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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 8 (2001)

Where We Live, Work and Play: The Environmental Justice Movement and the Struggle for a New Environmentalism, by Patrick Novotny. London: Praeger (2000), 115 pp.

 

Reviewed by Diane-Michele Prindeville, Department of Government, New Mexico State University.

This book speaks to several different audiences in a variety of disciplines including political science, sociology, environmental studies, and communication. It introduces the reader to the diverse issues driving the work of the environmental justice movement and its grassroots supporters. Novotny recounts the history of the movement in the US, describing its goals, leaders, and proponents, while relating in detail the struggles of some of the original environmental justice organizations. The book is accessible to a general readership while still being appropriate for use by specialists and seasoned scholars interested in theory building. For example, Novotny employs "framing" as a model for explaining the success of the movement in mobilizing working-class people and communities of color. He presents this concept in terms accessible to a variety of audiences, and, as the following passage indicates, his writing style is suitable for academics while being rich and clear.

Framing is the way that the leaders in a movement assign meaning to and interpret problems in such a way as to mobilize participants. Framing isÖa dynamic process by which a movement and its struggle for social change is connected with a larger set of cultural values, beliefs, and practices. Ö[I]t encompasses the culture and even the language that is used in a movement. (Novotny, 2000: xviii)

The author uses the theoretical perspective of framing to explain the successful politicization of the environment, as well as the mobilization of diverse groups of supporters by movement leaders. He makes his argument by presenting the reader with case studies of four groups active in the environmental justice movement: the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 4-620 ‚ all in Louisiana, and the SouthWest Organizing Project in New Mexico. Novotny effectively illustrates how, in each case, the leadership of these environmental justice organizations has strategically re-conceptualized local notions of "environment" in terms that directly link the communityís current political struggle for economic and racial equity with that of the historic civil rights movement. Group leaders broaden narrow definitions of the environment to incorporate issues such as neighborhood housing conditions, workplace safety, community health, and access to public services. In contrast to the larger, national environmental organizations, this grassroots movement defines the environment not as a pristine and distant wilderness but as the local urban neighborhood "where we live, work, and play." As Novotny points out, "the environmentÖis a cultural formation, an expression of social relations." (2000: 86). Furthermore, "Nature and ideology are inextricably bound; as such, the idea of exactly what and where nature is located is fraught with ideology" (2000: 88).

While the book appeals to academics, it is potentially useful to activists who wish to learn from the organizations whose experiences are recounted here in the form of case studies. Through these case studies, Novotny describes various strategies, some more successful than others, for mobilizing community members, building coalitions, organizing protests, working the media, and influencing policy outcomes. His concluding chapter is both fresh and sharp. Rather than simply summarizing the contents of the book here, the author ends with a critical analysis of the role of the mainstream environmental movement, the media, advertisers, and corporate interests in perpetuating environmental, social, and economic injustices. As he moves the reader forward to action, Novotny reveals himself to be an activist scholar. The final paragraph of the book sums up his message.

The crucial work of the environmental justice movement is to define language itself as the site of political struggle, where individuals can fight to reclaim their own definition of what constitutes the environment and struggle to reconfigure the scientific, legal, and technical definitions of the environment in a more accessible language. Language itself is a site of political struggle, a part of activism no less important than the protest at a chemical facility, an information table at an Earth Day rally, or the demonstrations at a hazardous waste site by communities that for too long have not been part of the postwar environmental movement (2000: 94).