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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice

Aaron Sachs

On September 4, 1882, at 3:00 p.m., Thomas Edison was in J. P. Morgan's offices on Wall Street—literally inside the mahogany walls. And when he closed a switch shortly after the clock struck three, hundreds of his incandescent bulbs lit up simultaneously in a five-block radius. It seemed like a miracle to the gathered crowd—like magic. People started murmuring, “They're on!” The bulbs stayed on as evening fell, and everyone in lower Manhattan noticed how different they were from the smelly, unsteady gas lamps that they were used to. The next day, the New York Times reported that the “light was soft, mellow, and graceful to the eye. It seemed almost like writing by daylight to have a light without a particle of flicker and with scarcely any heat to make the head ache.”

What the crowd did not see, of course, were the six steam generators a few blocks away on Pearl Street, each the size of an elephant (they were nicknamed Jumbos, after the famous pachyderm who starred in P. T. Barnum's circus). To power the generators, men had to shovel loads of coal into large furnaces (and, of course, no Manhattanites had seen the coal being scraped from the mountains), and those furnaces boiled water to form steam, which in turn rotated turbines to create electrical energy. To connect the generators to the light bulbs, a work crew had dug some 30 kilometers of tunnels that were lined with brick and laid with copper wire, and then they had connected smaller wires from these main channels into sockets in the walls of various Wall Street buildings. So Edison's light bulbs lit up lower Manhattan—but simultaneously consigned labor and environmental harm to the shadows. More than 130 years later, many of us flick switches every day without recognizing that we are committing acts of violence.

Society changed drastically when people started believing that energy could be captured and harnessed at any time of day or night at virtually no cost. Most old cultures have fables teaching that you can never get something for nothing. We live in a young culture, but it is old enough to have a history. And while I understand the environmental movement's tendency to invoke the future in making its arguments, I think the past might be even more relevant and, well, illuminating. Since modernity itself lives in the future tense, the very act of retrospection, so often dismissed as nostalgic, represents the potential for a radical reorientation. To make the effort of connecting the present back to the past is to start the process of reconnecting ourselves to the true sources of our energy— and to each other.

That's why, in part, six years after Edison's demonstration, the American socialist Edward Bellamy called his utopian novel Looking Backward. It famously looked ahead to the year 2000, but the real point was to imagine how future U.S. societies would evaluate the massive changes (such as electrification) that occurred in the late nineteenth century. And Bellamy was also looking back, with longing, to the seeming simplicity of the century's earlier decades, before the young republic had moved so definitively from agrarianism to industrialism, from rural homesteading to urbanization, from a culture attuned to cycles to an embrace of linear progress.

The whole structure of Bellamy's society was shifting to accommodate the needs of Big Business. In 1883, the major railroad companies imposed standardized time zones across the nation, and in an 1886 Supreme Court decision, the Southern Pacific Railroad won the rights and protections of personhood for all corporations. But the Robber Barons' dreams of orderly commerce and steady profits unleashed a new chaos on the land. The Gilded Age economy was exploding and collapsing every few years, forests were being decimated, labor struggles were growing more violent, Native Americans were fighting to retain their land, newly emancipated African Americans were clinging to their hard-won rights—and society in general was changing so rapidly that people found it difficult to take stock. So Bellamy catapulted his main character into the future and gave him the leisure to gaze back at the dawn of corporate capitalism. The main thing he saw was a growing inequality, a sense of utter disconnection between certain groups of people— as embodied, perhaps, by the gap between the Wall Street bankers in their well-lit offices and the Pearl Street laborers in their blackened basements.

1885 view of Broadway in New York City, showing the recent advent of telephone, telegraph, and power lines.

Today, despite assumptions of hyperconnectivity, such gaps have only widened. When policymakers discuss projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, their emphasis tends to be almost exclusively on the question of how best to secure our supply of energy. They rarely talk about how development of the Canadian tar sands has already devastated several First Nation communities and the environmental resources on which they depend. How can the public take a responsible position on the pipeline if most of us don't even know what an open-pit mining operation looks like?

