Contrary to the negative stereotypes associated with NIMBYism, Carol Hager’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series demonstrates how NIMBY protests can be beneficial components of participatory politics that result in social, political, and technological innovation. Contrasting case studies from Germany and the United States, Hager examines how, with varying degrees of success, local residents are able to resist unwanted development and environmental threats while imagining more progressive alternatives. In this light, NIMBY protests can be seen as initiating processes of community learning and innovation.
The year 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first national study in the United States to correlate the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities and communities of color—a revolutionary intervention that introduced the concept and, notably, the term “environmental justice.” In the years since the paradigm shift caused by The United Church of Christ’s report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, scholarship highlighting the connections between race, class, and environmental burdens have remained both critical and necessary to understanding the links between humanity and the environment.
Here at the Social Science Research Council, between 1989 and 1998, the Global Environmental Change (GEC) program sought to address some of the intersections between poverty and the environment, among other matters. Items covered the GEC’s work, including a 2007/8 retrospective on the prescience of the program. But, the GEC did not tackle environmental justice issues head-on. Building on its work, and on the growing attention to related issues across the social and environmental sciences in the ensuing years, this Items series engages “just environments” at a crucial moment in the United States and around the world.
As a global public increasingly scrutinizes and questions our shared environmental challenges, Items revisits the question of human impacts on the environment and the environmental impacts on humanity. Recent events highlight the challenges that remain: ongoing battles to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water supply from a proposed oil pipeline herald a familiar tale of indigenous populations pitted against big industry. Across the global South, vulnerable populations experience the effects of climate change most directly.
How can we understand the tensions that persist? Given these tensions, is it possible to imagine more just environments and offer strategies for collective solutions? Over the last three decades, a rich body of social science research has theorized, analyzed, and critiqued intersectional inequities through the lens of environmental crises. Using a host of approaches, theories, and methodologies, scholars have examined the roots and consequences of environmental biases. Embedded throughout this work is the notion that more equitable alternatives exist.
The essays in this series build upon that research, reflecting on this potential for change, particularly with respect to contemporary environmental contestations. Together, they offer a diverse set of perspectives that uncover a range of pathways toward more just environments.
Susan Cutter’s essay from the Council’s 2006 “Understanding Katrina” series examines the particular confluence of natural and social vulnerabilities that devastated New Orleans—a doomed convergence that has echoes throughout the recent 2017 hurricane season. In New Orleans and other cities, failures in social support systems most severely impact the poor, the elderly, the homeless, and other special needs populations. Though disasters will continue to happen, Cutter argues that we can lessen their impacts by reducing social vulnerability and increasing resilience.
As Puerto Rico faces hurricane-induced devastation, the “Just Environments” series publishes an essay by Alexa Dietrich, Adriana María Garriga-López, and Claudia Sofía Garriga-López situating the current catastrophe within a broader historical context. Viewing it as an unnatural disaster, the authors point to a confluence of postcolonial industrialization, lax environmental regulation, and the privatization of utilities, which have all contributed to the island’s deteriorating infrastructure. Moving forward, they advocate for sustainable economic development and reliable public services as means of strengthening already-existing resilient and adaptive capacities.
David Pellow continues the “Just Environments” series with a critique of prisons as sites of environmental racism and climate change. Facing exposure to contaminated land, water, and toxic substances, prisoners—who are predominantly poor and nonwhite—are subject to increased environmental risks, compounding the vulnerability and marginalization they experience through other social, political, and economic forces. One potential way to highlight these injustices is to collaborate across social movements—for instance, if campaigns directed at environmental and racial justice work together to tackle complex, intersectional issues.
In this archive piece from the Council’s 2006 series on “Understanding Katrina,” Virginia R. Dominguez interrogates the portrayal of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans as “Third World.” Why are our conceptions of “America” equated with middle-class status and industrial prosperity, and why are we surprised when those notions are disrupted by images of poverty and non-whiteness? Dominguez argues that we need to learn to see things in new ways, as well as to question our own complicity in continuing patterns of inequality.
The first step in research on “just environments,” writes Julie Sze, is to name the sources of the problems at the root of the poverty/injustice/environment nexus, rather than their impacts alone. By revisiting the history of the terms environmental racism, environmental justice/injustice, and environmental inequality, Sze demonstrates how the specificity of each term led to different research questions and approaches. In order to align public understanding of environmental problems and possible “solutions,” Sze argues that scholars must clarify the roots of environmental problems―for instance, racism, capitalism, and colonialism.
Connecting the “Just Environments” series to the SSRC’s former Global Environmental Change Program, Anthony Bebbington considers the ways in which scholarship on sustainability science and environmental justice can learn from and reinforce each other. Reflecting on the edited volume Earth as Transformed, a product of the Global Environmental Change Program, Bebbington notes how discussions of justice, race, and class were conspicuously absent from its analysis. Three decades after the book’s release, environmental problems abound, and those mobilizing to address these problems have at times encountered violence. By juxtaposing ongoing earth transformations and environmental violence, Bebbington demonstrates that the production of just environments demands work across scale and place from a variety of approaches.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Neil Smith’s contribution to the SSRC’s 2006 series on “Understanding Katrina” is hauntingly relevant, particularly in conjunction with the ongoing “Just Environments” series. Arguing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, Smith instead suggests that every aspect of a disaster―from causes to vulnerability to results to reconstruction―is the product of a social calculus and human decision-making. Rather than flattening social differences, disasters exacerbate them―leading Smith to call for a radical, bottom-up approach to reconstruction.
Sarah Vaughn’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series examines the relationships between climate change adaptation, forms of expertise, and histories of modernization. Focusing on flooding in Guyana, Vaughn describes how bureaucratic forms of engineering expertise are challenged by citizens and NGOs, who demand more transparency and accountability in the execution of these projects. Climate adaptation projects are thus sites of political action, shaped by public debates about expertise.
In this “Just Environments” essay, Celeste Gagnon, Alicia Boswell, and Patrick Mullins examine the impact of devastating El Niño storms on small, rural communities in the Peruvian Andes. Largely overlooked by the federal government, these communities have relied on grassroots responses to the rains, in effect building new social structures of resilience. As climate change increases the potential for more frequent and intense rains, it is clear that new forms of resilience will become ever more essential to the well-being of these communities.