Category Archives: Environment & Justice

Arturo Escobar on Development and Discourse

Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development is one of those books that felt like it fundamentally changed how I see things.

Because of this, maybe, I never properly blogged it — I have a PDF full of highlights, bought the book, I flip through seeking key insights and instead get involved again on every page. But I wanted to get a bit down, an overview of argument as I think through some of these ideas for new work of my own (and finishing up a article long overdue). I start with the preface:

THIS BOOK grew out of a sense of puzzlement: the fact that for many years the industrialized nations of North America and Europe were supposed to be the indubitable models for the societies of Asia. Africa, and Latin America, the so-called Third World, and that these societies must catch up with the industrialized countries, perhaps even become like them. This belief is still held today in many quarters.

It is quite puzzling. Sadly it still seems almost as true in 2021 as it did in 1995.

While he calls this a poststructural approach and it focuses in on discourse, he never loses sight of the material. This is one of those works that manages to bring two very different, and often opposing, ways of though together in fruitful and powerful ways. I think maybe Anna Tsing is the last person to so impress me with this alchemy. So to say again what Escobar wishes for this book to be and do:

Continue reading Arturo Escobar on Development and Discourse

A Feminist Green New Deal for Housing

It’s out! Launched into the world! The briefing I just finished for the Women’s Budget Project and Women’s Environmental Network as part of their awesome Feminist Green New Deal project. It focuses on housing and just how transformative it might be to how we live with each other and how we live in the world. All this under the exciting title Rethinking Housing Supply and Design.

A little teaser.

Housing is fundamental to life, security and wellbeing as well as tackling climate change and working towards a zero-carbon future. It also remains a key site of gender and intersectional inequality, with design that does not accommodate diverse needs or care responsibilities, with mortgages and rents out of reach, and a suburban ideal that requires a car for daily living and can isolate women and children in the home. Housing investment as a central part of a Green New Deal (GND) —with a commitment to full funding from central government to ensure costs are never passed on to residents or local communities— would open up an incredible opportunity to centre a new vision of equality and care capable of transforming both landscapes and lives. It would also acknowledge and begin to address the connections between climate crisis and housing crisis, reducing housing’s contribution to the UK’s carbon footprint even as it reverses the rise of homelessness and houses the estimated 8 million people are in housing need.

This paper offers seven recommendations to achieve a gender inclusive and sustainable housing sector:

1. Participatory planning for the future: centring women and others traditionally marginalised

2. Making internal form and design responsive to care work, gender and diversity

3. Improving the materials and fabric of our buildings

4. Developing gender-, community- and climate-responsive site design

5. Improving connection to town, city and region

6. Expanding who builds, installs and maintains housing to non-traditional workers

7. Implementing a right to safe, decent and affordable housing following the most recent UN guidelines, where housing as a home is prioritised over housing as an asset

Read the full policy paper here.

About the Feminist Green New Deal project

The Feminist Green New Deal is bringing a gendered and intersectional approach/perspective to the Green economy/Green Recovery – ensuring that the voices of women, people of colour and other marginalised groups are heard during environmental and political debates.

Through a programme of nationwide grassroots workshops and policy roundtables a Feminist Green New Deal Manifesto will be created and launched at COP26 Glasgow Climate Talks.

This Project is a collaboration between Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) and the Women’s Budget Group (WBG).

Learn more about the project here.

Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

In addition to lists and principles for design, there are these two lovely chapters on architecture in Victor Papanek’s Green Imperative. This book also reminds me how much I love a good epigraph, and that I should use them for everything I write.

Sensing a Dwelling

Think with the whole body.
–Deshimaru

We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sicken and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives–social, economical, spiritual.
–Eugene Raskin

I think all of my favourite architects talk about the ways architecture affects every sense, and unsurprisingly Papanek argues that we need to pay attention to mood and an environment that supports and develops our sensory abilities.

We need to pay attention to the dimension of light, he mentions Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the light that comes through its canvas sails is indeed quite wonderful.

