At this point, we have had two rounds of Environmental Justice Core Groups — the first between September 2017 and June 2018, and the second between October 2019 and June 2020.
Environmental justice – the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
Environmental racism – the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people and communities of color.
Sacrifice zones – geographic areas that have been impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment, often through locally-unwanted land use; originally coined in the Soviet Union to describe populated areas irrevocably polluted by nuclear fallout.
“We are all in the sacrifice zone now.” – Naomi Klein, in reference to climate change.
Based on the two Core Groups’ experiences, we propose the following key learnings:
- Environmental injustice is as old as humanity. In America, it arrived with European explorers who brought disease, usurpation and violent displacement.
- The spark that ignited the modern environmental justice movement occurred in Warren County, NC, in 1982 when rural Black residents rose up to protest a plan to dump 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil in a landfill in their community.
- Dr. Robert Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice,” coined the term “environmental racism” after documenting a 50-year pattern of siting solid waste facilities in communities of color in Houston.
- In Charlotte we assaulted historically Black neighborhoods with redlining, urban renewal, and major transportation corridors. Today, as a result, the residents of those neighborhoods breathe polluted air and experience poor health outcomes.
- CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations (pigs and poultry) – and wood pellet mills are degrading the environment of rural NC communities and raising classic environmental justice issues.
- Worldwide, surviving indigenous populations are under constant assault from “development” projects that degrade their environments and disrupt traditional relationships with the natural world.
- Economic inequality breeds environmental injustice as the “haves” enjoy the benefits of consumer culture while the “have-nots” disproportionately bear its costs, many of which have environmental consequences.
- We are in the early stages of a climate emergency brought about by industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels.
- Climate change will require adaptation that will favor those with resources and disadvantage those lacking resources.
- Climate change is a multiplier of existing injustices of many kinds and on many levels.
- Climate change represents an existential threat, not to “life on earth,” but to compassionate, communal values.
- Human-caused climate change and pollution have altered the natural world and threatened so many species with extinction that some now worry about a “sixth mass extinction.”
- While Gaia is grand, robust, and resilient – while “life on earth” will survive our greed and short-sightedness – our civilizing systems are not. The character of human life on this planet is in question.
The 2019-20 Core Group proposes these hypotheses for the “root causes” of environmental injustice:
Unregulated capitalism – Since the early 1980s, “neoliberalism” has made government regulation, taxing and penalizing fossil fuel companies (in particular) seem like relics of “command and control” communism; with globalization and the freeing of corporations from national constraints, emissions growth increased from about 1%/yr in the 1990s to close to 3.5%/yr in the 2000s; GDP growth has become the key measure of success in much of the industrialized world.
Extractivism – a nonreciprocal dominance-based relationship with nature; the reduction of living things and the natural world into objects of use; often includes reduction of humans to simply “labor input” or “social burden”; connected to the notion of sacrifice zones and colonialism (“disposable peripheries being harnessed to feed a glittering center”); associated with the myth of limitless resources.
Scientific rationalism – a belief in knowable and controllable nature; a belief that we have, if superficially and temporarily, escaped the constraints of nature.
Othering – seems a part of human nature, even if less-evolved human nature, to look down on “the other”; over history we’ve contrived a long list of excuses: wrong religion, wrong culture, wrong color of skin; example of Christian belief in “dominion” over nature and “heathens.”
Exceptionalism – flip side of “othering,” the belief that we — our tribe, Westerners, Americans — are exceptional humans, such that we hold superior knowledge and beliefs and have a right to a disproportionate share of resources, as well as a right to sacrifice the health and happiness of others for our well-being.