When we commenced the “Just Environments” series in May 2017, we could not have predicted the damaging and far-reaching extent of this year’s hurricane season, and we had only a nascent grasp of the ways in which Trump-era policy changes might begin to impact environmental concerns. While these past and ongoing environmental and political dangers may reflect a harsh reality in which new complications will continue to arise and surprise us, they also remind us that, partly because of previous responses to earlier threats, we have a deep knowledge base that can help us respond both now and in the future.“The themes that emerged are thus a glimpse of the current moment, as well as of some of the environmental work the Council is already supporting.”
Our call to imagine more just environments was intended to allow scholars to think very broadly about the intersection of the environment and justice. While we did not ask for “solutions,” per se, we anticipated these essays would highlight paths forward and that they might provide at least glimmers of hope. In addition to soliciting contributions from those embedded in the field of environmental justice, we purposely sought to include scholars from a broad range of disciplines and institutions, who as a group would articulate a diversity of global perspectives. Indeed, the series is in part a reflection of the Council’s wide reach, with a third of the essays written by fellows, committee members, and staff associated with five SSRC programs.1The five SSRC programs represented in this series are: the InterAsia Program (Prasenjit Duara); the International Dissertation Research Fellowship Program (Nikhil Anand); the Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives Program (Veronica Herrera and Sarah Vaughn); Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Ebunoluwa O. Popoola); and Scholarly Borderlands (Alexa S. Dietrich). The themes that emerged are thus a glimpse of the current moment, as well as of some of the environmental work the Council is already supporting. The following five interrelated themes run though the series’ collected works.
There is no such thing as a natural disaster. The seemingly unprecedented scale of 2017’s hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding in multiple parts of the world prompted inquiries about structural factors and unequal effects. Alexa S. Dietrich, Adriana María Garriga-López, and Claudia Sofía Garriga-López’s essay was written shortly after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, leaving the island substantially without power and “in a state of extreme precarity.” Crucially, their essay situates the current moment as a culmination of the island’s long history of colonialism and postcolonialism, resulting, in part, in the deterioration of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure before the hurricane’s arrival. Relatedly, Celeste Marie Gagnon, Alicia Boswell, and Patrick Mullins reflect on the disproportionate effects of El Niño-related flooding in Peru’s Moche Valley. There, where rural and mostly low-income residents have long been lacking in federal government support, the flooding exacerbated already-inequitable conditions. In observing the increased vulnerability of communities, the authors hint at a common thread in many disaster scenarios—one that brought back haunting themes from the SSRC’s “Understanding Katrina” series, most notably in archive pieces by Neil Smith, Virginia R. Dominguez, and Susan Cutter. However, as both “Just Environments” essays note, community-based resilience has already been crucial, even if it must be strengthened. In the Moche Valley, grassroots organizations have stepped in to fill the void left by the federal government, while in Puerto Rico, the authors call for sustainable economic development and reliable public services to help support residents’ adaptive capacities.
The fight for climate and environmental justice has many battlefronts. The environmental justice struggle encompasses multiple locations, scales, and time periods. At a global level, Antonio G. M. La Viña highlights the significance of the Paris Agreement’s acknowledgement of climate justice—a first for an international agreement. Though the Paris Agreement is not a panacea and the US withdrawal is glaring, countries such as those in the Climate Vulnerable Forum are increasingly reframing environmental issues as matters of justice. In Nigeria, Ebunoluwa O. Popoola describes how some polluted communities in the Niger Delta, alongside their partner organizations, moved the battlefield for justice by suing multinational companies in foreign jurisdictions to improve their legal chances in their David-and-Goliath struggles. While these battles look largely to the future, Sarah Vaughn reminds us climate adaptation also has a past—one that is deeply rooted in particular forms of expertise, and that has manifested itself in distinct forms of modernization. Looking at Guyana’s flood-prone Atlantic coast, she finds citizen groups challenging traditional forms of expertise and demanding increased transparency about the limits of infrastructure. Vaughn’s focus on the history of modernization resonates with Prasenjit Duara’s charge to lengthen and deepen the time-scale with which we examine climate change and the environment. This is where the field of environmental humanities comes in, with its “potential to create subjectivities that incorporate natural and planetary consciousness, identity, will, and leadership for a sustainable modernity.” Lastly, in examining transnational Mexican communities, Alexa S. Dietrich’s essay shows that, faced with myriad social, economic, and political problems, environmental concerns may not be treated as an immediate priority. By illustrating the ways in which precarious legal statuses intersect with anxieties about climate change, Dietrich makes the case for more compassionate immigration policies.“Like the Paris Agreement, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act explicitly includes language on environmental justice—a testament to the persistence of organized groups.”
