Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chapter 7 Culhane Relational Summary: Disasters, Toxic Hazards, and Pollution

 The assignment portfolio in our on-line class revolves around the creation of a "relational summary" for each chapter in the Bell, Greene, Fisher and Baum textbook "Environmental Psychology" and the ultimate creation of our own academic reference supported version of "eutopia"  (the "good place").

This year, without being told where to start, the majority of our classmates chose to begin their personal exploration of Environmental Psychology through interpreting their relationships with Chapter 7: Disasters, Toxic Hazards and Pollution.  It could be the result of a certain Zeitgeist -- with fictional films like 2012  suggesting to the superstitious and gullible that the clock is ticking before inevitable environmental destruction next year, and documentary evidence telling us that regardless of what some ancient Mayan calendar suggests, climate change, pollution and technological vulnerabilities will increase the number and intensity  of  potential disasters we experience on this earth during our lifetimes no matter what we believe, it is no wonder that given a choice most students will be attracted disproportionately to that part of the curriculum that might offer some answers or insights that can mitigate some of the fear and anxiety.

If you aren't told what you have to study, if the dictatorship model of education, wherein you spend hours learning about things you aren't quite sure are helpful to your personal situation simply because you fear getting "a bad grade", is suddenly transformed into a free election of information according to your own needs, wouldn't you choose to study things that address your immediate personal concerns rather than things merely prescribed by priests of education?

As in previous years I make no demand upon my students that we follow a certain order as we explore our relationships to the ideas in the  textbook -- this is the age of Soja's Postmodern "Third Space" where linearity has less to offer the pedagogic environment than it ever had.  In a non-linear world there are definite benefits to NOT "towing the line", and for all of us to be literally "on the same page" seems less and less productive.  In fact, diversity of experience and opinion so enrich the class discussions that it is hard to remember why we thought following the curriculum from A to Z was either necessary or important.  Even computer game designers and museum exhibit creators  have realized that it is counterproductive to provide a sequential path toward the desired end-goal -- permitting free exploration in an environment replete with the necessary attraction gradients and exit gradients seems to remove many of  the problems resulting from psychological satiation, boredom and fatigue (see Chapter 13: Work, Learning and Leisure Environments, page 453). There seems little question that once people have tasted the fruits of freedom and learned how to wayfind successfully in a free environment, they show little desire to go back to being told where to go, what to do and how to do it.

Free will and politically  unconstrained choice are marvelous gifts and perhaps the greatest benefits of living in a democratic society.  The mass protest jubilee we see unfolding in Tahrir (Liberation) Square underscores the importance we so human animals place on the freedom to choose and the risks we will take to get it.

Interestingly, from the perspective of Environmental Psychology, the tension between freedoms and dictates lies at the heart of disasters, toxic hazards and pollution.

Certainly it can be argued that people desire the freedom to live where ever they desire and that this often puts us directly in harm's way.  To be told by the government "no, the coast of California is off limits because of the risk of earthquakes and the coast of Florida is off limits because of the risk of hurricanes" would rub most of us the wrong way. As free people we demand the right to assume our risks.  Similarly people get infuriated by government actions that "take away" their assumed freedom to knowingly put themselves at risk because of toxic hazards (think of reactions against laws prohibiting smoking, drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs).

But what about the freedom NOT to be harmed by OTHERS?

Certainly you would think that this would be the foundation of society and its freedoms.  In fact the "Golden Rule" seems to speak exclusively of this: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" and its corollary "Don't do unto others what you would that they not do unto you."

