Sunday, June 27, 2010

Edelstein, Michael - Contaminated Communities - 1988

The aim of this book is to identify the major social and psychological impacts that stem from residential toxic exposure and to examine their significance.  Edelstein bases his analysis on four postulates: 1) that the social and psychological impacts of toxic exposure involve complex interactions among the different levels of society as well as differing across time and with environmental context; 2) that these impacts affect how the victim behaves and how they understand their lives both in the short and long term; 3) that toxic exposure incidents are traumatic and invoke coping responses in their victims; and 4) that contamination is inherently stigmatizing and the very possibility of such contamination arouses fear in the public.

Toxic exposure undermines the very fabric of society.  It leads to a loss of trust, the inversion of the home (formerly seen as a safe haven, now hopelessly poisoned), a sense of a loss of control in one’s personal life and over the present and the future, a different relationship to and assessment of the environment (now seen as dangerous, and insidious in it’s dangers) and a pessimistic attitude towards one’s expectations about health.  It places the adults in contaminated families under a great deal of stress as they become isolated and stigmatized by their contamination and it teaches children to fear.

Toxic victims also become absorbed by government agencies and bureaucracies that threaten the victim’s social identity.  This is compounded by the fact that the government’s aims and values may not be the same as the values of the victim’s, especially with regard to acceptable risk, which has more to do with economic and political forces.  The regulator’s, on the other hand, have their own restrictions that they operate under.  They are bound by regulations, political realities and limited resources.

Toxic contamination in other communities leads to anticipatory fear in communities as yet untouched, resulting in the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) response, which serves to articulate citizens’ frustration over the manner by which projects are sited.  It arises, in part, from the failure of the regulators to take the psychosocial impact of these facilities seriously.  The citizens, seeing no room for compromise in the response of the regulators, regard the situation as an all-or-nothing, win-or-lose, battle.

One of the lessons that Edelstein draws from his study is the engineering fallacy, which involves the assumption that problems can be solved in isolation, away from the complicating factors and uncertainties of the real world.  If we narrow a problem enough, it will be controllable, and solvable.  He points out Bateson’s 1972 book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind as a source for an alternative method to that of traditional science and engineering.  In this approach, any learning is done within a context.  Called metalearning, it seeks to recognize the context of a problem, rather than deduce and isolate it.