Environmental Justice and Racism

The reality for many people is that their own neighborhoods are damaging their livelihood, simply due to their race

The reality for many people is that their own neighborhoods are damaging their livelihood, simply due to their race

The externalities of industrial problems that are created when industry or the government turns a blind eye do not only affect ecosystems, many times they are relocated or have solutions put off on them until economically feasible ways to take care of them are found. Two groups of people commonly neglected in these situations are minority persons and the unborn future generations of people. Historically, racism has played a large part in where pollution is produced or dumped and the environmental justice movement, based on anthropocentric ideas, has risen up to staunchly oppose this “environmental racism.” In addition, inter-generational justice is also a movement that addresses the difficulty of saving for future generations and predicting what resources they need.

One of 13 waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, NYC that are put primarily in neighborhoods of minorities. The borough of Manhattan has none.

One of 13 waste transfer stations in the Bronx that are put primarily in neighborhoods of minorities and people with low income. The borough of Manhattan has none.

Environmental Justice involves the issue of distribution of benefits as opposed to the maximum amount of benefits. Many problems of distribution involve not additional benefits such as free wifi or easy access to public transportation but much more basic necessities such as clean air and water that is available for certain minority communities to utilize. The distribution of toxic wastes and where they are eventually located is a matter of who can buy out whom. A prime example of the losers in this situation are African nations that agree to be recipients of the wastes of affluent nations. However not just other countries are subjected to this unequal treatment but unwilling communities in the United States that are usually working class or lower middle class, but are overwhelmingly composed of minorities.

African countries, such as this dump in Kenya are filled with waste from Europe that Europeans pay to have relocated.

African countries, such as Kenya are filled with dumps that have waste from Europe and are paid to hold Europeans’ relocated trash.

Philosopher John Rawls has formulated a reasoned answer to the problems with distribution in his influential study A Theory of Justice which suggested that justice may be thought of as the rational, self-interested people designing the kind of society they wished to live in.

John Rawls created a modern definition of justice theory

John Rawls created a modern definition of justice theory

Corporations have not stuck to this philosophy and have been accused often of environmental racism due to the motivations that drive them such as cheap labor and narrowing their profit margins. Milton Friedman, an economist, was on their side of the issue and questioned whether business has social responsibilities at all. He called any regulation of discrimination and pollution “socialism” and forces undermining the basis of a free society. In Friedman’s view, executives who advocated the pursuit of social objectives were spending money to other stockholders in pursuit of their favored causes. Because of this, many have reacted and created the term stakeholder, which was invented to contrast with shareholder suggesting that many individuals and groups besides shareholders have an interest in how business is done.

Environmental Racism itself was a term coined in 1987 when a study, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” was released. Defined by the EPA as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all peoples regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to environmental laws, regulations and policies it proved that race was the most influential variable in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste.

The locations of hazardous waste facilities imposed on the racial makeup of the city of Detroit

The locations of hazardous waste facilities imposed on the racial makeup of the city of Detroit

In addition, one out of every five black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites and approximately half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites among other frightening statistics. This analysis almost immediately created a reaction for change and called for the president to issue an executive order mandating all federal agencies to consider the impact of current policies and regulations on racial and ethnic communities.

The Fort Hall Indian Reservation houses unreclaimed mining pits in addition to its human tenants, something which the Native Americans living on the reservation are not happy about

The Fort Hall Indian Reservation houses unreclaimed mining pits in addition to its human tenants, something which the Native Americans living on the reservation are not happy about

While environmental justice and racism is definitively concerned with those who are on the planet now, environmental justice between generations, or Intergenerational Justice, is justice for those who are not alive right now. Many  people argue that although it is more convenient and pleasurable to use up resources in our time with no focus on sustainability, there is still the irreconcilable problem of what effect those decisions will have on future generations.

The difficulty with quantifying the true effect of pollution in the future comes down to a discount rate applied to a problem now that may happen in the future. This method raises problems because oftentimes the discount rate is not clear and may disguise a problem as being not as big a deal as it actually is. In general, those economists such as Julian Simon who are optimists that humans will find a substitution due to their ingenuity debate that scrimping and saving now will only hurt us, not help the future.

Events like Hurricane Katrina are predicted to happen again in the future, but should we curb carbon emissions to stop them or should we let the future generations cope?

Events like Hurricane Katrina are predicted to happen again in the future, but should we curb carbon emissions to stop them or should we let the future generations cope? What is troubling is certain communities seem to be neglected more than others in these situations.

There are others who claim that what we think may be a necessary resource to conserve in our time may be completely irrelevant in the future. Libertarianism insists that privatizing all resources will end the dispute of resource management as there is no reason why current owners of land would logically keep an ill-maintained property because its value would drop but this view does also assume people have an idea of what a valuable resource is or is not. In contrast to the environmental racism movement, there is much more skepticism as to what needs to be done for the future.

The conservation of future resources does, however, definitively rely on several factors. One, humans in the future will need the same biotic requirements as us, such as clean air, water and food. Two, future persons will be moral agents as we are now, three, there must be a functioning ecosystem for them to survive and four, they require some body of knowledge and skills to overcome natural crises in their times. Many argue that we will not know the future generations and thus we will not know what they need, but this is not true.

In addition thinkers such as Avner de-Shalit maintain that we are morally bound to future generations through shared membership to a community. We have cultural interaction with them just as the framers of the constitution had with us.

Avner de-Shalit believes that

Avner de-Shalit believes that we should create a moral community

Some policy implications include the idea of cost-benefit analysis, but there are several criticisms of such a system. Morality tends to be factored out of policy considerations when all values are translated into cash, cost-benefit analysis excludes community/citizen values, the economic analysis though descriptive does not prescribe what needs to be done to fix the matter and the future tends to be discounted as the rate of interest slowly drops the price of future damages.

One case study of environmental justice is Love Canal, a toxic waste disposal site that later had an entire neighborhood built over it. Without notifying the working class families of Niagara Falls, NY several houses and a school were built on the 25,000 tons of toxic chemicals that Hooker Chemical co. legally dumped 40 years earlier. Community members were outraged when children were born with defects, were sickened from playing outside and the general quality of life went down once chemicals started leaking from their storage. When the citizens of the town came together to protest some wealthier citizens being relocated and working class families being left in the toxic zone only then did President Carter stepped in to address their concerns and relocated some 700 families. Through all of the trouble, the government never actually confirmed they were in danger although they did very clearly suffer difficulties.

Love Canal was massively protested as the local government handled the situation terribly, forcing the federal government to step in

Love Canal was massively protested as the local government handled the situation terribly, forcing the federal government to step in

This case was a matter of environmental injustice in both looking at the class differences of the victims and the lack of foresight into the future generations of children in Niagara Falls. This public, widespread event gained attention worldwide and sparked the environmental justice movement. Examining this and other problems we are lead to the conclusion that environmental justice is not just a one-sided issue but involves many shareholders. One thing is for sure-those who have been traditionally disenfranchised, such as minorities and those future generations we tend to forget, deserve equality and fairness. Clearly, environmental problems are not just ethical issues but involve resolving inequality issues.

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