Facing Our Dangerous Moment

Steve Leigh

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger
By Julie Sze
University of California Press, 2020, 160 pages, $18.95 paperback.

ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE THREATENS all of humanity. Civilization and perhaps the continued existence of the human race is at risk — yet we are not all threatened equally.

Julie Sze’s short new book outlines the connection of racism to the ecological crisis. Those who are most oppressed in general are also most threatened by each social evil. This book presents the need for environmental justice as part of the general movement to save the earth.

Julie Sze is professor and the founding chair of American Studies at UC Davis. This is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that examines American history, society, and culture, traditionally incorporating the study of history, literature and critical theory, but also welcoming research methods from a variety of other disciplines.

Subjects studied within the field are varied, but often examine the histories of American communities, ideologies, or cultural productions. Examples might include topics in American social movements, literature, media, tourism, folklore, and intellectual history.

Sze’s work focuses on connecting environmental issues and the social crisis. In a brief interview accompanying this review, she described herself as a supporter of ecosocialism and ecofeminism and “influenced by the Social Ecology of Murray Bookchin.”

She also told me that to describe the present epoch, “I like Capitalocene better than the Anthropocene, (which) is a problematic concept. It erases class, power and domination.”*

She also sees “Decolonialism” as a central concept.

Sze’s first book, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (MIT Press), won the 2008 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, awarded annually to the best published book in American Studies.

Her second book is Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis (University of California Press, 2015). She is editor of Sustainability: Approaches to Environmental Justice and Social Power.

Movement of Movements

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger is part of the American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present series.

The book begins with the background of the division between the rich and the poor:

“The three richest people in the United States (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) own as much wealth as the bottom half of the population (160 million people). In 2013, the world’s eighty-five richest people had a net worth equal to that of 50% of the world’s population (3.5 billion people). In 2017, the wealthiest global 1 percent gained 82 percent of the world’s wealth.” (2)

The poor are disproportionately people of color and the formerly colonized. As the ecological crisis intensifies, “(t)he resurgence of explicit racism is unsurprising for justice activists, who see their lives impacted by legacies of structural domination and racist public policies.” (3)

The same profit-driven system that reinforces racism is also responsible for the threat to the earth.

“Capitalism depends on control, specifically control of nature. It also relies on the control and abuse of people of color…

“Environmentally just outcomes cannot be expected within existing liberal and capitalist institutions, and they cannot rely on market- based or technology dependent solutions.” (7, 8)

As the author observes: “Social movements for environmental and climate justice are mobilizing large numbers of people…and having a broad national and global impact.” These movements have some common features:

“Environmental justice movements … are a counterhegemonic philosophy of practice , a search for freedom … Environmental justice is not (just) about state centered policy incorporation or reformism. It challenges the status quo rather than fixing or tinkering with a system grounded in domination, racial terror and colonial control.” (3, 14)

Sze presents case studies that illustrate her analysis. Chapter One, the “Movement of Movements,” outlines the long-lasting struggle of Native people in the United States for environmental sanity and for their right to self-determination.

This deep connection between Native liberation and the protection of the earth is a common and important theme. This connection has resulted in the leadership of Native people in the fight to save the earth. The focus of this chapter is on the Standing Rock struggle, but its slogan “Mini Wiconi” (“Water is Life”) resonates far beyond the Dakotas. (Though the Dakota Access Pipeline was finally approved by Trump, a court has ordered it shut down and the struggle continues.)

Chapter Two on the Flint water crisis is another example of Mini Wiconi. This time the victim was the majority Black population of that Michigan city. It is a further illustration of institutional racism:

“The victims of greed and power in the United States are not just Indigenous and black communities, but the agents of greed and power are particularly merciless when it comes to those bodies at risk.” (50)

The tragedy in Flint is an example of greed and racism but other issues as well. The precipitator of the crisis was the transfer of the water source from the relatively clean Detroit water system to the Flint River, “contaminated from decades of industrial pollution.” Without the necessary corrosion control, this meant: “The water corroded pipes and lead flowed as a result.” (51)

Why did this happen? Flint, along with many other African American cities in Michigan had been placed in receivership by the governor. The theory was that these communities were irresponsible and needed the budget discipline of mostly white emergency managers enforcing the discipline of the market.

This health crisis was exacerbated by the economic consequences: “Thousands of Flint residents, in 2019, a full four years after the crisis broke, still face foreclosure for nonpayment of water bills for lead contaminated water.” And Flint’s tragic story is not unique:

“For more than a century, lead poisoning has devastated low income and particularly African American children who suffer from disproportionate exposures and unequal protection from the state. Lead poisoning is the story of the intentional failure of government in service of industry.” (51, 52)

It is not only African Americans who suffer. This chapter also points out how mostly Latinx farm workers in California suffer similar issues, as “160,000 residents of the Valley do not have regular access to clean water.

“The Valley has some of the highest rates of air pollution in the nation, poisoned groundwater, over concentration of prisons, high rates of poverty and residential foreclosure rates, and low educational attainment.” (52) Further: “The agricultural regions in the Valley…import water hundreds of miles from water-rich parts of Northern California. Clean water from the north bypasses poor, farmworker communities…” (63)

Chapter 3 outlines the impact of neoliberalism and racism on the crises in New Orleans after Katrina and Puerto Rico after Maria. In both cases political and industry leaders used “natural” disasters for unnatural consequences — privatizing social assets for the profit of a few. Again, greed and racism compounded each other.

These were examples of the “Disaster Capitalism” described by Naomi Klein, whom Sze admires as “a great popularizer of left wing ideas around ecology” and “a gateway to deeper considerations, like Rebecca Solnit.”

“Capitalism Must Die”

The concluding chapter returns to the general themes of the introduction, calling for solidarity across issues and a revolutionary opposition to capitalism. Quoting Scott Alden, the author says:  “For the earth to survive, capitalism must die.” (99)

In my view, the only major limitation of this short and well-written book is its implication that the primary conflict is between capitalism and people of color.

“Capitalism… relies on the control and abuse of people of color.” (7)

In fact, capitalism fundamentally relies on the exploitation of the whole working class, not just workers of color. Racism is used to super-exploit people of color, but just as importantly to divide and weaken the whole working class to facilitate exploitation.

The collective exploitation of all workers gives the whole working class the potential incentive to oppose capitalism and the institutional racism that helps prop it up.

Overthrowing capitalism requires a movement of the entire working class. That movement will not be successful unless it directly confronts racism. The movement against environmental racism is an important contribution to building the necessary unity of workers.

This book is a useful contribution to an understanding of this important movement and deserves a read by anyone who wants to overcome environmental destruction along with racism and capitalism.

* On the terms “Capitalocene” popularized by author Jason W. Moore, and “Anthropocene” developed by scientists to describe the dominant role of human activity in shaping today’s global environment, particularly its accelerating impact in the decades following World War II, see the discussion by Ian Angus in Facing the Anthropocene. Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, 2016).

November-December 2020, ATC 209

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