Understanding Place reflection #2

Many of our discussions and experiences this week revolved around justice and action. Use a concrete example to explain how a better understanding of place can enhance social and environmental justice.

Provide your reflections as a comment to this post, and remember that your comments are public.


  1. Jennifer Damian says:

    For the Arctic region, the definition of place is incredibly complex and uncertain. No one owns the Arctic, but there are still approximately 400,000 indigenous peoples living there. Because of the oil potential in the region, many countries have economic interests to claim land. One of the biggest players I have researched on is Russia. On August 2, 2007, Russian expediters planted a flag on the Arctic floor with praise from Vladimir Putin. According to them, it was not a land grab but rather a mark to show a geological extension between that location and its own territory on the Arctic. Regardless, this move has no legal claim. It is difficult to deal with international interest in the Arctic region especially because there is no governing force that has authority over the players. How do we deal with these issues regarding territory, oil, force, expeditions, and shipping routes? Who is held responsible if there were to be a large oil spill especially considering the difficulty implementing spill clean-ups in the challenging and unpredictable conditions in the Arctic? The indigenous peoples’ food security, health, and infrastructure are at risk. Although they have representation in the Arctic Council, this does not guarantee their rights are respected. I believe that if there was one international authority group that was respected by current Arctic players and potential players, this unit could be strengthened and could implement policies that place restrictions on projects in the region. This group could set the boundaries for “place” and different aspects of place that can then make boundaries clear and ease tensions. With clearer definitions of place, indigenous peoples can then make pointed accusations for whenever they see restrictions being ignored or broken. A good question to ask is what does place mean for indigenous peoples? With a clearer image of how they want their home to be treated, indigenous peoples will maintain communication and learning amongst each other. Having an understanding of the political aspect of place can mean that indigenous peoples have their rights respected and can make sure that they are not subject to unjust increased rates of climate change due to oil extractions in their regions.

  2. Hernán Gallo says:

    Understanding our place and its relationship to the place of others can provide a way for us to increase social and environmental justice. For example, many people are unaware that there are migrant farmworkers in Vermont. Even lifelong residents of Vermont are unaware that the milk they consume is milked by migrant workers. They are often times made invisible, so many do not realize that there are injustices happening. I personally did not know there were Mexican migrant workers in the state of Vermont until I did some research on Vermont before coming to the School of the Environment.Had I not chosen to come to Vermont for this program, I could have possibly remained unaware about migrant dairy farm workers in this region. Having Migrant Justice visit our class allowed us to learn about the environmental and social injustice dairy farm workers in Vermont face daily. It is difficult to be aware of all the injustices in the world, but ultimately we are a global network of people. We must not let our place restrain others from obtaining justice. In order to combat social and environmental injustices, we must be aware of our personal privileges and disadvantages and their relationship to our place in the world. We can only begin to address social and environmental injustices if we understand our place and how it contributes to these injustices.

  3. Molly O'Neil says:

    The history and physicality of a place typically foster strong connections to local economics and demographics. For reasons tied to resource availability and labor demand, certain places can all too easily become associated with issues of social and environmental justice. Over the past several years, I have watched a place I love be controversially consumed by the booming fracking industry. Montrose, Pennsylvania is the town nearest to my family’s summer lake house. It has a history of going through phases such as the one that it is in right now. Time and time again, laborers flocked to the town to work in booming industries such as logging and mining. Although these events repeatedly provided beneficial economic growth, they tended to leave the town depressed in the long term due to resource exploitation and limited to nonexistent workers’ rights.

    After a quiet and depressed period during the beginning of the century, the fracking industry swooped in to push history to repeat itself. This time, economic success came in the form of jobs and generous royalties to those who were willing to lease out their previously devalued land. However, the process is inherently exploitative. Jobs tended to be more temporary then originally thought, housing was unreliable, land was quickly being degraded, and chemical ridden wastewater was being dumped in unsafe locations. This further perpetuated the already prevalent issue of health disparities in the region. It is easy to see why the industry is not sustainable in the area.

