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Environmental Activism  

Rodrigo G. Pinto

Social science research on environment and activism with a cross- or transnational scope (REACTS) is described as a consolidated but confused, stagnant field of scholarship, one which has yet to surpass the comparable state of international studies at large. Previous reviews of the literature in this growing and interdisciplinary research domain have gone so far as so divide it into either its cross-national or its transnational branch, respectively associated with cross-national and environmental social science (CESS), or transnational and environmental social science (TESS). As evidence of stagnancy, once the CESS and TESS branches of REACTS are combined, changes in the cross-national research agenda have been merely the reverse of the transnational one. From 1969–75, REACTS literature covered the themes of population, catastrophic limits to growth, interstate conferences and organizations, North–South relations, survivalist/lifeboat ethics, resource and land conservation, and the social movement organization/non-governmental organization/"third sector." From 1977–91, the issues covered shifted to emphasize violence/conflict, counter environmentalist backlash, seal hunting, whaling, rural energy (improved bioenergy cookstoves), and possibly baby foods, though the earlier concerns with population, (nature) conservation, interstate conferences and survivalist/lifeboat ethics continued. The resistance literature was considerably consolidated and there was a quantitative change in the attention that environmental activism itself received within the pre-existing orientations. In the post-1992 era, the thematic array of transnational REACTS expanded even further as additional issues made it to the agenda in international and environmental studies.

Article

Urban Environmental Activism in Latin America  

Marcelo Lopes de Souza

If environmental activism revolves around problems and challenges related to the socioecological context of a collectivity (that is, the material framework in which it exists, from the point of view of access to resources and infrastructure, conditions of public health ,and embeddedness in ecosystems and naturogenic processes and dynamics), urban environmental activism can be characterized as activism in which the agendas, actors, and conflicts involved are specifically related to the urban space and its peculiarities, considered from a broad socioecological perspective. Considering the immense body of literature that has accumulated over the last 30 years on the environmental problems of Latin America, it is disappointing to see that only a comparatively small part of it refers specifically to urban environmental conflicts and activism. This is disturbing, because already in 2007, 78% of Latin America’s population lived in cities or other geographical entities classified as urban. Moreover, although in some core capitalist countries, too, there are many kinds of urban environmental problems, caused by omission, irresponsibility, or structural causes linked to class differences and asymmetries of power, Latin American problems and conflicts—above all those related to environmental injustice—are far more dramatic. Symptomatically, environmental struggles have been massive and have typically involved basic rights and the non-satisfaction of basic needs in the cities of the region. At the end of the day, it is clear that there have always been two basic types of urban environmental activism in Latin America: on the one side, a kind of environmental activism (and ecological discourse) that masks contradictions and class struggle, as it adopts a strict “preservationist” perspective that reveals itself to be insensitive to human needs and rights; on the other side, however, there are radical social struggles that are at the same time environmental struggles, particularly those explicitly or implicitly related to environmental justice. This diversity demonstrates both the richness and the contradictions of a contested sociopolitical landscape, where terms like sustainability and environmental protection have been instrumentalized for different, sometimes mutually incompatible, purposes.

