Why do people sometimes resist remediation of pollution in their own backyards? Conventional academic wisdom suggests that it is because they are afraid of losing their jobs, but my recent research in La Oroya, Peru, questions this dominant framework.
Since 1922, La Oroya has been home to three refineries for processing lead, copper, and zinc, and a lead smelter owned until recently by a company called Doe Run Peru. In the late ’90s, several scientific studies demonstrated dangerously high lead levels among the town’s children.
The findings drew extensive attention from the media, but not the kind that some residents appreciated. Tania, a local schoolteacher told me, “In the media there are these ideas that we are nothing but a bunch of slow, sick, contaminated people, but they don’t pay any attention to how some students are very high performing.” Elena, a 45-year old shop owner, agreed, saying: “Of course there are sick children everywhere, slow children, just like in your country [referring to the United States]. But we have children who are doing well, we have professionals, professors.”
School teachers and principals took pride in the achievements of their students, which they felt were ignored in the rush to paint La Oroya as nothing more than a town full of “mongolicos” (a local term for people who have Down’s syndrome or are disabled). In seeking to defend their town’s identity against a barrage of negative media coverage, some residents denied that the contamination was a problem at all. “Look at all the awards we’ve won,” one principal told me, pointing to a row of trophies on the wall. “We couldn’t have done this if the contamination was really a problem.”
In response to the media portrayals, many residents became reluctant to protest against the pervasive lead contamination because doing so affirmed negative stories about their town’s identity. Residents weren’t protective of their jobs, they were protective of their town and of their own reputation as “normal” and “good,” not a place full of “mongolicos.”
These findings suggest that heavy-handed exposes of polluted cities and towns might do harm as well as good. Environmental activists might be better served to find a balance between condemning pollution and uplifting the places and people who are its victims.
Pamela Neumann, PhD is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. A longer version of this post can be found at Work in Progress.
Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.
Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:
So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):
It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.
Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.
Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.
The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.
So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?
For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.
One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.
So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?
One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:
The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.
In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.
This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.
This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.
Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded forContexts.
Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College.
Electric clothes dryers are among the most energy-greedy appliances in the home, accounting for between 6% and 15% percent of home energy use. In contrast, drying clothes outside is both environmentally friendly and free. Yet, according to the New York Times, many homeowners associations insist that they are “…an eyesore, not unlike storing junk cars in driveways, and a marker of poverty that lowers property values.” In the documentary Drying for Freedom, laundry activistsclaim that bans on clotheslines affect 50 million households, requiring people to buy electric clothes dryers or hang their clothes inside their home.
Homeowners associations require many things intended to increase the “curb appeal” and property value of homes. Many of these things specifically function to make the home and yard appear decorative instead of functional. Rules prohibit visible vegetable gardens, parking cars in the driveway overnight, allowing your cat outside (lest they poop), and failing to clean oil stains left by leaky vehicles. They turn driveways, curbs, front yards, and porches into communal space designed to advertise the luxury of having non-functional spaces. They say, in effect, “This is a lovely neighborhood where we can afford to curate flowers instead of vegetables and preserve pristine concrete by taking our cars to Jiffy Lube.”
All of this supposedly protects home values by preserving the notion that the neighborhood includes only middle- and upper-class people who can afford to avoid (dirty) work by consuming services. Not being able to afford to dry your clothes electrically apparently appears, well, trashy.
Drying for Freedom is trying to interrupt this narrative, but instead of fighting the classist reasoning behind the clothesline bans, they are trying a different social movement strategy: re-framing. They are suggesting that using clotheslines isn’t a sign of poverty, but one of good global citizenship and, thus, a sign of responsible living. It seems to be working, too. As of 2016, 19 states ban clothesline bans, which is a start. Laundry activists hope the trend will go nation-wide, and then global, and that someday drying one’s clothes in a dryer will be the “trashy” thing to do.
I thought of this research when I saw Time‘s 1-minute illustration of the rise of earthquakes in Oklahoma. To sum, thanks to the particular type of oil drilling done there, the state is now “one of the most seismic places on the planet.” There were 21 earthquakes in 2005. In 2015, there were 5,957. Nine hundred of these were magnitude 3 or higher.
