The line of demarcation—political, geographic, even cosmological—between the cherished living things and vistas we call “nature” and the built world of “culture” grows increasingly squiggly and blurred in Professor Ellen Stroud’s course, Environmental Justice. Not only do her students question the very concepts of “nature” in opposition to “culture,” they then go on to study the history of humans shaping wilderness and vice versa, and the ramifications of such shaping on the poor, the disenfranchised, and Mother Earth.
Environmental Justice, a new course in advanced topics in environment and society, asks students to cast a suspicious gaze at easy answers to questions of environmental ethics, and to instead delve deeply into the immensely complex history behind our relationship with the natural world. The course is crosslisted with both the Growth and Structure of Cities Program and the Sociology Department, and is part of the Environmental Studies Concentration.
“Environmentalism can and has led to environmental inequities,” says Stroud. “Expressions of power appear in many landscapes and environments, and those expressions have deep roots.”
For example, our great national parks—established in response to rapid industrialization and development—involved the eviction of Native American peoples from lands they had used for generations. And landfills in the United States, developed to contain waste the entire society produces, have most often been sited in or near African American communities.
“People and the structures and social processes they create are an integral part of the landscape,” says Stroud. “Environmentalists who focus on natural areas sort of wish cities away. But we need to be thinking about how cities can function well in relation to nature.”
Stroud, who has a master’s in U.S. environmental history from the University of Oregon, and a doctorate from Columbia University in U.S. urban and environmental history, is Assistant Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities and Environmental Studies on the Alderfer Fund, a new position created last year by the generosity of alumna Johanna Alderfer Harris and her husband Bill. For Stroud, who comes to Bryn Mawr from five years of teaching environmental history at Oberlin College, the position is a uniquely good fit. “It’s a rare opportunity for me to combine my interests in urban and environmental history,” she says.
The course begins with a dip into the hot issues. Readings include “The Politics of Pollution: Implications for the Black Community” (Phylon 47), by Robert Bullard and Beverly Hendrix Wright; “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” (UCC Commission for Racial Justice, Public Data Access 1987); Laura Pulido’s “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California” (Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90); and Stroud’s article in Radical History Review 74, “Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon.” And by week three, the students are wrestling with the core philosophical underpinnings of most of the arguments that accrue to any discussion of environmental justice: what do we mean when we say “nature” or “environment”?
Illustration by Esther Bunning
Them’s Fightin’ Words
“Wilderness is not quite what it seems,” writes William Cronon in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. For Cronon, wilderness is “quite profoundly a human condition.”
Cronon’s essay gave birth to a discussion (both in scholarly and popular literature, and in Stroud’s course) that articulated the often mirror-image arguments about the sometimes competing goals of the environmental movement. Preservation versus conservation; pollution control versus biophilia; ecocentrism versus anthrocentrism. He offers an historic overview of the notion of wilderness, claiming that prior to the 19th century Americans thought of wilderness as a fear-inducing wasteland, the arena outside of Eden and divine protection. But by the end of that century, Thoreau’s dictum that “wilderness is the preservation of the world” had taken hold in the popular imagination. A Romantic notion of primitivism and of the frontier as the last bastion of rugged individualism against an emasculating citification caught on. In citing the removal of Indians from their homes in order to create national parks, he writes, “The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.…there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness. It is entirely a creation of a culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny.”
A year after Uncommon Ground appeared, the environmentalist magazine Wild Earth ran essays in response to Cronon’s version of the issues. Gary Snyder’s essay, “Nature as Seen from Kitkitdizze is No ‘Social Construction’,” begins, “I must confess I’m getting a bit grumpy about the dumb arguments being put forth by high-paid intellectual types in which they are trying to knock Nature; knock the people who value Nature, and still come out smelling smart and progressive.” Snyder goes on to argue that wilderness does not exist to serve humans; that it has it’s own intrinsic value, and that it should be rigorously defended.