The fundamental problem with a future-oriented environmentalism is that we can't actually predict the future, so our pronouncements become vague, and we revert to fear-mongering and the abstraction of “saving the planet.” For whom? For what version of “civilization?” The planet is going to be fine; it will support some form of life no matter what we do to it. But if we try to look backward at our present moment, it becomes clear that this era bears striking resemblances to Edison's and Bellamy's: we are in a period of rapid transformation that generates both excitement and anxiety, characterized by all the temporal, spatial, and interpersonal discontinuities of modernization, including a radically unjust distribution of ecological resources and services.

Some of us live in comfortable, climate-controlled homes, with little idea of how exactly our comfort is delivered to us or at what cost; others have no access to clean drinking water. Some of us eat far more than we need to survive; others suffer from severe malnutrition. The people living in relative ease number in the millions; those barely surviving in the billions.

Awareness of these kinds of disparities bubbled to the surface of the mainstream environmental movement in the early 1990s. As intellectuals reckoned with the legacies of imperialism, and eco-activists started to acknowledge their own privilege, ethics came to the fore, and the idea of environmental justice took hold. Certain grassroots organizations, which had sprung up in the 1980s to fight proposed incinerators and dumps in poor, minority neighborhoods, increasingly demanded more information, transparency, and inclusion in the decision-making process. Meanwhile, scholars published numerous compendia examining how the most vulnerable communities got exposed to the most toxic chemicals, breathed the most polluted air, drank the dirtiest water, and had the least access to green spaces.

For a few years, environmental rhetoric began to suggest the ethical need for the most rapacious consumers to make sacrifices for the sake of the underprivileged around the world; ethics, as a field of study, urges us to take responsibility, to examine the rippling impact of our actions. In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice, designed explicitly to prevent the classic practice of building hazardous waste facilities in the communities that are least well equipped to mount a protest. At the time, some of us hoped that the increasing difficulty of siting such facilities would force manufacturers to find ways of producing less hazardous material in the first place.

Unfortunately, Clinton and his collaborators were simultaneously making it easier for companies to shift their dirtiest operations to other countries. And, more importantly, by the late 1990s, global climate change was starting to dominate environmental discussions, and this new focus led to invocations of planetary crisis and impending doom. Environmental justice went out of fashion as quickly as it had come in.

Now, whenever we despair over the coming storms, floods, and heat waves, whenever we worry publicly about the environmental conditions that our grandchildren will face, we risk coming across as insensitive to the terrible injustices of today's world. Those who look ahead in this way are usually well-intentioned people desperate to shock the public into becoming more politically active, and their assumption is that concern for one's own descendants will be a motivating force. But successful social movements in history have been based on the immediacy of ethics, not on weather forecasts. The ethical purchase of climatology is shaky at best; historical analysis has significantly more to offer.

History suggests, for instance, that we need to understand ourselves as outliers—that the era of fossil fuels has been a truly exceptional one. Never before have so many people lived in such ease, able to focus on consumption and comfort—and never before have we seen such levels of poverty, exploitation, pollution, and certain kinds of violence. Consumer society rests not just on oil and machines but on degrading labor, and on degraded environments where vulnerable populations are losing their homes and livelihoods. Climate change is killing people and creating refugees right now, today, in many parts of the world, and the groups that are most affected have had little to do with creating the conditions they are facing.

This injustice will be perfectly clear to future generations, just as today we all recognize the evil of the slave trade. And isn't it intriguing, as the incisive journalist Andrew Nikiforuk has remarked, that the defenses of today's social order mounted by conservative ideologues—that our energy system and military industrial complex employ millions of people, make us all happy, and allow us to live more secure lives, with more time to further the aims of civilization—sound a lot like the justifications of plantation owners in the pre-Civil War American South? History is not prescriptive, but, like the study of ethics, it forces us to consider our role in social processes.

Most of us are further removed from the physical reality of injustice than the average slaveholder was, but we are ethically obliged to shorten that distance. We need to understand, for instance, the impact that our dependence on coal-fired power plants has on the Appalachian region—just as antebellum northerners should have known how their sugar, cotton, and tobacco were produced. Perhaps most importantly, if we're going to focus on climate change, then we ought to contribute as many resources to adaptation (adjustment to the realities of a changing climate) as to mitigation (the effort to halt its progress), given the burden that is already being borne by so many poor people, especially in the developing world.

