“Clean air is a basic right”, says Bullard (2002). I believe that there are few people who would ever disagree with this statement, as it is a necessity for life. But unfortunately, due to environmental injustices and racism, not everyone breathes clean air. This is just one of the many forms of discrimination minorities live with all over the country and world. Sociologists and environmentalists have increasingly recognized these issues, and have tried to analyze and solve the issues through theories, definitions, research and practice.
In this paper, we will discuss environmental problems and how they are looked at by traditional philosophers. Then we will see how and why these issues affect minorities, and what is being done to stop this inequality.
First of all, philosophers each have their own theory about the environment and why we need to protect it. Henry David Thoreau sees the environment as a wild entity that cannot be contained. We should use it only for inspiration, growth and enjoyment.
But humans do not always use it for this purpose. “By his mere presence, almost, he changes the nature of the trees as no other creature does” (Newman and Payne 2005). Humans change nature into a form that can be more useful to us than just inspiration. Thoreau knows this, and believes commodification is one of the greatest threats to nature, which is currently a huge issue that many people and corporations have taken advantage of, as we will discuss later in this paper.
John Muir is a preservationist who believes that our actions against nature will ultimately hurt us, as if we are a part of nature.
If we hurt nature, we are only hurting ourselves. Our environmental problems need to be handled as if they are our own problems, but humans usually deal with problems only if they are directly affecting them in the moment or near future. In his works, he portrays the effects of humans on nature as a domino effect. If humans cut down and burn the trees, it will eventually lead to creating a desert that cannot be revived.
On the other hand, Gifford Pinchot sees the environment as resources for human consumption. He said in his work, “The first principle of conservation is development, the use of the natural resources, now existing on this continent for the benefit of the people who live here now,” and “The second principle of conservation stands for the prevention of waste” (Newman and Payne 2005). This means that humans must protect nature and avoid creating waste. The waste destroys nature, lessening the availability of the resources for use of consumption in the future. So if people continue to cut down trees, they have to plant more to sustain the environment. His term “localism” describes how resources must benefit those who live in the area.
Therefore, there should not be people who are negatively affected by resources, such as waste, which is what creates environmental injustices. Rachel Carson sees humans as part of nature, but because most of us do not see ourselves as part of nature, we do not look to nature for solutions. We use chemicals instead, which is only killing nature, and ultimately us. For example, pesticides create many problems, for both the environment and us. Unfortunately, these philosophies do not prevent environmental problems. And unfortunately, these problems cause the idea that some people are “less deserving than others not only of access to nature but of the right to clean, uncontaminated, environments in which to live and work” (Evans 2002). This is where environmental justice issues begin to arise. Those who are “less deserving” tend to be minorities.
This idea of some people being less deserving of the environment is a clear form of environmental racism. According to Pulido (2002), environmental racism is “the idea that non-whites are disproportionately exposed to pollution.” According to Sze and London (2008), “environmental racism is the disproportionate effects of environmental pollution on racial minorities.” There have been many instances that have given these definitions to this racism throughout history against non-white groups such as Blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos. These minorities commonly live in close proximity to hazardous sites, such as waste sites, industrial plants, mining sites, and others. Chicanos and Latino farmers disproportionately live on pesticide and chemical infested lands and Blacks were a majority of the victims in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
The prevailing views of these environmentally racist acts are in search of determining whether such acts are intentional or not and if they are structural. Szasz and Meuser (1997) believe that industrial siting may be unintentional due to the fact that they are in search of affordable land, a close proximity to necessary resources, an easy access to transportation, or the right geological conditions. It may just so happen that this is where minorities live as well, commonly because of being poor. As race and class commonly go hand-in-hand, it is said “poverty has a color” (Woldoff and Gerber 2007). But Szasz and
Meuser (1997) believe that that this may be intentional because the industry knows that minorities are less able to resist siting, or they may accept these sites in hope of economic benefits and jobs.
