Fall 2012 Colloquium Blog

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Nature, Justice, and Individual Action: Insights from the Fall 2012 Environments and Societies Colloquium Series

December 16, 2012

By Raoul S. Liévanos, UC Davis Sociology Doctoral Candidate and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

Have you ever heard the phrase, “think globally, act locally?” What does it mean to you? Chances are you have encountered the phrase (or some variant of it) on a bumper sticker, in a television commercial, or passing by some self-proclaimed environmentally sustainable commercial enterprise. A quick internet search for the phrase (e.g., in Google or Bing) will return a history of the phrase preceded by the following description of it in Wikipedia (2012): “‘Think globally, act locally’ urges people to consider the health of the entire planet and to take action in their own communities and cities.”

What about the phrase, “environmental justice?” In contrast to “think globally, act locally,” the Wikipedia entry for this term has been flagged for having “multiple issues” (i.e., multiple and contested interpretations), even after over 30 years of advocacy by members of the environmental justice movement (EJM). Scholarly work provides a little more clarity here. For example, Schlosberg (2007) illustrates how the EJM has advanced a version of justice that incorporates the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, the recognition of cultural relations of oppression and privilege, the meaningful participation—especially of traditionally marginalized social groups—in environmental decision-making processes, and capacity building of low income and minority communities to increase their standing in society. Another interesting facet of the EJM, is how it often defines “the environment” as where humans “live, work, play, pray, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world” (Bullard 2007:43; see also Liévanos 2012:483-4; SNEEJ 2012).

Four visiting scholars representing the fields of American studies, history, journalism, philosophy, and sociology participated in the UC Davis E&S Colloquium during the fall 2012 quarter. Each scholar had disparate research questions of interest, and their works spurred lively discussions among colloquium discussants on a variety of issues and concerns pertaining to human-nature interactions. However, a common thread through each work was its focus on the relationship between nature, justice, and individual action. For example, each work could be reframed around the following question: is individual action enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice? Below, I review how the work of the four visiting scholars shed light on this question then open up the discussion to you, the reader.

Our two visiting scholars for November, Ted Toadvine (Philosopher, University of Oregon) and Jenny Price (Writer and Historian, UCLA and Stanford University), provide a sound conceptual framework for our discussion of nature, justice, and individual action. In “Naturalism, Estrangement, and Resistance: On the Lived Senses of Nature,” Toadvine argues that environmental theory uses the term, “nature,” in two conflicting ways – an “unrestricted nature” that is inclusive of humans and a “pure nature” that is estranged from human agency. Drawing on ecophenomenology, Toadvine first argues the tension between these binary understandings of nature rests in humans’ familiar yet paradoxical experience of nature rather than their mere lack of conceptual or linguistic clarity. Toadvine builds on these theoretical grounds and insightfully argues that human experience is partial, situated, and limited. Thus, a third unfamiliar sense of nature, “on its own terms,” is a nature resistant to, and withdrawn from, human experience. One of the implications of Toadvine’s argument is that it requires “us to reconsider our everyday understanding of what it means to be a ‘part of’ nature and to be estranged from it” (p. 23). Through this reconsideration, we may become more aware of “the blind spots” associated with our estrangement from nature.

Price’s initial observation in “Stop Saving the Planet! – and Other Tips via Rachel Carson for 21st-Century Environmentalists” is that twentieth-century environmentalism helped solidify the idea that nature is separate from humans, as evident in its support for large-scale wilderness preservation efforts. Thus, an early blind spot in that wave of environmentalism was a central issue to the current EJM—the issue of environmental inequality (i.e., the unequal social and spatial distribution of environmental burdens and benefits). According to Price, twenty-first-century environmentalism still generally ignores environmental inequality but has replaced large-scale preservation with “greenitude” and the “greenwashing” of everyday activity, particularly popular consumption practices. Price argues contemporary environmentalism sits at the confluence of two problems. First is the “I Problem,” which emphasizes the importance of individual virtuous “Green acts” (e.g., the federal Cash for Clunkers program (see p. 7 in Price’s paper)). This is problematic because it assumes everyone can be virtuous, yet to be virtuous in this context necessitates status hierarchy and unequal resources to participate in “greenwashed” activities.