Continue reading Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Victor Papanek, what a legend. Born in Vienna in 1927 (Red Vienna!), he studied at Taliesin West. This was written between 1991 and 1995 and three places, Tanah Lot Temple in Bali, Schumacher College, Dartington and Fundacion Valparaiso Mojacar, Spain. I can’t help but be just a little jealous about that.

Truth be told though, it is Arturo Escobar brought me to Papanek, with his recent work on design as a way of thinking/ theorising/ getting to the pluriverse. So I am newly intrigued by design understood in its broader sense, and this is of course where Papanek has so much to contribute (though to be sure he also excels at the actual design and the making and the details). He likes lists as much as I do, and we start there. He writes that the repertoire of a designer’s skills and talents include:

Continue reading Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Joan Tronto on Care, Democracy and Economics

I loved how Joan Tronto’s short book, Who Cares? How to Reshape a Democratic Politics, so simply and succinctly argues for a way to radically rethink politics, economics and democracy. She writes:

We hear often that we are in a care crisis. That is, we face a shortage of formal caregivers to cope with the increased care needs of ever-more elders who will need ever-more care. But this crisis involves more than demographic and labor market projections. We all experience a version of it daily: “I wish I had more time: to care for my loved ones, to contribute to causes I care about, to be there for my friends.” We spend so much time on undesirable tasks and so little time on ones we really value. How can everything be so upside down? This pressure seems to each of us a personal failing. But it isn’t. It’s a political problem. (2)

And a economic problem. And a collective problem. I love the way she is cracking open what is ‘political’ and economic, returning them where they belong in our everyday lives. She continues:

Continue reading Joan Tronto on Care, Democracy and Economics

Highland Landscapes

We’re just back from a week in Kingussie, a small village on both the trainline and the edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a place that feels wild, that looks wild. I loved it, for though I know I’ve been steadily domesticated since the age of 17, I still miss the wild intensely. Here there are moors, mountains, the 1% of ‘ancient’ Caledonian forest that still exists with its host of rare species unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Just look at this beautiful place.

I came having read Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, one of my very favourite books. She writes

The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind. (Sheperd, 1)

Like her, I am captive to this place.

Yet I hadn’t quite realised before we came just how many layers of human intervention have shaped the land even here in this wild place. I should stop being surprised perhaps, after walking glorious hills where the pits left by coal mining now sit in what feels like pristine countryside, or overgrown factory ruins spill down along the stream banks of remote valleys in the Pennines.

Continue reading Highland Landscapes

Urban island futures: Aves In the Fiction of Buckell

I enjoyed Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever. I’m coming to terms with the fact that in these pandemic days of ever growing workload, it’s fine that really I can only read fiction.

This is a solid thriller. I loved the glimpses of history of a part of the world I know too little about and the snarkiness about US dominance and white supremacy. Above all, though, I enjoyed its setting in the world almost certainly extisting in our very near future brought into being by global warming. The porous rock on which Miami is built having permitted its permament flooding — you can read something like Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson for more about this certain future. The hurricanes coming faster and stronger, the swallowing of islands, the flooding of cities. All of those impacts easier to chart, the shifts in geopolitics more difficult to predict.

I quite loved the book’s description of a possible urban future lashed to the rock of La Isla de Aves. This is what the island looks like now:

Isla De Aves photo by Veronidae (CC License) https://thedominican.net/2016/08/claim-to-bird-island.html

There is a nice description of stumbling across the empty sandbar and the startling military installation while sailing in the St Kitts & Nevis Observer, along with some of its history. There is another web page titled: ‘Isla Avis: Don’t Run Into this Island!’ What I loved from Buckell was this imagining of a future city here in such an improbable place, born of a bid for independance from Venezuela, the uniting of the Caribbean and the development of a free trade zone.

A horizontal blotch of a city on stilts, surrounded by more sturdy platforms rising out of the sea on rusted, rotund legs. Some of them oil platforms, moved to create more open space where the sand no longer existed. But later, the floating piers and homes systems had been added to Aves that were commonly found in more and more coastal cities throughout the world.