On the other hand, historically, the government set laws preventing minorities from living in certain locations (Pulido 2002). They have provided more resources to live in areas that are more desirable, and encouraged industrial growth in less industrial areas. Native Americans have been kicked off their land in the past for decades, which has caused them to lose their traditions and abilities to survive on their own. Blacks were slaves, and Chicanos were forced to work in agriculture for little to no pay, constantly living in pesticides. These examples are forms of structural racism, which is difficult to be proven as unintentional.
These views are problematic for understanding contemporary manifestations of environmental racism because there isn’t clear evidence in why this racism exists. Therefore, there it is hard to create solutions to end the racism. It also gives people an excuse to believe that it is not their fault and that they do not play a role in the racism. This is seen in White Privilege, which depends on scale for its intentionality. This mindset focuses on keeping the privileges of whites, therefore intentionally or unintentionally undermining minorities. An example of this is when white people refuse to live in neighborhoods with blacks. This lowers the value of the black neighborhood, simply by supply and demand (Pulido 2002). Whether it is because they do not like minorities or because they can afford a nicer area, this leads to degradation and segregation.
These problems of environmental racism are greatly seen in the living and working conditions of farmworkers, such as those of Driscoll’s strawberries, as well as minorities of New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. First of all, the farmworkers are expected to work day in and out in pesticides. They are ingesting, bathing in, and living in these harmful chemicals. Parents bring their children to the fields, or they leave them at home unsupervised because they are not paid enough to be able to afford childcare.
Either way, the children are exposed to these chemicals in the fields or even just the soil that is tracked home on shoes or on their parents’ clothing. This causes them all to be constantly exposed, even when off the job (Moses 1993). This is structural racism, as these minorities are taken advantage of because they are minorities. Hurricane Katrina was a huge issue for the city of New Orleans, but mostly those of color. This was because of race and class, and it was highly institutionalized. People of color and the lower class were unable to afford to leave during the hurricane, and the city and country did not invest the resources to help these minorities.
Also, the magnitude of the disaster increased so highly because of the fact that resources were not invested in the Levees to uphold what they were built to do. Because blacks and whites were so segregated in the city, blacks did not have affluent neighbors who could have helped them. Lastly, those who were trying to leave New Orleans to find help were not allowed to do so, as they were contained by police, helpless, starving, and lost. The government blatantly neglected its own people (Lee 2006). “Place inequality is caused by key decision makers who choose to invest in some communities, but not others” (Woldoff and Gerber 2007). In this case, the government decided to invest in stopping looters rather than helping their own citizens in this urgent time of need.
All of this hardship has rallied minorities into forming the concept of environmental justice. This mobilization of communities of color began in the 1980’s, once the Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. lawsuit took place, being “the first to challenge the siting of a waste facility” (Bullard 2001). Minorities realized that they had to look out for their own interests, as no one would do it for them. This opened a new realm, allowing for more lawsuits and the confidence in minorities to defend their communities and neighborhoods. Not only did minorities gain confidence, but also the movement advanced environmental justice research.
An environmental justice framework was created to attempt “to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce unequal protection” (Bullard 2001). It includes principles of protection, public health, burden of proof (precautionary principle), targeting action and resources and many others issues that minorities have dealt with. It has even expanded to areas such as transportation, energy and production and even climate change. The government has even been allocating resources to Blacks, and promoting development in these less affluent areas.
Environmental Justice has been looked at as a type of “Praxis”, as it “integrates theory and practice in a mutually informing dialogue” (Sze and London). This form of environmental justice allows for researchers to become less objective, adding in an element of activism into the “supposedly factual” research. Many people may see this as a drawback, but it opens up a new realm of technologies, ideas, cultures, connections, and possibilities, creating a smaller Environmental Justice world and a larger network of research and possible solutions to this inequality (Sze and London).
Environmental inequality does not always stand out to those who are privileged, therefore is very difficult to solve. There will always be inequalities in the world, but something as simple as environmental issues should be considered basic rights of human life. Though it is not always clear as to why this racism exists, the environmental justice movement will hopefully one day find a solution to this inequality, and help those who should have been helped decades ago.