George Session’s essay, “Reinventing Nature? The End of Wilderness?” provides this analysis: “The environmental movement has been the scene of an ongoing ideological battle since the 1970s centered around retaining its primary ecocentric focus on protecting the Earth’s ecological integrity for all species versus shifting the focus toward a narrow anthropocentric urban pollution and social justice agenda.”
Yet Stroud and her students examine the ways in which both the urban and wilderness strands of environmental activism suffer for their antagonism toward the other. They study the practices and strategies of both wilderness advocates and the environmental justice movement, and investigate the ways in which environmentalism has had ill effect on poor communities. Students examine how resource allocation, property rights, and access to social and economic power all affect the physical landscape of our complex world: natural, built or imagined, past, present and future.
• Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, Anchor Books 1999. Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Science. In this book, he argues for assessing the success of development not in monetary terms, but in terms of freedoms secured.
• Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Mark Spence, Oxford University Press 1999. The book includes detailed histories of the creation of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite national parks, and the peoples who used and lived on the land before Europeans arrived.
• Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, W.W. Norton & Co. 1997. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was a New York Times bestseller. Students critique this book for the ways in which it discounts human agency in history.
• Environment, Power and Injustice: A South African History, Nancy Jacobs, Cambridge University Press 2003. Jacob’s book offers a strong counterpoint to Diamond’s, demonstrating how different world views and priorities led to indigenous people and their colonizers making sharply divergent choices as they shaped environments in South Africa.
• Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, Gilbert Osofsky, Harper Collins 1966 (reprint of 2nd edition, Ivan R. Dee 1996). Subtitled “Negro New York, 1890–1930,” this book explores the history of the built environment in Harlem, and the structural reasons behind the neighborhood’s economic and environmental decline. Though written long before the term environmental justice had been coined, it offers a window into the ways in which both racism and governmental structures shape the possibilities for development of healthy urban environments.
• Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Eric Klinenberg. University of Chicago Press 2002. This book delves into how social conditions contributed to more than 700 deaths during a week-long wave of unprecedented heat and humidity in Chicago in 1995. This book untangles the political and social causes of what had been seen as a “natural” disaster; people did not die because of the heat, but because Chicago did not adequately care for its most vulnerable residents.
• Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, William Cronon, editor, W.W. Norton 1996. This collection of essays by many environmental historians offers new ways of conceptualizing both the environment and environmental movements.
Stroud allows the final project in the course to take “any of a number of forms:it might be a literature review, it might be original research, it might be an evaluation of a particular program or project.” Students’ disciplinary background and personal interests drive their choices. As they consider their topics, Stroud encourages them to understand that “the assignment is intentionally wide open; we are working in new field, and we all have different backgrounds. There are many challenging and interesting ways of wrestling with projects under the rubric of environmental justice.” Here are some of the topics they chose:
• The forces that allowed the predominantly low-income, African-American residents of Chester, Pennsylvania, to maintain prolonged and effective environmental justice activism against local waste facilities (Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living).
• The processes of coalition building and legal activism on the part of South Camden Citizens in Action, an environmental justice group in Camden, New Jersey.
• The role of the press in framing debates about post-Katrina New Orleans.
• The globalization of tobacco farming and its part in the escalation of environmental injustice in developing countries.
• The implications of the Fresh Kills landfill closing for New York City.
• The responsibility of developed nations toward poorer countries that are suffering from global warming.
Stroud’s two book-length projects both fall squarely within the interdisciplinary field of urban environmental history. Seeing the Trees: Urbanization and Reforestation in the Northeastern United States (currently under review with Cambridge University Press) argues that cities brought forests back to the Northeastern U.S. in the twentieth century. Dead As Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body examines 20th-century American funerary practices, and the role of the death industries in shaping the American city. “The modern American corpse is toxic,” writes Stroud. “Mercury in teeth, metal in joints, silicone in breasts and batteries in chests have all made body disposal newly complex.” Themes of environmental justice infuse both projects, as well, and inform her teaching in all of her courses at Bryn Mawr. Unexpected connections between places we consider natural and places where nature seems to be kept at bay, and the ways that understanding those connections can help us understand the workings of power and politics in American society, inform her work both in the classroom and outside.
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