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Environmental Racism

Environmental Racism
Environmental problems include ecoracism as well...Photo by Dirk Dabe

The problem of environmental fairness became one of the leading issues in social and political discussions of last three decades of XX century and is part and the parcel of ecological inequality of social and race groups and even whole nation’s discrimination. The incitement to this discussion became the investigations of an American sociologist Robert Ballard, who is considered the founder of the environmental unfairness theory, studying the fight of African-American communities against the arrangement of large-scale household landfills within the area of their residence in Texas, USA.

“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys:

the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and

equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Environmental Protection Agency, USA

Somehow or other environmental racism has its long lasting history: Hittite and Assyrian texts describe ceremonial of “earth salting” when salt and weed seeds were spread over the thrilled cities. The modern type of “ecoracism” implies shift of environmentally hazardous manufacturing into the “less fortunate” locations or their movement from developed countries into the “Third World”.

Originally the term was formulated as “environmental justice”, replaced with “ecoracism” or “environmental racism” from 1990s. This was also the time when quite a number of investigations were developed describing the low socio-economic level and socially unprotected population being the most prone to deep impact from environmental pollution with cheap, but in general unfit for human habitation dwelling within the environmentally adverse areas, where the large corporations preferred to develop legal and even illegal landfills.

While mass destruction of environment was named “ecocide” with consequent penalties in many countries nowadays, the “ecoracism” is less so obvious yet showing itself in developed countries environmental problems’ resolutions at the expense of developing ones in the form of toxic waste generation or export, not obeying environmental standards during manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction, in-situ or ex-situ burning of waste.

The fundamental factors of disproportionate distribution of the landfills and other waste facilities, including those dealing with hazardous waste, include cheap land availability, local population poverty and lack of political influence leading to the consequent lack of resistance towards the development of such facilities in their neighboring locations.

Thus environmental unfairness in many respects is conditioned by economic reasons: export of toxic waste into the “Third World” countries allows reduction in cost for hazardous waste treatment, which is an obvious way of return on capital maximization. Political and sociological aspects are of not less importance regardless of neoliberal ideology pronouncing human rights supremacy, including that of favorable environmental conditions.

Ironically, environmental racism was originated from environmental movement per se when environmental legislation of developed countries equipped with the slogan of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) was incapable of complete elimination of dangers associated with the treatment of hazardous wastes, thus trying to redistribute and consequently reduce this dangers in their own “Back Yards” at the expense of those unprotected by this same legislation.

It is enough to recollect just few cases of environmental racism, which took place in recent times in the most developed countries, not to mention the poorest countries of the “Third World”. Chester, Pennsylvanian, USA, with its largest in country waste (including biologically hazardous) collection facility and one of the largest waste incinerators, located just southwest of once residence of state capitol and one of the largest cities of Pennsylvania –  Philadelphia; Richmond, California, USA hosting Chevron Richmond Refinery, dispatching lung-penetrating toxic emissions into the air next door one of the African-American community; Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, which got its name from the number of dangerous plants located at this area – total of 150 petrochemical companies and 17 refineries emitting to air and discharging to water highly toxic chemicals; Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which worldwide known accident killed thousands of people, making it the world’s deadliest one in the history of industry.

Most of the environmental racism takes place within the developing countries, where environmental legislation is at its embryo stage, incapable of local population protection where developed countries, protected by imperturbable environmental law and in chase of more and better keep building hazardous manufactures and waste treatment and disposal facilities.

Toxic waste exported from developed to developing countries counted for more than 2.5 million tones only in the period of 1989 to 1994, while this kind of practice creates serious health and even life threat especially there were very little or no technologies exist for proper treatment and disposal of such wastes.

Various strategies are available for the achievement of environmental justice and they are grouped under seven common elements each of which is connected to smart land use and involvement of local population into the design of the communities[1].

Facilitate Meaningful Community Engagement in Planning and Land Use Decisions. In order to meet the diverse residents’ groups’ (including those of low-income and minorities) needs, it is necessary to involve communities in the planning and decision-making processes of land use. This would include the assessment of communities’ current conditions and discussions with the communities’ residents of the barest necessities.

Promote Public Health and a Clean and Safe Environment. “Green” buildings and “green” streets development aims the protection of environment and consequent reduction of the humans’ exposure to hazards of environmental pollution. In order to promote this attitude in communities’ development, urban planners, industries and local governments might chose again to work together.

Strengthen Existing Communities. Old neighborhoods, rich in culture and heritage, but with improper water and wastewater systems and other necessary infrastructure, often lack development opportunities, while are usually populated with the low-income and overburdened residents. Yet, having such opportunities they could have been reused or redeveloped thus increasing business investments in the area and making them safer from environmental and social viewpoints.

Provide Housing Choices. This element heavily depends on legislative and business changes, which would allow preserving old or creating new housing affordable for the low-income populations.

Provide Transportation Options. Critical to employment, service and education potential, that might not be available at the location of residence, thus forcing local populations to seek for better choices outside of their communities, which depends on rightful and affordable public transportation availability, especially for low-income populations. This element is linked to the first element within this list in terms of proper design and development of the roads, streets and communities.

Improve Access to Opportunities and Daily Necessities. One of the most significant elements of ecoracism is the lack of employment, education, health care, recreation and supply opportunities for local residents, which is interlinked with most of the above elements with the consequent mitigation measures to be applied.

Preserve and Build on the Features That Make a Community Distinctive. Any neighborhood has its distinguished features, which make it special and attractive for local residents and which should be preserved and even enforced in order to allow more economic and social development.

All the above is literally impossible without the strong dedication and support from local and national governments and consequent legislative development.

Environmental movements all over the world furnished themselves with the idea of environmental fairness and in many countries it became a dispatching point of development of the low level initiatives on population’s unprotected layer advocacy and birth of the new social movement for the protection of environment across the Earth.

Ever grown conflict with nature, part of it being ecoracism, tends to overlook the four fundamental principles of sustainable development by Barry Commoner, which read everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, Nature knows best, and nothing comes from nothing.

There will be none who disagrees with the statement proclaiming the absence of borders when it comes to protection of environment. Dumping hazardous waste in Nigeria will sooner or later, but inevitably lead to environmental problems in Cameroon or Niger with further expansion, subject to damage applied to the local environment. Therefore, environmental issues globalization is the first step to elimination of environmental problems, including ecoracism.

[1] The reference to the list: https://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/creating-equitable-healthy-and-sustainable-communities

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