Article

Air Pollution in Mexico City  

Ela Miljkovic

As in many areas of the world, in Mexico ambient air pollution is a pervasive component of the lived experience. Most conspicuous in large urban centers, air pollution flows across the diverse Mexican terrain, unifying the country’s political geography while also routinely permeating international boundaries. In Mexico’s capital, air pollution is unyieldingly stagnant and often lingers in the valley for days during winter temperature inversions and periods of low wind activity. Although Mexico City has long suffered from seasonal dust pollution, a consequence of the slow, human-engineered desiccation of the lakes that once surrounded the city, as well as from pollution naturally generated by the relatively more sporadic volcanic eruptions known to afflict the city and its environs, the mid-20th century spawned an altogether different, more human pollution problem. Driven by state-sponsored industrialization, population growth, and a rise in the use of motorized transportation, a phase collectively known as the “Mexican Miracle,” from approximately the 1940s to the 1990s, Mexico City transformed into an industrial powerhouse and the most polluted city in the world, the latter status officially recognized by the United Nations during the Earth Summit in 1992. The state, dedicated to carrying out its comprehensive modernization project, had left Mexico City’s air pollution to fester for decades, framing the legal protection of the environment—atmosphere included—as antithetical to economic growth. This rhetoric pervaded the ways that antipollution laws, passed in the 1970s and 1980s, were enforced. Though they set into motion important classification and monitoring efforts, for the most part air pollution control laws were poorly executed due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and the collapse of the economy, which halted spending on environmental protection programs. Other spheres such as science and environmental activism were also important in the history of Mexico City’s experience with air pollution, as actors within these realms contributed to the creation of air pollution knowledge throughout the second half of the 20th century. In their own ways, scientists and activists discursively rendered air pollution a threat to human life and the ecological future of Mexico City. From the 1940s to the 1990s, then, dirty air connected politics, science, and environmentally minded citizens in important and intriguing ways.

Article

Environmental Humanities and Italy  

Enrico Cesaretti, Roberta Biasillo, and Damiano Benvegnú

Does something like “Italian environmental humanities” exist? If so, what makes an Italian approach to this multifaceted field of inquiry so different from the more consolidated Anglo-American tradition? At least until the early 21st century, Italian academic institutions have maintained established disciplinary boundaries and have continued to produce siloed forms of knowledge. New and more flexible forms of scholarly collaboration have also not been traditionally supported at the national level, as political decisions regarding curricular updates and funding opportunities have been unable to foster interdisciplinarity and innovative approaches to knowledge production. However, an underlying current of environmental awareness and action has a strong and long-standing presence in Italy. After all, Italy is where St. Francis wrote The Canticle of Creatures, with its non-hierarchical vision of the world, which then inspired the papal encyclical Laudato si (2015). Italy is also where Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco The Allegory and the Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country (1337–1339) already “pre-ecologically” reflected on the relationship between nature and culture, on the effect of political decisions on our surroundings, and on the impact of local environments on the well-being (as well as the malaise) of their inhabitants. Additionally, Italy is among the few countries in the world whose constitution lists specific laws aimed at protecting its landscapes, biodiversity, and ecosystems in addition to its cultural heritage, as stated in a recent addendum to articles 9 and 41. However, Italy also experienced an abrupt, violent process of development, modernization, and industrialization that radically transformed its urban, rural, and coastal territories after World War II. Many of its landscapes, once iconic and picturesque, have become polluted, toxic, or the outcome of contested, violent histories. And the effects of globalization are materially affecting its ecologies, meaning that Italy is also exposed to constant risks (earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions) and presents geo-morphological features that situate it at the very center of planetary climate change (both atmospheric and sociopolitical) and migration patterns. Considering this, thinking about Italy from an environmental humanities (EH) perspective and, in turn, about the EH in the context of Italy, highlights the interconnections between the local and the global and, in the process, enriches the EH debate.

