What the Environmental Justice Movement Might Teach Us

As environmentalists continue to slog away — with diminishing success — against a market juggernaut that continues to commodify nature at every turn, many people are starting to wonder: Has environmentalism lost its way? This fear was catalyzed last year by the controversial “ Death of Environmentalism” essay, which many enviros lambasted as exaggerated and simplistic and others hailed as a much-needed kick-in-the-pants for a stodgy movement in need of fresh leadership.

That particular debate is too messy and complicated to get into here. But after attending an excellent lecture last Thursday (October 27) by Professor Manuel Pastor, I’m convinced that the Environmental Justice movement has a great deal to teach us about reinvigorating environmentalism. “Environmental justice” is that segment of the movement that addresses the hazards afflicting people of color and low-income neighborhoods. It turns out — big surprise — that poor people and minorities are disproportionately victimized by pollution, the siting of industrial facilities, and other environmental policies.

The presentation by Pastor — professor of Latin American and Latino studies and director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community at UC Santa Cruz — was entitled “Reframing Sustainability: Environmental Justice and Social Wealth.” It was the second of a six-part lecture series, The Forum on Social Wealth, sponsored by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a co-organizer of this series.) The entire presentation — a text and video streaming — will be available at the Forum’s website in a few weeks. A text and video of the lecture of the Forum’s first speaker, economist Herman Daly, is now posted on the Web here.

Pastor has done a lot of economic and statistical analyses that show how industrial hazards are harming low-income and minority communities. But Pastor is the rare academic who realizes that, as important as rigorous research is, even hard scientific evidence is not necessarily enough to prevail in the policymaking process. He found, for example, that even after repeatedly documenting how toxic emissions disproportionately affect low-income people, critics invariably raised new objections, requiring yet another round of painstaking research and analysis. It’s as if no one could admit that racial or class motivations might be the reason that poor people suffer more from industrial pollution than the rest of us.

But how to deal with this problem? Pastor said that when minority representatives are asked to join the boards of the major environmental groups, they are generally being “invited to a table that has already been set.” There is little hope of changing the basic agenda or polemics. That’s precisely what the Environmental Justice (E.J.) aspires to change. It wants to “reset the table.” Here are some of the more interesting points that Pastor made (who is paraphrased here unless expressly quoted):

Develop a more expansive notion of “environment.” While many environmentalists regard “the environment” as a pristine wilderness area that is utterly separate from our everyday lives, the Environmental Justice movement regards it as the place where we live every day, even if it is a manmade urban landscape. E.J. considers the environment as “the place where we work, live, play and pray.”

Develop a positive and pro-active narrative. Communities need to construct their own affirmative narratives that can challenge the market story about pollution. Instead of merely criticizing an environmental problem, communities need to articulate their own positive vision. It wasn’t enough for minorities to denounce “transit racism” in Los Angeles; they formed a “Bus Riders’ Union” to articulate and advocate a larger vision.

Local knowledge is powerful. Communities need to realize that their own local knowledge can be as valuable as professional technical expertise; indeed, it should help guide academic research. The people in a neighborhood may be more informed about a dangerous industrial site than the bureaucrats. Residents also may be more motivated and tenacious in dealing a problem than politicians and bureaucrats.

Greater social capital = better environmental protection. When a low-income community is undergoing a “demographic transition” of its residents — an “ethnic churning” as one ethnic minority moves out and another in — there tends to be far less communication and civic participation. Low-income neighborhoods are most vulnerable to harmful environmental policies at precisely such points. But a community with strong social capital is more likely to be able to protect its environmental quality.

Racial discrimination needs to be acknowledged. Instead of trying to ignore the actual role of race in environmental policymaking, communities need to frankly acknowledge its role — and then build coalitions around that truth. (“Put race upfront in order to get race behind you.”)

Market-based “solutions” often have racially discriminatory results. The Environmental Justice movement is particularly skeptical about market-based solutions, such as pollution-rights programs. While they may indeed reduce the overall output of pollutants, they tend to concentrate the remaining pollution in local “hotspots” where poor people and minorities live.

Inequality exacerbates environmental problems. When policymakers are able to site a nasty industrial facility in someone else’s backyard — i.e., a poor neighborhood — it is, in effect, inviting industrial facilities to generate more pollution. That’s because poor communities are less able to defend themselves, and there tend to be fewer political consequences for toxic emissions. On the other hand, when low-income neighborhoods organize politically and push back, they are more able to force innovative thinking about alternatives. Suddenly, proposals for better technology or recycling are politically feasible.

Cumulative environmental exposures matter. Poor neighborhoods have a cumulative exposure to pollutants that policymakers tend to overlook. Thus, when a state-of-the-art industrial facility is proposed for a low-income neighborhood, it is not really a boon. “If you have something really hazardous, build it in a wealthy community,” said Pastor, “because people there will have health care.”

Pastor’s critique of environmentalism, and the lessons that the Environmental Justice movement can teach, were astute, politically sophisticated and inspiring. Highly recommended. I will post a link to the speech when it is available at the Political Economy Research Institute website.