Noxious New York: on the culture, politics, and history of NYC environmental justice activism with author Julie Sze

Part 1 (below) | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3


The World's Fair is pleased to offer the following discussion about Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (MIT Press, 2007), with its author Julie Sze. Sze is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of California at Davis, an environmental justice scholar, and the founding director of the Environmental Justice Project at the John Muir Institute for the Environment.

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Noxious New York "analyzes the culture, politics, and history of environmental justice activism in New York City within the larger context of privatization, deregulation, and globalization," says MIT Press. With source material ranging from activist interviews at the street level, media accounts, published reports, and other evidence culled by a skilled participant-observer--speeches, accounts of rallies, posters, and other ephemera, e.g.--Sze performs the unique feat of bringing together a theoretically rich and historical nuanced account of community health and environmental justice in the modern American city. This isn't just me saying so - not only have the published reviews been laudatory, but the book has already become well cited in the literature. Most impressively perhaps, Sze won the prestigious John Hope Franklin Publication Prize in 2008 for the best published book in American Studies.

The book is but part of a thick research program for Sze. (See her publication list here.) From air pollution, pesticide use, gendered landscapes, and racial issues of environmental protection and rights to consumption politics, water use, and global environmental justice dynamics, her voice on the complexity of issues attendant to contemporary environmental politics is becoming more evident each year. We're proud to have her speak to the World's Fair and broader scienceblogs readership.

This is the seventeenth and final entry in our series of "Author Meets Bloggers" posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a three-part conversation about Noxious New York. Please be encouraged to offer any questions and comments about the book, the research, and the topics.


WORLD'S FAIR: You've provided a detailed, theoretically rich, empirically grounded, and professionally recognized (with top prizes from your peers) book. It starts, helpfully, with this summary: "Noxious New York examines the culture, politics, and history of environmental justice activism in New York City; the intersection of planning and health, especially through the prism of asthma; and changes in garbage and energy systems as a result of privatization, globalization, and deregulation." So you're dealing with environmental justice, urban infrastructure, and community health, looking to garbage, pollution, sewage, incineration, sanitation, disease, and how changes in municipal services met with ecological activism over the last quarter of the twentieth century. Do I have this about right?

JULIE SZE: Mostly. My opening chapter is focused on the politics of planning and public health as they intersect with racial difference in the Progressive era, because I think that contemporary environmental justice activism in racial minority communities in some ways harkens back to that moment before planning and public health were professionalized and divided from one another.

WF: What is your argument?

JS: My argument is primarily that environmental justice activism in New York City was a product of particular cultural ideas and policy contexts. In particular, my argument is that the politics of environmental protest were racialized in New York City in response to particular historical and political crises- chief among them the politics of neoliberalism which sought to privatize and deregulate in a number of different environmental services.

WF: Why do it, why make this argument, that the politics of environmental protest were racialized in New York City?

JS: I make it primarily in response to the literature on environmental justice which I felt focused on the wrong questions. The quantitative sociological literature was focused on evaluating whether or not claims of racial disproportionality that environmental justice activists were making were actually true (as opposed to class/ poverty). To me, the whole race versus class debate was not as interesting as the political and cultural meaning of this activism in the particular historical and social contexts of globalization, privatization and deregulation. In addition to wanting to intervene in the academic literature, the work was addressing a policy context, particularly government and corporate polluters who called environmental justice activists NIMBY-ists, which I thought was ridiculous.

WF: Something that's so strong about the book is that it integrates environmental justice and American Studies (and maybe even science studies, with respect to lay and expert knowledges). Can you explain how those subjects intersect here and why they do so?

JS: There is very little research environmental justice that comes from American studies, but I think that American studies was a helpful framework for me. My one sentence description of American studies is that American studies deals with broad cultural questions of "America" and it is interdisciplinary. Clearly my work is interdisciplinary--it engages history, geography, sociology, anthropology. And it is very cultural--in both the modes of analysis, and in terms of focusing on the racial meaning of pollution.

WF: So, you mean also in terms of what materials you use too...

JS: That's right. I used activist flyers, for example.

WF: Environmental issues are obviously political issues. But even more than the generic sense of "politics," particular politicians play particular roles in discouraging, promoting, or perhaps ignoring EJ efforts. So then, you discuss the Giuliani Administration. And Giuliani = bad. How did that equation play out in the story you tell?

JS: Mayor Giuliani was an extremely polarizing figure. His agenda was pro-corporate, pro-privatization, pro-deregulation. His hostility to communities of color was best exemplified in terms of his crime policies, but essentially his derision to environmental and siting issues as well. It was no surprise then during the last national election during Republican convention-that he repeatedly sneered at the term "community organizer" in reference to President Obama. He really hated activists of all stripes, but particularly those from politically disenfranchised communities.

