Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Environmental Inequality Formation

The author, David Pellow, in this article makes the argument that more is needed when analyzing how environmental injustice comes about. He notes that Environmental racism and environmental justice are used interchangeably and should not be. Environmental racism (ER) is a form of environmental injustice (EI or EJ). ER is more about problem identification and EJ is more problem solving.
He says that there are major perspectives left out of EJ research that are crucial to really grapsing the situations. These persectives being the process of history, role of multistakeholder relationships and a life-cycle approach. In this article he uses a case study of Chicago's waste management to help understand the importance of these perspectives.
The case study deals with WMI, a waste management company that operates in Chicago. An environmental movement called WASTE wanted the incinerator that WMI operated to close down due to the hazards and health concerns this facility created. They were sucessful in closing it down, which facilitated the need for a new recylcing program. An Interesting note is that these environmentalists were the same people who actually for the building of an incinerator back in the early 70's when it seemed like a viable plan. A "Blue Bag" Program was then developed. The program was adopted with the praise that it would create new jobs and foster healthy environmental practices. Chicago was in a heavy state of decline in jobs, having lost 250,000 since 1947. This program really only said it would supply about 400 jobs, so it is funny to think it is a real problem solver. Another apspect to look at is that WMI was very much disliked by environmentalists because of its ownership of incinerators, landfills and toxic waste facilities, but now these people are on board with them. It becomes jobs Vs. The environment. These jobs, in addition to being few in number is comparison to the actual number lost in recent years, are really quite shitty jobs. They are hazardous and people soon start resisting the poor conditions of it. The people whom are hired by this company are local working class. So by and large, the environmental movement actually is reproducing inequality by supporting this company and the program.

The author tells that in cases like these the 3 perspectives are needed for analysis instead of what is usually done, which is to focus mainly on the unequal outcomes of environmental inequality instead of the reasons behind it. The majority focus is on who has power and who doesnt. He calls it the perpetrator-victim model. As we have learned throught our class, these simplistic explanations just dont cut it.
He first says researchers need to look at cases like this as a socio-historical process involving multiple groups with competing interests and in more than just one location. Inequality is formed when one group is able to mobilize the desired resource(s) better than the other. The historical process also includes the shifting of alligiences. Like with WMI, the environmentalists who were once for the incinerator eventually turned the other way when the working class started protesting the harsh conditions. Kind of a jobs vs. nature vs. labor idea. Depending on the times, conditions and circumstances, the people seem to go with what seems most relative at the time.

The second perspective the author looks at is the multiple stakeholders view. The idea that there are usually many different groups fighting for the desired resource. Environmental Inequality Formation goes beyong simple dualistic models. What happened with WMI is that two stakeholders collaborated (environmentalists, the state, and the neighborhood) and got their program into place. But in the end labor got the short end of the stick. Not much was taken into consideration when it came to the working conditions of this place. But, once the resistance started, allegiences shifted again, which lead to fines to the company for labor violations.

Lastly, the author talks about Life-cycle analysis. He says it is a crucial matter for research because it requires looking at full cost and benefit of production and consumption. In most research this gets neglected and instead just the end product, which is pollution, is looked at. The Life-cycle appoach is important because it looks at the full process of production and consumtion, from raw materials to pollution. All in all, we are affected by this at every point of the cycle. It also allows to look at things more globally. The way it fits in with the case study, as the author says, is that even if the working conditions in the new recylcing plant were decent, the raw matierials they are recycling probably came from somewhere where a form of ineqality is being practiced. Another way to look at this would be to think of someone who says they are going green by buying an electric car. It seems like a "green" thing to do, but the car batteries are made out of really toxic shit. The process to make them is toxic and they probably end up sitting in a landfill leaking toxic stuff into the environment. Also, the raw materials to make the car and it's parts probably came from somewhere where there is some form of environental injustice. So, to sum it up, about the only way to really be "green" is to live in a home you made yourself, eating food you grow yourself and survive on the fruits of your own labor. Damn hard if you ask me.
So, all in all, the author is advocating the use of these deeper research methods to find the true roots of environmental injustice and not just rely on simplistic methods that only concentrate on the end result. Sorry for the long post.


  1. In every article we read it seems that there is an underlying tone, and that is a resounding "goddammit".

    It doesn't seem as though there is anything we can really do based on these points; if I buy a bookshelf at the local store that is made of Brazilian mahogany i feel a level of excitement for buying such an exotic item, yet at the same time I am wondering whether the lumberjack, carpenter, or even the person who transports it makes a reasonable living without dire environmental consequences, after all it is probably (as we have learned from capitalism) mass produced with little to no environmental accountability. With this all in mind I can't buy it, but if I don't the chances of laborers in Brazil losing their jobs go up. The only way we can be sure that our goods that we buy are actually made using environmentally responsible practices, or that no one was oppressed during the process is to manufacture them ourselves.

