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Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement.
Ronald Sandler and Phaedra C. Pezzullo, Editors
Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2007.

Where was this book when I needed it? The ink was hardly dry on my dissertation (dealing, in large part with environmental and environmental justice narratives and theory in regard to a local mine) when I agreed to write a review of this very dull-looking book. This, when I was already tired of the quibbling between environmentalist and environmental justice factions and weary of academic language altogether.

But this book would have saved me years of intellectual toil, and now I can’t wait to use it in my own teaching, writing, and activism. It is rich in both wisdom and knowledge, worth its weight in gold—no. That gold mining has terrible consequences for humans and the environment is exactly the kind of issue that E’s and EJ’s might come together on without compromising their “core beliefs.” Steve Schwarze’s essay on the struggle over vermiculite mining in Libby, Montana illustrates this: “Environmental concerns focused on protecting pristine public lands and waterways from the by-products of mining. Private domains—in particular, workplace and domestic arenas—where humans are central characters did not become a concern among environmentalists.” (171). He adds, “Activism in Libby has remained local,” reminding me of Barbara Kingsolver’s references to “accidental activists.” In my experience, folks who are sick and tired of what is happening to their kids don’t care about your “ism.”

But Steve Schwarze’s essay “The Silences and Possibilities of Asbestos Activism: Stories from Libby and Beyond,” moves from vermiculite mining (contaminated with tremolite asbestos) to the release of asbestos insulation in the air as the Twin Trade Towers fell. It is just one example of the way in which this collection reveals the how/why/where/when of issues so that E’s and EJ’s can tackle cases both theoretically and practically to assess on-the-ground needs. It also reveals that in many cases, neither is quite positioned to address certain aspects of complex problems.

These ten original academic works form a brilliant, practical, and provocative collective. There are also highly interdisciplinary. It is structured into three main sections—Conceptual Issues, U.S. Environments, and, thankfully, also International Environments, pointing out by (J. Timmons Roberts) that “international environmental justice struggles hold promise for a movement that has lost some traction in the United States, and are in fact some of its greatest hopes for its future. They must not be neglected” (228). This is ironic, of course, since both movements were U.S. born and raised.
Other significant examples of the collection’s selective breadth include Giovanni De Chiro’s piece, “Indigenous Peoples and Biocolonialism: Defining the ‘Science of Environmental Justice’ in the Century of the Gene.” She quotes Debra Harry (Northern Paiute): “Call it the new wave of colonialism, the new biotechnology, the bio-revolution, or bio-colonialism…it is an area that we dare not ignore.”

On the other hand, in “A Wilderness Environmentalism Manifesto: Contesting the Infinite Self-absorption of Humans, Kevin DeLuca defends the different spheres of Environmentalism and Environmental Justice, pointing out that “the ’so-called environmental justice movement’ is better conceived as the human justice movement and that wilderness has been savaged as a racist and classist human construct invented by elite whites and corporations.” He adds: “To move from the deconstruction of wilderness to the dismissal of wilderness in favor of privileging humans and their concerns, however, is to misunderstand modernism.” This spirited defense of wild places is balm to the soul. While wilderness is now considered a social construct, he reminds us that “The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.” Here, other writers offer very different positions.

Thankfully, Dale Jamieson points out something that many theoreticians (but rarely politicians) miss: our positions are also related to place. In “Justice: The Heart of Environmentalism” Jamieson recounts that, after moving from Colorado to Minnesota, he discovers that “Minnesota ‘greens’ held more or less the same views as Colorado ‘browns.’ In Minnesota, members of the ‘bait and bullet’ crowd are considered environmentalists, whereas in Colorado they are the ‘wise use’ antienvironmentalists (85).” He shifts from local to global.

In terms of the global, J. Robert Cox uncovers much of what he calls “neoliberal globalism’s” dark side, without which this book would make little sense. Or perhaps it really is the subject and in that regard, neither Environmentalism nor Environmental Justice should ever lose sight of the havoc that “divide and conquer” tactics can wreak. Cox takes us from Metalclad’s corporate (and legal under NAFTA) rape of Guadalcazar, Mexico, to “golden tropes,” “Kuznets Curves” and “Metonymy’s Labor” before getting down to something almost hopeful: “New Narratives of globalization are being composed in the streets of Genoa Porto Alegre, and Cancun” and in workshops at World Social forms, as environmentalists, human rights workers, labor unions, and environmental justice activists increasingly join together as allies to resist "neoliberal trade and investment policies.”

This collection has huge wingspan, and lift, yet remains grounded in the practical. Sandler and Pezzulo inspire fresh thinking, but they point out that ultimately, issues will be “settled by events on the ground, not in the pages of any book.” Happily, this work offers clear insight into how those events are shaped.

Michele Potter

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