6
Human Health and the Social Environment

The social environment can be defined broadly as the social conditions that influence our lives and the life of our communities. An important part of the social environment is our social connectedness, which ranges from our individual interactions with one another to interactions in groups and organizations. The concept that social connectedness is essential for ensuring human health and well-being has been the subject of much research and is now well established (see Putnam, 2000, for review).

A panel of speakers and respondents explored the concept of social capital, delineated the positive effects of social capital on health, and discussed means of restoring social capital in our communities. They also described the tenets of the environmental justice movement, discussed areas in which environmental justice is still needed, and emphasized the importance of bringing environmental justice to bear in every part of society.

SOCIAL CAPITAL

Economists often define accumulated items of worth as capital, a limited resource that enhances productivity. The term “capital” can refer to physical objects (tools, materials, structures), human properties (individual intellect, education, training), or social connections within a community (social networks, civic engagement). Whereas human capital refers only to the contribution of the individual, social capital can be defined as the accumulated connections, or social networks, among individuals and the norms of shared trustworthiness and reciprocity that arise from them (Putnam, 2000). The term “social capital” calls attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties (Putnam, 2000).

Social connections, or networks, are formed informally among family and friends and in neighborhoods, and more formally in the workplace, in places of worship, and in a variety of other organizations. Social capital implies a continu-



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 44
Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States 6 Human Health and the Social Environment The social environment can be defined broadly as the social conditions that influence our lives and the life of our communities. An important part of the social environment is our social connectedness, which ranges from our individual interactions with one another to interactions in groups and organizations. The concept that social connectedness is essential for ensuring human health and well-being has been the subject of much research and is now well established (see Putnam, 2000, for review). A panel of speakers and respondents explored the concept of social capital, delineated the positive effects of social capital on health, and discussed means of restoring social capital in our communities. They also described the tenets of the environmental justice movement, discussed areas in which environmental justice is still needed, and emphasized the importance of bringing environmental justice to bear in every part of society. SOCIAL CAPITAL Economists often define accumulated items of worth as capital, a limited resource that enhances productivity. The term “capital” can refer to physical objects (tools, materials, structures), human properties (individual intellect, education, training), or social connections within a community (social networks, civic engagement). Whereas human capital refers only to the contribution of the individual, social capital can be defined as the accumulated connections, or social networks, among individuals and the norms of shared trustworthiness and reciprocity that arise from them (Putnam, 2000). The term “social capital” calls attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties (Putnam, 2000). Social connections, or networks, are formed informally among family and friends and in neighborhoods, and more formally in the workplace, in places of worship, and in a variety of other organizations. Social capital implies a continu-

OCR for page 44
Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States ity of interaction over time and a level of trust that allows people to feel comfortable working together to accomplish goals for the common good. Social capital includes specific reciprocity between individuals and a norm of generalized reciprocity, where something is done with no expectation of immediate return but with the expectation that the return will come later from elsewhere (Putnam, 2000). In short, social capital is the “glue” that holds society together. Creating and maintaining social capital are ways of ensuring that people stay healthy and that communities are healthy environments, stated Winsome Hawkins, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. The positive effects of social capital on various areas of individual and community life have been well documented (Knack and Keefer, 1997; La Porta et al., 2000). Economic studies have shown that increased social capital makes workers more productive, businesses more effective, and nations more prosperous (Putnam, 2000). Studies indicate that high levels of social capital make individuals less prone to depression and more inclined to help each other and that social capital decreases the rate of suicide and the incidence of colds, heart disease, strokes, and cancer (Putnam, 2000). Research even suggests that joining just one group boosts life expectancy as much as if a smoker stops smoking. Sociological studies reveal that crime, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, and child abuse decrease in areas of increased social capital. Political studies show that increased social capital makes government agencies more responsive, efficient, and innovative. On an individual level, social capital ensures that if we are sick or unemployed, we will receive help from others and that we will have companionship as we enjoy the benefits of our community (Putnam, 2000). Creating and maintaining social capital are ways of ensuring that people stay healthy and that communities are healthy environments. Winsome Hawkins Throughout America’s history, levels of civic engagement have risen and fallen (Putnam, 2000). In the last 25 years, levels of social capital appear to have declined in this country (Etzioni, 1993; Putnam, 2000). A survey was recently undertaken by 40 community foundations across the nation to establish benchmark levels of social capital within their respective geographic areas (Saguaro Seminar, 2002). The study measured levels of trust, diversity and friendship, political participation, informal socializing, civic and associational involvement, giving and volunteering, and faith-based engagement. On the index of giving and volunteering, respondents in metropolitan Atlanta scored higher than the national level (39 percent versus 35 percent, respectively) (Horne, 2001), but they scored lower than the national level on social trust (24 percent versus 33 percent, respectively). Only 19 percent of metropolitan Atlanta respondents reported a high level of participation in civic activity compared with the national level of 24 percent. Hawkin noted that a comparison of social capital and indica-

