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Environmental Racism & The Social Roots of the Flint Water Crisis

In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses the scandalous environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan and shows how the catastrophe illustrates the connection between social inequality and environmental inequality.

For over a year in Flint, Michigan, the tap water has been a disgusting brown color. For over a year, local residents have been protesting in the streets, shouting at town hall meetings, and pleading with government officials to declare an emergency and clean their tap water. For over a year, state officials told the residents that the brown water was safe to drink. But, it wasn’t. The water was highly corrosive and contaminated with lead.

How Did This Happen?

The Social Roots of Environmental Catastrophe

When I tell people that I teach environmental sociology, typically their first question to me is, “what does the environment have to do with sociology?” It is as if the natural environment couldn’t be farther from the social environments that humans inhabit. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmental sociology exists to highlight how the way we think about and interact with the environment is shaped by our society’s culture and social structure. One of the greatest contributions sociologists have made to environmental science has been revealing the many ways social inequality is connected to environmental degradation. Simply put, social inequality often leads to environmental inequality.

Environmental inequality describes any situation where one social group is disproportionately affected by environmental hazards (Pellow 2000). One specific form of this inequality is Environmental racism which, “refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color” (Bullard 1993: 3). In study after study, researchers have found that poor people and specifically people of color live in environments that are more toxic and more prone to environmental catastrophe (Brulle and Pellow 2006). Two primary reasons for this environmental inequality are sociological: residential segregation and NIMBY politics.

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Don’t Drink the Water: The Crisis in Flint from a Sociological Perspective

When something bad happens, often people’s first instinct is to blame themselves rather than look at the larger social context in which it happened. In this essay, Amanda Fehlbaum explores the way that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, went beyond being one woman’s private trouble and became a much larger public issue.

The news about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis has been both heartbreaking and frustrating to learn about. A recent report from The Guardian claims that “every major US city east of the Mississippi” tampers with their water tests in order to give lower indications of the amount of lead in drinking water. Such a claim is very serious and cities around the country are now looking into the lead levels in their own drinking water. I live in a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio. While no notices have been given about my drinking water have been made, another Youngstown-area community in my county found lead levels that exceeded federal standards. Given that you cannot see, smell, or taste lead in the water, you have to place trust that your water department has your best interests in mind.

A Public Issue

Lead in water can lead to delays in physical and mental development in infants and children as well as kidney problems and high blood pressure in adults. Lead can also accumulate in the body in kidneys, teeth, bones, and the liver and be released during times of stress, when bones break, or during pregnancy. Amount of lead in water is measured in parts per billion (ppb). Water tests that reveal 15 ppb are meant to trigger measures to lower the level, although The Washington Post states that even 5 ppb are cause for concern….

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Why Are Environmental Problems Hard To Address?

It’s Earth Day again, are you ready to celebrate? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses a few of the unique reasons environmental problems can be so hard to change.

Humans relationship with the environment is a funny thing. Polls show that the majority of people everywhere value the environment and are concerned about the environmental destruction that humans are causing on the earth (Bell 2011). It would seem that everyone is in agreement; the earth is important and we should protect it. But then why are many environmental problems only getting worse?

But First, Let’s Keep Things in Perspective

Before I answer that question, let’s do a reality check. In many ways, the environment is better today than it was just a few decades ago. This is especially true in the United States and Western Europe. For instance, in the U.S. the environmental movement successfully pressured government officials into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. While some problems like the loss of biodiversity and global warming continue to worsen, it is important to keep things in perspective and not throw our hands up in defeat. Alright, now let’s get back to it.

Why Environmental Problems are Hard

Humans are remarkable creatures that can use their intelligence and technology to break the laws of nature and live unsustainably forever. The previous sentence is what sociologist call an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that people use to make sense of the world. This specific ideology is what sociologists Catton and Dunlap (1978) and scholars from other disciplines call the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP). Simply put, the HEP asserts that humans are not a part of nature, but above nature.

The idea that humans are beyond the control of nature was instrumental to the formation of modern society, all of the scientific disciplines, and to all of the technological innovations that humans have made in the last two millennia. Until very recently in human history, nature was perceived to either be an unending cornucopia of natural resources or as a god forsaken wild wasteland that needed to be tamed by humans.

Today, we are quickly coming to the realization that humans are not able to break the laws of nature and that technology can only delay the inevitable if we continue to live unsustainably….

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Rolling Coal, Environmental Power, & Masculinity

A group of people online are sharing videos and images of their giant trucks billowing thick black smoke into the atmosphere; online this is called “rolling coal”. These scenes are often the backdrop for macho anti-environmentalist messages. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses the concept of environmental power to show us how rolling coal is a social display of status and often masculinity.

