Environmental justice: Merging Earth stewardship with social justice

Can social justice be achieved (at least partially) through the advancement of environmental stewardship? Both the executive branch of the federal government and a number of local community outreach organizations across the country believe it’s certainly an effective avenue to take when working to ensure our nation’s communities have equal input into the policy proposals that impact our natural surroundings. One of those organizations is the Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago, which received accolades from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2004 for its creative use of natural landscaping to support the native wildlife that contributes to the region’s biodiversity. In the most recent Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner Kellen Marshall-Gillespie speaks about her experiences working on ecological issues within the Eden Place Nature Center as she pursues her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Chicago. EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The term arose in the 1980s when racial minority communities raised concerns that they were disproportionately impacted by the effects of industrial pollution. There were also concerns in these communities that mainstream environmental organizations were not prioritizing issues related to environmental justice, concerns that would finally earn a federal response in the coming decade. According to the EPA, at the behest of the Congressional Black Caucus and a bipartisan coalition of scientists and conservation activists, the agency created the Environmental Equity Working group in 1990 to address these concerns. In 1992, the working group issued a final report entitled “Reducing Risk in All Communities.” Among its findings, the report noted that due to exposures to environmental pollutants, black children have a disproportionately higher lead blood levels compared to whites, even when socioeconomic variables are considered. It also cited findings from the Argonne National Laboratory, indicating that “higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics live in EPA-designated non-attainment areas, relative to whites, for particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and lead.” (A non-attainment area is defined as a locality where air pollution levels persistently, over several years, exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards as defined under the Clean Air Act of 1990). The report also attributed the “not in my backyard” syndrome as the reason many hazardous and solid waste facilities are positioned near communities with the least ability to mount a protest. On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, entitled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low‐Income Populations” (EO 12898). It directs...

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A Conference about Water III: Perceptions of Water Use

Todd Rasmussen takes questions after his talk at the ESA Millennium Conference. Yesterday’s morning sessions at the ESA Millennium Conference on water and drought wrapped up the keynote talks and moved into posters showcasing social and ecological studies surrounding water use. Denise Fort, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico, gave an overview of water law and the tradeoffs that occur when ecosystem health is at odds with human demands.  She touched on an interesting case against the Endangered Species Act involving the fifth amendment, where landowners have made the case that laws affecting use of their land, such as using less water or changing their agricultural practices, is equivalent to the government “taking” their land. In these cases, she said, we need to figure out an appropriate compensation for these landowners, possibly in the form of ecosystem services. Fort also made a point that would come to be a recurring theme in conversations later on in the day: the use of the word drought.  She pointed out that in many cases, a social drought such as those that have affected the Southwest or the Southeast is actually not a meteorological drought, or one that includes an unprecedented water scarcity. Nevertheless, she said, managing water scarcities needs to have a large measure of adaptation. “We’re not likely to return to average or normal,” she said. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing in the past, it’s extinction for many species.” Likewise, in his talk, Todd Rasmussen of the University of Georgia told the audience that in most other cultures, the concept of the “American Way of Life” is not translated into their language, but instead said in English.  This idea of water inequity is one of the foundational concepts of the conference, and one that will probably be explored more in the conference workshops. Lisa Welsh explains her research to Jason West at the ESA Millennium Conference poster session. The poster session was another lively event, with researchers presenting their work on water scarcity and mitigation efforts from around the world. Lisa Welsh of Utah State showcased her work on the perception of drought in the Bear River Basin in the West.  This basin feeds several divisions in different ways, and Welsh found that the divisions are good predictors of people’s attitudes toward their water. In divisions where water is traditionally abundant, people are not as worried and in many ways are more vulnerable, Welsh says.  But in water-scarce regions, the people are much more ready to deal with an impending drought. Stay tuned for a virtual tour of the Gwinnett Water Treatment Plant (seriously,...

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A Conference about Water and Ecology

Nancy Grimm welcomes attendees to the first ESA Millennium Conference. ESA’s first Millennium Conference kicked off today in Athens, GA. The meeting is bringing together ecologists and social scientists to engage in conversations about one of the most dramatic emerging challenges in ecology: that of clean water and water scarcity.  While ecologists’ main expertise is in providing and maintaining adequate water for healthy ecosystems, social scientists are expert in and concerned about scarce water and allocation across diverse communities. The discussion this morning focused on several key issues associated with water conservation. Nancy Grimm was the president of ESA when the Millennium series was suggested, and she welcomed the group to the conference. In her opening remarks, she was the first to bring up the fact that for water reform and management to really take hold, it needs to occur at a regional level.  All-encompassing water legislation, even at state levels, can pit differing priorities against one another; since ecosystem services are largely delivered at regional scales, their legislation should be regional as well. Ann Bartuska addresses a question during her talk about urban ecosystem services. But Carol Couch, formerly chief of environmental protection in Georgia, made the point that a difficult challenge is to learn how to legislate water and water rights among political boundaries.  Since ecosystems know no political boundaries, local politicians must learn to work together. “We need to explore systematically and synthetically how different societies throughout time have dealt with a common pool of resources, so it doesn’t devolve into the tragedy of the commons,” she said. “We need to start thinking about ecological services as a common pool.” A major challenge, she also mentioned, will be considering water as a common-pool resource in areas, like Georgia, where most (96 percent!) of the land is privately owned. Bob Naiman of Washington University made the great comment that it would be nice to have an “opinions map” – one that showed which people over the landscape have what opinions about water and how it should be used. This could inform management strategies and ground-up community initiatives. “We don’t need to convince people, we just need to speak in words they understand,” she said.”We could then spend less time advocating for a public campaign – but instead recruit people to work with us.” A final theme of the first several talks was interdisciplinarity.  As co-chair Ted Gragson of UGA pointed out, we’re ready to practice what we’ve often preached about interdisciplinarity. No water problem will be solved by an ecologist or a social scientist alone, which is the whole reason for the conference. Later this afternoon: Roger...

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ESA Conference: Drought & environmental justice

The first conference in ESA’s Millennium Series begins on Monday at the University of Georgia in Athens. The conference, titled “Water-Ecosystem Services, Drought, and Environmental Justice,” will bring 100 scientists and land managers together to work on the resolution of social issues related to localized drought. The conference will focus on issues surrounding one of the biggest emerging environmental issues – water – and its relationship to human social structure. Although many areas experience periodic drought, the results of such drought often depend on an area’s government and policy, its infrastructure, and the behavior of its people. These factors can create differences in vulnerability to water shortages across communities with different racial, cultural and income profiles. The Millennium Conference aims to combine the knowledge of ecologists and social scientists to begin to address this issue of environmental justice. The Conference attendees will present 12 case studies on water shortages and their effect on societies throughout the world. In one study, an urban water shortage in Melbourne, Australia, led to a controversial infrastructure project to transfer water from a similarly water-stressed rural area to the city. In another, Michigan residents are fighting annual water bills as high as $10,000 and the potential privatization of their water resources. You can watch live streaming video of the plenary speakers on the Millennium Conference web site on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  Videos about each of the case studies are available. Learn more about ESA’s Millennium...

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