As climate scientists always note, it is virtually impossible to pin a given environmental event on something as complex as the climate. But clear patterns have emerged in the last two decades to suggest that climatic factors in certain parts of the world are wreaking more havoc than ever before. Even in some temperate, relatively well-off communities, people have noticed that “hundred-year floods” are happening every few years. Generally speaking, however, conditions are worst in the highest and lowest latitudes.

Inuit hunters, who have a slim margin of error even in the best of times, can no longer rely on their knowledge of animals' migration networks, given how warmer temperatures have changed local ecosystems. And the 2 billion people living in dryland environments, 90 percent of whom are in the developing world, have seen tried-and-true farming techniques starting to fail, year after year. There is also a clear correlation now between “below-normal” rainfall and violent conflict, in both agricultural and pastoral communities. In some relatively arid regions, like East Africa, average rainfall has increased, but instead of arriving regularly and gently, it comes in short, explosive bursts and then disappears, resulting in periods of flooding and erosion followed by drought. Meanwhile, coastal peoples (especially those living in delta regions) have experienced much greater instability, with higher-frequency and higher-intensity storms creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. Such migrants are sometimes characterized as “burdens” on the more “stable” communities designated to take them in, but from the perspective of a climate refugee in the developing world, the burden and injustice travel in the opposite direction: they derive from greenhouse gas emissions caused by the industrial world's investments in towering buildings, elaborate transport systems, and massive manufacturing operations.

Of course, environmentalists and other activists have been trying for decades to get wealthy citizens of the so-called Global North to care about injustices in the impoverished regions of the so-called Global South, with limited success. So it makes sense that U.S. climate change campaigners have started to invoke threats to future generations of Americans rather than reminding people of current water scarcity in Africa. Unfortunately, though, this strategy seems to be floundering as well, in a culture that is so committed to technological optimism and so unaccustomed to confronting the need to sacrifice.

Why not, at the very least, encourage Americans to help the world's neediest—by contributing to efforts to secure water supplies and sanitation systems in the coastal cities of the developing world, or to grow droughttolerant crops, or to bolster public health regimes and even public insurance initiatives? Behaving ethically—working for justice—even tends to make people happy, in contrast to the American lifestyle of overconsumption, which is more than likely to leave people endlessly dissatisfied.

I have no perfect, clear strategy for encouraging people to sacrifice in order to address climate change and environmental injustices; nor do I claim to have made sufficient sacrifices myself. But I have come to believe that historical and ethical approaches, with the sense of connection and investment that those approaches tend to generate, could yield better results than any of the strategies we are currently emphasizing. Perhaps the key lesson of history is that all change is contingent, and nothing is inevitable—and that alone is good grounds for hope. And to ponder ethics is to have faith that individual values and decisions matter deeply, in part because they sometimes cohere into social values. Think of the civil rights movement: it turned out to be deeply significant when one woman refused to move to the back of the bus.

I was intrigued to learn recently that climate activist Bill McKibben has decided, based on his study of history (especially abolitionism and civil rights), that the best thing we can do is to demonize the oil industry, because social movements have traditionally needed an enemy, and environmentalists are not going to get anywhere telling Americans to beat up on themselves for their overconsumption. He has a point: the petroleum lobby is powerful and insidious, and we need to fight hard for deep, structural changes in the economy that will lay most of the burden on those who hold the most power. In my environmental history courses, I always tell my students that what I really want them to do is to march on Washington and demand a carbon tax rather than just shop at our local farmers market. But in truth I want them to do both. We need spaces like farmers markets to help foster political action. Moreover, bringing down the oil companies and replacing them with solar power companies would not erase our complicity in mass-market consumerism or our addiction to energy. Photovoltaic cells might seem like a clean, green technology, but we still don't have a non-toxic way of producing them, which means that the solar industry, like every other energy industry, is leaving communities polluted all around the world.

Justice will not be served until privileged people—my students and I are good examples—reassess their needs and sacrifice some of their privileges. Such people tend to be reluctant to undertake this kind of serious self-evaluation. Even the best-intentioned young environmentalists, who often emphasize governance and “efficacy,” tend to scoff at my insistence that they read Thoreau: given the enormity of our problems, what does it matter if one more hermit goes off the grid? But the point of working one's way through Walden and Thoreau's other writings is not so much to dwell on his specific actions in the woods as to analyze his way of thinking and his resistance to certain elements of the status quo, to engage with his New England spirit of self-reliance and civil disobedience.

