bus Riders Union; Unity Council, Oakland CA; Transportation Alternatives, NYC)

Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE)

It ends with a case study, this deep look at ACE in Roxbury that is wonderful because they are pretty amazing. Agyeman quotes the then ED (from 1995) Penn Loh on their EJ model, which he argues is:

not about surface solutions. Its always been about finding deep, systemic solutions, which means that if the movement wants to be grassroots led, really community driven, you can’t do anything but try to work with people so that they are building their own perspective, so the tools that we have around “how do you do that?” and “how do you do that and help folks develop strategies that end up with things that they can see as progress?” and that’s the continual challenge. I wouldn’t say that we’ve come up with the right formula. We’ve tried different things. (145)

Exactly. It then goes on to give their program selection criteria — always so useful! I wish I had read this years ago while selecting programs myself, though in truth it is not too different than our own:

Tier 1, Criteria for meeting ACE Mission: programs that address priority concerns derived by, achieved for, and led by the Roxbury and Greater Boston residents.

Tier 2, Criteria for an Effective Campaign: easily understood goals that can be achieved within a clear time frame. The program should also provide the foundation for future community partnerships, increase resident awareness of EJ issues, and allow future campaign development.

Tier 3, Criteria for sustaining ACE as an organization: builds ACE’s strengths, allows fundraising support, and creates unique programs that can be shared across the country. (146)

I love too Loh’s quote that coalition isn’t always useful — they decided not to be part of the MA Smart Growth Alliance, for example:

…we didn’t feel that the justice issues were front and center enough to make it worth it. We don’t want to spend time, even if there are some opportunities to be had there, fighting within the partnership itself to ensure that the approach is right. (178)

We knew that feeling all too well.

From Confrontation to Implementation

Short and sweet. Justice needs to be the focus (see quote above). And a final thought, organizations can be both EJP and SJP, which makes sense…SJP in some ways is just more of tactic, a practical way to find common ground with organisation and institutions who see the world very differently. But I’m still thinking about that.

[Agyeman, Julian (2005) Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice. NY & London: New York University Press.]




Environmentalism and Economic Justice in the Southwest: Laura Pulido

Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart).  It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.

Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:

…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)

This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:

From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)

While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand

how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)

Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:

Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)

The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.

A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:

For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).

So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:

This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)

New Social Movements (NSMs)

For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.

I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.


The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:

The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)

The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:

Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.

She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)

It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles…  Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)

She continues:

I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)

It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:

Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)

At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):

It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)

This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.

The key to …  inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)

I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:

This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)


I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:

I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.

Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)

It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:

Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)

I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:

recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)

And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:

The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)

Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:

For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)

Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.

Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.

Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)

Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:

When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)

Some axes, some definitions


I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:

Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)


The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:

In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)

Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:

Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…

It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)

This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often

there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)

Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.

Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)

This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.


Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)

…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)

But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:

In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)

Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:

Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)

and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.


As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)

The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:

Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)

The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.


Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):

Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.

I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.

Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.

Bringing it all together?

So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:

  1. Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973).  Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
  2. Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
  3. Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:

Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)


Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]











Women in Grassroots Movements: Temma Kaplan

Temma Kaplan Crazy for DemocracyI loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.

We need more of that, especially now.

At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.

Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)

I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.

Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.

Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)

See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.

Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.

certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)

There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…

Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)

But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.

On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:

Love Canal

Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)

I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:

In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later.  (23)

Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)

There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.

The way women themselves do this:

Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)

Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping

Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:

Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)

Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:

Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)

One of my favourite stories.

On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:

“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)

Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:

At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)

Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.

Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)

Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:

Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)

The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:

As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)

The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.

Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)

Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:

“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)

I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…

A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally

seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)


From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).

The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:

twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)

Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses.  In this case, Crossroads found  help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that  point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.

They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.

The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.

They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.

The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.

I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:

the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)

There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.

But this made me laugh out loud:

When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)


All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:

what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)

her critique:

collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)

She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:

What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)

I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others.  Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?

Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.

[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]










Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]





Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects, Climate Change (and Trump)

hyperobjects-timothy-mortonI found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…

Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion

massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).

it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,

The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)

Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.