    More importantly, this example shows just how complex the relationship between place and social and environmental justice is. Montrose is just one of countless towns that is exploited for its natural resource availability. These towns are identified because of their history and the geologic events that brought natural capital to the place. By understanding how these places come about, both on a geologic scale and a societal scale, it becomes much easier to identify problems of environmental justice that may be plaguing other areas like it. For example, resource rich areas can typically be related to job insecurity and consequentially, poverty. By identifying these problems before they are permitted to propagate, environmental and social justice movements can more effectively be carried out. Overall, understanding the concept of place is inherently complex but also directly relates to potential societal ills. By understanding the natural and social history of a place, it is possible to piece together the complex puzzle of environmental justice and help those who may be disadvantaged by no fault of their own.

  4. Darrell Davis says:

    Bolivia was a nation that was in the throes of them capitalist neoliberal system, under the economic dominion of the World Bank and the IMF. The DEA was also heavily involved in Bolivian affairs. The place in this paragraph is Bolivia: its land, its people, and its system. The policies of the U.S. were based on oppression and exploitation, which left Bolivia dependent, debt ridden, and impoverished. One concrete example of a misunderstanding of place was the above mentioned DEA, and it’s coca leaf policy in Bolivia. Coca leaves are a very important plant to the Bolivian way of life, farmers would eat it for a boost of energy, and regular Bolivians use it to make tea, and other things. Coca is also an ingredient in Cocaine, and the DEA pin pointed coca farmers for the halting of cocaine exports. It was common for the DEA to burn tons of acres of coca leaves, basically ruining rural farmers livelihoods, and driving them more into poverty. The vast majority of coca farmers were not involved in the production of cocaine, but the DEA burned and contaminated tons of acres of prefectly arable farm land anyway. Upon coming to power, Evo Morales kicked the DEA out of Bolivia. He also engaged in a policy of reforestation and other measures to heal the damage done by the DEA. Morales grew up around coca and was a union organizer and social activist in Cochabamba, his understanding of place put a led to policies that ended coca farm burnings, water privatizations, and indigenous marginalization. His understanding of place is enhancing social and environmental justice and transforming Bolivia.

  5. Ali Surdoval says:

    The same place can be understood in different ways by different groups of people, and social and environmental problems have the potential to arise when there is no genuine effort to see from another group’s viewpoint. Disagreements over how to engage with Devils Tower in Wyoming provides a clear example: Lakota people of the region know Devils Tower to be a sacred place, and avid climbers know Devils Tower to be a wonderful climbing feat. When climbing became popular at the site, Lakota people understood climbers’ interaction with the place as disrespectful, so they asked the National Park Service to disallow climbers (especially in the month of June when most sacred ceremonies took place there). Climbers were, unsurprisingly, outraged. From their perspective, they were respecting the place because they cared for it immensely and they felt closest with it when they were climbing. They could not understand why the Lakota people saw their actions as disrespectful, and the Lakota people could not understand how hammering holds into a structure and climbing it could be a sign of love and respect. The issue became one of social and environmental justice– who has the “right” to decide how to use the land correctly (and will that decision be made fairly)? To expose these injustices, imagine that a group of people decides that the newest climbing fad is climbing churches. It starts small, but not before long St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC becomes the destination spot for about 5,000 climbers a year– 1% of the total visitors to the Cathedral show up in climbing gear and stick holds wherever they like, explaining that they feel closest to God when they are climbing His home. Even more, most of the climbers take on the tough route of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the month of December, during the Advent and Christmas season. Why is it ok to climb Devils Tower and not St. Patrick’s Cathedral? It has to do with the varying understandings of place (who owns the land, who has the ability to access the land, what the land means to various peoples). In order to achieve true social and environmental justice, it is necessary that we prioritize understanding place from many perspectives rather than seeing one’s own viewpoint as wholly “right”. If both groups cared enough to learn the other’s understanding of the place, they could feel empathy and compassion for each other and the issue could be resolved pleasantly together.

