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Who Pays the Price?: The Sociocultural Context Of Environmental Crisis

Who Pays the Price?: The Sociocultural Context Of Environmental Crisis

by Jason Clay

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Drawing from a Society for Applied Anthropology study on human rights and the environment, Who Pays the Price? provides a detailed look at the human experience of environmental crisis. The issues examined span the globe -- loss of land and access to critical resources; contamination of air, water and soil; exposure to radiation, toxic chemicals, and other hazardous


Drawing from a Society for Applied Anthropology study on human rights and the environment, Who Pays the Price? provides a detailed look at the human experience of environmental crisis. The issues examined span the globe -- loss of land and access to critical resources; contamination of air, water and soil; exposure to radiation, toxic chemicals, and other hazardous wastes. Topics considered in-depth include: human rights and environmental degradation nation-state struggles over indigenous rights rights abuse accompanying resource extraction, weapons production, and tourism development environmental racism, gender bias, and multinational industry double standards social justice environmentalism The book incorporates material from a wide range of economic and geographic contexts, including case studies from China, Russia, Latin America, the United States, Canada, Africa, and the South Pacific.

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Who Pays the Price?

The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis

By Barbara Rose Johnston


Copyright © 1994 Barbara Rose Johnston and the Society for Applied Anthropology
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-367-6



Barbara Rose Johnston

Today, as every day, a woman rises hours before dawn, prepares food, wakes the children, and gets everyone up and out into the world. Her actions are repeated by men and women in homes across the planet—mine included. Yet, the majority of the world's people do not begin their day as I do, with running water, an electrical stove, and refrigerated food. The abundance of my life—the luxury of a roof overhead, pantry shelves lined with an ever-replenished supply of food, children reading away the morning hours at school and growing in healthy leaps and bounds with their bellies full and their thirst quenched with clean water—is a dream for most of the world.

This dream was purchased.
This material affluence has a price.

Turning on the lights, heating my water for coffee, grinding coffee beans, opening the refrigerator and taking out cold milk—these are all actions dependent upon a continual supply of energy. In my case, electricity is generated at an oil-burning power plant fifty miles to the south. That oil has been refined in places like Richmond, California, some sixty miles to the north of my home. The refining process releases toxic chemicals into the air and water, and this pollution affects the health of area residents: respiratory disease, cancer, and other ailments plague this largely African-American community. Richmond's environmental health experiences are shared by those unfortunates living near oil wells. Forty-three percent of the oil consumed in 1992 by the United States was imported from places like the Middle East and, more recently, the Amazon. In Ecuador, the petroleum industry dumps some 4.3 million gallons of untreated toxic waste directly into the Oriente watershed. Residents living in oil-producing regions, mostly indigenous groups, attempt to survive while drinking contaminated waters and eating contaminated foods. Malnutrition rates in the Ecuadorian Oriente, by some estimates, have risen as high as 98%. Cancer rates, birth defects, and other health problems linked to oil production contaminants are also on the rise.

Morning sounds in my house are the sounds of running water. The first one up puts the coffee water on the stove. A line forms outside the one bathroom, as each member of my family waits to use the toilet, wash up, and begin the day. Running water for my family is an image of pipes and faucets, toilets and showers. Half the water "running" into our house is drawn from aquifers deep beneath this valley's surface. The other half is diverted water stored in dams far to the east and north, periodically released into cement-lined canals and destined to flow hundreds of miles before emptying into the water district ponds of this valley. The price of dams and water diversion systems is heavy, as the dwindling run of salmon testifies. And, while a reliable supply of water in an area prone to biannual drought allows the production of otherwise unsuitable crops (half the nation's rice crop is grown thanks to water-diversion projects), this water-intensive cultivation has a price, as the salt- and selenium-contaminated fields of California's central valley indicate.

Breakfast for my family is one of coffee, cereal, milk, and fruit. The rice for our cereal is grown in the central valley on large corporate farms, with mechanical harvesters, and chemical inputs to control soil fertility and destroy pests. The price of this capital- , chemical- , and water-intensive production includes the poisoning of farm workers, residents (especially children), and consumers. Getting caught on the road while a crop duster is spraying nearby fields, or being sent into the fields too soon after chemical treatment, can result in immediate health effects such as rashes, chemical burns, nausea, vomiting, and even death. Longer term consequences of chemical exposure can include cancer, sterility, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, birth defects, and a host of other disorders.