No one on Aves ever planned to try and keep the roaring seas back. It was a futile gesture. Instead they used the tp of the island peeking up from its submarine mountain range as a base to bolt everything to.

Even the sand around Aves’s pylons was a fiction. The (155) original Aves Island had long since been swallowed by rising seas. The sand had been imported to continue the fiction that Aves Island was still a thing. A physical spit of something that people could continue to threaten a war over, countersue about in courts, and generally get upset about or use.

Twenty thousand people lived out here, naked to the ocean’s power, clinging on stilts to what lay beneath. (156)

Well imagined. Even without such a future, it is rather a fascinating place — a source of guano to the US, Danes hunting eggs, its geographies and very definitions fought over by Venezuela and Dominica, potentially involving the mobilization of pregnant women to bear Venezuelan citizens solidifying this claim to Venezuelan soil. Definitely a thesis in that. This is such a twist on how this past might shape an all-too-near future.

Buckell, Tobias (2014) Hurricane Fever. Del Rey.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

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Jamaica Kincaid: Breadfruit, Gardens, Empire

My Garden

The picture above is from Jennifer Jewell’s The Earth in Her Hands. In this great green garden she created and in that T-shirt, Jamaica Kincaid is fierce. A quote from her interview there: ‘Plants contain the world. The garden, better than any college education, gave the world to me‘.

I loved this book, even if (maybe because) it isn’t very easy. I loved the spiked outline of Jamaica Kincaid in all its fullness of garden colour and glory: the obsessive gardening, the plants, the meditations on winter and colour and travel and China and self and other people and foxes and history and Vermont and Antigua and mothers and children and … you know, this stuff of everyday thought and life.

It is not full of things to be quoted really. It is to be enjoyed in the round this book, the full chiaroscuro of character that only appears when you reach that last page, close that cover. But there were two things I wanted to share. The first because I have noticed only in the past few months (pre-lockdown) the strange appearance of breadfruit everywhere in Manchester and Bristol. The new vegetarian alternative, from replacing my favourite pizza at Zizzi’s to numerous other restaurants offering strange versions of it. I know it is not at all new elsewhere, but how did it happen like this all at once here? There is something going on, but what?

Kincaid gives it new meaning.

This food, the breadfruit, has been the cause of more disagreement between parents and their children than anything I can think of. No West Indian that I know has ever liked it. It was sent to the West Indies by Joseph Banks, the English naturalist and world traveler, and the founder of Kew Gardens, which was then a clearinghouse for all the plants stolen from the various parts of the world these people had been (the climbing rose R. banksiae from China was named for his wife). He sent tea to India, he sent the West Indies the breadfruit; it was meant to be a cheap food for feeding slaves. It was in the cargo that Captain Bligh was carrying to the West Indies on the Bounty when his crew so correctly mutinied. (Perhaps Antiguan children sense intuitively the part this food has played in the history of injustice and so they will not eat it.) It grows readily, it bears fruit abundantly, it is impervious to drought, a serious impediment to the growing of things anywhere. In a place like Antigua the breadfruit is not a food, it is a weapon. (100-101)

And obsessed with history as I am, I loved this, and she repeats that larger paragraph at the end of this chapter on history, underlines it.

What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?

Should I call it history?

If so, what should history mean to someone like me?

Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound with each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again, over and over, and is this the healing and opening a moment that begins in 1492 and has yet to come to an end? Is it a collection of facts, all true and precise details, and if so, when I come across these true and precise details, what should I do, how should I feel, where should I place myself?

Why should I be obsessed with all these questions?

My history begins like this: In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World (114).

