Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Environmental Inequality Formation

The purpose of this article is to discuss the conceptual, theoretical and methodological issues in existing research on environmental justice and environmental inequalities. Environmental racism can be defined as "the unequal protection against toxic and hazardous waste exposure and the systematic exclusion of people of color from decisions affecting their communities" (p. 582). This is just one example of environmental injustice which occurs when a particular social group is burdened with environmental hazards. Environmental justice refers to "cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainable communities where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing, and productive" (p. 582). This usually doesn't happen until people realize their highest potential. Environmental inequality addresses more structural questions that focus on social inequality and environmental burdens.
A case study involves Patricia James, an African American woman who worked in a recycling plant named Waste Management Inc (WMI), in Chicago. She as well as other workers had been accidentally poked with hypodermic needles, had to handle medical waste and were sprayed with batter acid, paint thinner, and were exposed to human and animal bodies. The workers were basically forced to choose between their dangerous jobs and their health.

In 1995, the city decided to create a large scale recycling program called "Blue Bag." Illinois required that Chicago have a plan to achieve a 25% recycling rate by 1996. All low-density dwellings had to have regular recycling services as well.

A case was also considered ruling that Chicago's incinerator ash constituted a lot of hazardous waste. The ash was buried in landfills which is not proper disposal. This waste was also hazardous to human health. Eventually, several supporters managed to successfully close the city's main incinerator. The city also wanted to add a new recycling system for the availability of a corporate partner. Industry had stepped in to support recycling. The WMI, however, had been accused of dirty deeds and have been had many lawsuits charging bribery, death threats, and illegal dumping.

Another major reason for the program was for creating jobs within the community. Neighboring communities have experienced decentralization and White flight, leaving the urban core. It was thought recycling would solve the landfill problem, please the environmental community, provide jobs, and hope that the depressed areas of the city would recover.

But we have to ask...how are these environmental inequalities and environmental racism produced? It occurs when the poor are dumped on or exposed to hazards because they are less powerful than large corporations and the state itself. With the Environmental Inequality Formation (EIF), the environmental inequality process can be better understood. It is important to redefine environmental inequality as a sociohistorical process. The need to understand environmental inequality involves multiple stakeholder groups with contradictory and shifting interests is vital as well. Thirdly, viewing the ecology of hazardous production and consumption through life-cycle analysis rather than focusing on one location or site could answer many questions. Some researchers are studying how government officials are making decisions about toxic exposure to residential and worker populations. Others focus on the workers experiences.

How are environmental inequalities produced? Resources become distributed unevenly. These relationships are constituted through a process of continuous change that involves negotiation and problems among stakeholders. Resistance to environmental hazards can take part in shaping environmental inequalities. Many conflicts have shifted from pollution problems to remedies is risk reduction measures (p.590). We need to know how these problems emerge and vary in different spaces. The problems evolve as people change locations. For example, WMI's hazards shifted from incinerator's emissions to the dangers of a recycling center replacing it.

Sewage and waste are often concentrated in areas where the working poor are housed. These people also typically work dangerous jobs. It is important to understand that since the dawn of human history environmental inequality has been with us--not with toxic waste after WWII.

Environmental inequality also affects stakeholders. Environmentalists want to reduce pollution, create jobs, but forget about the workers. What about their health? Many work in conditions with poor air quality and have been injured with battery acid. With no organized labor group, people were not allowed to take a day off even if a family member had passed.

Once newspapers covered this story, chaos began for the company. They were fined over $100,000 and promised they would make significant changes. Once workers started refusing to touch hazardous materials, workers shaped environmental inequality when work conditions changed.

Environmental inequality also needs development of life-cycle analysis. This requires scholars to examine the full costs and benefits of production and consumption. We seem to be focused on pollution rather than on resource extraction and consumption. People and ecosystems are affected in several ways. We can examine the socioenvironmental impacts as natural resources that are extracted, processed into commodities through production, distributed, consumed, and disposed. However, we've only focused on disposal. Through life-cycle analysis we can link emissions from cars, for example. Environmental hazards add new and disturbing dimensions to the limited discourse around both health care and the solid waste crisis in our country.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's sad that so many African-Americans are stuck with crappy jobs that greatly harm their health, and that probably don't pay very well. This is probably mainly due to discrimination in the work place, which unfortunately still happens too often. I agree that more needs to be taken into consideration about this issue other than the diposal. The extraction and consumption methods are what lead to the abundance of solid waste.