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Sociolegal Studies, Disaster, Climate Change


 By Susan Sterett
 Picture: Sugarloaf Ridge State Park Kenwood, Sonoma County California, May 2017

 The devastation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, Houston and Florida, the hurricanes, the fires in California, the fires in British Columbia, are not visible enough in sociolegal scholarship, to our loss. Students and others find the overlap of humanitarian assistance, weather events, and climate change compelling; they also lose. Anthropologists who work internationally have pointed out the difficult governance in humanitarian assistance outside the United States: what is the life that is saved? What are the tools essential to saving lives? What kind of governing does lifesaving justify? How do the NGOs who contract governing in disaster, including in disastrous states, bring law? Humanitarian assistance is where many young people want to be, and it looks like where the help is. It’s often militarized, and governs in exception. Often left unacknowledged is the role of law. Yet people and organizations bring law in catastrophe and humanitarian governance, in wars and international disasters. Climate change contributes to the extreme and unpredictable nature of storms. What does that say about the actuarial reasoning that has drawn sociolegal scholars analyzing assistance?

In the United States, changing the lens we use to assess these disasters and dislocations makes evident the centrality of fires and other disasters to regulation and distribution of assistance, both at the state level and the national. Not only the victims get payments; the United States courts would accept payments to firefighters and their charities as cities argued firefighters could, possibly, help manage the fires that swept through cities in the nineteenth century.

People bring their lives before the law to humanitarian assistance. As a climate scientist said to me, doing something about climate change requires doing something about racial inequality in the United States. Disasters upend expectations about legal status. Pressing sociolegal issues include how people understand the law as it applies to them, how legal institutions interpret law, how legal decisions change their meaning as people mobilize the law, and how laws define the beginnings and long, long ends of disaster. After the earthquake in Haiti, people who fled could claim temporary protected status; the current administration is considering dialing that back. Legal scholarship shows the rules requiring documentation that can be difficult for low-income people. Sociolegal scholarship shows what people do to make their lives match the law, ripe with opportunities for being cheated, without encouraging a belief in the legitimacy of law. As one person explained to me after Katrina, he produced the lease demanded of him for him to be able to claim relief, though carrying a lease had not been high on his to-do list when fleeing the flood. The internet helped.

If poor people are a heterogeneous group, as John Gilliom has argued, made legible by government programs, people in need after a disaster are an even more heterogeneous group. Government assistance maps people in flows based in often opaque decisionmaking far from the disaster site.

Disaster assistance intersects with lives already before the law, with overlapping logics that can lead to difficult decisions. People are undocumented. Living under fear of deportation that only increases with increasing visibility before the law. What does mistrusting the law under police violence mean in the long aftermath of disaster?

As I write, Sonoma County in California is burning. Most of the United States notices it as a place to vacation, calling it wine country. Coverage of the fires make clear that people live there, too. My mother has lived there for 41 years, and my father learned to swim there as a child. My cousin and I marveled at what hotels can charge, based in what the NYT wrote up. Places I have hiked are now devastated. My daughter and I have worked at a food bank there, which has distributed thousands of meals every month, including to homeless people encamped nearby. (The food bank is closed due to the fire.) What people make of the law and how people strategize through the law are central in findings in sociolegal studies. Memory often is not. Public discussion about loss can turn people into the victimization in disaster, with little room in disaster relief to publicly remember lives outside of disaster, or heroism, or grief at the loss of homes and pets. Andrea Rees Davies, writing about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, explains that people carry with them ‘disaster remnants.’ As the historian Scott Knowles has pointed out, the United States has not raised an enduring memorial to those who suffered in Katrina. The recent turn to noticing emotion in law offers a lens to see how disaster governance recognizes lives or brackets off as irrelevant, making subjects before the law.

Disaster assistance is marginal assistance: insurance is exhausted first, and charity from NGOs is crucial. The public policy goal is to return people to the state they were in before the disaster, though the money can run out. Maybe the disaster will be a reason to build new supportive housing, but maybe not. Maybe disaster voucher programs will work well for people, but maybe not. Mapping disasters over time, economists have argued the poorest stay behind after disaster. How, though? What are the legal encounters, from casework to international rights claims? How do people’s experiences with the law before disaster influence those legal encounters? The guidelines for displaced persons offer hope in human rights analyses of displacement due to climate change. What does that hope mean when people bring their claims in something other than the rarefied air of supranational rights writings?

Special thanks to Jeannine Bell and Margot Young
Law and Society Review

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