Social movements are on the frontlines of these battles. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the “Just Environments” contributions find hope in the creativity and persistence of grassroots movements. For Jaskiran Dhillon, who writes about the Standing Rock Sioux’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the fight for environmental justice must be framed as a struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. She finds no other option for escaping the ongoing colonial violence inflicted upon Indigenous people than to restore their governance powers. Veronica Herrera and Manuel Pastor illustrate the power of creative collaboration and local oversight. Writing about communities in Buenos Aires and Bogotá that are impacted by toxic contamination, Herrera finds that successful advocacy campaigns have often found a way to partner with better-resourced organizations to file legal claims. Similarly, Pastor demonstrates how grassroots environmental justice organizations in California are deploying a set of sophisticated social movement tactics to drive a climate change agenda. Like the Paris Agreement, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act explicitly includes language on environmental justice—a testament to the persistence of organized groups. Other communities, such as the ones Carol Hager describes, may be able to attract and amass their own expertise, leading to social, political, and technological innovation. Hager examines how Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) protests in Germany’s Black Forest region resisted the construction of a nuclear plant, instead bringing about a collective and informed push toward renewable energy as a safer and more environmentally sound alternative. Meanwhile, David N. Pellow examines prisons—often located on or near contaminated grounds and exposing prisoners to toxic substances—as sites of environmental injustice. But he also sees the struggle against mass incarceration as ripe for potential collaboration across different social movements, which speaks to the sophisticated tactics that Pastor, in his essay, praises in California.
Just infrastructure is the foundation of a just environment. The mundaneness of infrastructure, Nikhil Anand writes, allows for the everyday production of environmental injustice. Flint’s water crisis was generated through ordinary bureaucratic routines that, as in Vaughn’s Guyana, are the result of “old-new articulations of banal infrastructures that are always in the process of being made and unmade in environments of produced ignorance.” For Anand, the production of a more just environment necessitates a deep engagement with the technopolitics of infrastructure—a charge that is not lost on Isha Ray, who examines the injustices that result from unequal access to basic sanitation. Ray suggests that the Sustainable Development Goal of adequate and equitable sanitation for all is insufficient, for it fails to specify that sanitation must be adequate both inside and outside of the home. To design equitable sanitation infrastructure, the particular needs of women and girls must be met. Indeed, the explicit design of infrastructure is critical, as in the case of interculturally inclusive spaces, as Julian Agyeman writes. By intentionally designing and managing public spaces that foster cross-cultural overlap, interaction, and negotiation, urban planners create the possibility for more diverse and dynamic cities. But we must also pay attention to the potentially adverse impacts of proposed infrastructure projects, as Richard Hendriks, Philip Raphals, Karen Bakker, and Gordon Christie remind us. In their essay on British Columbia’s Site C Dam Project, they question the role of hydropower, especially for a project that would inflict harm on First Nations people and the environment.
The relationship between the production of knowledge and equity must be interrogated. Several “Just Environments” essays call for a critical reframing of fundamental concepts. For Julie Sze, explicitly naming the roots of the problem—such as racism, capitalism, or colonialism—allows us to identify the politics of injustice. She finds that much of the work in sustainability science fails to address the underlying political conditions that lead to inequality and vulnerability, instead reinforcing current hegemonic ways of understanding environmental change. Writing from the perspective of a scholar of global environmental change, Anthony Bebbington agrees that sustainability science and environmental justice must learn from, collaborate with, and reinforce each other. A shared challenge, and one that both fields can work on, is thinking across location and scale—scaling global models down to subnational projections, and scaling justice up from communities to nations. Malini Ranganathan presses further, proposing that we reframe the right to a clean environment as a critical component of a larger struggle for freedom. Building on anti-racist, feminist, and decolonial freedom struggles, she echoes Pellow, Dietrich, and others in their call for an understanding of environmental justice as linked to multiple, intersectional issues. In light of the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental agencies, Lindsey Dillon, Christopher Sellers, and the Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI) developed multiple methods of preserving data and tracking data loss. Through the melding of grassroots organization and digital technologies, EDGI presents one model for rethinking the production of knowledge, asking fundamental questions about the politics of data collection.
“The vast academic literature has addressed these struggles by theorizing, analyzing, and critiquing underlying intersectional injustices.”
In a 2016 Items essay, former SSRC president Kenneth Prewitt raised the provocation: “Can social science matter?” Recognizing that there are now new stresses on the sciences—a stronger focus on measurable accountability rather than the discovery of “pure” knowledge, for instance—Prewitt argues that we understand little about where and how social science is used. Arguably, we have some notion of how social science research on the environment has been used, as demonstrated by the progress made since the birth of the environmental justice movement three decades ago. As Sze and Pellow remind us in their essays, environmental struggles have become more sophisticated and targeted broader issues. The vast academic literature has addressed these struggles by theorizing, analyzing, and critiquing underlying intersectional injustices. By focusing on the relationships between the human condition and the environment, the “Just Environments” essays demonstrate that this critical social science research can inform us about the potential for change.
How, then, can we use social science research to imagine more just environments? For starters, we can identify the structural and intersectional roots of current injustices, reframing them if necessary. We must be explicit about equity in the production of space, including by designing infrastructure with the most vulnerable in mind. We can deploy sophisticated and creative social movement tactics that allow us to collaborate across issues, scales, and disciplines, and we can use these tactics to strengthen resilience against shocks to the system. Climate change is real and present, and threatens to increase the frequency of major disasters. We must combat it in multiple arenas and with multiple tools. However, it is not all doom and gloom. It is worth celebrating the progress we have made in the last 30 years. The inclusion of environmental justice clauses in global agreements and state-level policy is significant, as is the high-profile nature of DAPL and Flint. But the struggle continues, so while we celebrate the past, we can find inspiration there, too, for the ongoing work toward a more progressive agenda.