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 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.
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.
Veronica Herrera continues the “Just Environments” series by examining the ways in which low-income communities that are impacted by toxic contamination mobilize grassroots movements as forms of resistance and vehicles for claims-making. Focusing on neighborhoods in Buenos Aires and Bogotá, Herrera notes that community residents partner with better-resourced actors to frame environmental protections as legal rights, effectively forging new types of environmental citizenship.
Antonio La Viña continues the “Just Environments” series with an analysis of climate justice challenges and opportunities, particularly from the perspective of vulnerable countries, in light of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The framing of issues of mitigation and adaptation to climate change in terms of justice—assistance, liability, and accountability—is now part of the global debate. Though the absence of the United States from global climate processes is less than ideal, La Viña suggests that this opening can provide opportunities to address climate justice and for other countries to emerge as global leaders.
Nikhil Anand’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series examines the making of urban inequality, focusing on water infrastructure as a key site for banal yet fundamentally political decision-making that neglects or harms poor citizens. In both Flint and Mumbai, environmental injustice is generated through bureaucratic routines that rarely take into account the humans they affect. Challenging these injustices, Anand argues, requires engaging in the "boring" technopolitics of infrastructure.
Julian Agyeman’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series calls for the planning, design, and maintenance of culturally inclusive spaces, highlighting the ways in which the built environment can facilitate spatial justice. In doing so, he argues for the need to focus on interculturalism—that is, cross-cultural overlap, interaction, and negotiation—as a means of transforming cities into more just and inclusive ones.