Or perhaps the point is to consider the way in which Thoreau may have inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who in turn led broad-based social movements that succeeded thanks in part to a determined desire simply to make things right. Sometimes acknowledging the sacrifices of our forebears can spur us toward making our own sacrifices. Or, as economist and philosopher John Broome has argued in his book Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, perhaps the point is to remember that justice requires each of us, first and foremost, to do no harm. Thoreau's famous refusal to pay his poll tax stemmed from a fear that the government would use his money to wage war in Mexico and extend slavery southward.

Unfortunately, our current level of consumption in industrial countries—especially of fossil fuels—is directly harmful to billions of people, although it remains difficult to track the harm. Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, magically disconnected us from the consequences of our actions. This reality is overwhelming and distressing to recognize, so another of the most important contributions of the environmental movement might be to seek ways of boosting everyone's morale. It's probably time for some climate change knock-knock jokes (perhaps involving Jumbo the Elephant, or some of the nicer things that happen in the dark). But, again, it's also time to do more sustained historical thinking—to remember that cheap, highly concentrated power has been with us for only a short time, and that human societies did find ways of thriving even before fossil fuels were dominant, back in the era of nighttime darkness and wood and walking. In fact, working one's body (Thoreau built his cabin himself using discarded materials) is another well-established way of bolstering one's mood and resilience, so another important and multifaceted goal might be to recapture an older, more positive vision of work. Recent neuroscience research suggests that some forms of modern depression (in the industrial world) are linked to the fewer opportunities we have to use our bodies to accomplish necessary tasks. On cold days, some of my neighbors go outside and chop wood to fuel the stoves that warm their houses, and they find it deeply satisfying; last winter, my gas-powered furnace stopped working early one morning, and there was nothing my wife and I could do to keep our children warm except take them elsewhere. I found that I was still angry at the world even after I had paid the repairman. (In industrial countries, the production of fuelwood is also associated with much less social damage than the production of fossil fuels.)

Energy just means the capacity to do work. That sounds humble and ordinary, but a society's energy system goes pretty far in setting assumptions about what is possible and normal in that society. A family in colonial America with several healthy children and one hired hand and a team of oxen—in other words a middle-class or upper-middle-class family—had about three horsepower, and needed to convert that into its equivalent in food and fuel. Today, a typical middle-class suburban family has about 100 times as much power available. So, on the one hand, we can now envision accomplishing much more, which makes it hard to imagine going back to an earlier standard of living: it has become normal to travel great distances, to eat food that has traveled great distances, to dream of curing cancer and ending poverty. But, on the other hand, we now actually work much less on average, although of course some hard labor still has to be performed. The basic work that keeps us alive is done mostly by fossil fuels rather than bodies, which is a great advantage in some ways, because it frees us to do more interesting and useful things. But it can also be seen as a disadvantage, because by buying into a system where we do much less bodily work, we have also bought into higher rates of depression, heart disease, obesity, and general alienation (not to mention all the social and environmental harm caused by fossil fuel extraction). Here we are with far more energy at our disposal, yet how often do we note that we're feeling “low energy?” That's not something people said in colonial times.

Modernity has been liberating and exhilarating in all kinds of ways—I am often grateful for my furnace, not to mention my electric lights—but also brutally damaging and horrifically unjust. Computers, planes, modern surgical techniques, antibiotics, electricity—these are marvels. But we rarely consider what they actually cost in suffering and destruction, because that cost is hidden in the shadows. We take antibiotics to make ourselves feel better without knowing how they actually work or how they were made or tested, but hey, they work—why not take more? Some antibiotics are of course critical; others, as we are now learning through hard experience, may ultimately do more harm than good. Pressing the button to turn up the heat is so easy—for those who can afford it—that it becomes nearly impossible to know whether we actually need to turn up the heat or just want to turn up the heat. (The advertising industry, which arose in the late nineteenth century as corporate capitalism's handmaiden, also helped to expand our needs.) What if thermostats were decorated with pictures of open-pit mines?

