Humility in Environmental Science Class

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My environmental science professor asks hardball questions.

I finished presenting on environmental justice movements - thankfully slowed down from the double speed I had while practicing it - and was waiting for the silence to break with questions and comments. My professor started to ask about prioritizing a sewage pelletizing plant for the whole city over moving it away from vulnerable communities. I was prepared to jump up in the defense of the untold masses of jobless people of color that have to live near all of NYC's sewage treatment. After all, no one wants to live near that. But as he went on, I started to see that he was asking a much more complicated question than that.

The plant is already there; sewage needs to be processed. These are two irreducible facts. The latent question is "What should be done? How do we make it right?" Someone in the back suggested regulation (which I am also a big fan of) rather than creating a blame game. But there's more to it than that. Systematic oppression, yes, but also the needs of small communities and whether they should be taken over the needs of a larger group. Somewhere in my notes I have it written down as "the tragedy of the commons" - resources for some "must" be sacrificed to suit the larger needs of others.

It's complicated. My instinct is to fight about it, to ask why there isn't one in such and such neighborhood. But then where? Environmental justice work can't simply say let's spirit it away from the Bronx and put it in Brooklyn. But what I took away from this class presentation was not even really about environmental work at all. It was the idea that sometimes the simplest-looking things have the most complicated solutions. And, more importantly, that we can't just believe we're right.

That simple proposition, the idea that it's necessary to have this be somewhere, made me stutter step as I thought about what could feasibly be done. And I realized that in some cases humility is needed, even when fighting for social justice and other venerable causes. Sometimes it's necessary to just listen and consider.