Christopher Foreman is a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies. Since 2000, he has also been a professor and director of the social policy program at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. His research focuses on the politics of health, race, environmental regulation, government reform, and domestic social policy
Ph.D. (1980), A.M. (1977), A.B. (1974), Harvard University
The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice
Conceptual Drawbacks of Environmental Justice From a rationalizing perspective, a major problem with the environmental justice version of the democratizing critique is that, like ecopopulism more generally, it threatens to worsen the problem of environmental policy's missing priorities. As Walter Rosenbaum elaborates: like the man who mounted his horse and galloped off in all directions, the EPA has no constant course. With responsibility for administering nine separate statutes and parts of four others, the EPA has no clearly mandated priorities, no way of allocating scarce resources among different statutes or among programs within a single law. Nor does the EPA have a congressional charter, common to most federal departments and agencies, defining its broad organizational mission and priorities.... Congress has shown little inclination to provide the EPA with a charter or mandated priorities, in good part because the debate sure to arise on the relative merit and urgency of different environmental problems is an invitation to a political bloodletting most legislators would gladly avoid. Intense controversy would be likely among states, partisans of different ecological issues, and regulated interests over which problems to emphasize; the resulting political brawl would upset existing policy coalitions that themselves were fashioned with great difficulty. Moreover, setting priorities invitesa prolonged, bitterdebateover an intensely emotional issue: should the primary objective of environmental protection be to reduce public risks associated with environmental degradation as much as seems practical or—as many environmentalists fervently believe—is the goal to eliminate all significant forms of pollution altogether?18 Environmental justice inevitably enlarges this challenge of missing priorities, and for similar reasons. As noted earlier, the movement is a delicate coalition of local and ethnic concerns unable to narrow its grievances for fear of a similar "political bloodletting."1? Overt de-emphasis or removal of any issue or claim would prompt the affected coalition members (for example, groups, communities, or tribes) to disrupt or depart it. And chances are they would not leave quietly but with evident resentment and perhaps accusatory rhetoric directed at the persons and organizations remaining. Real priority-setting runs contrary to radical egalitarianvalue premises, and no one (perhaps least of all a strong democratizer) wants to be deemed a victimizer. Therefore movement rhetoric argues that no community should be harmed and that all community concerns and grievances deserve redress. Scholar-activist Robert Bullard proposes that "the solution to unequal protection lies in the realm of environmental justice for all Americans. No community, rich or poor, black or white, should be allowed to become a 'sacrifice zone."20 When pressed about the need for environmental risk priorities, and about how to incorporate environmental justice into priority setting, Bullard's answer is a vague plea for nondiscrimination, along with a barely more specific call for a "federal 'fair environmental protection act™ that would transform "protection from a privilege to a right."21 Bullard's position is fanciful and self-contradictory, but extremely telling. He argues essentially that the way to establish environmental priorities is precisely by guaranteeing that such priorities are impossible to implement.This is symptomaticof a movement for which untrammeled citizen voiceand overall social equityare cardinal values. Bullard's position also epitomizes the desire of movement intellectuals to avoid speaking difficult truths(at least in public) to their allies and constituents. Ironically, in matters of health and risk, environmental justice poses a potentially serious, if generally unrecognized, danger to the minority and low-income communities it aspires to help. By discouraging citizens from thinking in terms of health and risk priorities (that is, by taking the position, in effect, that every chemical or site against which community outrage can be generated is equally hazardous), environmental justice can deflect attention from serious hazards to less serious or perhaps trivial ones.