    And as for these businesses that are creating deplorable work conditions or polluting in excess, they seem to find different problems instead of solutions. So much focus has been put on pollution and how to reduce it, but they rarely evaluate the circumstances by which the pollution came about, or that the "new solution" may just be a different kind of problem, namely social rather than environmental.

    This all makes me wonder, why would people want to hear about this? It is so depressing to think that there is so much at stake when I go to the grocery store to buy produce, or when I go to get a cup of coffee. It is no wonder that we do not take the issues as seriously as we should, after all we do not like feel guilt about our ways of living.

  2. I must say, straight out of the gate, that I am greatly angered by these posts. I apologize ahead of time if I seem preachy at points, but I feel rather strongly about this, so do with it as you may.

    First, the complete ignorance of the obvious, easy, and oft-repeated solution of changing the social relations that produce environmental problems. To say that the only way to make our society environmentally responsible is to "live on the fruits of your own labor" by somehow making everything that you use yourself is not only ridiculous, but short-sighted and damaging to the possibility of change, in that it places tacit responsibility for our environmental problems on ourselves, instead of the institutions and social relations that are actually responsible.

    However, to view environmental degradation as an act of violence against human beings, which seems to be the impetus for the entire Environmental Justice movement, is to create a social and ideological environment in which it is morally indefensible for us to continue to destroy our world. If policy follows from this assumption, with pollution tantamount to assault on the hundreds, thousands, or millions of people affected by it, environmental degradation becomes fairly impossible. This class has focused so much on the fact that this is a social issue that I am shocked that it still does not occur to us that it requires a social, not an individual, solution.

    The argument from apathy at the end of the Mr. Koutz's comment brings up a related point. We should not feel guilty for being given no choice but to consume products that have been made in unsustainable, exploitative ways. As Professor Rudy has pointed out numerous times in class, we often do not have the opportunity to buy efficient, socially responsible appliances, vehicles, or oftentimes foods, simply as a result of the structure of our systems of supply, and the nature of laissez faire capitalism, which often benefits from forcing us to waste resources. Thus, it is not our own individual fault that we have environmental problems. It is not the coffee you choose to drink, but the way that that coffee is made that is a problem, and that process is not a democratic one, meaning you have no say in how companies get their products to you. What must be done is not an anarchist back-to-the-land revolution, but simply a demand by the people of the world that the interests of business NOT trump the interests of people and communities and ethnic groups and social classes. What must happen is an ideological shift, a shift that I believe is under way.

    With the growth of the Environmental Justice movement, so long as it follows the advice of our new friend, David Pellow, we have begun to see a more holistic, inclusive perspective creep its way into the dominant environmental discourse, which has the power to shed a revealing light on the true cost of corporate and governmental policy through a refusal to ignore historical process, the groups that have a stake in the outcomes of the argument and their motivations, and the full life-cycle of our goods from "cradle to grave", as it were.

    So, Why would people want to hear about this? Because people are getting sick. Because people are being hurt, maimed, and killed. But most of all, because it's all coming from our completely arbitrary and ever-changing set of social norms and ideologies. The feeling that these issues are so overwhelming as to crush us under their enormity is an illusion. Yes, the specificities are complex, but all that must happen to get change rolling is for humanity to reinterpret one little definition: From the Oxford English Dictionary: Violence (n): To inflict harm or injury upon. Pollution harms and injures people. Unsafe working conditions harm and injure people. Environmental injustice is a subcategory under the heading of violence, and as soon as our policies reflect that, we will have started down the path to our salvation.

  3. In my post, when I mentioned the only way to be green was to live on the fruits of your own labor, I didn't really elaborate enough. I wasn't putting that up as a solution. It just seems that even products that are advertised as environmentally friendly may have a life cycle that may be tainted with some form of injustice. I totally agree with Alex that this is a social issue that needs to be dealt with on a global scale. A term I learned in Rudy's pop culture, which was "inverted quarantine" can pertain to this quite well. The idea that people try and solve problems of the global type by individual measures. An example being a person buying sunblock to protect their skin from the sun instead of society addressing the problem to reduce CO2 emissions that deteriorate the Ozone layer. When people engage in inverted quarantine they feel they have more control of their situation, and it is a more simple thing to do than organize people.