Article

Buddhism and the Environment  

William Edelglass

Buddhism is a vast and heterogeneous set of traditions embedded in many different environments over more than two millennia. Still, there have been some similar practices across Buddhist cultures that contributed to the construction of local Buddhist environments. These practices included innumerable stories placing prominent Buddhist figures, including the historical Buddha, in particular places. Many of these stories concerned the conversion of local serpent spirits, dragons, and other beings associated with a local place who then themselves became Buddhist and were said to protect Buddhism in their locales. Events in the stories as well as relics and landscape features were marked by pillars, reliquary shrines (stupas), caves, temples, or monasteries that often became the focus of pilgrimage or considered particularly auspicious places for Buddhist practice, where one could encounter buddhas and bodhisattvas. Through ritual practices such as pilgrimage, circumambulation, and offerings, Buddhists engaged environments and their local spirits. Landscapes were transformed into Buddhist sites that were mapped and made meaningful according to Buddhist stories and cosmology. Farmers, herders, traders, and others in Buddhist cultures whose livelihood depended on their environments engaged the spirits of the land, whose blessings they needed for their own good. Just as they transformed the meaning of local environments, Buddhists also transformed the material environment. In addition to building monasteries, stupas, and other religious structures, Buddhist monastics developed administrative and engineering expertise that enabled large-scale irrigation systems. As Buddhism spread through Asia, it brought agricultural technologies that created the watery landscapes enabling rice production and increasing the agricultural surplus that made possible large monasteries and urbanization. In the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st, eco-Buddhist scholars and practitioners have found resources in Buddhist traditions to construct a Buddhist environmental ethic. Some have argued that concepts such as dependent origination, the ethics of loving-kindness and compassion, and other ideas from classical Buddhist traditions suggest that Buddhism has always been particularly attuned to the environment. Critics have charged that eco-Buddhists are distorting Buddhist traditions by claiming that premodern traditions were responding to contemporary environmental concerns. Moreover, they argue, Buddhist ideas such as dependent origination, or its more environmentally resonant interpretation as “interdependence,” do not in fact provide a satisfying grounding for an environmental ethic. Partly in response to such critics, much scholarly work on Buddhism and the environment became more focused on concrete phenomena, informed by a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, place studies, art history, pilgrimage studies, and the study of activism. Instead of focusing primarily on universal concepts found in ancient texts, scholars are just as likely to look at how local communities have drawn on Buddhist ontology, ethics, cosmology, symbolism, and rituals to develop Buddhist responses to local environmental needs, developing contemporary Buddhist environmentalisms.

Article

Movements and Resistance in the United States, 1800 to the Present  

Mary E. Triece

A study of social movements advances a people’s history of the United States, providing a window into the ways ordinary people often took extraordinary measures to make laws, workplace conditions, the educational system, the quality of home life, and public spaces more open and responsive to the needs and concerns of marginalized groups. With the rise of industrial capitalism in the early 1800s came a host of social ills that prompted individuals to form organizations that enabled them to operate as a force for social change. As the Native American Chief Sitting Bull is purported to have said, “As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but together we form a mighty fist.” The 1800s through the early 21st century provides numerous examples of people acting together as a mighty fist. As early as 1824, workers in textile mills in the Northeast United States enacted work stoppages and strikes in reaction to wage cuts and deplorable working conditions. The movement to abolish slavery in the mid-1800s provided a way for disenfranchised black men and women, such as the eloquent Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart, as well as white women, to speak and organize publically. In the area of labor, female and black workers, excluded from the more formal organizing of trade unions through the American Federation of Labor, organized their own labor meetings (e.g., the National Labor Convention of the Colored Men of the United States), unions (e.g., the Women’s Trade Union League), and strikes (e.g., the Uprising of 20,000). By the late1800s through the 1930s, American socialism and the Communist Party, USA, influenced the philosophy and tactics employed by labor activists, many of whom were factory girls who played a formidable role in mass walk-outs in the Progressive Era. Struggles for workplace and civil rights continued throughout the 20th century to undo Jim Crow and segregation, to advocate for civil rights, to advance the rights of women in the workplace, and more recently, to fight for the rights of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender communities, undocumented workers, and immigrants, and to fight against the police repression of black and brown communities and against imperialism and globalization. Activists’ tools for resistance have been as diverse as their causes and include petitioning formal legislative bodies, picketing and rallying, engaging in work stoppages, occupation of public spaces (e.g., sit-downs, walk-outs, occupying squares and parks), and most recently, using social media platforms, blogs, and other forms of Internet activism to facilitate empowerment of marginalized groups and progressive social change. The Internet has provided an important tool for facilitating international connections of solidarity in struggle. Although what follows focuses specifically on movements in the United States from roughly the 1800s to the present, efforts should continue to focus on the ways movements join forces across and around the globe.