Environmental Justice Movement: Why the Struggle Continues

Image by Wake Forest University with caption “The fight for environmental justice is a fight for your life.”

Louisiana’s “Cancer Capitol” is the term that was deemed appropriate to describe Mossville; a small town found by Jim Moss, a former slave, and a town populated almost entirely by black people. The reason the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) labeled it as such is because the small town is currently surrounded by fourteen chemical plants and industrial facilities that contribute on a daily basis to the town’s air, soil and water pollution. The town’s residents were found to be suffering from health issues as severe as cancer and serious learning disabilities to less sever ones such as rashes and breathing hardships. According to ICCR, these health concerns have been linked to the pollution caused by toxic chemicals. Recently, a new project to build one of the largest chemical plants in the country in this same area was proposed, if this were to happen, it is highly likely that Mossville will exist no more, and its residents will be forced to relocate.

Looking at the situation in Mossville in 2014 and the situation in Warren County in 1982, one cannot help noticing that there are clear parallels to be drawn; two small predominantly black towns are forced through government and corporate decisions to bear an environmental burden that they are not responsible for, due to their race. The fight against environmental racism and towards environmental justice is why the Environmental Justice Movement feels the need to exist.

A report published by a group of environmental justice organizations states that “the most immediate mission of the EJ movement is to dismantle the mechanisms by which capital and the state disproportionately displace ecological hazards onto poorer communities and people of color.” There are two factors mentioned in that statement: capital and the state. The report discusses the first one further, as it notes that a capitalist economy distributed the good and bad by wealth, which is directly correlated with race, and therefore, people of color will continue to get the shortest end of the stick when it comes to environmental health under a capitalist economy. Furthermore, a book published by Daniel Faber, a leading environmental sociologist, titled Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization discussed how capitalist industrial leaders and politicians work to weaken the government’s laws for environmental justice due to the high demand they are facing as well as the high profit opportunity. It additionally discusses how under a capitalist system, not everyone suffers equally as low-income and minorities are more affected by environmental issues.

The other factor that is mentioned is the state and its role. The report recognizes the great accomplishment in 1994 when President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. However, the report also clarifies that this order on its own is no longer sufficient for the kind of sustainability, green jobs, and green energy that the EJ movement was hoping for. Additionally, the EPA has more than once taken questionable actions towards communities of color. For example, the EPA set much weaker emission standards for Mossville and Huston when it comes to the production of a certain toxic chemical (PVC) than the standard imposed on fifteen other plants. According to previously mentioned report, in many environmental racism cases that people of color and low-income communities would raise against corporations, the EPA would often only take a mediator position. Once these case are legal cases, the resources of these low-income communities (lawyers, technical support, scientific evidence, etc.) are often not enough to stand against giant corporations, and therefore these communities often lose their fights.

The argument that is often presented is the following: if the Environmental Justice Movement does not want disadvantaged communities to be discriminated against, does that mean that what the movement wants is to have an industrial plant built in a white neighborhood for every plant built in a black one? Does that mean that the movement wants as many white children to be exposed to lead poisoning and early cancer as there are black children? Isn’t that also cruel and unfair?

Those points are valid points to ask. To answer that, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Ph.D. ,M.P.H., Professor, Director- Doctor of Public Health Program, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management & School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, CA), writes in the previously mentioned report: “As we look toward the future to address monumental environmental challenges like climate change, environmental justice activism must continue to reshape and connect the broader agendas of sustainability and social equity.” More than once in the previous report it was pointed out that there seems to be a divide between sustainability activists and EJ activists, and that for both movements to reach their maximum potential and their optimal goals, that dividing line needs to fade out. The EJ movement can no longer focus only on the social issues part but also will start focusing on the “environmental” part of its name.

In a recent article, Dr. Robert Bullard argues that even in 2014, the quest for environmental justice for all communities has yet to be achieved. Therefore, the struggle must continue. The movement’s leaders are still largely unrecognized and underrepresented when discussing environmental issues. The movement is also still largely underfunded and the obstacles it is trying to dismantle (such as the capitalist system and state bias) are still huge. From Warren County, NC in 1982 to Mossville, LA in 2014, communities of color are still suffering greatly disproportionate environmental risk, therefore, the Environmental Justice Movement continues to exist.

Leave a Reply