Part 2 with Julie Sze, discussing her book Noxious New York, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.
WF: Let’s do this: I know we already brought up environmental justice before, but could you define it in your terms for the readers? In your use and experience, does it differ from environmental racism, does it differ from, say, an anti-toxics activism that some link to Love Canal and Lois Gibbs?
JS: That is a huge question in the book. I define environmental justice as the social movement that emerged in response to the problem identification of environmental racism. Thus, it is connected, but slightly different from anti-toxics activism. Now, in the context of other work I’m doing in California, I defined the term a little bit differently. I define environmental injustice as somehow related to some category of inequality–that can be race, class, gender, citizenship and indigeneity. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question, teach in this area, have written on it in a long review of the field and am contemplating writing a textbook–so I could go on and on!
WF: And do you want to take a stab at neoliberal theory too, about deregulation, free market solutions, privatization? Your story is set within a context of neoliberalism, as are so many studies about environmental services, governments, markets, and economic solutions of the past quarter century. True, I’m overstating it, but my point is, how does it provide the background for your particular study? What’s neoliberalism got to do with it?
JS: A lot–the neoliberal model was why energy deregulation was proposed in California and New York. It also explains in part why garbage privatization became such an important strategy for politicians, the infatuation with the market as THE best solution governed policymaking throughout the 1990s–not just in New York and not just on the environment. And we can see what happened as a result.
WF: “Pollution-as-commodity” goes along with the neoliberal theme. Given that, what do you make of carbon trading notions and what that seemingly (unfortunately?) inevitable set of policies will mean for marginalized communities?
JS: Unfortunately, carbon trading is still the dominant discourse on climate change. It’s probably no surprise then that many of the environmental justice groups, not just in New York City but nationally too, are articulating some skepticism about carbon trading. I’m working on a research project looking at environmental justice activism as it intersects with climate policy in California. Another thing that I find fascinating is that 2002 principles of climate justice are explicitly indebted to the principles of environmental justice.
WF: You show that there’s more going on in resistance to EJ issues than the NIMBY label suggests. Can you explain that a bit more, what the “more going on” is and why NIMBYism isn’t a sufficient explanation? I wonder too, maybe could you help explain what NIMBY really is or has been in EJ issues?
JS: Sure. NIMBY (which stands for “not in my backyard”) is often used by corporate polluters and government agencies as the charge for opposition fights by low income and communities of color around particular policies. I don’t think this charge is fair, because the term really refers to how more powerful communities protect themselves from risk. In the case of energy deregulation, for example, Mayor Giuliani advocated taking away public processes and access to decision-making under the guise of “avoiding California style blackouts,” themselves a result of deregulation practices. It’s an unfair charge, and an indefensible one in my view.
WF: Incidentally, how do you see yourself in the EJ movement?
JS: Primarily as a scholar/activist. I’m guided by the sage words of Ruth Gilmore on this topic in her wonderful book Golden Gulag: prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. She writes “the key point is this: the questions and analyses driving this book came from the work encountered in everyday activism ‘on the ground.’ However, the direction of research does not necessarily follow every lead proposed from the grassroots, nor do the findings necessarily reinforce community activists’ closely held hunches about how the world works. On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoked, while for activist, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. Where scholarship and activism of overlap is in the area of how to make decisions about what comes next…… ” (27).