There is the environment, and then there is the environment as we attempt to understand it through our social constructs and institutions. Scott Frickel studies the often wide difference between the two.
“I try to examine social phenomena that sit at the intersection of politics, science, and nature,” said Frickel, associate professor of sociology at the Institute for the Study of Environment and Society (ISES). “Most fundamentally I’m interested in the politics of environmental knowledge. I’m interested in what we know about the environment and what we don’t know and the reasons behind that. I’m also interested in how environmental knowledge changes and the directions in which it changes.”
Few intersections of politics, science, and nature were more dramatic than Hurricane Katrina. The monster storm, which struck when Frickel was at Tulane University, strongly influenced Frickel’s work. Katrina displaced him to Philadelphia for six months, but as the flood waters were pumped out, he found two new research projects that continue to embody broader themes in his research and teaching.
Changes in the land
One theme is the knowledge municipalities try to attain (or don’t) about the land and its environmental attributes. Katrina inundated most of New Orleans, including neighborhoods where soil contamination was known to be widespread. After the storm, Frickel decided to study how state and federal officials assessed soil contamination across the city. He said authorities reconfirmed existing sites of contamination, but did less than they could have to confirm that other neighborhoods were in fact “safe.”
“A lot of resources went into proving something that was already well-known,” he said “That decision to direct resources to sites of known contamination channeled resources away from other parts of the city where much less was known and where much remains unknown.”
When Frickel returned to Tulane the spring semester after the storm, he convened a small seminar where he and his students looked citywide at former industrial sites to see what had become of them. Soon the project expanded beyond New Orleans to Portland, Ore., Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. After he moved to Washington State University in 2007, he continued the work in collaboration with former Tulane colleague Jim Elliott, now at Rice University.
What he’s found in that study of the dynamics of urbanization has been similar to what he saw after Katrina. In Portland, Frickel and Elliott’s data show that small new industrial concerns will often build nearby, but not on, old industrial sites, thereby expanding the footprint of potential contamination. But the city still treats only the major original sites as environmentally suspect. The city has therefore only designated 7 percent of its industrial lands as hazardous sites.
Frickel hopes to extend the study to Providence. Here he plans also to study how municipalities convert industrial lands to green spaces.
Science’s social structures
Another theme in Frickel’s work – the social organization of scientific movements – was well underway before Katrina hit. Frickel had published the book Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology in 2004. It traced the history of how biologists who had been studying the basic biological effects of chemicals on genes in the 1960s and 1970s interacted with the era’s environmental movement to found a dedicated and more politically relevant new field of study.
Katrina presented a unique opportunity to study how a scientific community can become transformed by catastrophe. At Washington State he studied the publications of scientists working to study Gulf Coast marshes five years before and after the hurricane. The storm seems to have changed who was working there as it wiped out old marshes and studies, displaced scientists, and brought in a lot of new money to study different topics – such as the effects of the storm.
“Wetlands research exploded following the storm – the population of authors doubled — but it turns out that almost everybody who had been publishing prior to the hurricane stopped publishing in this same area of research during the five years after Katrina,” he said.
Now that he’s in New England he’s eager to begin another investigation into knowledge politics. This time, he plans to study social networks of scientific activism in the Boston area to learn more about scientists who are not overtly engaged in public dialogue but who work behind the scenes of social movements such as environmental justice.
Frickel said he hopes to launch this project, as well as the industrial land use and greenspace study in Providence, from the classroom. His enthusiasm for that prospect grew especially after he met with five Brown undergraduates during the interview process.
“I had one of the more engaging and high-level intellectual discussions I’ve had in a very long time,” he said. “I was just incredibly impressed with these students and very excited to learn about their knowledge about the world.”
Together with his students and ISES colleagues, he hopes to better understand what we know about the environment and how we know it.