Monday, January 16, 2012

On habits and environmental justice

I recently read an article that discussed the reaction of certain types of fish to higher levels of carbon dioxide in their water. It seems these fish react to significantly higher levels of carbon dioxide in a similar way to how humans react to alcohol. They exhibited disorientation, lack of coordination, even disastrously bad choices like swimming toward predators instead of away from them. The article points out too that humans are currently effecting this kind of change on the oceans, adding carbon dioxide to the waters, though current levels have not yet reached the levels the scientists conducting this particular study were testing at.

Reading this got me thinking about the intersection of questions of environmental justice and human habits.

While environmental disasters like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion certainly have profound human-made effects, is it not true as well that our daily habits have cumulative and also profound effects on our environment? Talk of climate change and arctic melting is so much a part of our news surroundings that the constant bombardment of dire warnings for the future has difficultly really making impact. I suspect that part of this is due to a feeling of helplessness in the face of Goliath-like problems. I also suspect, however, that changing habits which we now know are part of a destructive culture, that are nevertheless deeply ingrained, is difficult and seemingly never-ending. Contemplating this I began to feel rather like the fish in the experiment, disoriented and uncoordinated, mistakenly swimming right into the mouth of danger.

Unlike the fish, however, we have a bit more control over at least some of our surroundings. While I personally cannot halt global warming trends and environmental disasters, I can take stock of my own habits and whether they are contributing to environmental damage or to environmental justice. Of course, the choice is not usually so neatly black and white. Do I eat the local tomato that was grown with pesticides but has not traveled far? Or the organic tomato grown at a huge farm and shipped hundreds of miles with the carbon footprint to match? Of course, I could grow my own pesticide-free tomatoes (assuming they don't all get blight like many did this past year) but without a significant indoor growing space, I will only have fresh tomatoes for a few months out of the year. Is that perhaps the way to go?

I do not mean to pose answers to specific questions like that here. Rather, I am wondering if we can look at the intersection of our habits and issues of environmental justice. How much effect do our habits have? If we could look at our habits through the lens of environmental justice, what would we see?


  1. I'd like to take up this idea of "destructive culture". We are consumptive and extractive, to be sure, but all species do that in one way or another. The bison practically created the prairies thanks to their hooves and dung. That had to be quite destructive for a number of other species that existed there. I wonder why we should think of ourselves as having a "destructive culture" as opposed to viewing what we do as merely what our species does. Did we ever have a non-destructive culture?

  2. There are many different cultures, and I do not think, as a matter of course, that humans are wholly destructive or consumptive creatures. Yes, we consume. Yes, we create or participate in (I clarify with the word "needlessly") destructive cultures, but we also create and participate in healthy, flourishing-oriented cultures--sometimes, even at the same time. (That's one of the things I was trying to get at with the tomato example.) When I ask, "if we look at our habits through the lens of environmental justice, what would we see", I expect that we would see quite a mix: some habits helping, some harming, and some appearing to have negligible effect.

    I thought to raise the discussion of habits and environmental justice because habits are concrete. We can examine them much more readily than abstract concepts. (Though of course abstract and concrete form a never-ending circle--you just have to jump in somewhere.) In examining them, we can see more of the effect that we are currently having, and then be more informed to be able to discuss where we are, and where we would like to be.

    1. "Needlessly" sharpens it a bit for me but I'll be honest and say I have trouble with making value distinctions at all when we talk about phenomena that only appear as collective or cumulative (or both) effects. Your tomato analogy illustrates this perfectly for me. If it were just you and I on the planet I wouldn't say that you driving 1000 miles in an SUV was unreasonable to get the tomato you wanted. With 7 billion of us, I can't say at all what is reasonable or not, which leads to a real personal dilemma over just about everything (even choosing tomatos) if you let it. Some people seem to solve this with very totalitarian views of what is environmentally responsible, and what they feel they should expect or demand of others. Other people solve it by throwing in the towel and paying little attention to the things they do that have cumulative or collective effects.

      Neither is a reasonable response, IMV, and when we get dilemmas over whether to be more pesticide conscious or more carbon conscious when we get tomatos, it only increases the opportunities to have an extreme response.

      It all really makes me wonder if the language of values and justice is useful at all. I agree that looking at our habits through an environmental lens is useful. I would even say it's more necessary now than ever. I think maybe I'd prefer to use a lens of environmental wisdom rather than a lens of environmental justice, though. Know what I mean?