Environmentalism and Social Justice

There has been some criticism of mainstream environmental movements for their seeming willingness to tolerate the perpetuation of a great assortment of social injustices simply for the sake of gaining powerful supporters for environmental matters. This essay will examine two sets of such criticism, firstly from Peter Taylor’s essay “How Do We Know We Have Global Environmental Problems?” and secondly from a chapter from Robert Bullard’s work, “Dumping in Dixie,” entitled “Environmentalism and Social Justice.” The purpose of this examination is to see if these criticisms can be applied to an attempt to meld principles of environmentalism and social justice. Andrew Simms’ “Ecological Debt” is just such an attempt. It will be shown that while Simms has a compelling argument for action on a global scale, there is no attention paid to what possible effects this action could have on local levels, and how smaller communities can be involved to protect themselves and help produce worldwide change.

One finds an interesting critique of global environmentalism in Taylor’s article. Taylor makes the argument that environmental movements that address issues on a global scale are quite vulnerable to what he calls “deconstruction.” (Taylor, 150) That is, they are vulnerable to questioning of the definitions and procedures they rely on, which in turn casts doubt on reliability of their explanations and predictions of environmental events. By focusing on a global scale, there is a resulting disregard for national and local ways, both political and economic, for working environmental change. These movements will be startled to find unforeseen outcomes of their actions, as well as unforeseen conflicts with other valid interests. When these groups then invoke their global outlook to divest themselves of responsibility for these results, Taylor says, “ . . . they are more likely to reinforce the constraints on, rather than enhancing the possibilities of, engaged participants shaping interrelated, yet not common nor global, futures. In short, they know there are global environmental problems because they do not know most people do not have problems of a global nature.” (Taylor, 150-151) So, by willfully distancing themselves from local problems, global environmental movements also distance themselves from local movements that can contribute to global environmental change on a local level. Taylor’s criticism seems to say that the global movements don’t see how local strategies can add up to global action, and that ignoring that level chokes off vital participation, and precipitates social justice problems.

The criticism present in Bullard’s work is related to that which was found in Taylor’s essay, but is much more specific in its description of the consequences of the exclusion of groups from mainstream environmentalism. Bullard targets the division along racial lines of environmental action in the US. Of the formation of the mainstream environmental movement, he says:

{The emerging environmental movement in the US} was supported primarily by middle and upper-middle-class whites. Although concern about the environment cut across racial and class lines, environmental activism has been most pronounced among individuals who have above-average education, greater access to economic resources, and a greater sense of efficacy. (Bullard, 1)
As a result of this imbalance the influence of minorities and low-income communities in the mainstream environmental movement has been low over the years, and this lack has caused a neglect of equity among all communities, and the ignorance of distributive impacts of some environmental decisions. As Bullard points out:
Few environmentalists realized the sociological implications of the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon. Given the political climate of the time, the hazardous wastes, garbage dumps, and polluting industries were likely to end up in somebody’s backyard. But whose backyard? More often than not these {locally unwanted land uses} ended up in poor, powerless, African-American communities rather than in affluent suburbs. (Bullard, 4)
Bullard argues that race is “a potent variable in explaining the spatial layout of urban areas, including housing patterns, street and highway configurations, commercial development, and industrial facility siting.” (Bullard, 5) African-Americans, by conscious or unconscious actions of others, become victims of land-use decisions that they are often lacking the power to fight, although Bullard admits the situation is changing.

This exclusion, says Bullard, is not only a function of race, but also of a shift in the strategy of the mainstream environmental movement: “Over the years environmentalism has shifted from a ‘participatory’ to a ‘power’ strategy, where the ‘core of the active environmental movement is focused on litigation, political lobbying, and technical evaluation rather than on mass mobilization for protest marches.’” (Bullard, 1) This kind of shift from grassroots action to political machinations of well-funded lobbying can only lead to further exclusion of those who don’t have the money, and therefore influence, to be heard.