Second, there is the “We Problem.” Here, all “Green acts” are seen as accomplishing the same goal of saving the planet. Offsets and trading programs are an example of this problem for Price because they reflect “a kind of geographic cluelessness to the Save the Planet environmentalism—by which anything you do here or there benefits absolutely the whole planet everywhere,” and that some communities’ environment, health, and welfare have to be sacrificed for the benefit of others (see pgs. 9-10; see also Sze et al. 2009 on California’s “cap-and-trade” program for carbon dioxide emissions).

Price situates the two problematic rhetorics in a matrix of different historical forces. Among them include the “historically powerful vision of nature as separate from humans” (p. 5); the societal reception of Rachel Carson’s preservationist, twentieth-century environmentalism as virtuous; and “the tenacious cultural class divide in environmentalism” (p. 10). Invoking similar sentiments by William Cronon (1995), Price concludes that to achieve a sustainable and equitable future for the people, communities, and ecosystems on this planet, we must re-emphasize inhabiting the planet rather than saving it. We must also end the problematic “I” and “We” rhetorics and the cultural class divide that allow for the perpetuation of unsustainable development and environmental inequality.

According to Toadvine and Price, then, the dominant paradigm for understanding “nature” is something that is mostly separate and estranged from us, humans, despite our ubiquitous interaction with it. Socially desirable and “virtuous” interactions have taken the form of wildlife preservation and now “environmentally friendly” consumptive activity at the individual or local level. Is this justice? If so, by whose standards is this situation just? Sociological and socio-legal scholars illustrate how “the state”—a collection of legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government—is an important arbitrator of what “justice” means and how it looks in practice (Liévanos 2012). Our visiting scholars for October, Jill Lindsey Harrison (Sociologist, University of Colorado, Boulder), and Melanie Armstrong (Visiting Assistant Professor of History, UC Davis) both provide case studies that help us understand the important role the state plays in constructing “nature” and “justice” in environmental regulatory policy, as well as making individual action a central component of implementing those policies.

Previous scholarship has argued that the unequal distribution of environmental burdens and benefits in society is attributed, in part, to a disregard for justice by powerful societal actors, including the state and the corporate sector. The EJM is seen as an important corrective to this situation by bringing “justice into environmental politics.” However, recent scholarship by Schlosberg (2007; as noted above) and others has shown how it is not the absence or presence of justice in environmental politics but the character and consequences of different types of justice that matter in environmental politics. Harrison’s “Environmental Politics and Theories of Justice,” and the larger project of which it is associated (Harrison 2011) add to this newer strand of scholarship. In this work, Harrison draws on theories of justice from political philosophy and a variety of qualitative research methods (i.e., interviews, ethnographic observations, and archival records) to analyze a case study of political conflict over pesticide drift—the airborne movement of pesticides from their intended target—in California agriculture to dissect what may be termed “justice-work” in environmental politics.

This research also has implications for understanding the role the state plays in constructing nature, justice, and the importance of individual action in environmental regulatory policy. Harrison shows the production of environmental inequality is rooted in an assemblage of prevalent yet largely invisible ideas about what justice itself means. Specifically, Harrison first shows how pesticide drift activists, mobilizing on behalf of predominantly immigrant, Latina/o, farmworker communities in California’s Central Valley, operationalize of an egalitarian “environmental justice” similarly to that of the larger EJM as observed by Schlosberg (2007). As Harrison notes:

Pesticide drift activists deliberately argue that a socially just solution to pesticide drift requires regulatory actions that account for and combat environmental inequalities and the social inequalities that bolster them, the forms of group-based oppression that obscure and exacerbate environmental inequalities, the lack of participatory parity in decision making on environmental and other social issues, and inadequate basic capabilities in farmworking communities that bear the burden of pesticide drift (p. 9).

This egalitarian notion of environmental justice differs from the dominant utilitarian, libertarian, and communitarian ideas of justice found in the practices and claims of the environmental regulatory state, as well as non-EJ activist organizations. For example, U.S. environmental regulatory policy, which encompasses federal pesticide policy, uses cost-benefit analyses that operationalize a utilitarian notion of justice, whereby the greatest “benefit” is calculated for the greatest number of people (or environments) for the “cost” of a given environmental burden. In addition, contemporary pesticide regulations are heavily shaped by libertarian notions of justice that seek to protect private property rights, implement voluntary market mechanisms to pesticide regulation, and promote private lawsuits for redress to individual and collective harms. Lastly, Harrison demonstrates how the contemporary mainstream agrifood movement pursues social change through a variety of libertarian alternative marketing systems and utilitarian cost-benefit analyses. They also mobilize communitarian notions of justice centered on localizing producer and consumer relations within the larger food systems, as well as increasing local participation in decision making processes linked to those systems to realize the “good life” and community empowerment.

