Prasenjit Duara makes a strong case for the relevance of the humanities in understanding the human dimensions of environmental and climate change. Multiple aspects of the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene, not least questions of environmental justice in efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change, can be engaged through humanistic inquiry. With a focus on Asia, Duara argues that questions of identity, representation, religion, ethics, knowledge systems, and more—central concerns of the humanities—are deeply embedded in imagining how to respond to present environmental challenges.
climate and environmental change
To accompany Prasenjit Duara’s essay, we republish Paul Greenough and Anna Tsing’s 1994 contribution to Items. The authors articulate an intellectual agenda for a collaborative project between the Council’s South and Southeast Asia programs focused on how environmental discourses intersect with development in the context of these regions’ colonial legacies. Engaging topics and concepts such as “wild nature,” natural disasters, biodiversity, ecotourism, and environmental science, the essay was the first step toward the eventual publication of a volume edited by Greenough and Tsing entitled Nature in the Global South.
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.
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.
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 this archive piece, John F. Richards and David C. Major describe a project, a core component of the Council’s Global Environmental Change Program, to study the role of landed property rights in global environmental change. Grappling with theoretical issues related to location, scale, bundles of rights, and communities, the project sought to understand the relationship between culture, nature, and place. Moreover, it was structured around an interactive research process, one that fostered interdisciplinarity and a coherent dialogue among its participants.
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.