I am trying to imagine what would happen if an industry caused almost 6,000 extra earthquakes annually (and growing) in or near a city America cared about. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York and, I can’t be sure but, I suspect politicians there might be quicker to interfere with business practices. And, if they weren’t, the political power of residents of those cities might force them to.
“But it’s just Oklahoma,” is apparently the refrain. Who cares if the oil companies’ saltwater disposal wells are causing the houses of hillbillies to shake? Apparently Okies don’t have anything — aren’t anybody — worth protecting. At least, not over the rights of corporations.
Prior to the 1850s, writes cultural studies scholar Matthew Brower, men in America didn’t hunt. More specifically, they didn’t hunt for leisure. There was a hunting industry that employed professionals who hunted as a full time occupation, and there was a large market for wild animal products, but hunting for fun wasn’t a common pastime.
This changed in the second half of the 1800s. Americans were increasingly living in cities and being “citified.” Commenters worried that urban life was making men effeminate, effete, overly civilized, domesticated if you will. Cities were a threat to manliness and nature the salve.
Hunting trophies, taxidermied remains of wild animals, served as symbolic proof of one’s “hardiness.” Unlike the animal parts bought at market — whether for food or furs, as feathers on hats, or the then-popular elk tooth watch chain — animals a man killed himself reflected on his skill and character.
Nothing adds more to a hall or a room than fine antlers when their owner has been shot by the hunter-displayer, but always there is an element of the absurd in a room furnished with trophies of the chase that the displayer has acquired by purchase.
New, elite recreational hunters castigated both lesser men, who purchased animal parts for display, and women who bought them purely for fashion.
This was the origin of the idea that hunting is a contest, as opposed to an occupation or necessity. To paraphrase Brower, a trophy can’t be bought, it must be earned. Thus, the notion of “sportsmanship” as applied to the hunt. If a kill is going to indicate skill, then the hunted must have a “sporting chance.” Thus, recreational hunters developed an etiquette for sportsmanlike hunting, spread through new hunting magazines and periodicals.
Not only did this allow men to claim manly cred, it allowed wealthy men to claim class cred. Brower writes:
Both subsistence and market hunters, the majority of hunters, were placed outside the purview of the sportsman’s code. Those who hunted out of necessity or for profit never could obtain the aesthetic detachment necessary to be considered sportsmen.
In fact, wealthy recreational hunters claimed that only they were “real hunters” and even organized against people who hunted for food and money. For example,
[Roosevelt himself] blamed the decline of game on market hunters, who he argued, had “no excuse of any kind” for the wanton slaughter of animals.
Trophy hunters successfully enacted statutes limiting other types of hunting, so as to preserve game for themselves.
The rarer and larger the animal, the more exquisite the specimen, and the more a man has killed, the better the animals speak to a his manliness and his elite economic and social class. This is perhaps the attraction of international trophy hunting today: the seeking of more exotic and elusive game to bring home and display. And it is perhaps why some people pay $50,000 to travel across the world, kill a lion, cut off its head, then post it on Facebook.
When it comes to rule-breakers and rule enforcers, which side you are on seems to depend on the rule-breaker and the rule. National Review had a predictable response to the video of a school officer throwing a seated girl to the floor. [Editor’s note: Video added to original. Watch with caution; disturbing imagery]
Most of the response when the video went viral was revulsion. But not at National Review. David French said it clearly:
I keep coming to the same conclusion: This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police officer to move.
The arrested student at Spring Valley High School should have left her seat when her teacher demanded that she leave. She should have left when the administrator made the same demand. She should have left when Fields made his first, polite requests. She had no right to stay. She had no right to end classroom instruction with her defiance. Fields was right to move her, and he did so without hurting her. The fact that the incident didn’t look good on camera doesn’t make his actions wrong.
This has been the general response on the right to nearly all the recently publicized incidents of the police use of force. If law enforcement tells you to do something, and then you don’t do it, it’s OK for the officer to use force, and if you get hurt or killed, it’s your fault for not complying, even if you haven’t committed an offense.