  6. Sage Taber says:

    Unlike our European counterparts, the United States is faced with the issue of spent nuclear fuel storage. In 1982, US Congress established the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which outlined the DOE responsibilities for locating a viable geologic repository (long-term spent nuclear fuel underground storage site). Yucca Mountain in Nevada was one of nine sites considered in the late 70s to 80s, and was chosen in 1987. However, opposition led to many legislative delays and the eventual shutdown of Yucca Mountain in 2011. Subsequent studies on the viability of Yucca Mountain sparked national concern for its potential social and environmental impacts.

    Nevadans’ opposition stemmed from feelings of injustice – why should nuclear waste be stored in a state without a nuclear power plant? Concerns included a range of issues: transportation of the radioactive waste, individual exposure to radiation, long-term capability of the spent fuel casks and instability of the rock over geologic time. Not to mention the encroachment of land rights initially given to the Western Shoshone Nation under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). What is an understanding of place if not understanding the people that inhabit it? The Nevadans and the Western Shoshone Nation strengthened the opposition culture around the Yucca Mountain Project. Nevada is home to over two million people, who through political means were able to exercise their voices to protect their sense of “place.” Obama’s recognition of the impacts of Yucca Mountain accounted for the people of the place. Although he ultimately shut it down for political reasons, the saved social costs to Nevadans cannot be denied.

  7. Hannah Root says:

    Talking with Migrant Justice last week was eye opening. This group is working to make the hardships and unfair treatment of Migrant Laborers in the dairy industry in Vermont visible. Inherent in their mission is the promotion of a better understanding of place. Consumers of Vermont dairy and even neighbors of Vermont dairy farms do not understand the experience that migrant workers have in the very place that they interact with on a daily basis. Vermont dairy farms are often idealized as pastoral family farms with rolling green fields and happy cows. The reality for migrant workers is often thirteen-hour days, prejudiced bosses, and extreme isolation. Dairy farmers are pressured by the milk industry to hire cheap labor, which is why migrant workers have become prevalent in Vermont dairies. Vermont differs from California, for example, because it is rural and overwhelmingly white. In California, migrant workers can form communities where they share in their culture and support each other. Here in Vermont, there might not be another dairy farm for ten miles, and no way to visit or even communicate. Looking at the Vermont landscape through that lens makes it seem quite unwelcoming and isolating. In response, Migrant Justice connects migrant workers with volunteers who drive them to meetings and to the grocery store. The Migrant Justice community has become the support system for migrant workers, not only bringing migrant workers from all over the state together, but also promoting campaigns for better wages and living situations. Their first biggest challenge, beyond getting legislature passed, is to weave the story of migrant workers into the understanding of Vermont as a place.

    I have had the fortune of talking with Migrant Justice several times, which has prompted me to do exactly that. It has been an important process for me, learning to look underneath the generalizations and idealizations of a place that I love. It is easy to see green pastures and idyllic dairy farms and think about how nice it is to have the dairy industry in Vermont. But the realization that my happy experience of the Vermont landscape is not the only one is important. This realization is often the first step in finding injustice. I have realized that identifying injustices in the state doesn’t mean that I can’t continue to love Vermont, but it does mean that I have a responsibility to promote social justice rooted in a more complete understanding of place.

  8. Laura Berry says:

    Our class readings and discussions this week have made it clear that having a “better understanding of place” involves considering both the past history and present societal dynamics of that location. Even for those people who have lived in one place for a long time and believe that they have a good understanding of their place, issues of social and environmental justice often go unnoticed or ignored when they only affect certain populations. For example, many people in Vermont, including students at Middlebury, are unaware of how many migrant workers support the dairy industry, a significant part of the Vermont identity. According to Migrant Justice’s website, there are approximately 1500 migrant workers from Latin America that allow Vermont to be a national leader in dairy production; however, only recently has the Vermont State Legislature passed laws ensuring that some basic rights of these workers are protected.
    From this and other examples of environmental injustice, I am coming to understand that “place” is made significant in large part because of the value ascribed to it by people, rather than any sort of inherent value of a location. The social institutions and groups of people that interact with a place determine its value, whether economically, culturally, or environmentally, and that value is not always distributed equally. At the moment, migrant workers in Vermont are not deemed valuable, despite their integral contribution to the state’s economy and its cultural identity. If Vermonters, and anyone who eats or drinks dairy products from Vermont, were more aware and appreciative of the social components that contribute to the state’s cultural identity and their ability to consume those products, they may value migrant workers more than they do today. It follows then that a true understanding of place inherently considers and enhances social and environmental justice – to truly know a place means knowing its people, and reflecting that knowing through valuing their contributions to that place.

