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Department of Spatial Planning

Studying the socio-ecological metabolism of sacrifice zones through citizen-generated geodata

Sacrifice zones are environmentally alienated territories facing environmental violence, degradation, and destruction. Being a term once used in the Cold War to describe territories assigned to nuclear purposes, highly contaminated for uranium mining and processing, the term sacrifice zone is nowadays mainly used to describe various forms of environmental injustice at different spatial levels and scales. We investigate how people living in sacrifice zones attach themselves to their voluntarily or involuntarily chosen homes.

Environmental justice is a multifaceted concept involving humans and their relations to the environment. Humans and their various forms of social organisation form an integral part of practically all ecosystems. Understanding the different anthropocentric components of environmental justice therefore requires exploring in-depth the intricacies between humans and ecological processes. These intricacies give rise to so-called socio-ecological systems, which are investigated in a wide array of contexts including resilience, sustainability, multi-scale and hierarchical systems, among others. Socio-ecological systems are not uni-dimensional but consist of many subsystems interacting at multiple levels, exacerbating an analogy to an organism’s metabolism. This analogy is also used in our research on sacrifice zones in order to facilitate a better understanding of cities and regions as complex, interwoven systems.  Most common cases of sacrifice zones are permeated by extractivism, such as coal mining in West Virginia, USA and Hambach, Germany; gold and silver mining in San Luis Potosí, Mexico; steel milling in Gary, IN, USA; and gas plants in Ontario, Canada. But some sacrifice zones are characterised by industrialism, and sometimes logistics, as the main threat to their immediate environment and environmental health. Examples include the industrial clusters in Quintero, Chile and Gdansk, Poland. No matter how different these examples are, common ground can be found among all sacrifice zones. Oftentimes, public policy-making in such areas perpetuates the pollution cycle, either by execution or omission of said policies. Also, faulty decisions are frequently taken in the expectation of misconceived development, which then affects the wellbeing of affected populations. Having this in mind, this research proposes two innovative approaches. First, we aim to understand sacrifice zones as socio-ecological systems. Employing the notion of socio-ecological metabolism, this allows us to analyse these territories holistically while at the same time considering and understanding their different subsystems, drivers, and conceptions individually. This way, we are able to identify different kinds of impacts on distributive, procedural, and corrective processes, as well as on social justice. Second, we incorporate a place-based perspective to understand and categorise said contexts and impacts from an inhabitant's point of view. This strategy allows us to not only understand sacrifice zones but also how people see themselves and their lives in such territories.

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