That’s the general response. There are exceptions, notably Cliven Bundy. In case you’d forgotten, Bundy is the Nevada cattle rancher who was basically stealing – using federal lands for grazing his cattle and refusing to pay the fees. He’d been stiffing the United States this way for many years. When the Federales finally arrested him and rounded up his cattle, a group of his well armed supporters challenged the feds. Rather than do what law enforcers in other publicized accounts do when challenged by someone with a gun – shoot to kill – the Federal rangers negotiated.
Bundy was clearly breaking the law. Legally, as even his supporters acknowledged, he didn’t have a leg to stand on. So the view from the right must have been that he should do what law enforcement said. But no.
This is best understood not as a legal proceeding but as an act of civil disobedience… As a legal question Mr. Bundy is legless. But that is largely beside the point.
What happened to “This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order”? The law is now “beside the point.” To Williamson, Bundy is a “dissident,” one in the tradition of Ghandi, Thoreau, and fugitive slaves.
Not all dissidents are content to submit to what we, in the Age of Obama, still insist on quaintly calling “the rule of law.”
Every fugitive slave, and every one of the sainted men and women who harbored and enabled them, was a law-breaker, and who can blame them if none was content to submit to what passed for justice among the slavers?
(The equation with fugitive slaves became something of an embarrassment later when Bundy opined that those slaves were better off as slaves than are Black people today who get government subsidies. Needless to say, Bundy did not notice that the very thing he was demanding was a government handout – free grazing on government lands.)
The high school girl refused the teacher’s request that she give up her cell phone and then defied an order from the teacher and an administrator to leave the classroom. Cliven Bundy’s supporters “threatened government employees and officials, pointed firearms at law enforcement officers, harassed the press, called in bomb scares to local businesses, set up roadblocks on public roads, and formed lists (complete with photos and home addresses) of their perceived enemies” (Forbes).
A Black schoolgirl thrown to the floor by a weightlifting cop twice her size — cop right, rule-breaker wrong. A rural White man with White male supporters threatening Federal law enforcers — cops wrong, rule-breakers right.
The image above is a photograph of a snowflake taken in the late 1800s by Wilson Bentley. Bentley, a 19-year-old farmer in Vermont, was the first person to ever photograph snowflakes. From the Guardian:
Bentley’s obsession with snow crystals began when he received a microscope for his 15th birthday. He became spellbound by their beauty, complexity and endless variety.
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind,” he said.
Bentley started trying to draw the flakes but the snow melted before he could finish. His parents eventually bought him a camera and he spent two years trying to capture images of the tiny, fleeting crystals.
He caught falling snowflakes by standing in the doorway with a wooden tray as snowstorms passed over. The tray was painted black so he could see the crystals and transfer them delicately onto a glass slide.
To study the snow crystals, Bentley rigged his bellows camera up to the microscope but found he could not reach the controls to bring them into focus. He overcame the problem through the imaginative use of wheels and cord.
Bentley took his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal at the age of 19 and went on to capture more than 5,000 more images.
What struck me about this story, other than the pretty pictures and neat historical trivia, was the fact that nearly every schoolchild in the Western world knows what a snowflake looks like under a microscope, even as their experience of snowflakes is mostly of them as cold, fuzzy, frozen blobs, if they have any regular experience with snow at all. They know because we teach them.
The idea of the meme is one way to discuss our ability to transfer elusive knowledge like this. A meme is a unit of knowledge or a type of behavior that’s passed on from generation to generation culturally. The gene is its evolutionary cousin, passing along knowledge and behavior genetically. In the US, this particular knowledge meme is found in books or scientific discussions, but it has also become a common arts and craft project: many of us learn about snowflakes when we are shown how to make them from construction paper:
It’s quite amazing to consider how every human generation since Bentley understands the snowflake just a little bit differently than anyone before him. Because of the advantage that human culture gives each new generation, nearly every child learns to appreciates their beauty.
See a slide show of his photographs at The Telegraph. This post originally appeared in 2010.