There are many ways to be manly. For some super macho dudes, they get their manly on by modifying their truck so that its black filthy exhaust blows out directly into the atmosphere. Maximizing your pollution is just one way to communicate to the world your machismo. If that doesn’t sufficiently communicate your supreme dudeness, then you can always adorn the hitch of your truck with a giant plastic scrotum (or as the kids call them “Truck Nutz”).

This phenomenon is know as “Rolling Coal”. There are hundreds of videos of souped up trucks spewing smoke into the air on YouTube. To those rolling coal, it’s extra cool to eject “Prius repellent” on unsuspecting hybrid drivers, bicyclists, or pedestrians. Other videos bait “hot babes” into a conversation only to eject sooty pollution into their face. An entire online sub-culture exists where people upload pictures of their trucks with messages written on them like, “you can keep your fuel milage, I’ll keep my manhood!” Grace Wyler, who defends the practice says that coal rollers’, “motivations aren’t complicated: It looks cool, and it’s funny to roll coal on babes.”

To an environmental sociologist, rolling coal isn’t all that new or surprising….

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Southerners Just Don’t Know How to Handle Snow!

On the Walking Dead zombies brought the apocalypse to Atlanta. Last week, a measly two inches of snow seemed to bring Atlanta to the verge of total collapse. In this post, Midwestern-native Stephanie Medley-Rath explains what snow and ice in Atlanta, GA can teach us about culture shock, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism.

Buses stuck in the ice in East Atlanta

I promise that I did not intend for snow to be a recurring theme in my posts this winter (see here and here). But then the snow kept falling and falling in regions that typically do not get much snow, such as Atlanta, GA.

I lived in Atlanta for six years while attending graduate school. During my first winter living there, I learned how ill-prepared the city and many residents were to handle any snow or ice. In my apartment complex, maintenance attempted to clear the parking lot with a piece of plywood attached to the front of a golf cart. My Midwestern reaction was to send an email to my friends describing the snow removal technique. “Of course, you should use proper snow removal equipment!” I thought. I was experiencing culture shock. I was surprised by how the people of Atlanta dealt with snow. It was very different from my own experiences growing up in Illinois.

A couple of years later, there was more ice. I was still an apartment dweller without a garage, but I did have an ice scraper to clean my car windows. I watched as my neighbor resorted to boiling water to pour on his truck windows to remove the ice. I offered my ice scraper, but he didn’t want it. His method worked, despite taking longer and the greater risk of injury compared to my humble ice scraper. While his ice removal method worked, it is certainly was not what I, the experienced-with-snow- Midwesterner recommended. At this point, I had grown accustomed to how Atlanta residents dealt with snow and ice, but still remained perplexed at the refusal of my ice scraper….

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Contaminated Tap Water & Technology We Take For Granted

When 300,000 people are forced to go without running water for 5 days, the word catastrophe doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Most Americans take clean running water for granted and assume it will always be there.
In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to consider our relationship with the technology around us and what happens when it goes away.

Imagine if you couldn’t take a shower for four days in a row, you couldn’t turn on your faucet to brush your teeth or wash your hands, and you couldn’t drink anything except bottled water. What would you do? Tragically, the residents of Charleston, West Virginia don’t have to imagine this scenario, because they are living in it.

Last Thursday a tap water ban was put into place for nearly 300,000 people after the chemical processing company Freedom Industries alerted officials that up to 5,000 gallons of MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol had leaked out of a container and into the local river. As the New York Times reported MCHM, “can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing from prolonged exposures at high concentrations, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.” Nearly 5 days later, the authorities announced that fresh clean tap water would be coming back slowly.

This crisis brings up so many questions. We could talk about how social institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency are supposed to protect us from situations like this. We could also talk about how human made natural disasters can shred the connections within a community. However, I’d like to talk with you about something more basic: technological somnambulism.

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“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas…”

Does it snow where you live on Christmas? The likelihood of a white Christmas is not high, yet the pull of a white Christmas remains strong in our culture. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how we lump and split weather with the seasons. 

During mid-November it snowed. A couple of days later, we were taking shelter from tornado threats (for some in Central Illinois, the threats were real). Two days ago, it was 63 degrees and today there is a skiff of snow and ice on the ground. In Illinois, we occasionally experience more than one season in the same week and sometimes in the same day (thanks to the 40 degree drop in temperature from time to time).

Wait a minute. Go read that last paragraph. Do you see it? I said that “we occasionally experience more than one season in the same week.” How can that be? What I really mean to say is that we experience weather more commonly associated with other seasons out-of-season.

But why? Why do we associate certain weather patterns with certain seasons?

