Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Risk and Justice (Field)

In the introduction to the article, Field provides an overview of environmental risk, which he describes as local—pollution affecting real people in unique situations. He asserts that many analyses of risk focus on political control of pollution rather than the original source, economic power. We must understand how current production processes create and spread pollution. One of the primary problems is that current environmental regulations focus on control of pollution rather than prevention. In addition, citizens affected by industrial pollution should have more power in the administrative process.


Field then provides a brief history of the environmental justice movement. The author cites Jane Addams and the Hull House activists as the first organization similar to the environmental justice movement, pointing out that environmental justice leaders are often women as well. There methods have redefined the “environment” as the place where people live, rather than objective nature untouched by humans. The mostly middle class environmental movement often used to interfere with civil rights movements by taking attention away from them, but now they are allies via the environmental justice movement, as became apparent in 1982 when both groups protested pollution dumping in a poor black community in North-Carolina. Thus environmental justice advocates have espoused the belief that “environmental concerns are not separate from other social issues” (p.71). In fact, they have found that hazardous waste disposal disproportionately affects minority and poor communities. A 1987 study found that 3/5 of African Americans and Latinos live near hazardous waste sites. Another study found that the same is true regarding air pollution. The EPA has acknowledged such findings but still claims that it does not prove that pollution among minority communities is the cause for their greater number of health problems. A particularly startling statistic is that 70% of low-income African American children have blood lead levels higher than the threshold established by the Centers for Disease Control. Clearly, something is wrong with this situation.

The author provides three theoretical perspectives to analyze this issue. The first is through risk, the second through political fairness, and the third through production. The author provides the following definition of risk: “the concept which delineates the boundary between the legitimate authority of the government to act in matters of health and safety and illegitimate interference with private property” (p.75). The goal of environmental risk is to determine the acceptable level of risk and what should be done to keep pollution within those boundaries. Therefore EJ activists must prove that minorities and poor communities receive more pollution scientifically. However, many still argue that elevated health problems in these communities are merely due to “life style” choices. The second perspective, fairness in the political system, has two interpretations. Some see unequal pollution as proof of institutional racism and classism in the government, while others argue that the economy has a large role as well. While the author agrees that risk and fairness are important components of EJ, he believes that previous analyses have tended to neglect the role of production as the source of unequal pollution.

Field cites three ways in which production plays a huge role in the disproportionate distribution of pollution. First, production influences the physical location of the industry. For example, if production requires the extraction of a natural resource, the location will depend on where the resource is available. (As a side note, I found it interesting/terrible that extraction companies, such as mining companies, receive encouragement from the government in the form of tax breaks). For non-extractive industries, the situation is a bit more complex. Field provides a historical description, mentioning the invention of railroads and cars, which altered the urban landscape by allowing local companies to become national ones. The author explains that in the past, activists (and local governments) had little power to reduce pollution, so they focused on sanitation, clean drinking water, paving, building parks, etc. instead while pollution went unregulated. He provided a description of the layout of industrial cities. In a typical industrial city, a commercial core was surrounded by factories, which were surrounded by workers’ housing, with wealthy residents forming an outer ring. Thus more poor residents were located closer to the polluting factories. In addition, those who could afford it moved as far as they could from the source of the pollution, further stratifying people by wealth in relation to pollution proximity. Eventually suburbs developed and the concentric model broke down into patches of industrial and residential neighborhoods and with suburbs interspersed. However, some could not afford to move. These poor people, often minorities, still live in close proximities to these original industrial sites. In addition, factories moving elsewhere search for cheap property (and cheap labor) in communities without much power, landing them amongst the lower classes.

The second way production influences the disproportionate distribution of pollution is through the type of pollution emitted. For one, mass production economy guarantees more pollution (which is disproportionately allocated to poor and minority communities, for reasons explained above). In addition, since WWII, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of synthetic materials over natural materials and the use of new chemicals (e.g. pesticides in agriculture with a simultaneous reduction in labor).

Finally the third way production influences the disproportionate distribution of pollution is by affecting how pollution travels to vulnerable communities, often across borders. Ironically, the new environmental laws in the 1970s had a negative effect on the spread of pollution. In an attempt to abide by the new Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, industries began burying their waste, producing land pollution, usually in areas occupied by minorities and the lower classes, of course. Companies began to arise and consolidate exclusively for the purpose of industrial waste disposal. Thus companies with no physical ties to a factory could be in charge of disposing of its industrial waste, allowing the waste to be spread to other areas, states, and even countries. (In this section, I was most disturbed to read that companies can buy and sell the right to emit pollution!)

Field explains that because environmental laws are designed to control pollution rather than prevent it, industrial waste continues to end up in poor and minority regions through waste disposal corporations. In addition, the state is responsible for dealing with the pollution rather than the producers, namely industry. Field names the “common thread” of these issues to be “the failure to assert effective control over the processes of production” (p. 89).

Finally, Field asserts that current environmental policy ignores the effects of production on environmental risk in two ways. First, its focus on control rather than prevention places a larger burden on poor and minority communities. In addition, so many chemicals are being introduced that it is impossible to keep up with determining which ones are dangerous and at what levels, not to mention putting these regulations into widespread practice. Second, citizens near industry have little voice in the environmental decision-making process. From these two failures, Field’s suggestions seem obvious. First, he suggests that we move toward a system based upon pollution prevention rather than control, implying more state involvement with the means of production. Second, he calls for more citizen participation in decision-making. For this second suggestion, two things are necessary. First, citizens must have access to information about the pollution types and levels of the factories they live near. Second, citizens should have a defined role in the decision-making process, such as a community vote on economic decisions affecting the community.

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