Environmental Justice iss 310 – Spring 2002

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Environmental Justice

ISS 310 – Spring 2002

Alan Rudy

March 12

Environmental Inequality, Racism, and Justice - History

  • Class?, Race?, Gender?, Urban vs. Rural? What’s the key?

Class – early EPA studies

  • “Overall, these studies found that the poorer the neighborhood, the more polluted the air. It should be noted, though, that the patterns found were neither simple nor monolithic. Berry, for example, showed that in Chicago different air pollutants disproportionately impact on different social groups.” (Szasz and Meuser, 101)

  • We’ll see this again in the next book.

Class II (race?)

  • Nonetheless, taken together, the findings were quite powerful because the overall pattern was so consistent. From the Northeast (New York, New Haven), to the Great Lakes (Chicago, Cleveland), to the Midwest (Kansas City, St Louis), to the South (Nashville), to the nation's capital, Washington, DC, the urban poor, and that of course often meant the African American urban poor, were more likely to be exposed than other social groups to polluted air.

  • What about the West? Where was the rural?

Class/Race II

  • [I]n nearly every case the distribution of pollution has been found to be inequitable by income. And with only one exception . . . inequitable by race. Where the distribution of pollution has been analyzed by both income and race (and where it was possible to weigh the relative importance of each), in most cases race has been found to be more strongly related to the incidence of pollution. (Mohai and Bryant, 1992: 167)

General Topics

  • Waste

  • Waste sites

  • Solid waste

  • Uncontrolled waste sites

  • Some of which fall under SUPERFUND

  • “There are, by some estimates, as many as 378,000 sites at which some toxic materials have been improperly disposed (US GAO, 1985). No one has yet attempted an equity study of a reasonably representative sample of such sites.” (S&M, 103)

  • Licensed Commercial Hazardous Waste Disposal Facilities

  • Brownfields – under Superfund the polluter paid… with brownfields clean-up taxpayers carry the majority of the burden and the clean-up is far less comprehensive

Not Race or Class?

  • Anderton et al.'s research has been embraced by business interests looking for ammunition in upcoming struggles over environmental justice… but a careful reading… suggests… more ambigu[ity] than would first appear.

  • “…[T]racts with TSDFs are racially similar to tracts with no TSDFs, [BUT] tracts with TSDFs are surrounded by tracts that are disproportionately minority, especially African-American, and poor. What emerges is a kind of ‘bull's eye’ pattern - industrial tracts surrounded by a ring of socioeconomically disadvantaged African-Americans.

  • Anderton et al. raise the possibility that ‘the higher percentages of minority and disadvantaged persons living near industrialized areas might reflect a pattern of inequity inherent in the structure and a pattern of growth of urban areas’ (1994: 239).

Option 1: A facility is sited for non-demographic reasons…

  • It may be close to sources of raw material and/or to consumers of the product; or

  • There may be an abundance of affordable acreage; or

  • It might have easy access to transportation infrastructures; or

  • The area might already be zoned for industrial uses; or, finally,

  • Geological conditions could be right for a waste site.

Demographic consequences associated with non-demographic site choice…

  • There are no, or few, people in the area when industrial activity begins. Development leads to in-migration, different neighborhoods develop, and those near the facility are considered less desirable. Neighborhoods with better housing and more amenities are developed farther away from the factory area… OR

  • The area is, initially, demographically the same as the surrounding region. After siting, the neighborhood around the facility becomes less desirable; there is ‘environmental white flight’; and as housing prices decline, poor oppressed minorities move in… OR

  • The area is already different demographically but the considerations that made the site attractive in a ‘firm rational’ sense have already generated the kind of neighborhood differentiation that locates poor and minorities nearby (as in 1 or 2 above).

Option 2: Facility is sited because of demographic inequality…

  • Again, three possibilities:

  • The neighborhood is targeted because it is economically depressed and therefore willing to accept a hazardous facility (one that promises jobs, taxes, perhaps the beginning of a long-range economic renewal and stabilization).

  • The neighborhood is targeted because the people are, or seem to be, politically less able to resist siting.

  • The neighborhood is targeted because of out-and-out racial prejudice and discrimination.




  • Real events seldom follow neat scenarios of simple classification. It is necessary to move beyond listing factors and to do case studies, especially local histories.

  • Only this kind of research can provide detailed descriptions of the subtle and complex ways these processes actually work. A few authors have moved beyond the one-point-in-time approach and have begun to explore historical processes.

  • I would argue that these are the kinds of things your groups provided each other when you talked about local environmental problems a few weeks back.

I will expect you to know about:

  • Bullard’s material on Houston;

  • Been’s review of the GAO and Bullard research;

  • Pulido et al.’s research on East LA/Vernon; and

  • Hirsch’s work on Pittsburgh.

  • The key will be how each relates to the others in the context of the Options listed earlier.

Multiple Indicators are key

  • Not just issues of close proximity;

  • But also geographic scale;

  • And historical processes; as well as

  • Combinations of environmental and social processes

Other keys:

  • This work will be plagued by

  • lack of data on where all the hazards are,

  • uncertainties about rate and direction of dispersion, as well as,

  • uncertainties about the actual health effects in those who are exposed.

  • Even if we had accurate exposure data - how much of what chemicals get to which persons…

  • health scientists' estimates of exactly how toxic substances are differ wildly, and

  • there are almost no data on synergistic interaction effects when people are exposed to several chemicals simultaneously.

  • The well-known fact that poor minorities are generally in poorer health

  • because of poor nutrition,

  • lack of access to health care,

  • high social stress and other factors related to poverty –

makes establishing causal links between toxic exposure and poor health even more difficult.

Environmental Justice Movements and EJ Research

  • Szasz and Meuser argue that EJ research is meaningless, esp. politically, without environmental justice movements.

