Environmental Justice: Apocalypse Now? – by Marc Brenman

The topic of environmental justice (EJ) has become popular. We find it expressed in President Biden’s equity program, for example. I’ve been working with a group of advocates on the topic for about twelve years. Before that I helped write one of the first EJ programs for a federal agency while at the US Department of Transportation in the late 1980’s. At the time I knew nothing about the issue. I mentioned my ignorance to Bob Bullard, one of the fathers of the concept. He told me to read his books. Now I’ve become an expert, with books and essays, including one on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

EJ has been overtaken by events, and today is sometimes called “environmental racism.” We now recognize the climate as a problem, and not as benign Mother Nature. EJ is the confluence of environmental issues with civil rights, resulting in health disparities for many people of color and low income people. They tend to live in lower marshy areas that are more subject to ocean level rise, flooding, and extreme storms. Even today, many lack air conditioning and are therefore more endangered by extreme heat. Many farmworkers live in rural towns in the West under extreme drought conditions. African-Americans own cars at the lowest level of any demographic group in the United States, and hence can’t escape in an evacuation order. Many African-Americans in Southern and Border states live near hog and chicken waste ponds and power stations and dumps that spew noxious fumes.

As knowledge of the environment has become pervasive, the distinction of EJ as a separate field has decreased. It now seems to be part of everything wrong. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with coordinating EJ efforts in the federal government, but has done a poor job regardless of Administration. It is dominated by engineers and scientists who demand absolute proof before they will testify that environmental insult A. causes harm B. It continues to allow states to issue permits to polluting entities.

Under the Biden Administration, it is led by good-hearted people who are still organizationally enthrall to the entities they’re supposed to regulate. This is called in public administration parlance “industry capture.” Republicans generally just don’t care. They support companies that want a license to pollute wherever they please and as much as they want. Improvements do occur on the margin, such as the growth in electric cars, putting many more solar panels on roofs, and building wind turbine farms. But even with these improvements, there are profound disparities between benefits accruing to higher income whites compared to traditionally discriminated against people. These disparities manifest in poorer health, less wealth, and less ability to flee threats. According to the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, social and physical mobility in the US has substantially decreased in recent years.

EJ, as a branch of civil rights, has its ups and downs, steps forward and back. Some progressives see it as a form of racism. But anti-racism initiatives show almost no quantitative progress on the ground. The concrete metrics simply aren’t there, or used. A paper I’ve written on diversity metrics is the most requested thing I’ve written. I get requests for it from around the world, literally. And diversity is the weak cousin of civil rights efforts. More powerful efforts include litigation on discrimination issues, quotas, set-asides, and affirmative action. The people I work with on EJ issues are terrific, dedicated, passionate, indefatigable; and rarely win. This is not because of a lack of hard work or research or intelligence on their part. Rather, they face legal and organizational obstacles. No one who has benefits and privilege, whether unearned, earned, or lucky, wants to give them up. When I worked on education civil rights, we used to joke that we could always tell where the white people lived in a town because that’s where the streets were curvy. They were curvy because they were on hills, and streets on hills are curvy. Lower income people tend to live in the flats where the streets are straight (like Watts in LA). Bad stuff like pollutants flow downhill.

As the environment collapses, maybe it will have an equalizing effect, with apocalypse for both rich and poor. But the smart money is betting that higher income people will be able to forestall the End Times by fleeing, just as many did during the Covid pandemic. Wealthy neighborhoods in Manhattan emptied out. Apocalyptic movies may foresee our future. Meanwhile, some of us will continue to nibble around the edges of a solution by working on environmental justice. Of course we have to find justice.

A conservative federal judiciary cuts us off from going high. We’re left with working at the local level. But even when we find a receptive local audience, nature, the climate, and pollutants don’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries, which are artificial lines on the ground. Are we all in this together? Maybe in the long run, but in the short and middle run, no. Low income people, African-Americans, non-Cuban Hispanics, non-Japanese and Chinese Asian-Americans, and the First Peoples of North America continue to suffer environmental insults at a high and disproportionate rate compared to higher income whites.

Marc Brenman

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