Teaching Environmental Crisis and Justice

—Alexa S. Dietrich

When events that are understood to be tragic happen, like the poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, it is typical for we, as human beings, to ask Why? When these events affect whole communities, it then becomes incumbent upon us, as human beings, to ask “How could this happen? because the cause is far less likely to be a random occurrence. Students tend to sense this connection intrinsically, but struggle to think critically about causal factors in situations like Flint.

In classroom discussions, students will often respond to stories of severe environmental pollution in one of two ways. Sometimes they express bewilderment. They feel the inherent injustice but cannot fathom a reason for the damage to people’s health and well-being. The other common response, such as one of my students stated just this week in talking about the toxic waste in Flint’s drinking water, is to say, “It’s almost as if someone planned it.”

It is easy to see conspiracy behind a series of what were, with the benefit of hindsight, a series of despicable acts leading to the potential devastation of an entire community, particularly a community already so disadvantaged and seemingly disposable as Flint. To our shame, in the United States we have long since become terribly inured to the suffering of communities of color, and poor communities.

But while it is easy to imagine a conspiracy of evilly-inclined individuals, such as politicians, plotting to wipe out a community like Flint, this perspective avoids the hard conversations we need to have with our students and others. Explicitly evil intentions are not required in order for great harm to be perpetrated. I am not suggesting that politicians, such as Rick Snyder, are “innocent” in this situation – far from it. Rather, we need to be having frank discussions, leading to actions, about how our culture rewards greed at the expense of human life-especially the lives of the poor and oppressed minorities.

We must, as educators and students, together answer the question, “How could this happen?” The fact is that people with the power to protect the lives of Flint residents chose not to do so. Not once, but many times, people in the position to make decisions about sourcing the water, about testing the water, about reporting the test results and health impacts, made decisions for financial gain or political expedience. And our cultural system (encompassing, e.g., economics, social relations, and ideologies) reinforced the permissibility, the very social and political acceptability of those decisions. There were undoubtedly both legal and moral crimes committed – but accountability for these crimes should weigh heavily on all of us.

In the aftermath of a public health crisis like that in Flint, there are likely to be emerging narratives of the heroic actions of empowered individuals, those who seem to swoop in as community saviors. However, a culture of community engagement cannot, and will not, wait for such heroes, as significant as their contributions may be. As one Flint resident and activist has been quoted as saying, “I decided, I guess I got to figure the science part of this, because you can’t argue with the science.” In the pursuit of environmental justice, there is no substitute for the actions of “non-experts” with local knowledge, and local commitment. But it is also our responsibility to teach and reward this commitment to collective good on a broad scale, more than we currently reward (or at least accept) harmful self-interest, and the violence of disinterest in the well-being of others.

It is also tempting to rely on the explanation of “bad apples,” or individual actors, as is so often used to describe the causes of violence and social suffering perpetrated by institutions. But these explanations are too simple, and release us of our own obligations to care for our fellow human beings. How could this happen? The answer lies in a larger examination of our culture, and our individual roles in it.

Alexa S. Dietrich teaches anthropology at Wagner College, where she is also the Faculty Director of Wagner’s First Year Learning Communities. Her book, The Drug Company Next Door (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2015 Julian Steward Award for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.