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College of Social & Behavioral Sciences
Paul Prew Biographiical Statement
The following is an excerpt from Paul Prew. Forthcoming.“Environmental Sociology with Paul Prew” in Collective Sociology: An Introduction to Sociology eBook. Boise: Ashbury Publishing

My interest in the environment was conditioned from a very young age. I spent much of my childhood in the “driftless” area of Wisconsin, a hilly area in the Midwest that was not scoured flat in the last glacial period. Summers would be spent wandering the hills, grazing on wild strawberries, raspberries and the occasional wild grape. Much of my extended family was involved in farming, and my grandfather supported the region’s agriculture by working at the local fertilizer plant.Grandpa and Fertilizer Conveyer

I recall touring the facility as a child. It had a very distinctive odor that permeated not only the factory floor, but also the maintenance building a short distance away. My grandfather’s work area in the maintenance building was covered in fertilizer. The break room where the workers dined, as well as my grandfather’s truck interior, was also bathed in a thin film of fertilizer. His tools are still scarred with the rust produced by extended contact with these chemicals.

I also remember touring the manager’s building, but it was immaculate. Instead of open windows, it was climate controlled, air conditioned and free from the dusty residue that coated the other workers. It was a clear lesson in social class, where the privileged, highly paid workers could avoid the adverse health effects of the product they produced. The low-paid manual laborers were not afforded the same courtesy.

Eventually, my grandfather developed bladder cancer, a cancer possibly associated with exposure to fertilizer (Marsh, Gula, Youk & Cassidy, 2002; Weyer, Cerhan, Kross, Hallberg, Kantamneni, Breuer, ]ones, Zheng & Lynch, 2001). At one point, a blood clot obstructed his urethra, and the small hospital in my hometown did not have the ability to catheterize him, so they needed to transport him more than an hour to the nearest medical facility that could perform the procedure. While we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the curtain surrounding his bed was flung open, and I saw my grandfather dancing as if his feet were on fire, blood dripping from his penis to the floor below. He looked up at me, and through his gritted teeth implored me, “Never get old.” I replied, “I never planned on it.”
Train Door
My response was a feeling of anger at the inequality of a working class existence and the knowledge that working class people do not have the luxury of enjoying their retirement, even if they live that long. Their bodies are too broken, or they die of diseases related to their employment, or they are simply killed on the job. My anger was heightened by the obvious pain my grandfather suffered, and this is not a man who was unable to bear pain. Years before, while working at the fertilizer plant, he found an open train-car door on his rounds as foreman. When he attempted to close it, the door fell off, gouged the cement belowand landed on my grandfather, shattering his safety helmet and crushing his vertebrae. Luckily, there was a slight downward grade in the roadway leading to the rail line that allowed my grandfather to scratch his way out from below the heavy train door.

My interest in the social sciences is rooted in the reality of my working class upbringing. I have little time, or respect, for social scientists who study frivolous phenomena such as quirky subcultures, isolated deviant behavior, or popular culture. I call them “whoopee cushion sociologists.” There are too many grave concerns that need attention in our global societies to focus on such meaningless tripe. My own personal history of trauma leads me to this flagrant bias of perspective, but there is a larger story to be told beyond my own.

Our focus, as a society, but also as social scientists, is currently one of ignoring the environment in which we are an inseparable part. Those who are too preoccupied with the frivolous aspects of our society reveal themselves through their unthinking behavior. We concern ourselves with our own pleasure, which is predominantly at the expense of the environment and others in our contemporary society. We do not know the ecological effects of our choices, nor do we know how others around the world suffer to bring us the conveniences we come to see as natural.

Not all societies are so unthinkingly oblivious. Folklorist Barre Toelken (1976: 14) mentioned a story about the Hopi of the Southwest United States. He said, “I once asked a Hopi whom I met in that country, ‘Do you mean to say, then, that if I kick the ground with my foot, it will botch everything up, so nothing will grow?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know whether that would happen or not, but it would just really show what kind of person you are.’” By kicking the ground, a person exposes a lack of respect for and knowledge of nature’s importance. Not only does this story relate to our relationship to the Earth, it also speaks to how people spend their lives. Gouging the earth with your shoe is akin to spending your life’s work expressly avoiding the struggles of fellow human beings; it shows what kind of person you are.

Dr. Martin Luther King (1991: 416-417), in his last speech before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, implored his audience to actively intervene on others’ behalf. He said,
“That's the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job.’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That's the question.”
The Earth will persist long after the human species ceases to walk through its environment. The question before us at this point in time is whether we will take a moment of our lives to address those crucial environmental issues that not only threaten the most vulnerable of us, but will eventually threaten the very integrity of our societies. Working people have long fought and died to improve our society. The eight-hour workday, food safety regulation, social security, civil rights legislation, women’s suffrage, etc., are all the result of these efforts. Without the blood and sweat struggles of working folks, we would suffer a much bleaker existence. Without action, we face a grim future, but my optimism is in the capacity of working people to right the wrongs and to create, with their minds and hands, a brighter future together. My writing, teaching and everyday activism is an effort to help us move toward that brighter future.

King, M. L. Jr. (1991). "I See the Promised Land." Pp. 409-19 in Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, edited by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine. New York: Penguin.

Marsh, G. M., Gula, M. J., Youk, A. O., & Cassidy, L. D. (2002). "Bladder Cancer Among Chemical Workers Exposed to Nitrogen Products and Other Substances." American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 42, 286–95.

Toelken, B. (1976). "Seeing with a Native Eye: How Many Sheep Will It Hold." Pp. 9-24 in Seeing With a Native Eye: Essays on Native American Religion, edited by Walter Holden Capps. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Weyer, P. J., Cerhan, J. R., Kross, B. C., Hallberg, G. R., Kantamneni, J., Breuer, G., ]ones, M. P., Zheng, W., & Lynch, C. F. (2001). "Municipal Drinking Water Nitrate Level and Cancer Risk in Older Women: The Iowa Women’s Health Study." Epidemiology, 11, (3), 327-38.