In the fall of 2007, the University of Iowa’s Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) sponsored a semester-long event entitled “Toxic Talk: A Symposium on Disciplinary Rhetorics, Environmental Justice, and Sustainability.” I had the opportunity to organize and conduct it.
The symposium was designed to put people from diverse disciplines into conversation with one another, and to do so in a manner that might increase public understanding about what is at stake in arguments about toxic chemicals, environmental justice, and sustainability. It sought to bridge the gap between scholars who work in the physical and social sciences and those who focus on the arts and the humanities, while also spanning the even larger divide between the scholarly community and the diverse publics who are affected by the production and use of toxic chemicals.
Several scholars presented papers that were discussed as part of POROI’s Faculty Rhetoric Seminar series, including: my “Transforming Rubbertown”; U of Iowa professor Lucie Laurian’s “Environmental Justice, Ongoing Causal and Methodological Debates”; independent writer Sue Futrell’s “Little Reactor on the Prairie: Stories from an Atomic Oral History”; and U of Iowa professor Peter Thorne’s “Environmental Health Impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: Anticipating Hazards—Searching for Solutions.”
Midway through the semester Timothy Beatley (a professor at the University of Virginia and author of Green Urbanism) presented two public lectures entitled “Good Placemaking in Iowa City” and “Native to Nowhere.”
The symposium culminated with a conference on November 2-3, which included contributions from two MacArthur Prize winners: Wilma Subra, a chemist who works with minority communities that believe they have been unjustly exposed to hazardous chemicals; and Naomi Wallace, a playwright whose new play “The Hard Weather Boating Party” was given a staged reading by actors in the University of Iowa’s Theater Department.
In addition to Subra and Wallace’s play, the conference featured presentations by six University of Iowa professors from diverse disciplines (Laurence Fuortes, Gerard Rushton, Julie Andsager, Naresh Kumar, Craig Just, and Andre Brock); Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and author of Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Social Justice; Arnita Gadson, environmental justice coordinator for the West Jefferson County Community Task Force in Louisville, Kentucky; Harrell Hurst a professor of toxicology and pharmacology at the University of Louisville; and the screening of a new documentary film, “Libby, Montana,” followed by a discussion with a co-director of the film, Drury Dunn Carr.
The presentations included: Fuortes’ “The Legacy of the Manhattan Project and Cold War in Iowa”; Rushton’s “Mapping the Geography of Cancer”; Andsager’s “Power Disparities in Stakeholders’ Ability to Frame Environmental Justice Issues in the News”; Kumar’s “Air Quality Regulation in Delhi, India: Environmental Justice or Injustice?”; Just’s “Economic Growth Versus the Environment in Mexico”; Brock’s “Intersections: Discourses of Social and Environmental Justice on Black Websites”; and Agyeman’s “Just Sustainability.”
Subra, Gadson, and Hurst used a 60-year-old chemical complex (“Rubbertown”) on the southwest side of Louisville, Kentucky, as an illustrative case of environmental injustice and the complexity of moving toward sustainability. Their presentations included Gadson’s “Organizing a Community to Protect its Health”; Hurst’s “Industrial Chemicals and Public Health Risks in Louisville”; and Subra’s “Educating and Empowering Environmental Justice Communities in Rubbertown.”
A number of contributors and co-sponsors helped make the Toxic Talks possible: the departments of communication studies, geography, and theatre arts, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the intermedia area of the School of Art and Art History, all part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Program in Urban and Regional Planning, the School of Library and Information Science, the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, the Institute for Cinema and Culture, International Programs, the Institute of Inequality Studies, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research.
The Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorships Program was established in 1978-79 based on a bequest from the late Ida Beam of Vinton, Iowa, who willed her family farm to the UI Foundation. The proceeds from the farm’s sale enabled the UI to establish a fund that brings top scholars in a variety of fields to the university for lectures and discussions.