I suppose more than anything this makes me ache even more for my own space, my own garden. I know that old excitement of plant catalogs. This is an old ache exacerbated in lockdown, staring at the wild grass outside I must cut. A small yard not mine, without tools to prune the wild suckers and plant growing things (and plant for whom? though I know I should leave this place better than I found it as I hope to leave all places, yet a punishing terrible job leaves no time to cultivate or improve anything in a sustained way and I never ever expected to be here so long, that alone makes me want to curl up and give in), the damp in the walls, the furnishings and appliances that belong to a landlord and are cheap and breaking down, this bed that hurts my back so I can’t exercise much anymore, the stove that will not bake properly at gas mark 4, these uncomfortable couches, kitchen chairs you can’t sit on for too long, the glass table. Sometimes I feel like I am shriveling up.

I do, I really do, know that it could be worse.

Kincaid, Jamaica (1999) My Garden (book): London: Vintage.

The desert as postmodern metaphor

Think of how the desert gets turned into metaphor in postmodern rhetoric where it functions as the place of origins, endings and hard truths: the place at the end of the world where all meanings and values blow away; the place without landmarks that can never be mapped; the place where nothing grows and nobody stays put. Radically different desert cultural traditions, precise indigenous knowledges about particular wilderness ecologies get subsumed beneath the definite article — the desert as globalized prediction of what, it’s being implied, is really waiting for us out there in the future (275).

Hebdige, Dick (1993) ‘Training some thoughts on the future’ p 270-279 in Bird et al (eds) mapping the futures: local cultures, global change. London and New York: Routledge.

From the Ground Up: The Environmental Justice Movement

I love From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster provide such a great introduction to environmental racism and the spirit and struggle of the environmental justice movement in From the Ground Up. I wish I had read it while I was organising, but it rings so true from the first page. Look at this preface.

Preface: We Speak for Ourselves.

Stories are one way we transmit our history, share our successes, and learn from our losses. Stories are also an important part of the movement for environmental justice, which has as one of its central tenets the idea “We speak for ourselves.” This book tells the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary roles as community leaders, grassroots experts, and national policymakers. (1)

They open with the battle in Kettlement City against a toxic waste dump, the finding of the Cerrell Report done for the California Waster Management board in 1984, which

suggested to companies and localities that were seeking to site garbage incinerators that the communities that would offer the least resistance to such incinerators were rural communities, poor communities, communities whose residents had low education levels, communities that were highly catholic, communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, and communities whose residents were employed in resource-extractive jobs like mining, timber, or agriculture. (3)

Can what we’re up against be clearer than that?

Introduction

So to start with the basics.

Environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in the United States, with poor people and people of color bearing a greater share of pollution than richer people and white people. This intuitive idea…has been borne out by dozens of studies completed over the past two decades. The disparate impact documented in studies has given birth to the term “environmental racism.” (10)

So how do we approach this as communities, as allies, as academics? They talk about their approach as internal and external — from the point of view of communities themselves and from the ground up — and the external view looking at the political economy of environmental degradation. They describe the need for both perspectives.

The internal perspective, they argue, is that of grassroots accounts, which tell a crucial narrative that — and they have a great quote from Iris Young here, pulled from Democracy and Difference —reveals the particular experiences of those in social locations, experiences that cannot be shared by those situated differently but that they must understand in order to do justice to others.” (12) Thus

This book contains stories, collective insights, legal understandings, and a political economy that ‘examines the relationship among economic, political/legal, and social forces as they influence environmental decision-making processes and environmental outcomes. (11)

I love too the broader vision of social and environmental change that this kind of engaged scholarship can support and help develop.

This broader analysis, in turn, forces us to go beyond framing the problem as merely a distributive one–certain communities get an unfair environmental burden–and to reconceptualize grassroots activism as more than an attempt to disrupt the decisions of private corporations and state agencies. Instead grassroots struggles are a crucial arena in which to restructure social relations through systems of localized environmental decision making. (13)

This is what transformative politics looks like, right? Where the Environmental Justice Movement

is not the “elevated environmental consciousness” of its members but the ways that it transforms the possibilities for fundamental social and environmental change through redefinition, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices. … This transformation takes place on a number of levels–the individual, the group, the community–and ultimately influences institutions, government, and social structure. (14)

This has to start with the individual and the community, but it cannot end there…it has to grow, engage, have a sense of a broader coalitional politics.

