This is the summary write-up that went with a presentation that I gave in an Environment & Sustainability seminar, a couple of days ago -
Proponents of environmental justice focus on how groups who are more vulnerable to environmental and human health impacts also can be less responsible for these ecological problems. Above all, these environmental justice critiques and concerns are about how social inequality — including inequities along ‘race,’ class, and gender lines — can be bound up with environmental problems. I will illustrate this perspective by pointing to ways in which it would apply to Sarnia-Lambton’s Chemical Valley, to the recent Gulf Coast oil disaster, and to the Alberta tar sands. Throughout this presentation, I will be providing an overview of forms in which environmental justice priorities have taken, over time. By the 1980s, research and social movement activity in the name of “environmental justice” had begun in the United States. Since these beginnings, this environmental justice label has tended to be associated more with certain American issues. In particular, proponents of this approach have devoted considerable attention to toxic waste sites near people of colour in the United States. Yet, as others have been indicating, an environmental justice approach is much more widely applicable — to different countries, and to groups who have received less attention in American environmental justice discourse, and practices. There also is a prehistory of inequities which have environmental justice dimensions, despite how this language had not been applied to these issues before the 1980s (even as relevant indigenous land claim conflicts have occurred for centuries — to mention one pertinent set of issues). Around the turn of the new millennium, a “climate justice” variation on this approach has arisen, as some have began to collectively focus on climate and fossil fuel issues.
The people in the audience focus on empirical studies in Biology. In their terms, it is far too general to say that an environment is “toxic,” and it’s almost impossible to specify how industrial plants are connected with human health impacts. Just making statements about what the industries actually are emitting can be an immense challenge — especially when there are a set of plants, with each releasing a series of substances. A Biologist would ask: how much of each substance (e.g. coal particulates) was released during a particular measurement time frame, and where did it blow or flow to? It also would be necessary to take into account previous environmental conditions (e.g. in the soil), for baseline comparisons. To make any claims about health impacts, it would be necessary to specify exposure rates for each individual, within their wider personal history, and in relation to each source of each substance; so any industrial plant would have to be tied to all of those other contextual details.
I don’t identify with that scientific tradition, but I now have a better sense of how to take their standards into account. I already had been trying to do that bridging when I decided on what to cover, and when I wrote the summary/abstract, yet I wasn’t as conscious of the differences in priorities.
As a sociology student, I focus on certain social-structural conditions and dynamics. So, in an overview of environmental justice, the specific forms and levels and cases of toxicity were less relevant than the inequality. Although a Biological science approach involves going over details that do warrant attention, it’s also possible to focus on other matters that are important and relevant. Studies of societies can reveal how sources of pollution often are closer to disempowered and lower-income groups. We should be able to look into these and other societal conditions without getting lost in all of the features of wind patterns, chemical compounds, and so on.
I also think it’s crucial to find ways to side with the precautionary principle. Instead of waiting for conclusive proof that an environment is dangerous before we become concerned, we should be skeptical about the safety of unfamiliar or potentially dangerous substances — and mixtures of those substances. Even if we aren’t prepared to make claims about specific impacts, we at least can talk about environmental dangers, which specific groups may or may not be impacted by already. Benzene is one of many substances that poses risks which already have been studied (somewhat); we at least can talk about the risks that can be expected, for anyone who does encounter a known threat.
At the same time, we should engage with much wider analysis, beyond any particular cases;, and I much prefer to look at people and societies, rather than chemicals and other such things. Industries and industry by-products (like the fumes from smokestacks) certainly are social constructions.
Basically, I’m trying to work out part of a mutual understanding here — by straining the more scholarly side of who I am and what I do.