The term environment emerged with some visibility and circulation during the nineteenth century and is a concept that is as layered and nearly as complicated as the term nature, which Raymond Williams once wrote “is perhaps the most complex word in the language” (1976, 219). Vermonja Alston notes that environment has been defined in various ways over the centuries but that an enduring understanding is focused on “‘surroundings’ rather than complex interlinked ecological systems” (2016, 96). For example, my Random House dictionary from 1984 defines environment variously as “the aggregate of surrounding things, conditions, or influences”; as “the act of environing”; or as “the state of being environed.” Relatedly, the term environ is listed in that same source as a verb meaning “to form a circle or ring round; surround; envelop” (Stein 1984, 442). Alston argues that these definitions reflect a colonial logic that supports the kinds of practices involving enclosures of “bodies of land, water, people, plants, and nonhuman animals… to exploit and appropriate biodiversity and indigenous knowledge” (2016, 94), as well as the destruction of commons. The myriad ways in which our environments reflect enclosures are sites where the health of our ecosystems and humankind is in considerable jeopardy and where social inequities are amplified. The ubiquitous presence of both environmental harms and social inequality around the globe is indeed a challenge in and of itself, but their frequent and consistent intersections at multiple scales is a major concern for environmental justice scholars and advocates. That is, populations facing virtually any kind of social, economic, political, or cultural marginalization are much more likely to experience greater risks and threats associated with environmental pollution and climate change. That means people of color, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, working-class populations, women, disabled people, and LGBTQ communities are facing greater health risks than the rest of us (Bullard and Wright 2012). These threats have been the focus of grassroots environmental justice movements for decades, which have sought to confront and repair the harms associated with enclosures in order to ensure improved health for humans, ecosystems, and nonhuman species. And they do so by mobilizing their bodies in protest and their ideas into counternarratives and stories that challenge environmental racism and envision justice.
If one of the primary aims of the health humanities is to “debate and develop the role of the humanities in health as a whole rather than solely in medicine” (Crawford et al. 2010, 8; see also T. Jones, Wear, and Friedman 2014), then the environment and environmental justice are central to this project. First, as numerous scholars have documented, the health of our environment and its constituent ecosystems and habitats is intimately related to public/human health, which requires us to extend our analyses well beyond both the medical system (as a site of health delivery) and a restrictive notion of health that is humancentric (Celermajer et al. 2020; Schlosberg 2007). Second, when social inequalities produce health disparities across racial, income, and gender groups, we find that those same inequalities are associated with environmental disparities, generally referred to as environmental injustices and/or environmental racism. Furthermore, environmental injustices contribute enormously to the health disparities we find across societies (Brulle and Pellow 2006). Third, thinking about the environmental factors shaping health facilitates our capacity to address health concerns on both local and global scales and to focus on the structural forces impacting our health. Fourth, the myriad linkages between human health and environmental health routinely reveal that improving both requires the mobilization of ordinary people in grassroots social movements.
Storytelling is a key tool for work on the environmental justice dimensions of the health humanities (Bleakley, Wilson, and Allard 2020; Sze 2020). What frequently motivates and sustains people’s involvements in such social movements are the power and resonance of stories—stories that narrate the injustices that must be confronted and stories that paint a vision of a more desirable and ecologically healthy future. Environmental justice activists and scholars often narrate stories that detail the struggles of marginalized individuals and communities facing terrifying public health threats that directly impact the well-being of their family members and friends who are exposed to exceedingly high levels of pollution in their food, water, air, land, and/or homes. In these stories, the immediate sources of those exposures to disproportionate environmental threats are usually government agencies or corporations (and often both), while the broader causes are associated with racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. Thus, in these stories, activists and community members must mobilize their bodies and their own narratives to engender support (often as much from national and global stakeholders as local ones) to remedy these injustices. A number of scholars—in and beyond the health humanities—have argued that while the hegemonic production of social difference engenders discrimination and oppression, the spaces that difference makes are also sites and opportunities for realizing and fomenting social justice and counterhegemonic cultural practices (Gutierrez and DasGupta 2016). The environmental justice movement is one such effort: individuals and communities living with health-impairing environmental injustices associated with racial, class, or anti-Indigenous discrimination are also making spaces for using that experience of oppression to critique and transform the arrangements that created that differential value system in the first place. And storytelling is one mode of creating those critical spaces.
The act and art of storytelling can assist communities in thinking deeply about their state of health and their relationship to the environment and in developing ideas and language that have the potential to unsettle dominant narratives through critique and other forms of resistance (B. Rose et al. 2012). These approaches can offer scholars and advocates tools for developing global public and environmental health narratives that step outside of the confines of traditional clinical narratives regarding individual health and medicine. As Hutchings (2014, 214) writes, “Effort must increasingly be made [toward] mobilizing (radical) change ‘on the ground,’ be it in the form of actively spreading counternarratives or (re)building healthy communities and places.” Stefania Barca (2014) and Donna Houston (2013) have both proposed a framework that links the health humanities to environmental justice politics and narrative work. They argue that communities facing industrial contamination have been exposed to a form of “narrative injustice” and “narrative violence” in that their experiences with the negative health impacts of environmental injustice have largely been made invisible and silenced by dominant institutions and ways of knowing. This erasure and silencing carries a triple price: (1) it suppresses the voices of those communities directly affected by environmental injustice, (2) it makes it that much more difficult for these communities to access the health-protective resources they need to address the physiological and psychological effects of environmental injustice, and (3) it serves to produce and amplify ignorance of such struggles in other communities that could also be impacted by industrial toxins and/or where allies and accomplices might be found. Barca (2014) contends that a productive response to this violence is “telling the right story” by uncovering and/or coproducing environmentally just narratives that reflect the experiences and desires of impacted communities. Armiero et al. (2019) build on that idea and argue that storytelling with and by environmental justice community activists is a method and practice that involves both collecting and communicating stories as well as building community. These are methods, tactics, and strategies that can effectively narrate pathways toward racial and environmental justice by mobilizing people around the value of protecting their health, the health of their loved ones, and the health of the land they depend on.
One of the larger lessons of the struggle against environmental injustice and health disparities is not just that people of color and other marginalized communities are facing disproportionate harm but also that the systems of racial domination that produce these inequities also harm the majority’s ability to access healthy environments and to secure their own well-being (Metzl 2019). In other words, environmental racism, environmental injustice, and health discrimination result in negative impacts for nearly everyone, not just vulnerable populations. Thus, the enclosures that segregate, dispossess, and target oppressed groups in ways that jeopardize their health and well-being also have much broader socioecological consequences that reveal a global ecology of interdependence and accountability. That is a story in need of telling—repeatedly.