Ultimately, Harrison argues these dominant justice claims legitimate environmental inequalities while making them more difficult to see. In reinforcing Price’s point above, Harrison argues the utilitarian logic of pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people legitimates the creation of “sacrifice zones” and the environmental inequalities found there. In elaborating on Toadvine’s argument, Harrison also shows how issues of environmental inequality are “blind spots” to libertarian and communitarian notions of justice, which, respectively, are focused primarily on protecting private property rights despite the unequal distribution of those rights, and strengthening a community of food producers and consumers while “sidelining” dynamics of power and inequality that undergird such “community relations.”

Armstrong’s colloquium paper, “Hand Sanitizer Secures the Homeland: The Biopolitics of Disease Science and Surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” contributes to the discussion of nature, justice, and individual action. In it, Armstrong uses ethnographic field methods and archival research to understand the processes and implications of how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) transformed from a public health agency to a national security agency to combat the threat of biological weapons on U.S. soil in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A central focus of the paper is the “security apparatus” evident in the CDC’s various bioterrorism preparedness initiatives, which includes scientific study of disease and human behavior, surveillance of the population, communicating risk to individuals, building emergency response facilities (e.g., stockpiles of vaccines and medical supplies and scientific laboratories), and various fundraising activities from private donors. In this context, Armstrong argues “nature” is seen in the disease exposure pathways between individual bodies and microbial agents, “justice” is realized in the utilitarian sense by using the security apparatus to ensure the greatest good (public health and national security) for the greatest number of people, and individual action is seen as central to securing revenue and the homeland. As Armstrong eloquently puts it:

The project to protect a group from external biological threats can only be accomplished through the technologies which make it visible…New biosecurity strategies produce new ways of accessing citizens and institutionalize science and surveillance as forms of knowledge central to state authority. Surveillance technologies set the parameters of risk, depicting individual bodies as potential ‘ground zero’ for biological outbreak as well as members of a vulnerable biological collective…Finally, bioterrorism preparedness militarizes the daily rituals of health, reproducing individual acts like hand washing as critical acts of national safety and security. In this state of emergency, citizen soldiers carry hand sanitizer (pgs. 34-35).

In sum, what did the fall 2012 E&S Colloquium series tell us about nature, justice, and the importance of individual action in environmental regulatory policy? Above, I illustrated how the four visiting scholars collectively approached the question of whether individual action is enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice. Together, they show how “nature” has predominantly been understood as something separate and estranged from us even though we are constantly interacting with it with our productive and consumptive activities. To be environmentally “virtuous” in this context means we pursue wildlife preservation, “green” and localize our everyday consumptive activity, promote environmental action based on cost-benefit analyses and voluntary market mechanisms, seek redress for environmental harms via individual lawsuits, and/or carry hand sanitizer. Yet, such virtuous acts do not ensure an egalitarian form of justice; rather, it could be argued they advance a sense of utilitarian or libertarian notion of justice for select individuals—at best. How can we support the alternative visions supplied by our visiting scholars for “thinking globally, acting locally” that may also help us reconsider the human-nature relationship and pursue more egalitarian forms of environmental justice?


Bullard, Robert D. 2007. “Smart Growth Meets Environmental Justice.” Pp. 23-49 in Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity, edited by R. D. Bullard. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Pp. 69-90 in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by W. Cronon. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Harrison, Jill Lindsey. 2011. Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Liévanos, Raoul S. 2012. “Certainty, Fairness, and Balance: State Resonance and Environmental Justice Policy Implementation.” Sociological Forum 27(2):481-503.

Schlosberg, David. 2007. Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SNEEJ. 2012. “State Initiatives.” Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Retrieved December 15, 2012 (http:// http://www.sneej.org/stateinitiatives.htm).

Sze, Julie, Gerardo Gambirazzio, Alex Karner, Danaw Rowan, Jonathan London, and Deb Niemeier. 2009. “Best in Show? Climate and Environmental Justice Policy in California.” Environmental Justice 2(4): 179-184.

Wikipedia. 2012. “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved December 15, 2012 (http:// http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Think_globally,_act_locally).

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