These factors result in an environmental elitism, according to Bullard, which has been grouped into several categories, one of which being ‘impact elitism.’ The charge of impact elitism alleges that “environmental reforms have regressive distributional impacts.” (Bullard, 9) Continuing, Bullard says: “Impact elitism has been the major sore point between environmentalists and advocates for social justice who see some reform proposals creating, exacerbating and sustaining social inequities.” (Bullard, 9) The result of this kind of elitism is mistrust among the economically and politically disenfranchised. They see environmental action directing resources away from the problems of the poor, and towards the problems of the rich and powerful.

Andrew Simms’ article on “Ecological Debt” attempts to bring the problems of social justice together with environmental action. The focus of the article, however, is entirely on a global scale. He does address the problems of poorer nations, but does not take into account the disadvantaged populations within the richer nations, and how environmental action will affect them. His concern for the welfare of poorer countries is sincere: “The economic costs of global warming are rising dramatically, but falling on people unevenly, and with cruel political irony.” (Simms, 1) Simms observes that: “ . . .96% of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries. By 2025, over half of all people living in developing countries will be ‘highly vulnerable’ to floods and storms.” (Simms, 2) These countries are those with the heaviest conventional debts to the rich countries seen as primarily responsible for the climate change through industrial pollution. In response to this situation the idea of ‘environmental debt’ has arise. This idea has come from the observation by developing countries of the commandeering of their natural resources by rich countries ( a great deal of which happened in the colonial era), low commodities prices forced by transnational corporations based in those rich countries, and most of all, climate change through fossil fuel use by rich countries. (Simms, 2) Simms concentrates on environmental debt accrued through the final cause. He says: “If a global commons like the atmosphere, to which we all have an equal claim, is being overused and corrupted by one group of people they accrue an ecological debt to the wider community who depend on the commons.” (Simms, 2) While there have been attempts to give this debt a monetary value, Simms suggests that is important at the same time to eradicate the ‘debt’ itself.

Simms says it is clear where the responsibility for this debt lies. He gives comparison examples to illustrate the wide disparity between fuel use of the typical US citizen compared with the typical Indian (20 times higher), and that of someone from Mozambique (300 times higher). This is a great deal higher than sustainable rate of consumption, and comparable (if somewhat lower) rates apply to the EU and all other industrialized nations. “As every day passes without a radical shift in consumption, the rich country carbon debt to the global community grows larger.” (Simms, 2) Simms says this calls for a major restructuring of the economies of rich nations. Just as many poorer countries have been forced to restructure their economies to service foreign debts, the rich nations must adjust themselves to move away from the continued production of massive environmental debt. (Simms, 3) In a scheme reminiscent of the Kyoto protocol, Simms proposes that all countries be allocated a certain allowance for pollution. Countries that aren’t able to stay within these allocations could buy the unused parts of pollution allocation of countries that are more successful. This sale of allocation would give developing countries need income to buy or research non-polluting technologies to further reduce their emissions. This in turn would benefit rich nations through the export markets that this restructuring would create. Everyone would benefit from slowing damage to the environment. (Simms, 4)

Simms evaluation of the global situation and his prescribed remedy are compelling, but still limited to action on a global scale. Taylor’s warning of deconstruction should be heeded when thinking in this manner. If one makes no provision for the concerns of local groups, large plans can be derailed. Concerns of social justice on a local level can sway public opinion at large, undermining the credibility of what might be a noble idea that causes unforeseen problems. Bullard’s criticism has given a picture of just what ‘unforeseen’ problems may arise, and the exclusion of the poor and powerless by a plan that ultimately aims to help them would be a cruel irony. Simms speaks of rich countries adopting an “environmental war economy” (Simms, 4) to adjust themselves, but no mention of how this would affect the poor and voiceless in those countries is made. Simms argument has merit, but overall it is oversimplified. It is a good place to start, but can’t be taken as complete, by any means.

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