The case of cigarette smoke is illustrative of how the right to no harm has been underplayed by powerful corporate interests while the rhetoric has been flipped around to make it seem as though we were talking about taking away the "freedoms" of smokers. Even the film "Thank You For Smoking" makes it appear as though what we were really concerned with was protecting smokers from themselves, and while  Al Pacino's "The Insider", another film made around the same time about the cigarette industry, clearly demonstrates how the tobacco companies deliberately put toxins in their products that increase the addictive quality of the substance to smokers and non-smokers alike we come away thinking more about the impact on the smoker than the innocent bystander.   Bell, on page 245 writes "For a number of years we have known that tars and nicotine can have major effects on the health of smokers".  But most of us agree that what you do to your own body is really your concern.  The no-smoking laws really have nothing to do with the impact of toxins on adults who have free choice. What the laws seek to protect is the freedom of those who are unwillingly subjected to unfreedoms: "There is now considerable evidence that nonsmokers breathing the air  in a room where others are smoking may also suffer ill effects... passive smoking has also been described as a major cause of premature death (Goldman and Glantz, 1998)... the 1986 Surgeon General's report on involuntary smoking concludes that passive smoking can cause disease..."

I personally experience severe allergic reactions to the toxins in cigarette smoke, so until Germany and Egypt finally passed their Johnny Come Lately no smoking laws two years ago, going to restaurants and public places was absolute hell for me.  But I could say nothing for years -- in fact I was treated as if my discomfort with being poisoned was actually creating some unfreedom for others.

The key to understanding environmentalism, as far as I'm concerned, is understanding what we can do to reduce "involuntary" harm.  I personally have no problem with people trashing their own environments if they can confine the damage to their own bodies, homes or backyards.  The premise of the NIMBY movement ("Not in My Backyard" see page 246) was supposed to bring to the fore "the age-old struggle between the welfare of the larger group and that of a small group" and give people the right to keep the pollutants and hazards caused by one group from harming another, particularly when the aggrieved party or parties did not agree to sacrifice any welfare for the gains that accrue to the risk taker (unfortunately NIMBYism has, like so many other movements, been twisted so that it only really favors the wealthy!).   

And so it has been with nearly all environmental injustices -- the victims bear the burden and often had no rights to redress the situation.  Whether it was dangers in the work environment, the home environment or the spaces in between, we were all told that we should shut up and put up, because the wealthy were profiting from the situation and the rest of us had no political clout.

I've written a song about it, called Talkin' Trash, that you can see here:

As history would have it, much of the modern environmental movement was actually born as part of the civil rights movements that reached a head in the 1960s (see for more on their intertwined histories).   The freedoms and rights of blacks, women and other minorities included freedom from environmental injustices such as exposure to radiation, toxic chemicals and other pollutants,  and protection from environmental deprivation such as loss of access to clean water, air and healthy food, arable land, sources of vital raw materials, safe shelter, biodiversity and other foundations of human security.  As Bell points out on page 246 "the disadvantaged in society are thought to bear an unfair burden. Hazardous plants are rarely built near affluent communities but are instead more likely to be found in poorer areas in which minority groups are more likely to live... at times the circumstances surrounding the siting and remediation of environmental hazards arouse suspicion. For example, in 1979 in Houston, six out of eight incinerators were sited in African-American neighborhoods. "

But somehow the focus of "environmentalism" was quickly co-opted into a discourse about preserving primarily the scenic values of landscapes accessible primarily by wealthy whites.  And once "the environment" came to be seen as primarily an upper middle class concern abstracted into debates over the rights of non-humans and their eco-systems  (important as they are) it became nearly impossible to get broad consensus on policies to eliminate the core causes of harm and deprivation that lead to sustained poverty, suffering and deprivation.  In fact such abstractions allowed the absurd "jobs vs. environment" debate to flourish as industry leaders, eager for the higher profits they knew could only be obtained by refusing to responsibly manage their production residuals, decided to fool the working class into accepting their negative externalities as the Faustian bargain paid to guarantee job security.

The environmental justice movement (Taylor, 2000, cited in Chapter 7 on page 247; the concept is introduced in Chapter 2 on page 31) sought to redress that separation and even used the term environmental racism "to describe the disproportionate exposure of minorities to environmental hazards (for a review, see Taylor, 1999). he tendency for hazards to be located in minority communities may be as much a matter of discrimination against lower socioeconomic status (SES) as well as membership in a minority group." (p.247).

