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8.4.05

AAGs, Day Two

This post is delayed because Blogger wasn't working for me last night. On with the show:

1. Carolyn Finney gave another great talk today about her research on African-Americans and the great outdoors, particularly National Parks. Her interviewees told her that the media was a major culprit in African-Americans' disproportionately low involvement with what we traditionally think of as "nature" and related environmentalism (as opposed to the environmental justice movement, where they're well represented in fighting environmental health risks). Finney pointed out that you rarely see black faces in photos of people in nature -- and when you do, they're working, not doing recreational activities. She also read a shocking letter to the editor that lambasted the National Parks' efforts to increase the diversity of its visitors, because the parks are supposed to be where white people can go to be safe from nonwhite criminals. (Addendum: This morning I went to a session in which I heard a similar thing from Nik Luka, who was doing a study of vacation cottages in Ontario. He said that later in his interviews, as interviewees got more comfortable with him, they began to talk about how they like to go stay at their cottage because the area was so white, and they didn't have to deal with "dirty Pakistanis s***ing on the beach.")

The discussant for this session was Ruth Gilmore, who offered an interesting definition of racism: "the state-sanctioned and/or legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death." On the one hand, this definition is useful insofar as it underlines the seriousness of racism. With the decline of the most blatantly overt forms of racism (e.g. lynchings), it's easy to underestimate the harm done by racism. For example, there's currently a five or so year gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites, which is almost certainly a result of racism given the lack of a biological basis for racial distinctions. Things that kill people are a Big Deal in our society in a way that other harms aren't.

On the other hand, it seems too narrow to confine the range of harms of concern to those that lead to premature death. Certainly a great many of the negative consequences of racism do (even if only in a small and remote way) raise the risk of death, and pointing out this connection can raise the percieved urgency of addressing the harms. But to make the badness of racism derivative solely of its contribution to premature death undervalues the harms that don't kill you. It seems to evoke the "technical" perspective on risk analysis, in which "risk" is defined as "probability of death." Risk researchers have worked long and hard to show that this definition fails to capture what members of the public value, and to create richer conceptualizations of the harm done by hazards. Insofar as racism is a cause of vulnerability to hazards, defining the harm as premature death is overly narrow.

2. The best paper of the conference so far was one by Peter Klepeis (my old mentor from Colgate) and Paul Laris about logging and the creation of a national park in Tierra del Fuego. In a nutshell, a logging company was planning to do some logging in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego. They developed a plan for doing it sustainably that was described by experts as cutting-edge. But national and international environmental groups were fixated on a wilderness ideology that would not accept any compromise. So they battled it out in court until the company ran out of money. The land was then acquired by Goldman-Sachs, which donated it as a National Park. Klepeis and Laris argue that the "wilderness reserve" model of nature preservation has been shown around the world to have limited usefulness, and particularly so in an area like Tierra del Fuego where 1) the land is not pristine wilderness, and 2) huge sectors of the forest are already reserves, so creating more is likely to suffer greatly diminishing returns. They argued that this "victory" by environmentalists is likely to sour timber companies on putting forth the effort to log sustainably.

What I found particularly interesting, given the topic of my paper (more on it Saturday, after I present it), was one of their criticisms of the logging company's strategy. They argued that the company failed to win over environmentalists in part because of their reliance on technical scientific expertise to argue for their proposal, and the environmentalists' understandable lack of trust that the company would follow through on its proposal. They argued that it would be unrealistic to expect the company and the environmentalists to be able to overcome these barriers and work directly with each other. However, they say an important role for the government (which had taken a backseat in this controversy) to step in as a mediator. The government would be able to facilitate communication between the two groups, and would have the power to demand accountability.

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