WF: Can you tell us more about Robert Moses and what he has to do with all of this? We usually hear about Moses, or maybe it's just me, being fought by many people, but Jane Jacobs high among them with respect to the design and character of the modern city.

JS: Robert Moses is an important figure in the book, because he reshaped the landscape of the four neighborhoods that I focused on-primarily through highway construction and the building of public housing projects. The legacy of the freeways through these neighborhoods remains an important one, in part because of the public health effects of all of the auto exhaust in those communities. To give you just one example, the South Bronx is the only borough of the city that is connected to the mainland of the United States. It is predominantly poor, and racial minority-and it has over eight highways cutting through the neighborhood with hundreds of thousands of vehicle trips going through a tiny space. It's probably no surprise that the asthma rates in some segments of that community are about eight times the national average (in one neighborhood in Harlem, 25% of the children are estimated to have asthma. The national average is 6.9%).


Part 1 (above) | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3


I: Michael Egan on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism
II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy
III: Saul Halfon on population , demography, and women's empowerment
IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics
V: David Hess on Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
VI: Lizzie Grossman on e-trash and global environmental policy
VII: Shobita Parthasarathy on genetics and the politics of Science and Technology
VIII: Aaron Sachs on Humboldt and the explorer-origins of environmentalism
IX: Jan Golinski on British Enlightenment culture and the Weather
X: Kelly Joyce on MRI and Visual Knowledge
XI: D. Graham Burnett on whether whales are fish and who says so
XII: Michelle Murphy on Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty
XIII: Gregg Mitman on How Allergies Shape Lives and Landscapes
XIV: Keith Warner on agroecology, STS, and social power
XV: Chris Henke on science, government, and Californian land management
XVI: Martha McCaughey on pop-Darwinism, science, sex, violence


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Take comfort, Bob -- she's an NYU grad who grew up and lived most of her life in NYC. Still does a good amount of work in the city too. Although it isn't clear from the above, don't be thrown off by the complications of finding academic positions where one can.

Your statement relating asthma rates in the Bronx to highway density/proximity is empirically unsupported.

The strongest environmental exposures associated with asthma morbidity are within the home.

These exposures include: parental smoking, mold, and cockroaches and other vermin (cf. Eggleston PA. Environmental causes of asthma in inner city children: The National Cooperative Inner City Asthma Study. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology, 18:311-324, 2000).

Oh, and by the way, Harlem is not in the Bronx. It is in Manhattan.

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 25 Aug 2009 #permalink

Thanks for reading, Neuro-C. I'd encourage you to read further in the interview and, more importantly, to pick up Sze's book. Let me clarify one part: I am responsible above for editing the answer in such a way that leaves out a few words, allowing you to interpret Dr. Sze's comment as suggesting that Harlem is in the Bronx. It should read: "elsewhere in NYC, in one neighborhood in Harlem...".

But secondly, and more crucially, you'll find that concerns about asthma rates are part of the point of Sze's work -- to probe further into the ease with which one can cherry pick a study to then claim that everything's okay. Her empirically rich EJ study helps show that our studies of asthma are part a larger complex--and more difficult combination--of issues about public health, science, and justice.

This is the downside of a blog, I realize. We can't always present the fullness and empirical support of an argument in 900-word chunks, but commenters can assert breezily about trees without forests.

Your implication that I was cherry-picking results couldn't be more wrong. The article that I cited is a review of the largest such study of its kind.

A search of PubMed will reveal that there is an enormous literature on the indoor contaminants that I listed. By contrast, the literature on highway vehicular emissions and asthma is meager, owing to the modest effect size associated with that type of exposure.

It appears intellectually dishonest, not to say a bit unseemly, for you to attribute your inaccurate statement to the limitations of the blog form, while dismissing my empirically validated claim as a breezy assertion.

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 26 Aug 2009 #permalink

I'd ask only that you read Dr. Sze's book to get a better sense of the thrust and tenor of her argument if the summary here is not satisfactory.

no more author meets blogger?!?!?! But I love this series!!!!!!!!!!!!

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We are young, we run green,Keep our teeth, nice and clean,See our friends, see the sithgs, feel alright,We wake up, we go out, smoke a fag,Put it out, see our friends,See the sithgs, feel alright,Are we like you?I can't be sure,Of the scene, as she turns,We are strange in our worlds,But we are young, we get by,Can't go mad, ain't got time,Sleep around, if we like,But we're alright,Got some cash, bought some wheels,Took it out, cross the fields,Lost control, hit a wall,But we're alright,Are we like you,I can't be sure,Of the scene, as she turns,We are strange in our worlds,But we are young, we run green,Keep our teeth, nice and clean,See our friends, see the sithgs, feel alright,Are we like you,I can't be sure,Of the scene, as she turns,We are strange in our world,But we are young, we run green,Keep our teeth, nice and clean,See our friends, see the sithgs, feel alright.