I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a  hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.

So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.

I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.

Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:

They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge…  Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)

They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:

No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)

The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.

I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:

For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)

An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of

speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)


Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?

The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley

This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.


Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:

Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)

In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)

It touches all of us.

In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)

Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.

When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)

He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.

Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)

It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:

There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)

Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:

…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)

Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean.  (63)

There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes

To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)

and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:

Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)


Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.

We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)

I struggle with how this is different from non-locality

As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)

Also with how this is not quite another argument for networks, for connection the way permaculturists would see things, or Capra — but Morton is fairly dismissive of emergence.

Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)

I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:

The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)


The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)

Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:

Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:

  1. Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.

  2. Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.

  3. Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.

  4. The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)

There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:

The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)

PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects

A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)

Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:

Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)

On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:

The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)

I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)

This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.

I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.

Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)

So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …

Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)

Later in the book he returns to this:

A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)

I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects

What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)

[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]




Urban Sprawl and Public Health

Urban Sprawl and Public HealthUrban Sprawl and Public Health —  a great book! It was amazing to see urban planning and public health brought together in this way — a solid primer on both for each, along with a plea for professionals to start working together to fix this. Because sprawl is killing us.

I myself would throw in a soupçon of sociologists and geographers and community organizers to the health and planning mix as well, because what was missing? More analysis on the nature of development and how the drive for profit drives this urban form, more analysis on the struggle of everyday people to fight for and against some of these dynamics, and the ways in which race and land have long been linked (but there is more of this second aspect than in many another book). Still, despite these critiques, I confess that few things get me going the way that talking about the city and health in the same book do.

Health & Sprawl facts:

In the last 15 years, the US has developed 25% of all the land developed in the past 225 years of its official existence. (xii)

Between 1960 and 2000, average American’s yearly driving more than doubled — 4,000 to nearly 10,000 miles per years. “rush hour” spread over seven, not 4 and a half, average driver’s time spent stuck in traffic each year: 6 to 36 hours in Dallas, 1 to 28 hours in Minneapolis, 6 to 34 in Atlanta. (xiii)

On Sprawl

Sprawl — a term from William H. Whyte! Did I know that? He wrote an article for Fortune in January 1958, titled ‘Urban Sprawl’. There are a variety of definitions and measurements of sprawl, here they follow those that incorporate both land use and transportation as intrinsic. They focus on four main aspects — density, land use mix, automobile dependence and connectivity (or how destinations are linked through transportation systems (7). (5)

I particularly like how much they use illustrations, this is a good one:

Source: Drawing by Duany Plater Zybek as shown in F. Spielberg, ‘The Traditional neighborhood Development: How will traffic Engineers Respond?’ ITE Journal 1989 (59) 17-18

I also liked the ‘transect’ — a look at the continuum between sprawl and compact neighbourhoods (16)

Transect 03-03-03" width="1572" height="530" class="size-full wp-image-7010" /> Source: Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zybec and Company (2003) Transect 03-03-03
Source: Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zybec and Company (2003) Transect 03-03-03

Chapter 2 looks at the origins of sprawl, and it is based almost in its entirety on Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. So it summarizes the multiple factors that have lead to spraw, and it is a very long list. He heads it with the pull of the suburbs and the (European) cultural values Jackson believed underlay that pull — domesticity, privacy and isolation (28). In addition you have land ownership as a mark of wealth and status, alongside (partly driving perhaps, but I’m a cynic that this drove development rather than sales) a love of land itself and antipathy toward cities. (29) The Garden City movement feeds into this, embodied by Frederick Law Olmstead, along with the new technologies and construction methods and lots of cheap land (no mention of conquest here of course). There is a little here on the willingness of cities to spend taxes on providing infrastructure like roads and sewers — directly subsidising this kind of development as opposed to improving older neighbourhoods or public housing. The rise of the automobile and destruction of public transportation. The rise of zoning. The HOLC and the FHA, federal policy and money going towards new housing for whites (I do wish, though, that they had read Freund).

