Thursday, July 25, 2013

Moving from an "urban land ethic" to social justice

Steward Pickett has a blog post on humans and nature responding to the question,"How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?" Pickett argues that there such an ethic does not yet exist and that we should be focused on building one. He cites voices like Leopold's andd Carson's as examples of the kinds of environmental ethical voices  absent from the social justice concerns of urban activists and scholars.  While he does mention the environmental justice movement, he largely dismisses it as being too ecologically naive or ignorant. His solution is a combined "urban-natural" ethic that can better guide decisions and policies for cities that are trying to survive and grow sustainably. Pickett, like many ecologically-oriented thinkers and activists, has reversed the causal chain of environmental degradation because he ignores political-economic and social relations'  role in mediating peoples' relationship with nature.

This inability to recognize the influence of these varied socio-political forces on our conceptions of nature explains why Pickett can blithely dismiss the nearly 40 years of environmental justice scholarship and activism, along with the radical critiques of political ecologists. Environmental justice and political ecology have drawn explicit links between the way society is structured, how nature is produced within these societal relations, and people relate to nature and natural processes. In other words, Pickett still places and artifical separation between the "social" and the "natural" that environmental justice scholars and political ecologists have long rejected. Their research has shown us that people, especially in urban areas, have a relationship with nature that is more complicated than a simple "land ethic" that comes from spending time in not-obviously modified natural spaces. Nature, especially in our cities, is simply more noticeably modified than out in our hinterlands and the institutions and practices that dictate our relationship with nature are more obvious. So, a love of green space, a particular charismatic species, or water quality concerns are more clearly linked to current governmental and non-governmental institutions, economics, and politics. Park land provision, for example, is less about neighborhoods not desiring green space or nature but is more intimately tied to historical decisions over placing amenities in our cities. Thus poorer, heavily minority, sections of citieis often have much less park space available because past administrations deliberately kept park space from the neighborhoods of undesireables. A neighborhood filled with landfills, incinerators, and other toxic land uses does not sigal that the residents are indifferent to the natural environment but is often a reflection of their lack of power in dictating where such toxic facilities can go in the first place.

Local activism, well covered in the environmental justice and political ecology literature, speaks to a fierce desire of people to live in a healthy environment Their form of environmental stewardship goes beyond a simple land ethic because they recognize that they live fully within their natural environment. It is a recognition of a more intimate, nested understanding of nature than is encapsulated by an urban land ethic. In this way, nature is produced by a particual set of socio-political relations even as those relations, in turn, exist in a greater ecosystem. There is a circularity of relations here, but the important thing to remember is that nature, the nature you and I experience every day, is intimately shaped by the social context in which we live. 

A recent article in The New York Times on the garment manufacturers association in Bangladesh is an excellent example of the nested, circiular relationship people have with nature everywhere, but especially in our cities.  The article focuses on the garment association's headquarters that sits in the middle of Dhaka's lake system. It is technically an illegal settlement that the association could build built due to a combination of official indifference and corruption. The result, a dramatically transformed local hydrological system that exacerbates flooding in a city that suffers terrible floods and cyclones on a nearly yearly basis. How could this happen? Do Dhaka residents, and Bangladeshi's, in general, simply not care about their envronment? No. The story is much more complex and is tied, ultimately, to Bangladesh's position in the global economy.

The garment trade has a near unbreakable grip on the reigns of power in Bangladesh and Dhaka. Bangladesh is a poor country and Dhaka is often viewed as a prototypical example of and ungovernable South Asian megacity dominated by slums and terribly polluted. Garment manfucaturing is the country's leading industry and the garment manufacturers association is a de facto government agency, responsible for tracking, managing, and regulating the production of garments in the country. In a word, they are nearly untouchable. The same power that allows this association to largely escape new regulation after horrific factory fires that kill hundreds of low income workers is the same power that allows them to build their headquarters in the middle of the sensitive wetland ecosystem that is vital to Dhaka's drainage. Additionally, the construction of that tower is tied to the way that Dhaka goes through its own increasing urbanization and growth. It all rests on the outsized power of a particular industry group in a poorer country that does not yet have the institutions in place to fully control it. In this way, we can see how flood control and water quality issues are intimately connected to global economic relationships and their links to local processes of urbanization that encourage the construction of ecologically destructive illegal settlements of a powerful trade group.

An "urban land ethic" as called for by Pickett does nothing to address these concerns or relegates it purely to a question of environmental justice concerns that need to be more explicitly connected to ecology. But what it misses is that our ecology is produced by these greater political economic contexts. It's this nested, or integrative, view of nature and society that environmental justice scholars and political ecologists have articulated for years. It is precisely this lack of an integrative view of nature and society that has befuddled "traditional" environmentalists and their organizations when they've decided to enter cities and find that their calls for a conservation-led ethic fall on deaf ears. This does not mean that we can't use a more sophisticated understanding of how ecology plays out in different ways in our urban areas. The rise of ecosystem services has opened up new ways to imagine and discuss the benefits we receive from our surrounding natural resources, both within and without the city. But we must also recognize that nature is not separate from the urban or from society. We don't need a new urban-natural ethic if we're serious about actually protecting our natural environment and valuing it in our cities. What we need is to recognize is that the forces of capitalism and racism that have shaped our (American) cities are the same ones that have shaped our relationships with nature. The question is not one of bringing about a new urban land ethic, but of taking social and economic justice seriously, because a city that respects everyone's humanity and that seeks to make space for everyone to live and prosper will also be more sensitive to its effects on the surrounding environment such that everyone can benefit from nature's bounty.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

