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.

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