Still, I like the simplicity of their conclusions though:

Sprawl, as we know it today, appears deceptively chaotic. In fact, it is a highly ordered and predictable form of development. An edifice of public and private instruments erected over the past three-quaters of a century reinforces and extends sprawl. (42)

There is a little on financing here, and that real estate financing now works on an expectation of profits within 5-7 years — more built-in obsoleteness. I wish they had connected this to Harvey’s ‘spatial fix’ but that’s complex I guess. This is my field though, and this is a good summary.

Urban Health

Urban health is not my field, though I have a good deal of practical organising experience on the subject.

Frumkin et al compare the evolution of urban health with public health through ‘epidemiologic transition’ — and these titles really do inspire the SF writer side of my brain: The Age of Pestilence and Famine, The Age of Receding Pandemics, and where we are now: The Age of Degenerative and Man-Made Diseases. In cities, infectious diseases once dominated, but sanitary infrastructure ended that to a great extent. But industrialisation introduced pollution, and mental health and violence are not forgotten here, with growth in poverty, social dislocation and crime. (45)

From a public health perspective, the critical problems that grew as cities did were: garbage, commercial activity (tanning and other nasty things), sewage, water, air, and housing. (46)

An interesting aside:

In New York, Assemblyman Aaron Burr [founding father and profiteer] obtained a charter for the Manhattan Company, a private firm that was to hold a monopoly on piped water for the next quarter of a century. (51)

Privatised water is nothing new. Nor are the images from Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. My family for example, hanging out with the other half in Pittsburgh, probably looked much like this, though they were never in this particular alley.

Bandit roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Jacob Riis 1888
Bandit roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Jacob Riis 1888

 The Results: A Plethora of Infections

Their heading, not mine. I had not read of the yellow fever epidemics that swept through Washington D.C. — as President Washington fled in 1793 leaving over 5,000 dead, or over ten percent of the city’s population. (55)

The book quotes a citizen group in Philly writing:

if the fever shall become an annual visitant, our cities must be abandoned, commerce will desert our coasts, and we, the citizens of this great metropolis, shall all of us, suffer much distress, and a great proportion of us be reduced to absolute ruin. (56)

it continues

Cholera, Typhoid…Cities in these early days were ‘incubators of infectious disease’ (57)

Now this is Pittsburgh just as my great-grandparents were arriving:

1890s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- Smokestacks from factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, belch black smoke into the atmosphere, 1890s. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
1890s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA — Smokestacks from factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, belch black smoke into the atmosphere, 1890s. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

But slowly this would change…

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as sanitary challenges were met and as industrial pollution was managed, the toxicity of cities–the factors that most threatened residents’ health and well-being and even helped drive migration out of the cities–came overwhelmingly to revolve around social circumstances. (61)

The heading for this section is ‘The Social Pathology of City Life’. (61)

during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as sanitary challenges were met and as industrial pollution was managed, the toxicity of cities–the factors that most threatened residents’ health and well-being and even helped drive migration out of the cities–came overwhelmingly to revolve around social circumstances. (61)

The urban crisis — it is interesting, perhaps a little troubling how the social is here linked with the epidemiological, but I am often troubled by the public health gaze at poverty. Foucault was too, so I’m in good company. The book here  notes the riots of the Red Summer of 1919 — yet it doesn’t distinguish these horrifying white killing sprees where literally hundreds of people were murdered with ‘riots’, what inhabitants themselves described as ‘uprisings’ in protest of police brutality and living condition in Watts in 1965, LA again in 1992 and etc (62).

It is interesting to consider the ‘urban health penalty’, however:

a complex of environmental conditions such as deteriorating housing, inadequate access to nutritional food, and scant medical care, and health consequences such as untreated hypertension, cardiocasvualr disease, intentionala dn unintentional injuries, and infectious diseases. (63)

Interesting to read of a 1990 article in New England Journal of Medicine showing that men in Harlem had lower life expectencies than in Bangladesh.* They write:

A literature of urban health arose, focusing on these conditions and how to provide health care to the victims. (63)

From here on to the nitty gritty.

