Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Reflections on the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Environmental Justice Movement

Most of these observations are taken from a short reflection paper I wrote for class on a piece by Pellow and Brulle called Power, Justice, and the Environment: Toward Critical Environmental Justice Studies. It was the first chapter to an edited volume they collected on critiquing certain aspects of the environmental justice movement. I did not read the rest of the volume, so if some of these observations or questions are answered later in the book, I apologize. Regardless, I think some of these questions are interesting and those who ally themselves with environmentalism, sustainability, environmental justice or any similar movement should consider them.

The piece goes over a brief history of the EJ movement and describes how it came up due to weaknesses and prejudices in the traditional environmental movement. I have written before on the explicit connection between our form of American capitalism and environmental degradation. Pellow and Brulle extend this by pointing out how the traditional environmental movement has not been successful in bringing about systemic political-economic change, resulting in continued social and economic inequality that is also reflected in unequal distribution of environmental costs and pollution. The environmental justice sprang from this gap, representing the interests of groups of poor folks and people of color that were the losers not only in the general political-economic system but also had to deal with the negative environmental consequences that those who often headed and participated in traditional environmental organizations (primarily middle class and white). So, we find EJ coming in to explicitly connect environmental concerns with an explicit critique of capitalism processes. That being said, if you haven't notice we're still in the same mixed capitalist economy that's dominated for the past century, so EJ suffers from the same weakness as the traditional environmentalist movement. But I think that EJ is better situated to actually challenge this capitalist model because of its focus on inequality and in organizing to address such inequality.

Unfortunately, the EJ movement suffers from two huge weaknesses that limit its potential to be a widely-adopted form of capitalist challenge. The first is the local nature of many EJ groups and causes. Even though organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council are now allying with EJ organizations and act as forceful advocates on general issues of EJ, the EJ movement is still largely hampered by its parochial/local nature. This is great for the isolated cases that the EJ movement has been famous for fighting, but its inability to better leverage resources to insert its critiques and viewpoints nationally into a variety of organizations is a MAJOR flaw. This is especially problematic in the wake of incidences like the Gulf oil spill and the continued rise of fracking around the country. Now there are some very intense battles involving compensation over loss of livelihoods in the Gulf and there are many challenges to the natural gas industry's dominance over local areas, but a concerted national message that encompasses environmental stewardship and social and economic equality has not crystallized. I fear that it may take an even greater ecological crisis before people really wake up or are receptive to such messages, but I feel that EJ and traditional environmental organizations can do more by more explicit partnering and organizing and beating on this message regarding irresponsible system consumption and unequal distribution of its benefits AND costs.

The second critique lies in the continued racial and social segregation that still defines, to a great extent, the traditional environmental movement and the EJ movement. This segregation developed in the 1970s based on conflicts between traditional environmentalists and EJ activists over prospective national land-use legislation. Margaret Weir gives a great history of the initial splits between these two groups in Robert Fishmans "The American Planning Tradition". I won't delve into the historical splits deeply here but suffice it to say that traditional environmental groups and urban EJ groups were at odds over the legislation and that break cemented the current segregation and differences that still largely exist today. Yes, groups like NRDC have EJ sections and explicitly mention them but we still find parallel tracks for EJ groups and activists and more traditional environmental groups. This racial and social segregation is mirrored even within the EJ movement where Latino, Black, and Native groups have their own separate organizations. Frankly, those of us who are concerned about issues of equity and environmental quality MUST make explicit attempts to integrate organizations and to expand their influence to larger scales. In addition, these groups must reach out to poor and middle class white America. This means partnering with traditional environmental organizations and going into areas where poor whites are traditionally enemies of the american left and yet still suffer from social and environmental inequity, like the industrial midwest and south. We've seen groups in appalachia battle mountaintop mining and fighting coal companies influence, so it's not like poor white are unwilling to battle for their own rights and their environments. But other EJ groups must reach out to these groups. We have to go about forming a grand coalition that is multihued and made up of people of different educational backgrounds and classes.

Simply, we cannot hope to institute systemic change if we cannot convince ALL affected people that they share a common background and state. So, as you go out and prepare to do what you do to organize or advocate for varied interests, look for opportunities to reach to those "other" folk. And if you're uncomfortable with that or haven't even consider it, then look at your own privilege and prejudice and get over yourself. We all in this.

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