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Global Environmental Justice: A Review of the Literature (April 2018): Applied Areas of Environmental Justice

By Robert C. Robinson

Applied Areas of Environmental Justice

Given the above, it is no surprise that some authors have taken those general principles regarding environmental justice and activism and applied them directly to particular problems in their communities. David Pellow’s Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago takes a close look at garbage and pollution, using Chicago (the city with the highest landfill per square mile ratio of any city in the US) to show the outsize impact landfills have on the poor of society. Similarly, Julie Sze takes on New York in Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice, looking at issues having to do with garbage collection and landfills, incinerators, and power plants and describing the politics and history of activism surrounding these problems in specific poor neighborhoods. In Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest, Laura Pulido focuses on two local issues: the United Farm Workers 1965–71 campaign against pesticides and a conflict in northern New Mexico between a local cooperative seeking access to grazing rights for cattle and hunters who had reserved that space for hunting wild elk. Pulido’s analysis brings into sharp contrast the work that poor, grassroots activists can do when going up against elite, wealthy stakeholders, such as hunting organizations, unions, and those who have a stake in natural resources. These two struggles make a strong case for Margaret Mead’s famous remark that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. A no less relevant look at the impact that social activists can have is to be found in Luke Cole and Sheila Foster’s From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. The issue was Bill Clinton’s 1994 executive order having to do with toxic waste dumps and factories that pollute the environment of minority and low-income populations in particular. Although everyone theoretically has the right to enjoy the outdoors, the reality is quite different. Carolyn Finney addresses this in Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. She argues that the historical legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence has shaped the discourse in the United States with regard to nature and natural places, and who should enjoy them. She highlights the perceived and realized ways that the natural world is racialized in the United States, from the legislation and implementation of the 1964 Wilderness Act to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (first published in 1990 and now in its third edition), Robert Bullard explores the idea that because of their social and political vulnerabilities, African American communities in the South have been targeted to house the sites of facilities that are high polluters. Rob Nixon calls this “slow violence,” and in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor he looks at how ongoing situations such as climate change, deforestation, and the environmental effects of war and industry can take many years, and generations, to become evident, and are often invisible, in contrast to other areas that inspire activism. They are no less dangerous or lethal, but they are slow in revealing the depredation. Dorceta Taylor address this same reality in Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility. Here, she investigates poor communities, home to immigrants and minorities, and shows that many of them (Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis) are so badly polluted that living there can be hazardous to health and significantly lower quality of life and life expectancy. As causes, she points to lack of strong environmental and housing regulations, racially motivated zoning laws, and nearby gentrification, and she paints a bleak picture for the future of these areas. In Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, Carl Zimring carries forward the discussion of the way race in the United States has impacted who lives where, and how people identify and define their relationship with waste. In doing so, he carefully and thoughtfully develops an extended metaphor on whiteness as cleanliness and draws causal parallels with the struggles of racial minorities.

Other titles look at these issues outside the borders of the United States, but are still relevant. Julian Agyeman brings lessons regarding environmental justice to social movements, public policy, and public planning in Canada. In his edited volume Speaking for Ourselves: Environmental Justice in Canada, he brings a noteworthy collection of authors together to speak to issues specific to the environment in Canada. Though the arguments focus on issues of importance to Indigenous peoples, most can be generalized beyond the borders of Canada. Given the diversity of countries and situations in Latin America, Environmental Justice in Latin America: Problems, Promise, and Practice, edited by David Carruthers, covers topics ranging from the US use of the island of Viequas, Puerto Rico, as a site for Naval bombing training to public policy regarding access to water in Mexico. Again, these specific issues generalize to the wide world, which ignores them at its own peril.

Works Cited