The other thing?

Words have power.

Just that. What a movement is called, the words it uses, are important. They use environmental justice

because it both expresses our aspiration and encompasses the political economy of environmental decision making. That is, environmental justice requires democratic decision making, community empowerment, and the incorporation of social structure. (16)

They also broadens definition of environment to be ‘where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn.’ Environmentalism is linked to material environment and community through long decades of struggle. It also encompasses both home and community. (16) It is fought on multiple fronts, both fighting toxic land uses as well as working to improve lives through clean jobs, sustainable economy, affordable housing, achieving social and racial justice.

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

This movement is firmly rooted in past justice movements. There is no single date or event that launched it, but a collection of key points. 1982 struggle of African American community against toxic dump in Warren County, NC. The drowning death of an 8-year-old in a garbage dump in Houston, 1967. MLK’s work in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers, 1968. UFW’s fight against pesticides through the 1960s. Native American struggles since European’s arrived.

They describe it as a river with many tributaries — the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Toxics Movement. Academic work identifying its structural, systemic nature. Native American struggles. The Labor Movement. And to a small extent, traditional environmentalism. All coming together at the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Those amazing resolutions they put forward that are so powerful still today (see them along with a brilliant article by Dana Alston here).

Cole and Foster describe three characteristics uniting the many tributaries, key for those who believe movement and social change must be driven by those experiencing oppression:

Motives: ‘Environmental justice activists usually have an immediate and material stake in solving the environmental problems they confront’ are being made sick, dying, have a personal stake (33)

Background: ‘largely, though not entirely, poor or working-class people. Many are people of color…’ (33)

Perspective: have a social justice orientation, seeing environmental degradation as just one of many way their communities are under attack…seek remedies that are more fundamental…view the need for broader, structural reforms… (33)

The Political Economy of Environmental Racism (Chester residents Concerned for Quality of Life) — a case study on what can go right and wrong. I used to tutor kids in Chester, working class white kid parachuted into a neighbourhood via an elite College program, earning some extra money driving the van back and forth. Wish I’d been a little more woke back then. I still think about those kids sometimes.

Anyway, there are some lessons here about the dangers of relying entirely on legal action — now that is so so familiar. But Chester is also used to look ‘Beyond the Distributive Paradigm’. It helps open up the unequal distribution of toxic waste and industry shaped by structural factors — deindustrialization, white flight, segregation. Incinerators become an opening point for exploring these processes and patterns, and recognizing that despite the clear intersections of race and class, the US reality is that race is better correlated to exposure to environmental dangers. Only by ignoring the structural causes can these injustices be blamed on simple market dynamics and choice, or on lifestyle. But of course, that happens all the time.

There is also a need to examine the definition of racism — this has been steadily narrowed over the years through the courts, constructed as simply “race discrimination” or intentional, purposeful conduct. Under such a limited view, environmental racism requires a bad actor making very conscious decisions. Instead, Cole and Foster argue that

Understanding environmental racism thus requires a conceptual framework that (1) retains a structural view of economic and social forces as they influence discriminatory outcomes, (2) isolates the dynamics within environmental decision-making processes that further contribute to such outcomes, and (3) normatively evaluates social forces and environmental decision-making processes which contribute to disparities in environmental hazard distribution. (65)

And of course, you can trace so much of this back to segregation, deeply, historically embedded into America’s geographies. There’s a nice quote from Richard Ford: “race-neutral policy could be expected to entrench segregation and socio-economic stratification in a society with a history of racism.” (67)

The stories of specific campaigns are so powerful, opening a number of windows into the nature of struggle over time. Buttonwillow is a rural town in California, which is host to CA’s three toxic waste dumps. They give a powerful quote from Lupe Martinez, who had been working with residents on loan from UFW — but I think this is the fear of all organizers:

