Alternative to environmental injustices given at Philosophy Colloquium

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SCSU Assistant Philosophy Professor Sarah Conrad presented her findings for a Philosophy Colloquium Friday afternoon.

The presentation was a part of a faculty colloquium within the department. Conrad’s presentation, “Toward an Embodied Sense of Environmental Justice: Addressing the Affective Dimensions of Environmental Harm.” Presenting to an audience of about 15 poeple, Conrad began with the abstract of her research just after 3 p.m. in Centennial Hall.

“I argue that environmental justice efforts need a method that considers the emotional and relational aspects of environmental harm,” Conrad said. “I assert that while many of the efforts to combat environmental injustices are extremely valuable, they are missing a restorative component which would bring about a more robust sense of injustice.”

Environmental Justice intersects with other areas of study that Conrad takes interest in, including applied ethics, social & political theory, feminist theories, critical race studies and religion, she said in an email. Conrad has done most of her environmental justice research on e-waste, or recycling electronics, which deals with  waste management and what can be done about the hazardous materials with electronics.

“I think that corporate pollution is a serious issue that impacts the physical, mental, cultural, and even spiritual health of humans and non-humans,” she said in an interview.

Environmental Justice studies brings people from multiple disciplines—like the sciences and humanities—to look at environmental issues, she said. Part of her research was looking at the crossroads of social and environmental justice, she said.

“You can’t look at one without looking at the other,” she said. Conrad said that many environmental movements had focuses on issues of race, gender and socioeconomic class too.

After finishing reading through the abstract, Conrad singled out a few definitions, then moved into her presentation.

“For me, or anybody that studies environmental justice, environment is anywhere we eat, sleep or play,” she said. The environment can be thought of as off to the sidelines for some, and it’s not necessarily a “natural or wild,” she said. “If we only see the environment as something separated of us, then we don’t care about where we’re at.”

“I think to have a full sense of justice, you need to have an official process to address past injustices and future justices.” The “official process” is a part of three overall conditions for environmental justice, including taking away environmental burdens while having equal distribution of environmental benefits, and opportunities of full participation for those involved, she said.

Moving along, Conrad narrowed her focus to four main areas of dealing environmental injustices, and followed with her solution.

The first method that she explained was Grassroots Activism. Grassroots movements and campaigns, which are most notable for work against corporate polluters, are mostly people coming together to protest an environmental injustice, she said.

Conrad continued by describing how waste is, and has been, disposed of in other countries on people of color and the poor.

“Most environmental justice people are moms who just want their kids to be healthy,” she said. “That is what motived them to gather together to fight this.”

In regards to grassroots demands, she said that “their most common demands include the right to a clean and safe environment, access to accurate information, full participation in decision-making processes, viable alternatives for housing and employment that are non-toxic.”

She said that grassroots efforts are most successful on a local level, and on a single effort. And while they are successful in these regards, she said they also use the law and legal system to “punish wrong-doings.”

Conrad then moved onto the legal approach. Differing from grassroots movements, some take to the legal front to work against injustices. Using the legal system as an approach has been effective, since it’s seen as credible and objective, she said.

Although there have been set backs to this approach, because in order to hold a polluter accountable in the courtroom, she said it has to be proven that they “meant to pollute.”

“Companies probably didn’t mean to pollute,” she said. “You cannot prosecute unintentional harm.”

Next up was the medical and scientific research front, which covers interactions with pollutants and toxins, and their effects on people and the environment. Though medical and scientific research is also seen as concrete, she said that though this research can benefit both grassroots movements and in the courtroom, it does have its limitations.

“The common measure for risk to pollution is a white male that’s 150 pounds,” Conrad said. There are special situations where this measurement is tailored, including children or people with compromised immune systems, she said. Conrad said that context, too, need to be taken into account.

Another limitation is the “idea of acceptable risk,” she said.

“What many environmental justice groups have found, when scientists come out, they have tested that there are toxins that are hurting the people,” she continued. “But, the environment is not toxic enough, and they can’t do anything,” because of this means of measurement.

She went onto touch on the fourth approach, “Theoretical Perspectives,” that primarily deals with distributive justice, which addresses the distribution of environmental benefits, like clean air and water.

“[Distributive theories] tries to give a general picture of where we leave behind our context, to figure out how to move forward,” she said. Although these theories are positive, she said by not having that context is a limitation.

Conrad then moved onto explaining her solution, “Restorative Justice.” Restoration justice has come from indigenous traditions, religious traditions and postmodern practices, she said. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa is an example of Restorative Justice on a large scale, she said.

The practice generally aims at righting a wrong through rehabilitation, while avoiding punishment by offering a chance for moral development instead. Various places around the world including Australia, Japan, South Africa, and though less popular, the U.S. has adopted this system.

The idea is to bring the people involved together—the person who was harmed and who did the harm, and their support groups. And then, with the help of a professional mediator, each individual tells their side of the story “in their own way,” with hopes of finding a resolution and a plan for reparation in some form, she said.

After going through the process, people are able to find comfort in the situation, she said. When the theory has been done with people convicted of crimes, people saw positive change after completing the process, she said.

The main limitation for Restorative Justice, specifically in South Africa after Apartheid, was that the person who did the harm was finding an alternative to the legal system, Conrad said.

She said that Restorative Justice could help the four approaches above and environmental justice, because it doesn’t require the solid evidence as needed in law, or the “proof” needed in science, she said.

“I think that Restorative Justice offers an alternative,” she continued. “Because you can still have an encounter where the polluters have to listen to the stories, see what the harm they have done to others—even if it’s not enough harm—that there was harm done, and they can work together to find some sort of reparation, so those that were harmed feel better.”

She said that she thinks it would help solve some of the difficulty that comes along with environmental injustices, since it gives people the opportunity to talk from their prospective by addressing the emotions and concerns, and what they see on a day to day basis.

“That seems to be what people need to move on,” she said. Thinking about environmental justice issues is a moral sense, she said that “something more is needed than monetary reparations and civil legal action.”