Parsing Justice: Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift

Image by MIT Press

In the course of batting around with a colleague the possibility of doing a paper about a biblical approach to environmental justice, I picked up Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice and, candidly, was disappointed. For those who are not familiar with the environmental justice movement, as I wasn’t until recently, it is an attempt to correct what are seen as deficiencies in earlier environmental activism. It does this by recognizing the overlap between environmental and social justice problems, especially the disproportionate environmental burden born by those who are socially and economically marginalized and the same peoples’ lack of voice in crafting environmental policy. Though the movement has been around for decades, and gained steam in the nineties, recently historians (like Ted Steinberg and Thomas G. Andrews), sociologists (like Harrison), and activists have begun to stress more and more that when environmental disasters “strike,” they affect the poor and racial minorities more acutely than anyone else. It is a trenchant critique of the system, one that demands the attention of any and all concerned either with environmental ethics or with social equity. I certainly do not want to imply by my critique of Harrison that there is some flaw in the environmental justice perspective. My problem with Pesticide Drift is more academic and less foundational.

Harrison’s book is not, first and foremost, an apology for environmental justice, though she does more than her fair share of preaching. Instead, she turns her critical eye on the movement’s own perception of its place in the greater environmental discussion to point out an error in thinking among environmental justice advocates.

My aim in this book is to both uphold and amend this EJ argument. This book pivots around…a case that illustrates in sharp, present detail how the workings of “raw power” shift the burden of pesticide pollution to the bodies of California’s most marginalized and vulnerable residents. That said, I also challenge the claim that environmental inequalities exist because mainstream (i.e., non-EJ) environmental politics are devoid of justice. I contend instead that environmental inequalities emerge from the cruelty and malfeasance, but also from the ways in which many well-intentioned actors are engaging in efforts to make California agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

Or, in other words, the road to the toxic contamination of Hispanic communities is paved with good intentions. It strikes me as something of an obvious point, but one that undoubtedly still needed to be made considering how haughty activists can be in the presentation of their causes as just and their methods as the lone means of achieving that justice. So, with the aim of exploring how alternate theories of justice have unintentionally collaborated with pesticides to create an environmental and social disaster, Harrison gives an overview of the pesticide drift problem in southern California and the many fateful ways that individuals, industry, and the regulatory bodies of the state have failed to prevent it.

Except that Harrison never actually proves her central claim, that there are other theories of justice operating in the various responses to environmental issues. That is not, of course, to say that she is wrong. Her proposition, having been stated, is so self-evident that it undoubtedly will stand without a proper defense. Her book, however, lacks a raison d’être without it. Harrison proposes the existence of two alternate theories of justice: the libertarian and communitarian. The former sees justice as primarily concerned with upholding personal property rights. The latter holds the community is best positioned to locate and enact justice. It is a simple taxonomy, so simple that it elucidates nothing for the reader. It would be just as convincing to say that a libertarian sense of freedom is centered on private property, or a libertarian conception of personal well-being. Or you could leave out “justice” altogether and say that libertarians focus on private property. Communitarians focus on the community. It says nothing about “justice” to collapse an entire worldview into it: Christian justice is cristocentric, utilitarian justice stresses utility. Harrison had the opportunity to explore the notions of justice–the ideas, the impulses, the cultural drivers–that inspire these alternate responses to environmental issues, but she declined to pursue any deeper than the most superficial definition of what “justice” might mean outsider her own movement.

Instead, she spends the majority of her time taking libertarianism and communitarianism to task more generally. (After all, not having defined their visions of justice with any rigor, it would be hard to do otherwise.) Libertarians have a false hope in the power of the person working in concert with the market. Individuals, while laudable in their efforts to farm sustainably, inevitably lack the ability to affect such a systemic issue as pesticide drift and struggle with the economic disincentive to do so. Industry, less laudable (why is not clear) has an even more powerful economic disincentive to create sustainable farming techniques, not when the pesticide industry is a multi-billion dollar quasi-monopoly for a handful of companies. Politicians, incentivized by industry, are content to shirk off their responsibility in exchange for campaign contributions. Communitarians are similarly naive in their assumption that a community can correct a structural issue in society and achieve social justice. Even agrifood advocates, the rank and file of the sustainable agriculture activists reading Michael Pollan and shopping at Whole Foods, reflect the kind of wealthy middle class assumptions about choice that cannot function for the impoverished communities that bear the brunt of environmental injustice. The problem with both mindsets is that problems of the size and scale of pesticide drift “require substantial government intervention” (189).*

Harrison is more than willing to set out detailed proposals for how to enact the environmental justice vision of justice on a national level, and for those who are interested only in exploring environmental justice policy, I can with all sincerity recommend (at least the last chapter of) Pesticide Drift. But for anyone expecting to have presented a compelling new intellectual framework for considering the way justice operates in environmental politics, Harrison proves an unforgivable tease. The book which will explore justice as an environmental concept in pre-EJ environmentalists, in industry, or in alternate political philosophies cries out to be written. Perhaps, if time and good fortune permit, we may yet make a contribution to that discussion by considering the implications a biblical approach to justice might have for environmental justice. In the meantime, Harrison has promised to fill a void and only stepped in to show us how empty it still is.

*(It is here that the regular reader will expect me to launch into a tirade about the gross inadequacy of the state to achieve anything of lasting good. I did just that in my personal conversations with my colleague who, like Harrison, seems to believe that after fifty years of intensive federal environmental legislation, the reason we are not seeing the kind of improvements we want is because we are simply not surrendering enough power to the state. I won’t distract myself with that nonsense here.)

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