Public Anthropologies

In this installment of our “Public Dialogues” series, Christian Wells talks to Barbara Rose Johnston, internationally recognized for her research and advocacy on environmental health and justice issues, about recent shifts in attitudes toward environmental justice issues in the US government, the impacts that might result from proposed changes, and how anthropologists can position themselves to respond.


EPA headquarters (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Christian Wells: The current administration is threatening to dismantle the US Environmental Protection Agency. This can undo much of what has been accomplished under federal oversight of environmental protection in the United States. For the many anthropologists engaged in federally supported research on environmental justice issues, funding might also be in danger, particularly if their work is critical of changing US policy. What should we look out for?

Barbara Rose Johnston: “The government” is a big word for a whole lot of people and the actions of those people. The majority of these people working in government are not the president and his administration. The first ethical option is to use your tax dollars in ways that best address your understanding of the needs of the community you live and work in. This means being a part of the story that says, “I am committed to environmental justice issues and am working with these people,” and to do it in a way that empowers and addresses their needs. This is how we should react when we’re concerned about regime change and associated policy shifts. This means standing up for your civil rights and saying, “I’m a citizen of this society, and I’ve received these resources to address these issues.” Even if the current administration does not believe that money should be spent on the issues important to your community, it’s your obligation to help the people that you work with, first and foremost.

CW: In 1992 the EPA opened the Office of Environmental Justice, after which a 1994 executive order (12898) directed all federal agencies to consider environmental justice issues. How have environmental justice issues evolved since then? Do you think there has been a lasting benefit?

BRJ: There has been a massive sea change. The original inspiration for the executive order came from Senator Wellstone pushing to get legislation on environmental justice adopted. Anthropologist Gregory Button, who was the last AAA congressional fellow, was attached to Senator Wellstone’s staff. He helped draft that legislation. When Senator Wellstone died, the momentum for that legislation atrophied a little bit. President Clinton enacted the legislation through executive order. That was then implemented by the EPA and other agencies. Underlying this environmental justice legislation was recognition of injustice and the inequitable relationships between race, class, and environmental disaster that produce horrific environmental health problems.

CW: What do you think the impact of this legislation has beyond the United States?

BRJ: It affected how government money was spent and what laws were implemented. It changed culturally how people in government, how people in science, how people in communities, thought about environmental problems and experiences. Now you can go anywhere—not just in the United States but anywhere US funds are spent globally—and see that when we give money internationally, federal laws have to apply.

Because of President Jimmy Carter’s International Financial Institutions Act (IFIA) of 1977, when we give money internationally, federal laws apply. When this was tested at the Supreme Court, the court said that the IFIA includes the EPA. So that means that when the US government spends money, even at our military bases around the world, these issues and concerns around environmental justice must be addressed.

At the 2017 SfAA meetings, we saw culturally informed extensions of this legislation. We saw that nations have acknowledged that rivers have human rights, they have rights to life. Three rivers in New Zealand and India have been identified as systems that have a right to life. That is profound. And this comes out of a kaleidoscope-lens shift of looking at historical injustices in the United States and the experiences of those who paid the price.

The Castle Bravo nuclear blast from 1954 in the Marshall Islands, which led to massive radioactive contamination of the Marshallese peoples. You can read an article by Barbara Rose Johnston on this topic here. (Source: Wikipedia)

CW: I am thinking about Diane Austin’s work on how Hurricane Katrina exposed the environmental legacies of petroleum extraction in Louisiana. Could the impacts of environmental justice legislation weaken with a diminished EPA or a weakened federal emphasis on environmental justice issues?

BRJ: That genie is out of the bottle. That shift I described earlier is now so ingrained that governments all around the world and people all around the world understand the notion of environmental injustice. They have engaged in struggle and protest, and sometimes they even secure justice.

CW: This sounds like democratizing science, or citizen science. It reminds me of the rise of university-engaged research that Jean Schensul and others have written about, in which different publics learn about existing research but also produce and use knowledge derived from their own research. How do you think about the relationship between environmental justice and citizen science?

BRJ: It’s the primary mechanism for strengthening and understanding environmental justice concerns, and an opportunity to engage as citizens. A whole new generation of science evolved this way and in reaction to previous eras of science controlled by the military-industrial complex, which was contorted through corporate or government classification. Citizen-science endeavors and projects often come up with the evidence that contests these imposed notions that “There’s no environmental problem here” or “This or that plant that says you don’t have any environmental health issues.”

CW: Melissa Checker has written about environmental risk assessments and the importance of citizens challenging the “science quo.” Do you think citizen science will change with the new administration?