  9. Benjamin Harris says:

    In the final hours of my three-month semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), I was seized with a sudden pang of guilt. Digging into my backpack, I removed the small fragment of petrified wood that, a few days prior, I had stumbled upon and secretly pocketed. But now, I hurled it far into the depths of the canyon for the next person to find. At the time, I based my decision on the principles of “Leave No Trace” (LNT), an ethic that NOLS had drilled into me, which in essence, encourages someone to minimize his/her own impact for the sake of both the ecosystem and the enjoyment of future visitors. If my choice to return the rock to its rightful resting place had enabled others to partake in an equal recreational experience, is LNT a kind of environmental justice? One rock cannot measurably improve its habitat’s economic value, yet I like to think that in restoring the artifact to its home, it enhanced the cultural and human value of that place. In the same way that a cairn is the communal product of many passersby, perhaps this rock—after I threw it back—became the building block for a community of fellow witnesses and admirers like me.

    In LNT’s gentle admonition to leave only the lightest of imprints (or ecological footprints), there are echoes of W.B. Yeats, who once said, “tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.” Reflecting back on the past few weeks, I realize, more than ever, that place serves as the receptacle of collective memory. It is humbling to know that you are neither the first nor the last to visit a place; just as many had picked up that piece of petrified wood before me, many would after. Rather than perceive place as a fixed “location” that stores economic capital, maybe a society that seeks justice should envision place as a figurative repository of social capital. Looking back on the “capstone” of my NOLS semester, I remember a book that I recently read, called Changes in the Land. Written by environmental historian William Cronon, the text describes how English settlers disenfranchised the natives of New England because the latter were nomadic. The colonial notion of “place” entailed the accumulation of capital—crops, livestock, and infrastructure—within bounded property. In contrast, the indigenous tribes, who moved continuously, defined “place” not by their quantitative, measurable additions to the land (they didn’t live anywhere long enough to drastically modify it), but by the quality of community that they created wherever they were. In many ways, Native American society in New England was more egalitarian than colonial culture, perhaps because natives viewed place as the locus of human history, of which they knew they were only a small part. To them, places were storehouses of past, present, and future human lives, and thus deserved to be preserved. On the other hand, colonists not only cultivated environmentally destructive monocultures, but also communally destructive monopolies, which came at the expense of marginalized neighbors.

    This “agrarian accumulation” (as the authors of the article we discussed called it) has reappeared today in California, where migrant workers are victim to corporate agribusiness that appraises place by its costly, nonhuman inputs: fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, etc. Likewise, in the documentary “The Garden,” wealthy landowner Ralph Horowitz dispossesses a Latino borough of their shared garden because he perceived place as a material storage site in the most literal sense, as he would go on to build warehouses where the plants once grew. To him, as to most aspiring entrepreneurs, the word “place” meant market value. Had he been altruistic, might he have “calculated” that the accumulated social and communal capital of the place—the multi-generational families that tended the garden, their labor of love—far outweighed the value of any economic capital that could fit inside the warehouses?

    “Value-added” refers to economics, but it’s time that it carried humanistic meaning too. Will we ever prioritize the people that enrich the place (through their culture and community), rather than the place that profits the person? For me, Migrant Justice’s “Milk with Dignity” campaign plants the seed of hope. It is emblematic of a value-added commodity whose extra worth come not from material inputs—such as artificial growth hormones—but from entirely human ones. As the organization maintains, a product label cannot encapsulate the word “dignity,” for the simple reason that a human life defies a price tag. Sure, I’ll have my Oreos with “Double the Stuf.” But I also want to buy milk with twice the humanity, and Fair Trade chocolate bars that show the real faces of their farmers.