Air Quality:

I like this chart:


‘As the model illustrates, land use patterns affect each category of athropogenic emmissions–their location, their quantity, their dispersion in the air, and how people are exposed. (66)

And a summary of what air quality means for health:

Air pollution threatens human health in four principal ways. The two most important are by increasing mortality and by threatening respiratory health. In addition, air pollution can damage cardiovascular function and increase cancer risk. There is evidence for some other health effects as well. (80)

Physical Activity:

The ‘epidemic’ of obesity must be well known to anyone doing community work, or even who just reads the paper.

Being overweight is itself a well-established risk factor for a number of diseases. people who are overweight die at as much as 2.5 times the rate of non-obese people, and an estimated 300,000 Americans die preventable deaths each year as the result of being obese. (96)

So sprawl obviously has some share of this, creating environments where no one walks. Where it is dangerous to walk even if you wanted to, and there were somewhere to go. What features of the environment help people become more active?

Frank, Engelke and Schmid** identify three dimensions of the built environment…. land use patterns, design characteristics and transportation systems. (99)

Pikora et al*** expand on this, primarily in area of design — functional factors, safety factors, aesthetic factors and destination factors. So — a mix of different land uses, availability of sidewalks and footpaths, enjoyable scenery, the presence of other people in the space being physically active, safety.

Fucking rocket science, this is.

Injuries and Deaths from Traffic

Holy Jesus, this will make you never want to get in a car again. Over 40,000 people a year die by automobile. (110)

Water Quantity and Quality

So, you got your microbial contamination of water, your chemical contamination. You have your water scarcity. Sprawl affects all of these — thus the section titled ‘The Hydrology of Sprawl’. The rain falls, it percolates through foliage, roots and soil — cleansing itself as it does — to recharge groundwater and the water table. About half of us drink water from surface sources, and the other half from groundwater. My family drank from groundwater once, now we’re on a list, because it was contaminated. But that’s a longer story.

Forested areas are best at capturing and cleaning water, paved streets and rooftops, as you can imagine, fail completely. It all becomes chemical and pollutant-rich run-off. They give a view of what development’s effect is on this process:

Schematic view of water balance before and after development -- Center for Watershed Protection
Schematic view of water balance before and after development — Center for Watershed Protection

The stormwater runoff from suburban development contributes to microbial contamination as it ‘includes large loads of waste from pets and wildlife and nutrients from such sources as fertilizers’. Heavy runoff also carries sediment, these can protect dangerous bacteria like giardia as they sit in filters and drains. And then you have your further suburbs using wells and their own septic systems. The final way is unexpected — the continued growth of suburbs means the focus is on building new infrastructure, not repairing and cleaning out the old, which desperately need it. So our own pipes and things are poisoning us.

The chemical contamination is more obvious I think, all the toxic things we uses every day as well as those deposited by cars and exuded by factories all get swept into the water supply as well.

Mental Health

this is good to see here, I think it is left off of such analyses far too often. They remind us that sprawl is partly caused by a desire to get away from the city, into nature, into all that is good for mental health. Yet this is only one aspect of the suburbs — possibly offset by highways, sameness, box stores, speed, large scales, and just the amount of time people spend driving.

There is a whole of information on just how bad for us driving is. How it increases stress, makes us angrier. Studies on road rage. All of these things could, most likely do, contribute to morbidity.

Social Capital

This comes from community. They define such a sense of community as a

“feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”**** There are four aspects of this sense of community: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. (161)

They look at the many ways community psychologists, human ecologists, and sociologists have talked about community and social capital, but much of it is based on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, so I won’t go on too much more here except for the ways it affects health. I’ll be dealing with Putnam too. Everyone quotes him.

Research has focused on two broad aspects of the social environment: structural features and social support. Structurally, people look at the density of relationships and extent of social networks. Social support is described as the the amount of emotional support (and other kinds?) in times of need (166. In a nutshell: People with strong social networks live longer. Lots of studies confirm it (you can see the Marmot Review on the UK). (166) The same correlations hold true for social capital.