We live in a really chaotic time when things are suppressed in accord with all kinds of complex government agendas. These agendas are about re-engineering a government that has almost no responsibility or ability to influence daily life other than to make money grow. That part is true, it’s happening, but there is also pushback. We’ve already had a whole new couple of generations of people working towards a different view of the world in relation to governance and citizenship. Right now, citizen science and international collaboration are stronger than they’ve ever been.


BRJ: This new administration is trying to clamp down. They’re asking: “How do you control the voice of scientists and workers and citizens and redirect it away from these alternative interpretations, and toward a safer, more secure place for this government’s values?”

So we’re seeing a resurgence in McCarthyism, a resurgence in the security state of control and power, of media, to the point that you have these widespread edicts now throughout the federal government that you cannot say this or that word. And accompanying that, of course, is all of the science. But the rise of citizen science is also something that you can’t put back in the bottle! We live in a really chaotic time when things are suppressed in accord with all kinds of complex government agendas. These agendas are about re-engineering a government that has almost no responsibility or ability to influence daily life other than to make money grow. That part is true, it’s happening, but there is also pushback. We’ve already had a whole new couple of generations of people working towards a different view of the world in relation to governance and citizenship. Right now, citizen science and international collaboration are stronger than they’ve ever been.

CW: What do you think the role of anthropology or even anthropological organizations like the American Anthropological Association is? In what kinds of positions do you see anthropologists making a difference in these uncertain times?

BRJ: We are a hugely multifaceted beast. If you could think about maybe a creature with 10,000 eyes, that’s what the AAA is. But each of those eyes is connected to this larger info hub where we all exchange information and maybe get little bits and pieces of it. But this means that we also have a lot of unique perspectives and insights. That’s what the professional association does and our meetings help us do. I think that advocacy is one realm, policy is one realm, our basic role as a translator is one realm, and the classic—I’m thinking back to when I was trained as a kid—being the culture broker, you know, in itself, the role of not necessarily shaping the policy but communicating between actors. In that role, the anthropologist might ensure that an equitable understanding is achieved and, ideally, there is equitable power at the table, so that a balanced decision and resolution can occur. There are a lot of federal employees who find themselves in this position, so I guess I’m saying that there are many, many jobs for anthropologists.

CW: Who, among the anthropologists doing these many jobs, do you think is doing interesting work on social and environmental justice issues today?

BRJ: Who is not? If it’s not overt, it’s because it’s in their role as a citizen in their town, in their society, and sometimes it’s an academic role and sometimes through a workplace role, and sometimes in a church or community-based-organization role. A friend of mine who just retired from academic life is spending time working in food banks and doing it in an environmental and social justice way. I don’t know anyone who is not doing environmental justice, and I know a lot of people. One of the most powerful voices in the United States who went off to use her anthropology degree is Amy Goodman, who has her Democracy Now series on National Public Radio, She’s not so much doing anthropology for her investigative work, but she does interview the people who are doing it. As an anthropologist, she brings to light and makes visible the invisible. So that’s the anthropology mission within environmental justice, and to do it in a way that ideally makes the world better.

CW: Do you have any other advice about how anthropologists can address the grand challenges you’ve outlined?


The solution for us is not “go to Mars.” The question is: How do we live here? And the answer very much resides in anthropology, in the sense that understanding the human condition, understanding how humans have adapted over time, understanding the main driving forces in human evolution, understanding the role of social relationships and cultural values and place-based ways of life that are deeply stewardship based, are anthropological problems.


BRJ: It’s basically about recognizing that our problems are so ubiquitous that the fabric of our very being all across the planet for all forms of life has been affected in degenerative ways by the material conditions of our reality, by every breath we take and every sip of water we drink. That’s the world we live in. How do we as a species evolve to build the knowledge we need to have a successful, happy life and reproduce that way of life without shitting so bad that we foul our whole circumstance? There are damaging consequences for life itself—whether we’re talking about the proliferation of infrastructure or choking the rivers or life in the seas, death on the planet is occurring. This is not debatable.

The solution for us is not “go to Mars.” The question is: How do we live here? And the answer very much resides in anthropology, in the sense that understanding the human condition, understanding how humans have adapted over time, understanding the main driving forces in human evolution, understanding the role of social relationships and cultural values and place-based ways of life that are deeply stewardship based, are anthropological problems. So is restructuring societies and values in ways attentive to these questions. Ultimately, we have to ask: Where will we be 1000 years from now? Where will we be 10,000 generations from now? Will my children see any future?

Barbara Rose Johnston is a senior research fellow in environment, health, and human rights at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California, and is the recipient of the 2015 AAA Anthropology in Public Policy Award in recognition of her leadership on environmental justice and human rights issues.

Christian Wells is a professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Brownfields Research at the University of South Florida, where he leads an EPA-funded effort to work with residents of an underserved community in Tampa to identify and clean up pollution and contamination in their neighborhood.

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