Environmental Justice: What It Is and Why We Need It
In the United States we finish our pledge of allegiance by referring to our nation as one with “liberty and justice for all”. For all, of course, or it would not be just. In a country that teaches children from a young age, that we stand for justice, we fall short of this goal way too often. Unless it is court-related, most of the time, it is environmental justice you see failing, you just may not have heard that term used before.
The EPA explains that if an environmentally just country existed, in it, “no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations; or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies”. Their website further explains, that there may be environmental burdens to be had, but they should be evenly distributed across all populations.
Where Environmental Justice Is Lost
Environmental justice can be measured through two things: exposure to risk and access to environmental resources. Exposure to risk can mean living near a toxic waste facility, living close to source of pollution, or dealing with the consequences of climate change. Access to environmental resources like clean water, a healthy forest, a place to live, and even healthy food are a huge part of an environmentally just society. Due to water privatization, destruction of forests, and unmitigated displacement, these things are not equally available to everyone.
The inability to access clean water is a huge issue in and of itself, but the problem at hand is that both exposure to risk and access to environmental resources is disproportionately impacting lower income communities, who also tend to be people of color. Here we see the pattern of injustice arise. We all create the problem, so why are we not all sharing hardship?
It is important to clarify that this isn’t someone who is sitting in a chair saying, ‘oh this is where we want this, and these are the people who are going to have to deal with it’. There is no one person to point the finger at – it is an outgrowth of our society, of our way of life.
When there is a new proposal for the development of a source of pollution, or there is an issue with an existing development, people can speak up against it. Utilizing freedom of speech is a huge win. If there is enough support, they will usually override the proposed development. But it is important to consider that neighborhoods who have more wealth, time, and organization also have more power. The phenomenon of these neighborhoods fighting back has been coined ‘Not in My Backyard’ or, ‘NIMBY’. Also know, that they are not stopping the facility from being built, merely pushing it to a neighborhood who don’t have the time, money, or influence to stop it. No one wants that in their backyard, but it falls on a certain socioeconomic group which happens to also be a certain racial group due to a wide variety of social issues – environmental injustice.