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Mechanisms of social vulnerability to environmental hazards

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Environmental hazards and disaster researchers have demonstrated strong associations between sociodemographic indicators, such as age and socio-economic status (SES), and hazard exposures and health outcomes for individuals and in certain

Environmental hazards and disaster researchers have demonstrated strong associations between sociodemographic indicators, such as age and socio-economic status (SES), and hazard exposures and health outcomes for individuals and in certain communities. At the same time, behavioral health and risk communications research has examined how individual psychology influences adaptive strategies and behaviors in the face of hazards. However, at present, we do not understand the explanatory mechanisms that explain relationships between larger scale social structure, individual psychology, and specific behaviors that may attenuate or amplify risk. Extreme heat presents growing risks in a rapidly warming and urbanizing world. This dissertation examines the social and behavioral mechanisms that may explain inequitable health outcomes from exposure to concurrent extreme heat and electrical power failure in Phoenix, AZ and extreme heat in Detroit, MI. Exploratory analysis of 163 surveys in Phoenix, AZ showed that age, gender, and respondent’s racialized group identity did not relate to thermal discomfort and self-reported heat illness, which were only predicted by SES (StdB = -0.52, p < 0.01). Of the explanatory mechanisms tested in the study, only relative air conditioning intensity and thermal discomfort explained self-reported heat illness. Thermal discomfort was tested as both a mechanism and outcome measure. Content analysis of 40 semi-structured interviews in Phoenix, AZ revealed that social vulnerability was associated with an increase in perceived hazard severity (StdB = 0.44, p < 0.01), a decrease in perceived adaptation efficacy (StdB = -0.38, p = 0.02), and an indirect increase (through adaptive efficacy) in maladaptive intentions (StdB = 0.18, p = 0.01). Structural equation modeling of 244 surveys in Phoenix, AZ and Detroit, MI revealed that relationships between previous heat illness experience, perceived heat risk, and adaptive intentions were significantly moderated by adaptive capacity: high adaptive capacity households were more likely to undertake adaptive behaviors, and those decisions were more heavily influenced by risk perceptions and previous experiences. However, high adaptive capacity households had lower risk perceptions and fewer heat illness experiences than low adaptive capacity households. A better understanding of the mechanisms that produce social vulnerability can facilitate more salient risk messaging and more targeted public health interventions. For example, public health risk messaging that provides information on the efficacy of specific adaptations may be more likely to motivate self-protective action, and ultimately protect populations.

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  • 2019

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Gardens of justice: food-based social movements in underserved, minority communities

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Residents of the United States increasingly support organic and local food systems. New Social Movement theorists have described alternative agriculture as a social movement that transcends social class. Other scholars

Residents of the United States increasingly support organic and local food systems. New Social Movement theorists have described alternative agriculture as a social movement that transcends social class. Other scholars have critiqued alternative agriculture for catering to a middle-class, white public. Simultaneously, geographers have identified communities across the United States that struggle with reduced access to healthy fruits and vegetables. In some of these neighborhoods, known as “food deserts,” local groups are redefining an inequitable distribution of healthy food as a social injustice, and they have begun initiatives to practice “food justice.” The overarching research questions of this study are: 1) How do communities become food deserts? 2) How do food justice movements crystallize and communities practice food justice? 3) What are the social outcomes of food justice movements? Using an Ecology of Actors framework, this study analyzes the actors and operational scales of three food justice movements in Phoenix, Arizona. A narrative analysis of historical scholarly materials and other artifacts reveals that, for more than a century, some communities have tried to create minority-operated local food systems. However, they were thwarted by racist policies and market penetration of the conventional US food system. Interviews with residents, garden organizers and food justice advocates living and working in the city create a narrative of the present day struggle for food justice. Results of this work show that contemporary residents describe their foodscape as one of struggle, and carless residents rely upon social networks to access healthy food. Garden organizers and gardeners are creating networks of community gardens, market gardens, and informal farmers’ markets. They are actively transforming their communities’ landscapes with sophisticated garden ecology in an intense urban heat island. However, the movement’s continued success may be threatened. Many new Phoenix-based local food coalitions and national alternative agriculture social movements are now working to alter Phoenix’s foodscape. Composed of well-educated professionals, who have adopted a justice-based language around food, these organizations may unintentionally co-opt the local food justice movements.

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  • 2015