Sprawl, on the other hand, tends to to diminish both networks and capital in several ways:

  1. Cars have much to do with this, the amount of time people spend driving restricts free time for civic engagement.
  2. sprawl ‘reduces opportunities for spontaneous, informal social interactions’ (173)
  3. ‘sprawl privatizes the public realm’, people who spend all their time at home don’t value public space, green space, suburban voters almost always vote to limit government programs with social goals or for public transportation
  4. sprawl divides people into homogenous communities.
  5. sprawl disrupts continuity of life as people age — can’t move into smaller house in the same neighbourhood (173)
  6. 1998 report from the Transit cooperative Research program found that ‘sprawl weakens households’ connection both to their immediate neighbors and to the larger metropolitan community. (174)

But it turns out that some sprawl better than others — the built environment and design can affects this, so there is some hope. But this first post is on all that is wrong, the second on what can be made right…

Health Concerns of Special Populations

I do like that there is focused attention on how sprawl impacts different groups, acknowledging that the costs of it are not even. There is a long list…Given that women are usually doing most of daily chores and chauffeuring of kids, the burden falls disproportionately upon them.

Children breath more rapidly, have narrower airways — thus pollution has much more impact on them than on adults. The lack of physical activity affects them more — and yet when they are physically active in polluted areas, it is more dangerous for them. Part of childhood is exploration of the world and the self away from parents — yet we have built spaces where that is not safe, impacting the mental health and development of kids. They are isolated, and don’t have the wealth of networks and adults watching out for them that a health community might have.

The elderly, too, are severely impacted. Communities that aren’t walkable require cars — so people drive long past the time they should not. Elders are isolated, unable to exercise, unable to have meaningful connections that improve their health and quality of life. This is often also true for those who are disabled. How dare we create cities without sidewalks.

Then, of course, there are the poor and people of colour. A reprise here for HOLC and FHA regulations, the racism that confined people into inner cities (I don’t think they quite realise how prevalent this continues to be). The steady concentration of poverty and its related health impacts in areas of higher pollution. The disparities of race in class so visible in health and morbidity statistics.

The connections are multiple and strongly evidenced. Enraging really. I like that they don’t stop there, but include a final chapter on possibilities for changing our cities and our future. That will follow in the next post.

*McCord C., Freeman, H. Excess mortality in Harlem. New England Journal of Medicine 1990; 322: 173-179.

**Frank, Engelke and Schmid (2003) Health and Community Design: How Urban Form Impacts Physical Activity, Washington D.C.: Island Press.

*** Pikora, T et al (2003) Developing a framework for assessment of the environmental determinants of walking and cycling. Social Science and Medicine 56: 1693-1703

**** McMilland and Chavis




The questions we ask: environmental justice and ecocriticism

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been working on research proposals and job applications, along with working on articles, and slowly growing into how I think theoretically about my many years as a community worker and organiser, and how I can work in my new role to make this world better. Whatever my new role comes to be exactly, given how few jobs exist, and without ceasing to be an activist as a volunteer for this, that and the other of course. So much of our work and thought is driven by the kinds of questions we ask, and nowhere have I found more difference than in the kinds of questions people ask and think are worth finding answers to.

In a large project, few things are as important as your research question.

So the fact that within the wonderful Environmental Justice Reader (mostly blogged here) someone sat down, and wrote out typical questions for the different areas of ecocriticism was wonderful, and impossibly useful to me. I think this should be done for every field. Not as a way of limiting our questions, but as way to help you position yourself, of knowing who you most want to be in conversation with. Of not judging others unfairly, because they never started off knowing what you wanted to know.

Then of course, there is the whole question of knowing what other people want to know, and how your own questions fit into that, so you can get funding. But that just drags a whole exciting world of curiosity and possibility into the dust, and there’s no need to do that in a blog post. I will save that for my paralyzing moments of existential questioning.


img_7438Reed, T.V. ‘Toward an Environmental Justice Ecocriticism’ (145-162)