- Working on Earth: Class and Environmental Justice by Christina Robertson and Jennifer Westerman
This collection of twelve essays is a welcome addition to the literature on environmental justice. The editors chose contributors grounded in environmental studies, half from literature and creative writing and half from disciplines as varied as journalism, political science, anthropology, history, cultural studies, and sustainable development. The chronology is contemporary, and while the geographic coverage focuses on the United States, there are two pieces on Canada and one on Vietnam. The topics are wide ranging: the transformation of extraction and subsistence landscapes into elite vacation sites in Wisconsin and Utah, fire suppression in the West, ranching in Arizona, coal mining in Canada and West Virginia, climate change in Vietnam, artificial lighting and the night shift, poverty in the South, the rise of Silicon Valley in northern California, and the health and safety of workers in dangerous workplaces.
The book is divided into three sections: “Working for a Living: Class, Justice, and Environment,” “The Ways We Work: Toxic Consequences,” and “The Workers and the Land: Toward a Just and Sustainable Future.” The goal of the first section is to explain how land is valued and managed (6), while the second centers on stories of occupational and environmental hazards (7). The final section describes recent changes in how workers and others value labor and nature and offers some success stories of environmental care and positive labor reform (ibid.). The essays largely fit within the category they are placed in but also overlap, as can be expected in a collection concerning the class and environmental dimensions of capitalist economic injustice. The essays themselves are wide ranging in their approaches. Several are first-person narratives about travel, the recovery of family history, or memory; others are based on short oral histories or mini-ethnographies of coal miners, janitors, and construction workers; others are literary ecocriticism or journalistic reportage. Within its wide scope, the collection deals with a diverse number of actors in addition to those already mentioned: ranchers, German immigrants, the forest service, Mexican farmworkers, loggers, men seemingly at war with nature just to survive, and working-class men whose bodies have suffered through years of work in toxic environments.
Any labor- and environment-minded classroom will find something to read in this collection. The stories are gripping. Some are beautifully written, even lyrical. A few are profoundly heart wrenching. Almost every tale concerns the maddening exploitation of both workers and nature in the late capitalist economies of both the United States and Canada. When environmental conservation is imperative, these stories often concern expulsion: removing working-class people from areas that the upper class requires for other uses, such as building second homes in “pristine” locations with breathtaking views of nature. [End Page 128]
Editors Christina Robertson and Jennifer Westerman aim to develop a “working-class ecology.” They define the term as “attention to 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). Pursuant to this aim, the essays in this collection make workers visible by examining the links between class and environment rather than simply presenting stories of changing landscapes and environmental destruction, which can so often erase workers from the narrative, as if all those processes took place without anyone working anywhere. By foregrounding class, the book broadens the literature on environmental justice, which largely focuses on race. The editors succeed in reaching their goals, as each essay pays close attention to work sites (such as mines or farms), spaces we rarely call “nature.”
However, this collection has a gap and a potential snag: gender. Many of the essays deal with working-class families, so women are not totally absent, but the trades most discussed—mining, ranching, logging—are male-dominated ones. What is absent in this collection is the acknowledgment that working-class women shared the hardships of working-class men but that those experiences are not identical. Their experience of the environment...