Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Risk and Justice

In response to environmental justice studies that document the uneven distribution of environmental risk and the current focus of policy on pollution control, Field argues the origination of environmental risks in the economic system of capitalist production which should be addressed in a more democratic system that focuses on pollution prevention rather than control. He offers three perspectives on environmental justice research: risk, fairness and capitalist production. All three are interrelated, but each has different political implications. Risk is the basis of the current U.S. system in which the state serves as the regulator. This system poses two questions: what is the acceptable level of risk and what controls can be imposed so that pollution does not exceed the limits. This system ignores the reason why pollution exists in the first place.

Although environmental justice studies have documented the uneven distribution of risk to poor and minority communities and the fairness in siting, they fail to link this inequality to the production practices that produce and shape the distribution of pollution. This connection is demonstrated by an analysis of where, what and how pollution is produced and moved. The spatial element of pollution production is determined by the decision of industry to locate production in proximity of natural resources for extraction or in the urban landscape. This unequally distributes environmental risk to the people in nearby communities who are primarily poor and minority.

Extraction industries are encouraged by government incentives that make depleting natural resources more profitable than more environmentally sound alternatives. Native American communities typically bear the environmental burden due to the rich mineral deposits on their land that attracts these industries. Throughout history, non-extractive industries have typically located production in urban areas which, through advances in technology and suburbanization, have become dominantly poor and minority communities. These communities have low property values and less political power which make them the prime target for industry production and. People in these communities are not financially able to relocate and thus are forced to bear the burden of historical and present contamination and pollution.

The second point of the analysis is how the production process determines how much and what type of pollution is being produced. The post-war mass production economy introduced thousands of new toxic chemicals and synthetic materials to decrease the costs of labor and subsequently produced mass amounts of toxic waste to be disposed in the surrounding communities that are primarily poor and minority. Field argues that any supposed benefits of synthetics does not make up for the “impact of the 200-300 million tons of hazardous waste generated in the process [that] is borne by the 3,000 or so local communities which host the facilities which treat, store and dispose of most toxic waste” (86).

Neglecting the connection of environmental risk to the production process has led to current regulations to control pollution by capturing waste. As a result, industrial waste has been commodified and distributed to hazardous waste sites primarily located in poor and minority communities. Current policy ignores the ways that this system worsens the burden on these communities and fails to properly regulate contaminants. Scientific studies of ‘risk’ are prevented by the constant introduction of new chemicals that make it nearly impossible to determine the harmful types and levels of pollutants.

Another policy failure is its limitations of the political participation of local communities in environmental decisions, such as the siting of waste disposal facilities. Pollution prevention would be a more appropriate response than pollution control because it attacks the root of the problem rather than displacing it. Prevention legislation does exist, but only as voluntary provisions. Another solution is to increase participation of local citizens in the administrative process as they are the ones most affected by these policies and processes. The link between government and industry and the limited role of the people in the decision-making process prevents policy from moving forward to preventative measures. Pollution prevention costs more than pollution control and does not generate ‘enough’ profit for industry. It is simply bad for business. This is similar to how pharmaceutical companies will not manufacture curative medicine or will halt research that is close to finding a cure for a disease or condition. In both cases, capital trumps the livihood of the people. Treatment is more profitable than a cure, just as cap and trade is more profitable than prevention.


  1. I agree that pollution prevention is much more beneficial than pollution control. Prevention would decrease the amount of pollution being created to begin with, as opposed to just allowing it to be created and then trying to control it. The main problem with this is that it is very difficult to stop everyone from polluting. It would be hard to make someone stop using their old, beat up cars without just buying them a hybrid, which we clearly cannot do. It would be possible to prevent pollution at a company level, but at a personal/home level, there is always going to be some people that are just going to do or use what they want, regardless of the ecological impact.

  2. I can't help but feel there is a dangerous disconnect here in terms of MNC's (who have shown a capacity for the worst of humankind) to just kind of accept a new status quo and join the bum rush. The environmental justice movement (EJM) in itself has, in my opinion, defid definition. Resistance in Cochabamba cannot "empirically" be compared to other EJM movements, nor can it be claimed that the EJM is a narrowly defined concept at all. A comprehensive, cohesive, EJM movement has yet to take root in most areas in the US facing pollution/resource issues, as there is still sufficient clouding by the corporations to keep a significant percentage of the population in the dark to such an extent as to not make too much noise on the issue.

    I credit Field comparinge current environmental debate as being framed within the terms of those in control of production. He cites numerous anecdotes to illustrate the fact that "our best interests" are peripheral at best. How do those you are being dumped upon act within the current framework? Not at all, says the author.

    The commidification of waste is obviously not something most Americans (or Earthlings, for that matter) have thought about much. Getting policy to either "commodify" waste or deal with it in some other matter will not be a quick fix, however. Even Hardin's idea are foreign to most average citizens. We can't get people to debate the Commons if they don't know what it is.

    The biggest issue, in my opinion, is that the impetus for scientific knowledge (even with all its problems) has been lacking since the end of the Cold War, as Speth mentions in the book for the final. Thus, Americans don't feel that knowledge is the way to win the future anymore and "government" or "God" will sort it all out. This, of course, does not take care of pollution.

  3. This article really complimented Judy Bari’s interview well. It makes the point of grass roots movements knowing about the problems – ecological, social, and economic – and they are working to solve their own problems through their own methods. It is these “grass roots” people that share a “belief that environmental concerns are not separate from other social issues” (71). He uses this well when he explains correlation to race, income, and health.
    I agree with Jessica’s analysis that pollution prevention does not generate the income necessary to make it a profitable industry. While we provide extraction companies with incentives we are not doing enough to encourage the work that will benefit more people in the long run. Nobody wants their kids to grow up with toxic chemicals in the ground, drinking water, or anywhere near them for that matter. But the voluntary status of controlling pollution does not work. It’s similar to people constructing a new building, if the company wants to go the route of being environmentally friendly, they need to hire a LEED consultant or engineers that are LEED certified and then use sustainable products when in comes to construction. The overall costs in construction, design, and material is initially higher. So many people opt to go the cheaper route. These situations occur when there is no regulation. The trouble comes in getting people to agree to be regulated. Self-regulation does not seem to work. Tragedy of the Commons is a good example. People always want what benefits them more and only reflects a slight loss for everyone else. But when everyone wants an extra sheep or ten on the same plot of land, disaster ensues. As Jessica put it “capital trumps the livelihood of people.” Sad, but, as it is all too often, true.