The social ecology of community resistance to environmental injustice: The case of Val Verde, California
This symposium considers what ecology can learn from the science of team science. Yet, the ecological paradigm also strengthens transdisciplinary team research on human-environment transactions. Social ecology’s core analytic and methodological principles emphasize: (1) the multidimensional structure of environments (including their physical/sociocultural, material/symbolic features); (2) systemic analysis of the mutual influences between people and their surroundings (especially interdependencies among multiple components of human ecosystems); (3) studying people-environment transactions contextually at multiple analytic levels; and (4) an action research orientationhighlighting the interplay among theorizing, empirical research, and societal problem-solving (Stokols, Lejano, & Hipp, 2013).
These principles guided our study of environmental injustice experienced by a Latino community in Southern California. Val Verde, CA is located near the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, which generates mal odors, noise, volatile organic compounds, and diesel truck traffic to and from the site. An environmental impact report issued by the County of Los Angeles (1966) concluded that cancer-causing emissions from the landfill fell below the threshold risk level of 10-6 or one in a million (the probability of a resident developing cancer due to air pollution). Accordingly, the LA Board of Supervisors issued a permit for operation of the landfill. Objective assays of parts-per-million (ppm) pollution levels, however, constitute limited criteria for gauging health hazards. Others include residents’ subjective evaluations of odors, noise, worry and stress imposed on them by the landfill. Environmental injustice denotes a strained transaction between people and their surroundings, whereby they perceive themselves to be disproportionately exposed to environmental health hazards for which they are not responsible and over which they have no control (Bullard, 1990). Moving beyond a strictly physical analysis of environmental health (e.g., ppm criteria), the authors (an ecological psychologist and an environmental health scholar) employed cognitive mapping techniques and community interviews to assess residents’ lived experience of health risks and their political resistance to environmental injustice.
Residents’ subjective appraisals of negative odors, noise and other health impacts related to the landfill diverged markedly from the benign ppm analyses reported in the LA County Environmental Impact Report (1996). Moreover, community members mobilized different forms of environmental and human capital through their collective response to landfill hazards. For instance, deterioration of Val Verde’s natural capital brought about by the landfill aroused a collective sense of indignation or moral capital, which in turn generated social and political capital in response to pervasive health hazards (Lejano & Stokols, 2010).