- Working on Earth: Class and Environmental Justice ed. by Christina Robertson, Jennifer Westerman
As a collection of narratively inflected scholarship, this book presents a broad swath of stories about how work changes environments along with our understandings of environments. By doing so it tells a history of working people and landscapes, many in the American and Canadian West. The primary mode is that of recovery, [End Page 111] rescuing stories that otherwise would not be heard. As outlined in the editors’ introduction, the volume’s goal is to present a “working class ecology.” This new ecology would recognize “the ways in which class structures, access to power in the workplace, the material conditions of work, and the more-than-human environment interact” (3). The editors situate the collection at the intersection of working-class studies and environmental history, arguing for the alignment of the political goals of both movements. As with much environmental justice scholarship, they posit that “our collective survival depends on our capacity to make ethical decisions that consider all sentient beings and the land. To this end, the larger cultural narratives we live by will sustain or destroy us” (7).
Readers of Western American Literature will be gratified to find introductions to a selection of recent and historical texts and issues bearing on the West. Joni Adamson’s excellent and timely essay narrates the particulars of arid grassland ecosystems, proprietary rights to nature, and “working wilderness” in the Peloncillo Mountains ranch country of southern Arizona—with grass itself emerging as the central character. Also focusing on Arizona is Peter Friederici’s oral history of environmental change, straight from a Marlboro Man–style cowboy. Debra Salazar documents the changing relationship to space and work over generations of Silicon Valley residents, tracing the shift from orchards to cubicles and the ramifications of who can culturally lay claim to the title of “local.” Christina Robertson’s essay explores how her own family history and the local literature of the Kootenay region of British Columbia combine to create a myth of place founded in working-class stories. Jason Roberts’s contribution examines what he terms the “re-capitalized space” of luxury homes located within the fire-adapted forests outside Park City, Utah—and the toil and danger required from taxpayer-funded laborers to protect these homes.
Beyond the West, essays in the collection relate stories of working-class environmentalism in the mining towns of West Virginia, reflections on local impacts from global climate change in Vietnam, and the hidden impact of artificial light and night-shift work on a college community. Others remember the stories of early-twentieth-century “poor farms” across the United States, delve into the complex obligation and attachment to a family farmstead [End Page 112] in North Carolina, and tell the unlikely history of the political designation of Lake Michigan’s Apostle Islands.
This collection is useful for scholars and students who wish to encounter a wide variety of stories, history, and argument about the working-class relationship to nature so often and easily overlooked or suppressed in the broad sweep of environmental studies focused on the concept of wilderness or the short-sighted denigration of human use as a legitimate relationship to nature.