  • Pulido (1996) has gone furthest in describing the ways that competing racial projects determined the subtexts or motives behind research.

  • “Why is it, she asks, that the issue has been posed as ‘race or class’? ‘Race’ and ‘class’ are not things, and are not cleanly compartmentalizable as discrete things. They are, rather, social relations that interact in complex ways. Environmental justice… [often] sets them up as airtight things that can be isolated, both conceptually and methodologically, typically with multivariate statistics. It then tries to determine, in an either/or fashion, which is the more important or powerful variable.

Race, Class and Statistics

  • One approach like this

  • “views racism as an abnormality, an unfortunate occurrence... not the norm and therefore… not a structural or inherent feature of US life. Implicit in this approach is the belief that racism can be defined as discrete, overt actions... the end result of this strategy is to limit the definition of racist activity by subjecting any charges of racism to a litmus test of intent and statistical evidence.” (1996: 153)

  • The other approach asserts that

  • “the United States is a racist society... this position... requires not, only that ‘race’ and racism be emphasized but also that a monolithic nonwhite community' be constructed... it strives to downplay class divisions and their significance among nonwhite groups, and to unite them... in their status as victims of racism.” (1996: 154)

The Sociological Truth is:

  • Classism, Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism and their environmental correlates are less about individual attitudes (which are nevertheless important) and more about the accumulation of institutional biases and disproportionalities.

  • Remember the discussion of financial inheritances – largely about class – and assume that the distribution of ability is equal across classes, races, genders and sexualities and apply that to issues of cultural and environmental (as well as economic) inequality.

I will expect you to know about:

  • The quotes the Szasz and Meuser use on page 114 and the reason that they use them.

  • The Neglected Topics Szasz and Meuser review:

  • No. 1: Where is the Bourgeoisie?

  • No. 2: A Historical and Global Framework

Where’s the Bourgeoisie?

  • Researchers have directed their attention to the bottom of the class ladder. and paid scant attention to the top.

  • Very likely the wealthy who are, of course, almost all white, are found off in pricey, exclusive neighborhoods, far removed from toxic emissions, enjoying a disproportionate share of the benefits but few of the costs of industrial production….

  • Have researchers ignored the rich because the findings would be so predictable and therefore uninteresting? Perhaps.

  • Far more likely it is because such work would signify political projects - broad, class-based, multi-racial coalition; class war - not currently in favor in American society.

Historical and Global Framework

  • General themes of such a framework would be:

  • that social inequalities have always been a fundamental, even defining, aspect of modernity;

  • that although human beings have always and everywhere actively transformed nature, modern societies transform nature to a quantitatively and qualitatively unprecedented degree; and

  • that if those transformations of nature have adverse human/social impacts, those impacts will fall unevenly, along existing divisions of wealth/poverty, power/powerlessness;

  • the transformations of nature will tend to occur in a way that reproduce and exacerbate existing social inequalities.

  • In effect, environmental inequality is one facet or moment of social inequality.

Environmental Sustainability and Environmental Justice

  • What do we want to sustain?

  • Who do we want to sustain?

  • What are the roles of justice and equity in sustainability?

  • What kinds of ownership are best for sustainability?

  • What kinds of regulation are best for sustainability?

  • What kinds of technology are best for sustainability?

  • What institutional changes are necessary?

  • What kinds of decision-making processes are best?

Conditions of Production

  • James O’Connor (1989): Natural Causes

  • Jim sees three general crisis tendencies in the world today.

  • Overproduction or Economic Crisis

  • Fiscal or State Financial Crisis

  • Environmental and Social Crisis

  • Ecological

  • Personal

  • Communal

Conditions of Production II

  • Overproduction crisis – too much stuff, too few markets – common to economic cycles.

  • Fiscal crisis – in the context of an economic downturn:

  • business needs more public R&D, new efficient infrastructures, and to pay fewer taxes, BUT

  • people also need more support and protection and to pay lower taxes… and nature and community infrastructures are under greater threat…


  • serve business irk people? 1920s, 50s, 80s, 90s?

  • serve people irk business? 1930s, 60s

  • serve both deficit spending/debt? 1950s, 70s

Conditions of Production III

  • Nature, people and communities are not (re)produced like commodities

  • Business and government often treats nature, workers/consumers/voters and communities as if they are depreciable (or, sometimes, disposable) commodities.

  • Pollution, exhaustion, and intensive use degrade the health of n, p, & c.

  • However, unhealthy n, p, & c are less productive and, a la Environmental Justice, also a source of social reform or protest movements, Vieques.

Conditions of Production IV

  • Environmental, labor/gender/etc., and community-based social movements generally make demands on the state and business and these demands are generally resisted

  • Social movements and the state, then, are always key players in the relationship between nature and the economy, labor and the economy, and communities and the economy.

What does all this say about social movements?

  • Are they always forward looking?

  • What about conservative or reactionary social movements?

  • Do social movements always have the best interests of the greatest number of people in mind?

  • If not, how should “we” react?

  • Does the state always have the best interests of the greatest number of people in mind?

  • If not, how should “we” react?

For me, most struggles are about:

  • Sustaining particular nature, people and communities, at different levels of organization

  • Ecological conditions that are connected to peoples’ health and community well-being.

  • Some kind of sustainability, usually focused on some kind of social or environmental justice.

  • The key is that social, political and economic justice is inseparable from justice at the levels of the environment, the workplace and the community.

  • This is why environmentalism – whether focused on population, consumption, science and technology, or property patterns is necessarily about the disproportionate effects of toxics on poor and minority communities… about social justice.

  • Lastly, for me, this means that these struggles are always about democracy and participation – the core values of the United States.

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