From Ethical Politics
Environmental Justice efforts can generally be defined as advancing equal and fair access to the environments in which people live, work, worship, and play; supporting equal protection under the law and just enforcement of all environmental regulations.
Environmental justice involves rectifying the disproportionate burdens select communities have suffered as a result of the placement of environmental hazards. Environmental justice seeks to highlight and rectify the inequitable distribution of natural resources and the disproportionate placement of environmental toxins through grassroots activism and legal action.
The environmental movement in the United States has traditionally focused on resource conservation and species preservation, while international efforts have been more expansive and incorporated the concept of environmental justice. The United States has seen an increasing inclusion of environmental justice within the framework of the environmental movement since the late 1960s.
Environmental racism is the social injustice represented by the disproportionately large number of health and environmental risks cast upon communities of color. Historically, communities of color have been unable to accrue sufficient financial, political, and legal resources to organize and oppose the siting of toxic facilities. Polluting industries are also attracted to low-income and neighborhoods of color because land values, labor, and other costs of doing business are lower. Globally, this can be seen in actions such as the export of electronic waste from developed nations to developing ones. Companies may perceive these communities to be the paths of least resistance.
Predicated on the acknowledgment of environmental racism, environmental justice defines environmental rights as civil rights. In the United States, the Civil Rights movement laid the groundwork for environmental justice through the use of litigation and mass movements as instruments of change. National attention was brought to these struggles in 1982 when residents of Warren County, North Carolina, protested plans to situate a toxic waste landfill in their community. The landfill was to store soil contaminated by 30,000 gallons of oil containing Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) that had been illegally sprayed along roadsides in 14 North Carolina counties. PCBs are persistent organic pollutants that do not easily degrade and accumulate in the tissue of animals and humans at higher rates than can be absorbed and eliminated. At the time, Warren County, chosen from ninety proposed sites, had the highest percentage of African-American residents in the state. The county was 64% black, and, out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, ranked 97th in per capita income.
The Warren County struggle was the catalyst for the landmark 1987 “Toxic Waste and Race” report compiled by the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice. In this report, Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr. originated the term "environmental racism,” defined as racial discrimination in the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in minority communities through strategic siting, government policy, unequal enforcement of laws and regulations, and the exclusion of minority stakeholders from mainstream environmental groups, decision-making boards, commissions and regulatory bodies. The UCC study highlighted the direct correlation between the location of hazardous waste sites and minority populations. More recently, the United Church of Christ released an update of its original report Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. The study reaffirmed that race and place matter. Significant racial and socio-economic disparities persist in the placement of hazardous waste facilities and polluting industries. Legal remediation is inconsistent, and communities of color and low-income communities continue to face unequal protection under the law.
Environmental justice and environmentalists
The environmental justice movement is comprised of people who do not typically identify themselves as “environmentalists.” These citizens, grassroots organizers, and advocates have a vested stake in the environment but may not participate in organizations exclusively dedicated to nature conservation. While environmental groups have dedicated themselves to highlighting the plights of species extinction and climate change, the environmental justice movement strives to put a human face on these issues and address the preservation of communities through the inclusion of local stakeholders.
Environmental justice and climate change
Recent environmental events demonstrate that the struggle for environmental justice is ongoing and amassing greater interest. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2007 sought to develop a road map to tackle climate change but failed to set binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and used market mechanisms as the primary means of change. Because agrarian-based developing nations are most vulnerable to climate disruptions, these official decisions spawned sideline discussions among activists working to increase civilian participation and define just climate parameters and policies. The growing green-jobs movement expands environmental justice and uses employment as an instrument of social change, working to revitalize low-income communities and communities of color through the transformation of blue-collar jobs and the creation of localized jobs in renewable energy, recycling, and other environmental industries.
Environmental justice requires us to rethink our relationship with our own and neighboring communities and expand our understanding of the environment; it is as much about saving people as preserving wildlife. The struggle for clean air, clean soil, and clean water benefits everyone. Acknowledging and understanding political and social divisions of race, class, and gender are fundamental to shifting the global organization of environmental inequality and justice for all.
Author: Simran Sethi