Sunday, April 13, 2014

Labor and environmental law

The last issue of Environmental History has Stefania Barca's survey article, "Laboring the Earth: Transnational Reflections on the Environmental History of Work". Among other things, Barca's rich article raises issues that I think have received too little attention in those working on the historical sources of environmental law, particularly the role of worker safety regulation in setting environmental-legal standards, and the role of the labor movement, and the Left in general, in the development of environmental law. On the first issue, for instance, Barca writes (footnotes omitted):
Another important step in the environmental history of work comes from placing the workplace center stage in our narratives and understanding it as an ecological system. This approach was suggested by Arthur McEvoy in a 1995 article, noting that, from the vantage point of the shop floor, “Ecology points to an analysis of health and safety in terms of the interaction between a number of systems: the worker's body and its maintenance, the productive processes that draw on the worker's energy, and the law and ideology that guide them.” Not only the workplace, but also workers' bodies should thus fully enter environmental history narratives as meta-texts where the political ecology of industrial societies had been written.
An important contribution in that sense was given, again in the United States, by Christopher Sellers's Hazards of the Job, a work that marked a turn in the literature by bridging the history of the workplace with that of environmental science and environmentalism. The book showed how US and European workplaces had been important spaces for knowledge production about human and environmental health and for professional coalitions pushing toward regulation of industrial hazards. Not only has work been extracted from workers' bodies in the course of the industrial era, but so too has knowledge. The branch of medical science known as industrial hygiene developed out of extracting information from workers' bodies and observing their reaction to a variety of risk factors in the course of their work life. This kind of science evolved in Europe and the United States between the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, and it reached a wider significance for the environmental movement through Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which amply relied on research from physicians and industrial hygienists. It was that science that first began to draw the boundaries between normality and abnormality, acceptable and unacceptable limits of exposure and contamination. The environmental movement of the 1960s, according to Sellers, started from the criteria and definitions central to industrial hygiene to attack pollution.

The article's abstract:
This article explores the intersection of work and nature in environmental history, and it reflects on possible new paths of investigation. More specifically, it focuses on physical labor performed in agriculture and industry—especially in the last two centuries—questioning how experiences in farming, mining, and manufacturing historically have shaped the relationship between working-class people and their environments. Based on secondary literature in English, Italian, and Portuguese, and on original research, the article proposes a tentative interpretative framework for the environmental history of work that incorporates analysis of the landscape as evidence of past human labor, the workplace and its relationship with the local community, and working-class and labor environmental activism. Ultimately, the article highlights the need to investigate the labor/environment dichotomy as a cultural and political construct and seeks to contribute to the formulation of labor-friendly sustainability policies.


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