Pellow Calls for Critical Environmental Justice

By Phyllis Jeffrey - On May 12, 2016, David Pellow of UC Santa Barbara delivered the Department of Sociology’s annual Lemert Lecture. Entitled "Critical Environmental Justice Studies: An Invitation and Challenge for the 21st Century," Pellow's talk explored (among other things) environmental privilege and disadvantage in Aspen and Silicon Valley.

Dr. Pellow—professor of environmental studies and director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at UCSB—began by emphasizing the links between social oppression and environmental rights. With two examples, Pellow highlighted the effects of unequal power structures, whereby those at the bottom socially find themselves similarly positioned in ecological matters, even as their (often under compensated) labor maintains the very structures from which they are excluded.

Pellow’s first example, drawn from his book (with Lisa Sun-Hee Park) The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (2002), concerned the disproportionate exposure to electronics industry pollution experienced by immigrant workers and Latino communities in the San Jose region. On a map, Pellow pointed to the near-precise overlay of majority Latino communities on top of areas distinguished by documented water contamination from electronics industry runoff.

Meanwhile, those who do Silicon Valley’s most toxic jobs are disproportionately female and immigrant. Likening the preference for “small, foreign, and female” workers to California’s canning industry, Pellow observed that, in the new industry, exposure to toxins leaves workers vulnerable to higher rates of cancer and other fatal diseases.

Slopes and slums

A second example came from Pellow’s (also with Lisa Sun-Hee Park), The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden (2011). Here, a development drive to create landscapes showcasing contrived natural beauty has been inextricably accompanied by reliance upon the low-wage labor of (mostly Latin American) immigrants who, forming the base of Aspen’s service economy, are pushed out of such spaces both by exorbitant housing costs and the anti-immigrant agitation of the town’s “green” political actors.

Addressing the typical conceptualization of exposure to environmental ills among the marginalized, Pellow called for a fresh focus on “environmental privilege” (as opposed to disadvantage.) Focusing on privilege, he said, draws attention to the active production of unequal access to nature. (Aspen’s slope economy, for example, simultaneously requires and disavows poor, immigrant labor.) From a critical environmental justice perspective, such an environmental power structure echoes and extends from similar structures of race and class, as well as the prioritizing of human life over non-human forms.

Structures of power

Pellow provided a history of the emergence of a radical environmental justice movement, crystallizing in the “Earth Liberation Front” of the 1980s and 1990s. Drawing from his study of the movement, Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Earth First Movement (2014), Pellow described its focus on anti-oppression. Intriguingly, he argued that the anti-hierarchical and wholly “ecological” discourse of these activists enabled their characterization as a threat on the level of “terrorism” by the state, and prompted subsequent tracking by the FBI.

These (mainly white) activists provoked a dramatic reaction from the state because of their apparent rejection of privilege—and with it, hierarchy generally. For authorities, who believed that the principles of radical environmental justice (no human dominion over animals, no racial or class hierarchies) made its activists racial deviants, white solidarity with people of color was extremely problematic.

At the same time, Pellow observed, the activists faced an ironic tension, risking equating women and people of color with “nature” understood as inferior—a discourse (promulgated by Rousseau and Locke, among others) that itself contributes to the production of inequality. Seeking a universalistic approach, activists inadvertently reproduced structures of power.

Indispensable life

So, what would a critical environmental justice approach that avoids such pitfalls look like? Pellow identified four core commitments. The first acknowledges the multiplicity (and mutual imbrication) of categories of justice (race, gender, environment). The second recognizes the intersectionality of experience along these categories, and the complementary nature of structures of privilege and oppression.

The third focuses on a multiplicity of scales or levels, from micro to macro and also across geopolitical lines—critical environmental justice researchers may look, for instance, at how pollutants produced in the global north end up on the shores of countries in the global south and with what effects. Because it views the state as a key element of the enforcement of unequal power, this focus also problematizes appeals to the state to regulate and correct ecological and other social ills.

Finally, critical environmental justice takes seriously the indispensability of all life. This, Pellow noted, contrasts with assumptions (explicit or otherwise) in the traditional movement for environmental justice—assumptions that some groups are “more important” than others.

Pellow heralded the potential of a critical environmental justice perspective to address what he characterized as the inescapable unity of structures of oppression. Referring to the Black Lives Matter movement, Pellow called attention to possible limits that movements for justice—even radical ones—face in directing their appeals and energies to state authorities. For the critical environmental justice perspective, it is crucial to interrogate the ways in which power in all forms perpetuates oppression in all forms.

Learn more about David Pellow at his UCSB faculty webpage.