Within the skeptical community there are many who are comfortable with focusing on a narrow set of issues which can be examined using empirical methods, while also promoting scientific literacy. And the issues typically focused upon are important like debunking pseudoscience, exposing con artists and psychics (sort of redundant, I know), and critically examining all sorts paranormal claims. But just as skeptics like Jamila Bey have proposed we need to consider tackling other issues with our skeptical toolbox.
So before we do that we have to first get a working definition of what skepticism is. So borrowing from a prominent skeptic, DJ Grothe, skepticism is not simply about “rejecting others false beliefs” but it’s also a “method of finding out the truth by using reason and looking at evidence — should be widely applied, and not just be restricted to a limited set of spooky claims.” So, how could one disagree that our movement could benefit from applying our skeptical tools to issues of social justice? Well, Grothe and many other atheists do just that. One of the reasons cited is that skeptics don’t all share the same beliefs but as skeptics shouldn’t we be interested in uncovering truth wherever we can. By exploring and uncovering that truth we could not only encourage others to join our ranks but also make a real difference in many people’s lives. Just as people’s lives can be improved when we expose con artists who prey on their beliefs and bank account we can make a similar impact on issues of sociopolitical concern. One of those areas is environmental justice.
What is environmental justice?
Environmental justice is a field that concerns not just how environmental policy impacts the environment but how those policies also impact people based on race, gender, class, etc. It also focuses on how to involve communities in policy decisions and to protect them from unfair treatment and discrimination in the future.
Why does it matter?
- Post World War 2 nuclear proliferation in the American southwest has had a significant impact on health and way of life for Native Americans. A really good documentary on the subject is Return of the Navajo Boy:
- Dickson County, TN- Trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, was linked to cancer, neurological illnesses, and developmental disorders after leaking into groundwater and contaminating drinking water. A settlement was reached in December 2011.
- Being a member of a racial minority group, living in an urban area, and low-income status puts you at risk for higher blood lead levels.
An additional example from Wisconsin :
- In 2007, The United Church of Christ conducted a study and found that of the “nine million people (9,222,000) are estimated to live in circular host neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of the nation’s 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities… 5.1 million [are racial minorities]” (Bullard et al. 2007)
And there are countless other examples.
What makes this a good platform?
What makes this a good starting point for me is the fact that science is one of the principal things one has to consider when discussing environmental justice, and that as we all know is a major strength in the secular community. We get to discuss global warming, health, technology, and all the things we typically love. Being able to determine what is known about a particular environmental issue or process, what risk it poses, and figuring out how to communicate that to a wide audience would allow us to capitalize on the tools and skills we acquire as skeptics. But communicating them to a wider audience is where becoming involved in environmental justice issues would help us the most. When communicating information to different groups it forces you to make some considerations, such as level of education or say the history of a particular community. Learning about a community and communicating effectively requires developing compassion. And compassion doesn’t necessarily mean buying into their beliefs or feelings, just like understanding why someone might be fooled into believing that someone can communicate with their dead loved one doesn’t make you buy into the concept of psychics and séances. It just helps us to know when to be more or less outspoken in critiquing their beliefs.
Talking about environmental justice will force us to have discussions about issues of class, race, gender, etc that we sorely need. It will force us to address our concepts of race beyond the fact that it is unscientific. It will force us to discuss the concept of privilege and how blindness, whether color, gender, ability, or what have you often increases the likelihood that groups will be discriminated against. We can even discuss how these issues play out in the developing world.
It also gives our community another way to effect change that may be even more headline grabbing and would frankly be more interesting to many of the communities effected by this. Not many people in the US, for instance know or care about what homeopathy is, but they know what a coal burning plant is, even if they don’t know what impact living in close proximity to one may have on their health.
Think about it, tackling this issue will make us so much more well rounded than we currently are as a community. I mean if we use our skepticism to help ourselves and others, that makes it a humanistic endeavor. And if it’s a humanistic endeavor then we don’t have to constrict our platform so narrowly. I think environmental justice is the most logical direction for our community to head in.
There are some aspects of field of environmental justice that are not so attractive to me as a skeptic, like the notion that the environment is sacred. It might seem like nitpicking to some people but I think there is an important difference between saying something is important and saying something is sacred. Saying something is sacred generally walls off a topic from being fully explored or critiqued because its associated with some sort of divine power or authority. And that to me is an area where we can help the environmental justice movement by helping some within it rely less on spiritual/ divine arguments and focus more on science, ethics, health, sustainability, and risk assessment.
What do you think?
- If you can use art to promote environmental justice you can use skepticism-2 Utah groups receive environmental justice grants