However it is framed there is little doubt that the poor bear the greatest burden from environmental degradation, from disasters, toxic hazards and pollution. As we saw during Hurricane Katrina the wealthy can simply move away in most circumstances. Even when they lose houses and other physical assets, they are usually well compensated by insurance and can often retain or even improve their property values (as Bell states, "wealthier people may have the means to buy homes elsewhere, and less well-off residents may be able to afford housing only on sites whose value is depressed because they are located near toxic sites." What often happens is that a disaster or hazard makes it profitable for the wealthy to buy up large areas of land at very low cost, then make minor remediations and pass it on at a considerable profit to the low SES communities.  Since less wealthy individuals tend to have poorer educational opportunities they are usually "insufficiently informed about the dangers to be as concerned as they should about hazards or where they are sited (e.g. Bullard, 1993; Taylor 1989, cited on page 247).  This is what happened in 1970s leading to the Love Canal disaster, referred to by the EPA as "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history" (   We also see this effect depicted in the true stories popularized in the Julia Roberts films "Erin Brokavitch" and "The Pelican Briefs". 

To talk about "natural disasters" and "technological disasters" as though either were somehow inevitable seems to me to skirt the real issue of precisely who is suffering and precisely why.  Living in Beverly Hills but working in the ghettoes of South Los Angeles  during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake taught me a lot about environmental injustice.   For one thing, while we had 64 tragic casualties, the disproportionatley  greater wealth of the U.S. and the building standards and low-density housing that such wealth permits made the impact of the quake relatively minor; similar quakes in the Near East and Asia claimed tens of thousands of lives.  Second, the wealthier communities like mine were much much quicker to restore vital services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage and food delivery while it took many weeks to bring the poorer communities back on line.

While we may not be able to avoid being taken by surprise by  as yet unpredictable events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions,  we can usually avoid an upleasant aftermath from such occurrences if we are willing to make health and safety top priorities and invest in the proper infrastructure and relief measures.

The field of "industrial ecology" teaches us that there really isn't any such thing as pollution -- pollution could be defined as "the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time".  In Industrial Ecology every output from one process becomes an input for another process (see for details).   In an properly designed industrial ecology system we find "robustness to disaster" just as in a healthy natural ecology system we find buffers built in to the system that prevent major catastrophes.  I remember observing this on a visit to El Yunque Rain Forest when I went to present in  Puerto Rico for the National Science Teachers Association.  Where the rain forest had been cleared for logging or agriculture or development the 1992 Hurricane Andrew had tremendous impact, destroying land and homes and fisheries (diving on the coral reef we found it had been silted to death). But where the rain forest and mangroves had been left intact the hurricane caused very little damage.  The ecosystem was able to absorb much of the damage and bounce back quickly.

This idea of "robustness" and "buffers" is being explored by natural scientists everywhere (see "The role of buffering capacities in stabilising coastal lagoon ecosystems" at for example) but can equally be applied to civilizations.  Most famously, Wall Street trader and economist Nicolaus Taleb (author Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan) has been speaking extensively on how we can apply these concepts to our financial system (see to avoid further "economic meltdowns" and other "black swan" disasters.  The principles drawn from "natural ecosystems" and "industrial ecology" seem to work across the board.

Mostly it is a technical issue -- design systems resistant to fragility through built in redundancy and inherent checks and balances based on diversity and most deep disasters can be avoided.

But a lot of it comes down to morality -- in order to design and implement systems that are more disaster-proof than not, we have to build it in to the foundational ethics of our society. We have to care enough to invest so that doing no harm to others is a higher priority than profit maximization.

I believe that if  we reframe  the discourse of environmentalism to once again be in alignment with social justice we may find  a common ground. And we may then  find that most disasters can be avoided.