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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 5 (1998)
Life and Death
Matters: Human Rights and the Environment at the End of the Millennium.
Barbara Rose Johnston, editor. 1997. Walnut Creek, London, New Delhi:
Altamira Press. 350 pp.
Reviewed by Diana Pritchard, Indiana University.
Contrary to modernity's quintessential
promise of progress, it is clear from the atrocities wrought on human
and ecological communities around the global that life on this planet
for the majority of people does not get better. The closure of the century
provides an opportune moment for reflection on the human condition. This
book sets itself the task of contributing to such a discussion by examining
the distinct actions of people attempting to survive crisis-ridden circumstances.
It comprises a collection of 14 case studies from around the world, focusing
on the experiences of grassroots organizational efforts. These illustrate
peoples' efforts to ameliorate the devastation and conflicts emerging
from, amongst other things, biodiversity preservation (Derman and Hitchcock),
mineral extraction (Sponsel and Gedicks), agricultural resources (Wheeler
and Esainko; Phillips); violence towards indigenous peoples (Pi-Sunyer
and Brooke Thomas; Stea, Elguea and Perez Bustillo), forced migration
(Aragon), tourism (Swope, Byrne Swain, Fuquan Yang and Ives), post war
reconstruction (McSpadden and Wisner), radiation experimentation (Barker),
and nuclear contamination (Garb).
As with all such volumes of contributions
originally presented in conference sessions, a strong editorial hand is
required. It is especially important to generate accompanying text that
can render coherent otherwise motley collections that contain a diversity
of themes and regions. Unfortunately, despite these being sound papers,
editor Johnston fails to provide a solid analytical framework to advance
our understanding of their significance in this volume. This is particularly
notable in the introduction. Although the book claims to have human environmental
crises as its central analytical focus, the editor omits even a basic
conceptual framework with which to associate human rights abuse and environmental
destruction. She opts instead to merely tag the UN Human Rights Declaration
on as an appendix, without explanatory narrative. As a consequence, the
ethical and legal significance of perceiving human rights as an extended
principle that "should include an ecologically sound environment,
sustainable development and peace," as promoted by the corresponding
commission, is lost. With it, is lost the opportunity to highlight the
obviously anthropocentric assumptions that are implicit in the collection,
namely that the environment is valuable because of its use to humankind.
However, this is just one of many central notions glossed over in the
A more suitable introduction also
would have provided the appropriate conceptual tools to enable readers
to explore the case material and consider how the status and complexities
of human and environmental rights are linked to wider phenomena. Instead
there is an odd array of subsections touching a range of notions such
as "Culture and Structures of Power," and "Physical Mechanisms."
At one and two paragraphs long, respectively, they are too brief and inadequately
developed to generate anything other than confusion about their relevance.
Though the book also states that
it will explore the tension between "global processes" and human
responses, there is no further elaboration of precisely what these constitute.
To the contrary, in an apparent rejection of positivist theories, there
is no mention of crucial structures and networks, including globalized
capitalist relations, the international division of labor, resources and
world communication systems. This is counter productive because it inhibits
readers from making links about the underlying factors that not only generate
human environmental crises but also shape the strategies developed by
people to confront them. Moreover, without reference to these globalized
relations, readers are unable to interpret the historical significance
of our present day world. Consequently, we are offered no help in our
reflections on whether it is business as usual for humanity; if there
is something more pernicious at work in the world today and if there is
anything new about the way people organize in the late 1990s. Nor can
we appreciate how relations might have changed between countries in north
and south, between citizens and the states, between citizens and international
At first glance it seems fair to
conclude that the contributors have agreed to abandon the intellectual
foundations of modernity. Perhaps the evidence would warrant it. After
all, its scientific knowledge has not necessarily been advanced for the
service of either humanity or the environment on which it depends, and
its theories have not proved successful in explaining our world. Yet the
book's emphasis on the importance of stories of peoples' experiences is
incomplete. Nowhere does the book seek to advance the idea that a focus
on subjective, not structural, phenomena, matters. To the contrary, instead
of an elaboration of this approach, we encounter one of many contradictions
in this book: that ultimately it does have a very empirical concern, namely,
to identify what makes for effective action. More problematic still, and
in keeping with postmodern tradition, we are subject to three painful
pages of a dire form of reflexivity. If ever there was a least-appropriate
place for an introduction which lingers on the editor's own personal trip
into the world of social and environmental hardship and crisis, this is
it. It contrasts starkly with the "reality" of the life-and-death
struggles of the subjects of the book.
Such shortcomings ensure that the
conclusion, titled clumsily "Crisis, Chaos, Conflict, and Change,"
is doomed. Though it goes some way to unite papers by highlighting a range
of responses (from passive resistance, organized efforts to modify systems,
confrontational efforts to attempts to reconstruct power), it cannot salvage
the book. It is not only too short to be able to do anything satisfactorily,
it is also studded with the typically undisciplined statements that characterize
the editorial text. For example, in citing a "promising" scenario,
Johnston points to people's participation in the planning of projects.
This is then followed by the statement: "This is community-based
environmental restoration, and this is nation building." The claim
verges on the academically irresponsible as it is laden with theoretical
assumptions that would have to be outlined in order to make any sense.
As interesting as each case study is, the book stands as an overly dramatic and under-analyzed series of snippets. In the apparent attempt to stir up western privileged sympathies, Johnston appears to have abandoned all serious analytical rigor. Though she might have aimed to tweak the conscience of corporate interests or shame policy makers, their engagement may be lost as a consequence.