What if we had to ride a stationary bike for five minutes for each extra degree of warmth? My favorite household device is the crankdriven flashlight that my wife and I hand to our seven-year-old son every evening at 8 o'clock: if he wants to stay up reading (he always does), he has to turn the crank.

Most Americans are now wired into an elaborate energy system that we have little control over and cannot hope to understand in any thorough way. But we can understand some of its history. In the twentieth century, for various cul-

tural and economic reasons, Americans became addicted to cars (Europe and Asia kept their emphasis on trains) and sprawling suburban developments (Europe and Asia have more densely packed populations and housing stock that is much easier to heat efficiently). And now we use 40 percent more energy than Germany in per capita terms, twice as much as Sweden (where it's pretty darn cold), and three times as much as Japan or Italy. Those are all places with a high quality of life.

Especially given the cost of our energy consumption to so many less-privileged people, do we really want to be this dependent on our machines and on a shaky power grid and on a volatile, leaky supply of oil and natural gas? Perhaps, for those of us with sufficient energy, it might be time to see if we can replace a certain amount of fossil fuel consumption with human power, to see if we can do our work on a more human scale. Bike to the office, use a push mower, join or start a community garden, slow down, ease up. Sometimes it might feel like a sacrifice, and sometimes it might actually be fun. Who isn't interested in avoiding traffic jams? Who would object to seeing more constellations in the night sky? Wouldn't it be cause for celebration if we could show that we were doing less damage to vulnerable communities?

We could try to get our carbon emissions as close to zero as possible— because it is our duty to do no harm—and then, as John Broome suggests, we could direct our money in ways that would offset whatever emissions we couldn't eliminate. We could embrace smaller, more local economies (with much shorter and simpler supply chains), and we could generally try to live, as Bill McKibben has eloquently proposed, more “lightly, carefully, gracefully.” It is not a matter of insisting on a joyless efficiency, but perhaps of following the example set by people like Thoreau, or, as the cultural critic

Los Angeles freeways, 2009.

Lewis Mumford once proposed, that of the Benedictine monks: “Rewarding work they kept for themselves: manuscript copying, illumination, carving. Unrewarding work they turned over to the machine: grinding, pounding, sawing. In that original discrimination they showed their intellectual superiority to many of our own contemporaries, who seek to transfer both forms of work to the machine, even if the resultant life proves to be mindless and meaningless.” History reminds us that there are always choices, and that communities have flourished in many different contexts.

I don't intend to romanticize physical labor or to glorify the specific version of society developed in Thoreau's day, when much of the hard work was done by exploited peoples and when many hardy men and women, including Thoreau himself, died of diseases like tuberculosis. Yet a town like Thoreau's Concord had much to recommend it: there were no slaves; wage earners at mills and small factories could earn a decent living; many people were independent farmers or artisans; there was a thriving intellectual culture, with a strong undercurrent of utopianism, indicating a commitment to work for change; and the meadows were surrounded by a “border of wild wood,” as Thoreau put it. On the other hand, there was little ethnic diversity and most local Native Americans had been killed or driven away (there were also too many dams on the river, and people's tax dollars and consumer purchases sometimes supported militarism and slavery). No place has ever been perfect. But isn't it time to admit that society has not in fact become more and more perfect through the ages—to acknowledge that there will always be work and someone will always have to do it, and to dispense with the modern platitude that “we can't go back?” We can at least go slightly backward, and there are excellent reasons to do so—the most compelling of which being, perhaps, that the more work we do for ourselves, the more just our society will become.

Walking to the farmers market instead of driving to the grocery store is not going to halt climate change or eliminate environmental injustices. But maybe, as you try to tell the celery root from the rutabaga, you'll feel a bit more connected to the way people used to live. Maybe, looking backward amid the buzz of public exchange, you'll recognize more fully how each individual is implicated in social structures, and thus how structural change depends on the public airing and coordination of seemingly personal decisions. Maybe you'll be inspired to engage in an act of civil disobedience, to protest corporate irresponsibility or government inertia, following in the footsteps of the Bellamy Clubs that formed in the years after Looking Backward was published and that helped the Populist Party re-insert the issue of inequality into American politics. Maybe, lugging your vegetables back to your house or apartment or dorm room, you'll feel a jolt of energy.

 
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