While the use of pesticides is regulated and controlled in the United States where my rice was grown (with arguable success rates in protecting the health of workers, residents, and consumers), the environmental health costs associated with the production of imported agricultural goods such as coffee and bananas is extreme. The bulk of these crops are grown on corporate-owned plantations using chemical-intensive methods (including pesticides banned from use in the United States) with few of the environmental and worker safeguards found in First World settings. Developing countries, while representing some 20% of global pesticide use, experience 50% of the poisonings and 90% of the officially reported pesticide-related deaths.

The simple act of beginning my day is one that is intimately tied to the environmental health of communities across the world. As the day proceeds and I face the mounds of paper on my desk or peer into my computer screen, I again greet again the global communities whose trees are removed and processed into paper, packaging, and the daily pile of junk mail; whose minerals are extracted, refined, and fashioned into the material wealth of my life. With each tap of my keyboard I touch the lives of workers who assembled this computer: workers here in Silicon Valley, in the "maquiladoras" at the Mexican border, and in the manufacturing free trade zones of Puerto Rico, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Southern Ireland. I touch the lives of families who live near the computer facilities, drink water contaminated by the solvents used to clean my computer's components, and thus experience the neurological and mutagenic power of trichloroethylene, xylene, chloroform, freons, methyl ethyl ketone, and other organic solvents. To some degree, I share the burden of paying the price as the environmental health of my community deteriorates and the occurrence of cancer, miscarriage, and birth defects intrudes more and more into the realm of personal experience.

Yet, then again, if the price of our consuming culture is environmental degradation and the deterioration of human health, the benefits, as well as the burdens, are not shared equitably. My ability to survive and thrive depends upon the restriction of other peoples' rights to a healthy life. The purpose of this book is to explore this differential experience of paying the price.



Barbara Rose Johnston

The right to health, a decent existence, work, and occupational safety and health; the right to an adequate standard of living, freedom from hunger, an adequate and wholesome diet, and decent housing; the right to education, culture, equality and nondiscrimination, dignity, and harmonious development of the personality; the right to security of person and of the family; the right to peace; and the right to development are all rights established by existing United Nations covenants. These rights represent the ideal that governments strive for in providing for their citizens—basic life requirements that all humans are entitled to. All of these rights depend at one level or another on the environment.

Environment in this context refers to the biophysical realm supporting humans and other life forms in their efforts to survive and thrive. Much of the anthropological literature explores the ways humans survive: how we as a species adapt and evolve over time; the range and variation in human behavior, society, and culture; and the role of culture in structuring, stimulating, and resolving the environmental problems facing humanity. Humans are seen to have adjusted to environmental constraints via behavioral and physiological strategies. Some of these environmental constraints are natural features of the setting (e.g., climate, temperature, and terrain). Other constraints, such as increased salinity, declining soil fertility in irrigated agricultural lands, and other types of environmental degradation, are anthropogenic (human-induced change) in nature.

It is clear that environmental degradation, in itself, is not a new facet of human survival. The rise and fall of many past societies can be explained in part by the ability to modify the immediate environment and the subsequent inability to prevent escalating environmental degradation.

Adaptive success has been dependent upon time: time to develop biological responses (acclimatory or developmental changes, or genetic adaptation involving physiological adjustments which are passed on to subsequent generations); time to identify changing environmental conditions, search out or devise new strategies, and incorporate new strategies at the level of the population.

In the present day and age, however, time has become a scarce commodity. The rapid pace of change in population, way of life, and environment has caused a redefinition of the notion of environmental constraint. Humans no longer have the luxury of time to adjust to changing conditions. Nor do we have the physical space to absorb and sustain environmentally or socially induced migration.

Redefining Environmental Constraints

Today's environmental constraints are more complex than the threats which structured our ancestors' lives: altitude, climatic extremes, soil fertility, or water availability. They might include these biophysical conditions of nature, but the nature and degree of degradation is a result of direct, recent, and intense human action. Thus, humanity is struggling to survive in the face of growing deserts, decreasing forests, declining fisheries, poisoned food, water, and air, and climatic extremes and weather events which continue to intensify—floods, hurricanes, and droughts.

Many of these crises lack tangibility—they are difficult to see and to define, and their origins and their consequences are difficult to understand. These crises are rarely confined to an immediate locale—radiation knows no boundaries. In many places of the world, information about environmental crisis is withheld from those who experience the adverse consequences. And, environmental crises are not experienced equitably. Vulnerability to the changes in the biophysical realm is a factor of social relations—human action and a history of social inequity leaves some people more vulnerable than others.