My fear, when it came down that I had mixed feelings of whether I was going to leave or not, was that it was going to die. That’s the organizer’s nightmare. That everything that you did might not be there at all. Maybe what you did was not what you thought you had done. And so when I left, when I was about to leave, I felt that “what if I didn’t do it right? What if all of a sudden I’m gone and it’s dead , and nothing is going to happen? So, everything that I did was for nothing then.’ (87)

Over time much has been won, but…there has been no clear victory here. Cole and Foster write

On another level, however, the struggle has been a failure: not only is the dump expansion moving forward, but many Padres members have been demoralized by the seven-year struggle. “I feel like I’m throwing rocks at the moon,” sighs Paco Beltran, “and catching them on my head.” (102)

This seems familiar, I have never been so poetic about it though. Despite the losses, there has been a rise in political consciousness, this is also familiar:

The activism of community groups like the Padres in Buttonwillow often begins as a reaction to the impact of increasing numbers of polluting facilities on the community residents’ health and quality of life. However, their activism quickly becomes as struggle over the legitimacy of decision-making processes, the exclusion from and the marginalization of disaffected residents during those processes, and the structural forces that constrain individuals in these communities from fully participating in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. (103)

I love these stories — and I suppose I often feel more is to be learned where things falter and fail. This one highlights how important the relationship between individual organizer and community members is to these struggles — it’s curious that the whole point of organizing is not to be central to struggle, and yet I think it takes a certain kind of person to create a process where consciousness is raised, people do learn and grow collectively. That may be a different kind of person in different circumstances depending on the mix of personalities. Alinksy writes a lot about this, and it’s a conundrum I turn over in my head — the role of the individual in collective action. It’s why I think spaces like Highlander are so important, and it is happiness to see Highlander appear here, hosting workshops and providing space for discussion and reflection and growth in support of the process of struggle.

Processes of Struggle

It’s all about this:

the grassroots organizations created in the midst of struggles for environmental justice are crucial in creating an ongoing role for community participation in all decisions that fundamentally affect the participants’ lives. When local groups are able to link their victories in the environmental realm to broader political and economic struggles, the potential exists to redefine existing power relations, to unsettle cultural assumptions about race and class, and to create new political possibilities for historically marginalized communities… (105)

This comes through taking power, through redefining power relations. It means that communities must always speak for themselves, ‘that those who must bear the brunt of a decision should have an equal and influential role in making the decision’. (106)

This is not your liberal pluralism though. ‘Pluralism, in practice, tends to exclude those lacking the material prerequisites to equal participation.‘ (109) Instead we see a beginning look at the creation of a deliberative process, where ‘citizens thus create the common good through discourse, as opposed to discovering it through prexisting preferences.’ (113) I quite like this way of thinking of these conflictual and deliberative public conversations, not as public school debates but as collective endeavours to grow and learn and reach a decision. This is–or could be–the essence of what Freire describes in his work on pedagogy, much different than the European body of work around discourse gets to (though perhaps Nancy Fraser and Iris Young bring it closest).

There are challenges here too of course. This is hard. But they are trying to move towards a transformative politics. The ways in which moving from bystander to participant in struggle is transformative, but also at the community level ‘a collective emergence of solidarity, action and rebelliousness that builds on itself in an organic manner’ (156). They draw on Gaventa’s study of power and silences and struggle in Appalachia, which I love so much. They also gave this idea of institutional transformation developing through the EJ movement:

the important power building that is occurring between the Environmental Justice Movement and other social justice activism, what we call “movement fusion”: the coming together of two (or more) different social movements in a way that expands the base of support for both movements by developing a common agenda. (164)

This fusion continues, and EJ principles and learning are so clearly foundational for so much of what is coming out of the Right to the City Alliance, the Movement for Black Lives…there is so much brilliance in the US at this level.

[Cole, Luke W. and Foster, Sheila R. (2001) From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York and London: New York University Press.]