We tend to associate certain weather patterns with certain seasons even when our own weather pattern deviates from the dominant narrative. We lump together cold and snowy days as winter days. Hot days are lumped together as summer days. So for those living in warmer climates, everyday is summer. When I lived in Atlanta, I used to describe the weather as “summer and later that summer when it got cold one day” because once the temperature reached 90 degrees, it stayed there until October. To my Midwestern mind, it can not really be winter until it drops to at least 40 degrees and ideally snows. And when the temperature conflicts with our expecations, we simply split it off as exceptional….

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What You Talking ‘Bout Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is a growing concern around the world. Issues like global climate change and the loss of biodiversity have grabbed our attention and brought the topic of sustainability into an international discussion. In this post Nathan Palmer takes a hard look at how we are thinking about sustainability and asks us to think about what we hope to sustain in the sustainable future we envision.

Sustainability is a big buzz word right now. Seems everyone, especially on college campuses, is concerned about becoming sustainable. Before we go any further let me say, as an environmental sociologist I think it’s a good thing that we are concerned about the impact human actions are having on the planet. But with that said, let me ask you a question. What is the goal of sustainability? That is, what are we hoping to sustain indefinitely?

Do you mean that we want to sustain every living thing from single cell organisms to mammals? If this is the case, then we may need to reduce our human population a little. I mean, to support the 7 billion humans currently in our population we have to destroy ecosystems and species of animals almost everyday. So, if you’re for sustainability, then you wouldn’t mind a government policy limiting how many children you can have, right? If you’re like most people, you find the idea of limiting human reproduction horrible[1] and oppressive. But what this little thought experiment shows us is, when we say sustainability what we mean is human sustainability. The great fear of sustainability is that human actions will change the ecosystems we depend on so greatly (either through pollution, consumption of natural resources, global climate change, etc.) that we will not be able to survive. Or simply put, sustainability is a movement to prevent humans from committing ecological suicide.

Anthropocentrism, Sustainability, and Nature

So what? What does it matter if humans are concerned with human sustainability? I mean that does seem completely rational, right? I think the answer to this question can be found in a quote often credited to Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”[2]

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Why I’m Okay with Being Eaten by a Bear

Ever read a news story about a killer bear or a “man eating” shark? They almost always end with an announcement that the bear/shark was found and killed by authorities. In this post Nathan Palmer says that if he’s eaten by a bear he’d like you to let it live and then he uses the theory of the treadmill of production to illustrate how all of us are in a constant flow with nature.

If a bear is eating me, please don’t kill it. I mean if it’s got my hand in its mouth, shoot that sucker dead, but if it’s eating my throat or brains, just let it finish. While this might sound bizarre/horrific to you, it only seems fair to me. In my years as a meat eater I’ve left a trail of dead animals so massive it would have astounded my ancestors. So with that in mind, turn about seems like fair play. Also, the idea of turning into bear poop sounds awesome to me. So… are you confused, grossed out, or disturbed yet? Give me a second to tell you about the environmental sociology theory called the Treadmill of Production and I think it will all make sense.

Withdrawals, Additions, and Humans

The Treadmill of Production theory was coined by Allan Schnaiberg in the book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. The idea at the base of the theory is humans are dependent upon a constant flow of energy from nature and that each of us is in a constant state of interaction with the world around us. We are constantly taking in the natural world through food, water, air, etc. and likewise constantly releasing it back into the ecosystem (e.g. via feces, urine, exhaled breath, etc.). In this process humans create withdrawals, which are the extractions of raw materials from nature, and similarly create additions, which are the waste and by products created through the production of human consumed goods. Many additions like nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gasses create profound ecological disruptions.

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What *Does* a Fox Say?

What does a fox say? The silly, but catchy, song by Ylvis has become an international hit and YouTube sensation. While the song seems more interested in mocking the insincere emotions in electronic pop music, it does actually ask an interesting sociological question. What does the fox say? In this article Nathan Palmer will answer this question and ask you to think about how we socially construct the natural environment.

  • Dog goes “woof”
    Cat goes “meow”
    Bird goes “tweet”
    And mouse goes “squeak”
    Cow goes “moo”
    Frog goes “croak”
    And the elephant goes “toot”
    Ducks say “quack”
    And fish go “blub”
    And the seal goes “ow ow ow”
    Still there’s one sound that no one knows,
    What does the fox say?

My daughter and I sing this song as loud as we can as we drive home from school everyday. And while this song might seem completely non-sociological, it actually shows us how the natural environment and how we conceptualize it, is socially constructed. For instance, did you know that in Czech a dogs say “haf haf” (Capek 2008)? What’s going on here? Well, to answer that question, first we have to discuss why the natural environment is a social construction.

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