Examination of the sociocultural context of environmental degradation leads to the clear conclusion that, in spite of international and national structures establishing inalienable rights for all people, some people experience greater harm than others, and in many cases this differential experience is a result of government-induced and/or government-sanctioned action.

Environmental degradation and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. Yet, in the context of international and national covenants, legislation, and discourse, human rights issues and environmental issues are typically presented as distinct and separate. Respect for human rights is framed in moral arguments. Abuse of human rights causes expressions of disgust, discomfort, or outrage in the international community. By contrast, environmental issues and policies are framed in economic arguments; abuse of the environment causes quantifiable economic harm.

These distinctions are artificial. Human rights violations may occur as a preceding factor in or as a subsequent result of environmental degradation, or both.

Considering Human Rights

After a century of ethnographic work, it is clear that all societies have human rights propositions. Human rights propositions may differ from society to society, and in many instances rights are not formalized in written charters. However, no social group can survive without a set of normative propositions concerning what is proper interaction among its salient classes or groups.

A great deal of controversy surrounds the notion of universal human rights. Much of this controversy involves cultural relativism: the idea that "a cultural system is adaptive over a period of time, that societies develop the cultures most successful for their environments, and that this adaptation, whatever the activity or behavior, must be judged on what it does for the society in question and not for that of the observer." Following this line, many argue that universal human rights impose a Western model and definition of human rights on the world. Others respond that the focus on relative and universal cultural logics obscures the real issue—that of the relationships between the powerful and powerless: "cultural relativity is rendered meaningless if there is no culture remaining to be relative to, and universal human rights are irrelevant if their champions do not understand and support the maintenance of that diversity—the right for the powerless to have a voice."

As society changes, new human rights are defined, often following a context of great social conflict. Thus, the ideas which frame human rights propositions vary according to society's need. There are, however, basic parameters necessary for human survival: maintaining bodily health, material security, social relations, and the opportunity for the development of a cultural and moral life—all those aspects of life which allow one to be human.

If the ideal of human rights is to ensure that all humans—irrespective of nationality, religion, sex, social status, occupation, wealth, property, or any other differentiating ethnic, cultural, or social characteristic—for the sole virtue of being human are guaranteed the conditions necessary for a life of dignity in the contemporary world, the reality can be quite different. Human rights as articulated in international treaties and covenants and in national constitutions and laws are conceptual ideals which typically structure behavior at an abstract, political level. At the experiential level prejudices, conflicting interests, greed, and simple brutality intercede between law and practice.

The abuse of human rights occurs within a cultural as well as political and economic context. Human rights violations often occur as a result of efforts to gain control of land, labor, and resources of politically and/or geographically peripheral peoples. The cultural context involves a process of social construction in which marginal peoples are seen to be biologically, culturally, and socially inferior, providing the justification for state domination.

This process, what anthropologist George Appell terms psychosocial hegemony, utilizes a discourse of debasement (the "dirty" native, sexually promiscuous/drunken/criminal native) that serves to dehumanize (they are subhuman: savage, primitive, backward, ignorant, lazy people that "live like animals"). The pervasiveness of this discourse in the everyday language, media, and school curriculum materials, and in the views and policies of external agents (teachers, agricultural and fishery extension agents, shopkeepers, and so forth) eventually destroys the self-esteem and sense of worth of peripheral populations and removes their motivation to control their destiny. This discourse of debasement is universal in form and content—it is an integral component in the evolution of human rights abuse.

The "discourse of dominance" takes several forms in state efforts to justify taking land, labor, and resources. The poverty label—constructed by ignoring, belittling, or claiming as nonexistent the existing subsistence-based economies—provides the rationale for "economic development" efforts. Ignoring or belittling the importance of subsistence- or barter-based economies also allows the inference that surrounding lands are unoccupied, empty, or wilderness areas that can be claimed and used by the state. Legally, state control over peripheral population territory and resources is supported by Western notions of property rights: the contention that resources held in common—common property—do not in fact constitute "actual property rights."

Human groups involved in efforts to exert political and economic control over other human groups utilize socially constructed images and terms in language and behavior to create that hierarchy and legitimize their actions. This ethnocentricism—the belief in the superiority of one's own culture—plays a critical role in justifying exploitative policies that result in human rights abuse.


Excerpted from Who Pays the Price? by Barbara Rose Johnston. Copyright © 1994 Barbara Rose Johnston and the Society for Applied Anthropology. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and research associate at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. The Society For Applied Anthropology was founded in 1941 to promote the investigation of the principles of human behavior and the application of these principles to contemporary issues and problems.

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