Allergies, Environmental Justice, Theory, and Audience: Part II with Author Gregg Mitman

Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

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Part 2 with Gregg Mitman, discussing his book Breathing Space, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.


WF: Given the class issues you deal with, the book is also a contribution to the history of environmental justice. How would you characterize environmental justice and issues of health?

GM: I think it is difficult to separate out issues of environmental and social injustice. When you combine inadequate access to health care, for example, with increased exposure to air pollution caused by the siting of bus depots in poor, urban communities, you have a classic example of how economic, social, and environmental inequalities are inextricably linked. To me, when differential exposures to environmental hazards in society are firmly grounded in differences of power, be they rooted in class or race, we can speak of environmental injustice.

WF: How explicit was this goal of speaking to EJ issues from the start?

GM: I always knew I would include a chapter on the history of the current urban asthma epidemic that would address issues of environmental justice. I hadn't anticipated at the beginning how much class would come to be a major thread throughout the book. That really struck home, not only in doing the research, but also when I interviewed my brother-in-law, Akheem Torres, who emigrated from Puerto Rico to New York City with his family in the mid-1950s, and whose sister Millie developed asthma. Akheem and I even went out to New York City together to visit the old neighborhoods where he lived, because I wanted to get a physical sense of the places where the first wave of urban asthma epidemics in the 1960s were happening. Where did they play as kids? What kind of exposures were they subject to? Reading or hearing about it was simply no substitute for being there, even though these neighborhoods had obviously changed. And the contrasts between his sister's life experience and mine, growing up as an asthmatic in a white, middle-class home, brought the issues of class and race to the fore in a much more physically tangible way.

WF: The eminent historian Gordon Wood has a new collection of essays out, called The Purpose of the Past. I kept thinking about that as I read your book. What's the purpose of this history?

GM: I'm at a stage in my life and career where I feel it is important to use this incredible opportunity and privilege I have been given as an academic and bring, in whatever modest way I can, the power of storytelling to bear on building a more environmentally just world. We are living in a country with huge environmental and social inequalities--the stakes are too high to simply write for each other in a small, hyper-professionalized field. And I fear this is what the field of history of science has increasingly become. The normative, political strand of the history of science that really energized me in grad school--reflected in the writings of Donna Haraway, Bob Young, and others--seems to have become increasingly muted in the profession. So, I wrote this history hoping to offer stories that could empower EJ groups in their fight to address the urban asthma epidemic, and also, perhaps naively, to inform health care policy. The United States has gradually abandoned public health as a common good in favor of an approach to healthcare based on consumer choice. It works okay if you can afford health insurance, but 47 million Americans cannot. I've lived in Canada and Germany, two countries that have universal health care. So I know what a difference it can make when health is considered a public good and universal human right. If this book can awaken even a few individuals to the consequences a reductionistic, biomedical, consumer approach to health care, coupled with environmental inequality, has had on American life, I'll feel like it has met its intended purpose.

WF: The book has a clear and accessible style. In your experience, what is different about writing for a broader audience rather than a strictly academic one? What did you choose to give up and what did you embrace when you decided to pitch this book at a wider readership?

GM: You have to be willing to give up theory to write for a broader audience. I am quite interested in questions of theory and historiography, and the book draws heavily on theoretical strands within science studies, history of science, and historical and cultural geography in its themes, issues, and narrative structure. But you have to make that theory invisible to the reader. And you have to be willing to pay the price for that; there is a professional cost. I also had to spend much more time on character development and plot structure in trying to keep the attention of the reader.

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Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

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This discussion so far has been great. Id like to take Prof. Mitman back to the question of normativity. Its an issue that has gained much momentum in the broader arena of science studies in recent years (another turn to some; while others lament the loss of good ole-fashioned empirical descriptions from objective social scientists critiquing the flawed objectivity of their subjects). But Im still unclear what it means. I can see how this book can be viewed as one example of being normative that is creating a product that can both highlight the problem and perhaps suggest new directions. Can you talk more about the ways in which scholarship can become more normative or perhaps more engaged with the subjects of study?