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.
climate and environmental change
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.
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.
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.
Drawing upon a long history of anti-racist, feminist, and decolonial struggles, Malini Ranganathan continues our “Just Environments” series with an essay that suggests freedom can serve as a powerful analytic through which to reimagine environmental justice. Ranganathan makes the case that a comprehensive understanding of freedom must include (though, crucially, is not limited to) the ability to live in a safe and clean environment. Situating environmental harms within a broader emancipatory politics, she brings us closer to redressing multiple, intersectional injustices.
Alexa Dietrich co-launches the “Just Environments” series by reflecting on the environmental challenges faced by transnational communities—in this case, families that live on opposite sides of the US-Mexico border, whose lives are separated by stringent immigration policies. In highlighting the connections between immigration and the environment, Dietrich argues that a more humane approach to legal residency is critical to bolstering local resilience to climate change on both sides of the border.