by Pamela Neumann
Why do so many people put up with highly contaminated living conditions? Conventional academic wisdom suggests that many communities do not protest environmental degradation because they are afraid of losing their jobs. They trade their health for the promise of employment.
My recent research in the Peruvian town of La Oroya, which is plagued by dangerously high lead levels, questions this dominant framework for understanding community responses to environmental hazards.
Instead, I argue that many residents’ reluctance to protest against pervasive lead contamination is tied to deeply held perceptions and beliefs about their town’s identity, and particularly a desire to protect their community from perceived outsiders. While material incentives do drive social action (or inaction) at times, it is also imperative to analyze how localized cultural processes—such as how people make sense of their own surroundings—contribute to the dynamics of social mobilization, as well as the reproduction of economic and environmental inequalities.