From the Fugitive Slave Act to COINTELPRO: The Racial Surveillance State

I stole the "Racial Surveillance State" from one of my twitter compatriots, @davidforbes, concerning a recent dustup between Tim Wise and some of his followers regarding some ad hominem attacks he aimed at Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. I don't have a link to the meltdown Wise had on his timeline, unfortunately, but I wanted to speak to the critique he clumsily attempted to make. Wise was trying to point out the hypocrisy of many white people,  white social media folks/bloggers and mainstream media organizations (primarily run and populated by white people) who express surprise and dismay over the discovery of the NSA's massive surveillance programs given the fact that people of color, particularly Blacks, have been subject to systematic, large scale surveillance for a LONG time (read: since before the founding of the US). But Wise got bogged down in his mistaken statements regarding Greenwald and got appropriately shouted down for it.

That being said, I am sympathetic to what Wise was trying to say, and I to am incredibly unimpressed with the reactions around these discoveries about the NSA. And I do think if there is not a hint of hypocrisy here, then there is at least a strong contradictory note to the current mania over surveillance that ignores the very long history of race-based surveillance in this country and our large cultural indifference to its existence. Beyond that, I would also argue that this racial surveillance state has not only hurt black people but has also been targeted at white people at the same time. In this way, we can theorize on the myriad ways that racism hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor (though the victimization is nowhere near even).

Succinctly, the US has engaged in a near-continuous operation of surveillance on multiple groups of people, particularly Black people, for the purpose of control and economic exploitation. It is only until fairly recently that we can MAYBE claim such efforts exist simply because Blacks are naturally considered suspicious in a country built on white supremacy. So...you know...progress!

Black Americans have been under surveillance and control since before the inception of the US as a country. Slavery required an extensive surveillance network centered on watching and controlling Black bodies, but something we forget is that slavery also required an entirely new set of social relations, practices, and differing levels of surveillance for ALL people, especially since Blackness was a state determined by ancestry as much as physical appearance (the infamous "One Drop" rule and varied mixed-race classifications are a testament to this). But the larger point is that Black Americans have always been surveilled, monitored, and extensively policed and that these systems were also unevenly applied on greater populations. This history should expose the ridiculousness of current mania over discovery of NSA surveillance as some manifestation of new, dark turn our federal government has with its citizens. This policy is simply an extension of surveillance practices that were traditionally aimed at the US's problematic populations, of whom Blacks are a founding and permanent member (honorable mentions go to the Irish and Jewish folks for making it out!).

Not recognizing this history is not only fairly sloppy and indicative of how white privilege makes the lived experience of non-white people invisible, but it also obscures the true structural foundations of surveillance, as practiced by the US government (and its states and local governments). Cries over the transformation of the US from a free country to a "police state" ignores the fact that for many people in this country they are born into a police state and are often killed by it while others can walk worry-free, snug in the tattered, threadbare blanket of liberty that is Whiteness in America.

Because you cannot talk about the history of surveillance in this country without talking about the slave codes. You cannot talk about a police state if you do not talk about how poor white men were seen as suspicious by well off planters and were often victimized and killed for the crime of being suspiciously friendly to slaves. You cannot talk about the creeping police state if you don't talk about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (yes it was highly contested but it was upheld by the Supreme Court and it still demanded Northern complicity and expanded Black surveillance formally).

Beyond that, such positions ignore the heavy-handed surveillance and social control required to make the Jim Crow South and heavily segregated North run efficiently. De jure and de facto segregation in housing and in industry is still about control over Black bodies and fortune. In the South it was viscerally apparent and open, but in the North we still had riots over Blacks demanding fair housing, "hate strikes" (check out Sugrue's Origins of the Urban Crisis for more detail) by White unionists who wanted to keep their shops and plants Whites only, and a police force designed to control and contain Blacks in specific parts of a city or county. The edifice of White supremacy, ultimately, is built upon the vigilance of individuals and institutions to always be aware of non-White, particularly Black, bodies.

Indifference towards police treatment of Black Americans is what emboldens police forces, like the NYPD, to engage in a mass surveillance program like Stop-and-Frisk or to monitor mosques in secret because their jobs have largely been based on managing and controlling non-White people for the better part of three centuries. Suspicion over Black American agency and calls for freedom set the entire workings of the federal government against civil rights activists and laid the foundation for full counter-intelligence and monitoring programs like the notorious COINTELPRO program aimed at disrupting the Black Panthers and other radical Black groups. Ultimately, this long suspicion and desire for control over Black Americans encourages the application of state and state-sanctioned violence when surveillance is not enough, ranging from the lynchings of the late 19th and 20th centuries, to the assassination of Fred Hampton and other Black radicals by the police in the '60s and '70s, to the hundreds of innocent Black people killed by police every year, to the hundreds of thousands of Black people incarcerated in this country.

This is why we cannot reasonably hope to attack or defeat surveillance or the "creeping" police state without looking at the history and current practices of unevenly applied surveillance and policing of our problematic populations.

Because if we were able to tear down all illicit NSA programs tomorrow and guarantee they wouldn't spy on US citizens, I, as a Black male, would still be part of the essential problematic of America. I would still be more likely to go to prison, be discriminated against at my job or potential choice of housing, and be more likely to be killed by a police officer for the egregious crime of being Black in America on a day ending in "y". And if you aren't talking about when talking about surveillance of US citizens then you're missing a good part of the issue and you'll come back a decade from now when a new program is leaked and still be surprised as to why these things continue to happen.