  10. Caitlin Haedrich says:

    For me, one of the most inspiring parts of this week was our visit from Migrant Justice. Based in Vermont, Migrant Justice is an advocacy group for Vermont’s migrant farmworkers. They’re working to ensure that the Vermont migrant worker population have good working conditions, housing, transportation, healthcare and are not discriminated against. As someone who has lived in Vermont since the age of 6 and identifies as a knowledgeable Vermonter, I was actually quite taken aback that not only does Vermont have a significant migrant farmworker population (about 1500 according to Migrant Justice) but it also has issues with discrimination, access to healthcare and good working conditions (Migrant Justice reports 40% of migrant worker earn less than Vermont minimum wage). I feel a little ignorant now that I know my neighbors might be migrants struggling with these issues.
    Taking a step back, a deeper understanding of Vermont yields no surprise that there is a significant hidden migrant worker population. Dairy and farm products are one of Vermont largest exports and we do have several large corporations like Cabot and Ben and Jerry’s. Agriculture dominates the landscape and someone must work on them. Asking ourselves who works at these huge farms is a critical to understanding Vermont as a place and, when we do this, we discover a whole population that has been marginalized. Through organizations like Migrant Justice and Vermont citizens paying a little more attention to who their neighbors are, perhaps we can hear the voices of marginalized and make Vermont a fair and pleasant place to live for all.

  11. Timothy Harper says:

    An unfortunate reality (or possibly an injustice in and of itself) of our justice system is that in order to rectify environmental injustices, an understanding of place and the way a place has been degraded or misused, must be conveyed to jurors that have no connection to that place. Developing and creating new ways to allow people to connect on a visceral level to a degraded place will be crucial in advocating for the protection of those degraded places.
    I point to the water system injustice of Zanesville, Ohio as an example of this need, where the local water authority had been excluding people of color from access to water resources. The water authority had been brought to court several times to address the issue, with all the facts and figures and evidence to support the claims of injustice, and yet failed to correct the injustice. On a subsequent attempt, the same data was shown in a map, and this time the jurors ruled in favor of the plaintiff and the injustice was corrected. This is a simple example of this concept, however it elucidates the way in which the means an understanding of place is conveyed is incredibly important in achieving justice within our current system. All the evidence in the world could be irrelevant if that data doesn’t give a wider audience an understanding of a place and understanding of the injustices being perpetrated in a place.
    As a scientist myself, studying the ways in which different people understand and experience a place will be key in conveying the information and knowledge that I hope to convey. If I am working to achieve justice, I am going to have to be able to translate my understanding of place to a broad range of people and personalities that don’t all experience place in the same way. So as much as a holistic understand of place is important for the people actively seeking out justice, the ability to translate that understanding may be just as important.

  12. Aidan McLaughlin says:

    In this past week’s class time, reading, and workshops, an enormously prevalent theme was social justice, equality, and fair treatment of others. This extended to historical understanding of cultures, treatment of individuals, and more. One of the most influential parts of the week for me was the documentary that we watched titled “The Garden”, which focused on a community garden in Los Angeles. This garden was 14 acres in the middle of the city, and it provided land for a predominantly Mexican-American demographic to grow vegetables that were otherwise very expensive. For over a decade, the people who had plots in this garden worked countless hours to cultivate crops and feed their families. It was the largest urban community garden in the United States at the time, and represented more than just the value of the soil and the food output that this land provided. At the end of the documentary, the garden was bulldozed by the private owner of the property to make room for storage warehouses.

    This process raised many questions for me. Firstly, it emphasized how flawed our system of property ownership really is. A man who sold his property and then a decade later bought it back from the government for pennies on the dollar can own the land that dozens of people dedicate years to working and caring for. What should define land ownership, provided that land should be owned at all? Should it be based on a purely monetary transaction, to “keep things simple”, or should we have a system that honors a range of inputs, such as labor, love, and time spent on the land? In this situation, it is clear to me that the government, our laws, and some of our actions do not factor a true understanding of place into land ownership. Not only was the government powerless to prevent the land owner from demolishing the garden, but the owner’s intentions and moral principles aligned with developing the land to reap the most monetary benefit from it. The only part of the process that considered personal relationships and moral judgment to be part of the reality of the situation were the activists, and in the end they were powerless to change the established norm of property ownership.

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