Social Class and the Environment Textbook: A Course Textbook

Introduction: Social and Environmental Justice

Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society, as measured by the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges; it is a process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what is their due. In current global grassroots movements, as well as in some more visible political ones, the emphasis is on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.

If we look at wealth distribution, the world is unequal, off-balance: "Income inequality in the United States," writes Taylor Telford of The Washington Post, September 2019, "has hit its highest level since the Census Bureau started tracking it more than five decades ago...even as the nation's poverty and unemployment rates are at historic lows."

Looking further, moving into Race and Racism, Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (The New Press,  2010), tells us that:

This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people  not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind  virtual bars and virtual  walls—walls  that  are invisible to the naked eye but  function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once  did at locking people of  color into a permanent second-class citizenship. The term mass incarceration refers not only  to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies , and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, former prisoners enter a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and  permanent social exclusion. They are members of America's new undercaste.

Social justice is at the heart of our struggles—but there is plenty of push back. Noah Rothman, in Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America (Regnery Gateway, 2019), argues that " justice in its modern form encompasses the idea that an ill-defined class or persecutors and oppressors is due for a reckoning. The same idea animated Jacobins in France, the Bolivarians in Latin America, and the Bolsheviks in Russia. The thirst for revenge against those who allegedly benefit from the repression of the past is powerful and corrupting. Retribution rarely solves conflict. Often, fosters more"(xiv-xv). Social justice, even in the face of such social, economic, even legal (protection under the law) inequities, so goes the argument, is nothing more than a misguided desire for retribution.

In these definitions, in these conflicts concerning social justice, Environmentalism, focused primarily on improving the quality of the natural environment turned its back on social justice—or perhaps didn't even notice what Rob Nixon, in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011) describes as "slow violence": "a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all," but which is felt for generations by the people experiencing "incremental and accretive" repercussions. That is, environmentalism's war cry, dating back, say, to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), described how human interactions with the environment, if not guided and managed, hurt Nature. Bill McKibben's The End of Nature  (Penguin Random House, 1989) followed.

Robert D. Bullard, often described as the father of environmental justice, in The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005), says:

"Health is the main focus of the environmental justice, 'environment' is generally defined as being where we live, work, play, worship, and go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. The World Health Organization defines health as 'a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not just the absence of disease and infirmity.' These definitions of environment and health capture the essence of the struggles for environmental justice being fought by communities made up of people of color and low-income groups."

The environmental health movement has expanded to include citizen-science alliances, which cover all sectors—Gulf War syndrome, breast cancer and asthma, as well as disease clusters. Daniel Faber, in Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization (Rowan & Littlefield 2008), tells that, fortunately, "The diversity of people participating in ...local, regional, and national organizations is matched by the diversity of political paths and approaches taken to achieving environmental justice." Yet,

In short, to sustain the process of capital accumulation and higher profits in the new global economy, American capital is increasingly relying on ecologically unsustainable forms of production that disproportionately impact communities of color and the working class-sectors that are underrepresented in the traditional environmental movement.

Why? Why is this still happening, even as we see NY State divest its $225 billion Common Retirement Fund from fossil fuels?

It is, says Faber, because of "the corporate assault on the liberal regime of environmental regulation and the promotion of neoliberal policies (including 'free-market' environmentalism) in its place are facilitating a process of economic restructuring by American capital." It's "accumulate or die." 

"The increased mobility of multinational corporations is consequently eliminating nationally oriented development strategies in favor of export-oriented industrialization in both the North and the global South." This is done by a "sophisticated network of think tanks, policy institutes, research centers, foundations, nonprofit organizations, public relations firms, and political actions committees," says Faber, creating the political-industrial complex. 

The central victims of this kind of assault on the environment are the poor: "globalization-inspired development models," says Faber, "are becoming increasingly unviable in the South, giving birth to popularly based movements for social and ecological justice—an environmentalism of the poor."

The struggles for social justice and environmentalism are ongoing, as we see Bullard, Nixon, and Faber describe. Ramachandra Guha, in Environmentalism: A Global History (Longman, 2000), creating a context for which to see environmentalism and the struggle for environmental justice,  says that "we might...speak of a first wave of  environmentalism, the initial response to the onset of industrialization, and a second wave, when a largely intellectual response was  given shape and force by a groundswell of public support...Meanwhile the environmental movement has expanded human understandings of 'rights' and 'justice', calling for greater attention to the rights of nature as well a s for sustainable lifestyles."

But none of this is historically new; it is simply a continuation of the ravages waged on the weak by the hunger for resources needed to maintain livability by the powerful in the global North. What is now happening, says Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (Vintage Books, 1993), parts of which introduce students in the course to the history of the struggle for power and justice, the struggle for voice, is that "the old divisions between colonizer and colonial have re-emerged in what is often referred to as the North-South relationship, which has entailed defensiveness, various kinds of rhetorical and ideological combat, and a simmering hostility that is quite likely to trigger devastating wars—in some cases it already has."

None of this is easy, nor is it comfortable. In this course, we examine hierarchical approaches that create divisions among us—colonizer and colonized, North - South: the privileging of consumption and manufacturing over the economies of land use and nature.  It's an unhealthy and unsustainable because this system must sacrifice people to succeed—the environmentalism of the poor.

To accomplish this inquiry into how wealth can annihilate people of color, people without political clout, we read fiction and non-fiction; we find examples in our culture—crisis at the border, #BlackLivesMatter, the assault of voting rights; we write a lot, as inquiry into the subject and ourselves, as ways of thinking—meta-writing— so that we can see ourselves engaging with the material and each other.

The course can feel daunting to students. They are usually grappling with a set of questions:
  • what is my place in this struggle?
  • what is important to me?
  • how to I envision myself as a person who, in the future, will produce wealth?
  • what is moral?
  • ethical?

The student-created Social Class and the Environment TextbookProject Based Learning (PBL)—is a way to be more intimate with the material and gain ownership by sharing what we've learned with readers and users; it's a way of contributing to the struggle for environmental justice, the struggle for health, in a small way.


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