OCR for page 44
Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States tors of child well-being by area of the country showed that social capital was low in areas with few indicators of child well-being. These findings suggest that levels of social capital need to be restored in the Southeast and throughout society. Where levels of trust are low, we must find ways to encourage trust and to promote the perception that individual efforts contribute to the good of the whole. Community building and social capital formation are needed to move our society forward, said Elliot Sclar. A master’s program in community building has recently been established at Columbia University, he noted. The program aims to teach students methods for strengthening the social capital of communities. These methods involve commanding resources and engaging in the political process of policy change in areas such as land use and transportation. Community building and social capital formation are needed to move our society forward. Elliot Sclar Educators need to ensure that information on community building is understandable so that all community members are inspired to engage in restoring social capital, stated Hawkins. A great deal of social capital already exists in faith communities throughout the Southeast, she noted. Building unity among these smaller community groups by bringing them together around broader issues may be an effective way to increase social capital on a larger scale. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE The environmental justice movement is a multiethnic, multicultural movement that was founded in the South in the early 1980s as a response to the placement of a toxic waste site in a predominantly poor, minority community (Bullard, 2000). The movement embraces the principle that all communities have a right to equal protection under the laws and regulations governing the environment, housing, transportation, and civil rights. Environmental justice ensures that no population, because of policy or economic disempowerment, is forced to bear a disproportionate burden of the negative human health or environmental impacts of pollution or other environmental consequences (Bullard, 1996). The impetus for the environmental justice movement has come from grassroots community groups that have forced the issue to the forefront of the nation’s attention, stated Robert Bullard, Clark Atlanta University. Through coalitions, alliances, and partnerships, these organizations have battled to keep the issues of disparity in health, environment, transportation, and housing visible to govern- The first and foremost principle, is that people must speak for themselves and that their opinions must be respected; agreement is not necessary, but respect must be maintained. Robert Bullard

OCR for page 44
Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States ment officials and to the public. Seventeen principles of environmental justice were developed at a summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991 (Lee, 1992). This principle safeguards the right of all community members, especially those who are unequally affected by environmental hazards, to participate in the dialogue that advocates change. In Atlanta, many issues involving environmental justice still need to be addressed. Large disparities among racial and ethnic groups continue to exist in land use patterns, housing, transportation, air quality, and toxic exposures. Nearly 83 percent of Atlanta’s African-American population compared to 60 percent of whites lives in zip codes that have an uncontrolled hazardous waste site. While African Americans and other minorities constitute 29.8 percent of the population in the five most populous counties that are contiguous to Atlanta (Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Clayton counties), they represent the majority of residents in five of the ten “dirtiest” zip codes in these large counties (Bullard et al., 2000). Nationally, 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in areas with substandard air quality (Wernett and Nieves, 1992). The poor air quality has a disproportionate impact on the health of poor children, poor adults, and people of color. Transportation-related air pollution has a disproportionate effect on minority populations, even though 35 percent of African Americans in Atlanta do not own cars (Bullard et al., 2000). Because members of minority groups do more walking than others, they are at greater risk for pedestrian injuries in a city that eschews safe pedestrian environments. The ever-increasing sprawl of the city, with its growing congestion and continued destruction of green space, places costs on its population that are disproportionately borne by minority members. Some panelists agreed that addressing environmental justice and forging solutions to the problems of environmental health require reaching across boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, profession, neighborhood, and county to create a dialogue. Progress can be made when we build networks based on trust and reciprocity and work together toward common goals, many speakers suggested. The environmental justice movement has borrowed much from Native Americans and indigenous people in terms of living in harmony with nature, explained Bullard. Several speakers concurred that for our long-term health as a species, we must view ourselves as a subset of the environment and make the health of the natural environment, and our place in it, our paramount goal. To create a bridge between the individualistic spirit in American society and the notion of social capital as valuable for the whole society, we must realize that each individual must make compromises for the common good. Accompanying this view must be the understanding that what is good for the whole society is also good for the individual. As educators, environmentalists, and health professionals, it is incumbent on us to create this vision in our communities.