Race, Place, Dengue, and Mosquitoes: Situating Environmental Health and Justice

A close friend of mine is a sociology major, and while doing the readings this week I mentioned the subject matter to them; how race plays into where people live, and thus the environments they are exposed to, how gathering data in the field can be affected by whose collecting it, etc. As we were talking, I was once again reminded about the broad boundaries of environmental studies, as most of the topic we were discussing fell more into their area of interest than mine, as I tend to hone in on plants. Nevertheless, this area fascinates me, as the intersection between the social and scientific tends to.      

While reading Nading’s Dengue in the Landscape, I was struck with the complexities of disease management that I had not considered. The paper goes over the notion of assigning blame to any given person as a vector for disease, and how many efforts to track dengue focuses on the personal action of citizens, and not of broader problems like infrastructure left in the hands of the government. It reminded me of a problem I have with current mainstream environmental activism. Often a narrative is pushed saying that if all of us came together and biked to work and used fewer plastics and ate less meat the planet would be saved. This is problematic because it shifts the responsibility of environmental protection to the individual acts of the consumer; a blatant distraction from the auto industry actively trying to suppress affordable access to public transport or the irresponsible decisions of factory farms or the very fact that people own private jets. 

Which brings me to another point about mainstream environmentalism; the ability to follow all the prescribed steps for “helping the environment” is inherently a privilege. Biking or using public transport to work implies that you live close enough to your work to do so, likely in a high-rent neighborhood in an urban area where other people also bike to work. Using less plastic means having the money to go to a farmers market or Whole Foods and putting your wholesale brown rice in your own reusable burlap sack. Eating less meat assumes that you don’t just live off of fast food, since its cheap and filling and readily available in the food desert you live in and doesn’t require you to cook after coming home from you two minimum wage jobs. People who aren’t upper-middle or upper class have little access for participating in environmental change under capitalism because they have to make sure they’re alive first. Worst of all is that these people are also the ones most affected by environmental issues. Water, air, and noise pollution all make neighborhoods less desirable, driving rent down, meaning that these places are inhabited by poor communities. Putting aside the fact that our country doesn’t have socialized healthcare for a moment; there is a reason why people in poor neighborhoods have shorter lives and more health issues. Their homes are literally killing them. 

And that’s why environmental justice is so important; because specific groups of people based on race and income are being targeted as exploitable populations, as they often don’t have the resources to go up against oil companies. Environmentalism is for everyone, and it effects some more than others. We can’t ignore it. 

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