On Saturday November 7 join the LRWP and sculpture artist Tobiah Horton (Rubble R & D) during a “work day” as Toby installs a new sculpture #lookfortheriver: FRAME in New Brunswick’s Boyd Park Raritan River riverfront.
New Brunswick’s Boyd Park floodplain suffers repeat flood inundation, and serves as a protective “sponge” for other parts of New Brunswick. The #lookfortheriver: FRAME sculpture tells the story of infrastructure that is at-risk of flood inundation due to climate change and sea level rise. The sculpture is a living symbol of how removal of structures (in this case a house) from our floodplains allows for ecological restoration and regeneration, and fosters resilience.
Toby and the LRWP will explain how our FRAMES sculpture will function as a data gathering tool! Through repeat digital photography uploaded to social media, passersby participate in civic science data collection about sea level rise, land use change, and resilience. Data gathered will allow for prioritization of resilience and restoration planning.
With thanks to many wonderful partners and funders for their support on this project.
Grant funding has been provided by the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders Through a grant award from the Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund.
Program funded by Middlesex County, a partner of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
And with special thanks to the New Jersey Council for the Humanities
We have learned a lot about ignorance in the last several years, enough in fact for ignorance to now be the focus of its own research field called “agnotology.” The basic idea of agnotology is that ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, but something that has been itself historically constituted.
Mark Ruffalo’s 2019 film Dark Waters – a study of how DuPont and the US Environmental Protection Agency perpetuated ignorance about the harms related to Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOAs and the presence of PFOAs in the lands and waters of West Virginia – is a great example of agnotology research. Also on the shelf of agnotology studies is The Guardian’s examination of the case of Flint, Michigan where, for at least a year and a half after hundreds of public complaints about “foul smelling drinking water as dark as coffee,” local politicians suppressed environmental and public health information.
We know from both these cases – and a seemingly endless set
of additional examples including mounting climate crises around the world –
that ignorance has major destructive and devastating consequences.
The core questions that agnotology asks are: How has ignorance
been historically constituted? And how (and why) have we allowed ignorance to
Applying this line of thinking to environmental assaults, we
need to ask: how are ordinary people at times complicit in perpetuating the
ignorance that wreaks environmental harm and injustices?
One way to start to understand our construction of ignorance
is to examine the perspectives we bring to consider environmental harm and
injustice in the first place. Take the two different starting points of the
Precautionary Principle and Risk Assessment.
In 1992 I interned with the United Nations Association in
preparation for the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and helped develop a
compendium of documents on global approaches to addressing environmental
concerns. One such approach was the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary
Principle suggests that environmental policy involve anticipating harm and
taking appropriate precautions. That is, possible harms are considered
pre-emptively as part of development of any new policy. The precautionary
principle has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of
uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity;
exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and
increasing public participation in decision making. The Precautionary Principle
guides policy making in many countries, and is the foundation of the strongest
and most comprehensive US federal environmental protection programs including
the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances
Control Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
For the last several decades, the Precautionary Principle
has been superseded by an alternative approach to policy and decision making
called “risk assessment.” With respect to environmental hazards, risk
assessment seeks to balance pollution against profit and economic growth. Assessments
of risk are carried out by regulatory agencies responsible for protecting
environmental and human health, and these entities set pollutant limits and
site-specific assessments. Industry is then responsible for complying with
legislation and site-specific decisions. Risk assessment is the default
approach for oil companies and other climate deniers. Risk assessment was the
default approach for DuPont, the EPA and Flint. As our mounting climate
concerns, the Dark Waters film, and the Flint water crisis make clear, the
“risk assessment” approach has failed us.
Agnotology pushes us to see how our ignorance is socially
constructed. That is, do we consider potential environmental harm and injustice
as something we must actively plan to avoid based on specific societal goals of
environmental well-being and justice (Precautionary Principle)? Or do we
instead choose to consider environmental harm and injustice in the context of
unknown future scenarios and risk calculations (Risk Assessment)?
Of course the Precautionary Principle and Risk Assessment are not the only approaches to bring to these considerations. Communities and societies around the world are wrestling with hybrid or other distinct approaches to reduce harms. The point is however, that if we hope to prevent future disasters in places like West Virginia and Flint, if we are to take action to avoid contributing to climate impacts, we need to think harder about how we know what we know about the impacts of our decisions to cause environmental harm and injustice. Making decisions while reflecting on them from an agnotological perspective – that is thinking about what we don’t know and how and why we don’t know it – is a good place to start.
At-risk Superfund sites in the Lower Raritan Watershed include:
Federal Creosote, Manville
CPS/Madison Industries, Old Bridge
American Cyanamid, Bridgewater
Fried Industries, East Brunswick
Kin-Buc Landfill, Edison
Global Sanitary Landfill, Old Bridge
Renora Inc., Edison
Brook Industrial Park, Bound Brook
JIS Landfill, South Brunswick
Chemical Insecticide Corporation, East Brunswick
Monroe Township Landfill, Monroe
Sayreville Landfill, Sayreville
South Brunswick Landfill, South Brunswick
Myers Property, Franklin Township
Evor Industries, Old Bridge
Horseshoe Road, Sayreville
Higgins Farm, Franklin Township
Cornell Dubilier, South Plainfield
Atlantic Resources, Sayreville
Franklin Burn, Franklin Township
Raritan Bay Slag, Old Bridge/Sayreville
Woodbridge Road Dump, South Plainfield
Burnt Fly Bog, Marlboro
Concerns of risks posed by legacy pollutants, particularly in light of sea level rise and climate change, have long been on the LRWP’s radar. These concerns motivate our grant-seeking to protect inland communities from potentially toxic sediment deposition through tidal marsh restoration, and watershed partners will receive support through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to develop an engineering plan with a permit-ready design to start to protect vulnerable South River residents from riverine flooding and storm flows, and what we already know are toxic flows of sediment into their neighborhoods.
In coming months the LRWP will analyze the GAO and other data, prioritizing focus areas, and wrestling with what the Superfund report means in terms of restoration and resiliency planning for our watershed going forward. We will also be working to develop a strategy to best position ourselves to hold state and federal entities accountable for clean-up, protecting our communities, and similar.