Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Development’s Downsides


Thus far in the module, we've seen several examples in which development has increased health and quality of life. However, development can also reduce health and quality of life. Oftentimes, when development has these downsides, it is for reasons related to the environment. When development impacts the environment in ways that harm certain groups of people, it raises issues of environmental justice.

First, let's consider some connections between economic development, human health, and justice by completing the following reading assignment:

Reading Assignment: Walker, "Health Disparities in Black and White"

Walker, Bailus Jr. 2007. "Health Disparities in Black and White." Crisis July/August.

A scanned copy of the article with images can be downloaded as a PDF here: Walker, Health Disparities in Black and White

An easier-to-read text only html version of this article (Walker, Health Disparities in Black and White) is also available through the Penn State Library system.

Here are some questions to consider as you read this article:

  • What are some of the main causes of poor health within the United States?
  • What are some of the relationships (correlations) between health and race and class in the United States?
  • What are some pieces of legislation that have been passed to try to deal with these patterns?
  • While the correlations between health and race are clearly understood, what are some of the challenges in showing causation (proving that African American communities are targeted to live with these facilities, for example)?

The fact that poor, and often minority, populations are more likely to live within close proximity to facilities that have negative health effects has helped establish the environmental justice movement. Research on environmental justice has shown that political and economic systems structure the conditions that contribute to poor health and help explain variations within societies in the rates of non-communicable chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer.

Within the United States, the environmental justice movement has worked to show how the byproducts of development, such as chemical factories, waste facilities, and toxic chemicals, create hazardous conditions for people living near them. Here's one example of environmental justice in the United States; watch this video about Camden in New Jersey (4.5 minutes):

Click for a transcript of "Racial Discrimination" video.


BONNIE SANDERS: Camden was such a beautiful city, you wouldn't believe it. Years ago, it used to have stores on every corner. You didn't see no vacant lots, houses. It was clean. The water was good. The air was fresh. Now, the air is bad, and the water is poisonous.

PRESENTER: Camden has the second-highest cancer rate in New Jersey and the eighth-highest in the nation.

PHYLLIS HOLMES: The children were sick. They were coming home from the hospital with breathing apparatuses. Where years ago, say, five years ago, it was only one child coming home with a breathing apparatus, now it's four out of five that are coming home with breathing apparatuses.


BONNIE SANDERS: The main complaints are asthma and cancer. Practically every hearse you see pull up, someone done died from cancer.

OLGA POMAR: The county, which is predominantly white and fairly affluent, dominates Camden politics in a lot of ways. And it started using Camden as the place where the things that no one else wanted, they got put in Camden.

PRESENTER: The city is home to 103 toxic sites.

BONNIE SANDERS: This is our park for our children to play in, but at one end of the park is the cement plant-- St. Lawrence cement plant-- and at the other end of the park is the sewage treatment plant.

PHYLLIS HOLMES: One, the factory runs around the clock. Two, the trucks are running-- 500, 600 trucks-- around the clock. They have this dust-- this black dust-- behind us.

They have it sitting out. They don't have it in containers. If we have a strong wind or a storm or something, this dust is picked up, and it's blown all through the neighborhood. It's all in your window sills, all on the ground, all in your eyes.

BONNIE SANDERS: And we found out that cement will cause your arteries and your lungs to harden. Cement is cement.

PRESENTER: Bonnie Sanders leads the local environmental group South Camden Citizens in Action. The group organized several community protests against the opening of the St. Lawrence cement plant.

JANELL BYRD-CHICHESTER: I think any community would believe that the statutes of this country would protect the residents and the inhabitants of a community to say that no, no more. We shouldn't be disproportionately subjected to toxic waste sites any more than anyone else just because we are minorities and poor.

PRESENTER: The group sued the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, charging racial discrimination.

OLGA POMAR: The judge granted a preliminary injunction, which took a lot of people by surprise and made us very excited. Here is this $60 million dollar facility that was built, that's ready to start operating, and here this little community group stopped it in its tracks.

PRESENTER: But five days later, the US Supreme Court made a decision that limited the rights of people to sue on the grounds of racial discrimination. As a result, the Camden case was thrown out of court. Now, in order to prove discrimination, South Camden Citizens in Action has to find what amounts to a smoking gun.

JANELL BYRD-CHICHESTER: For the Camden people, the only arguments, really, that the court has left for them is that they prove that the people did this for the purpose of harming them. That's a very high bar, and it is difficult for us to get into the minds of others and prove subjective intent unless you wrote a memo or said, I want to put this cement plant in South Camden because I want to hurt black people. Now, if we have that memo, yes, you can go to court. But absent that kind of evidence, the court is saying the doors are closed.

BONNIE SANDERS: The children are the ones that are suffering-- the children that are walking down the street and passing now. All they doing is, more and more every day, violating our civil rights. 


But environmental justice is not just a domestic American issue. It is also a global issue. The globalized nature of our economy and our environment causes pollutions and other environmental indignities to become concentrated in certain world regions. Quite often, those regions are the regions of the poorest and least powerful of the world's people. This can be seen in the following video on e-waste (or electronic waste) in Accra, Ghana's capital city (6 minutes):

Click for a transcript of the "How the West Dump Electronic Waste in Africa and India" video.


PRESENTER: At a scrapyard in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, workers burn electronic cables to extract precious metals. Electronic products with a large quantity of copper are highly sought after by scrap dealers.

MOHAMMED HASSAN: Yeah, if we get a chance, someone dispose computer items, we do buy so that we scrap it as aluminum copper. We'll burn it to take out the inside. When we burn, the smoke, it's proven to have disease.

So we doesn't like it so. So we need the smoke should come down. So when we burn it, workers, then they [INAUDIBLE] from the smoke, or sick.

PRESENTER: Workers, both adults and children, sift through the ashes for scraps of metal. When it rains, ashes flush into nearby ponds and rivers where animals graze. Across the scrapyard, hundreds of workers take apart electronic products. Only the parts containing copper, such as electric cables, as well as metal and plastic casings, are kept for recycling.

The rest are dumped or burned, as there are hardly any e-waste recycling facilities in the country to process them. A specialist team from Greenpeace visited the area to study the impact of e-waste on the workers' health and the environment. Greenpeace scientist, Kevin Brigden, says the toxic content of electronics could have dire consequences on those who are repeatedly exposed to them.

KEVIN BRIGDEN: Heavy metals present in some devices, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, are highly toxic. Even at low doses, they can have effects on the nervous system, on the kidneys and other organs. Of particular concern is the effects of lead and mercury on the developing nervous system in children.

Other chemicals, including some brominated flame retardants, can build up in our bodies through repeat exposures. And for some, there's evidence of long-term effects, including on brain development, the hormone and immune systems. Many of the chemicals present in electronic devices are environmentally persistent. That is, once released, they will remain in the environment for long periods of time.

PRESENTER: Ghana is rapidly becoming one of the favored destinations for obsolete computers and other electronic waste from developed countries. Open-air markets selling secondhand goods are thriving across the country. Hundreds of containers filled with electronic goods arrive at ports along the coast.

Many of them come from developed countries such as the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, and the United States. Local experts say much of the electronic products arriving in West Africa are declared as secondhand goods. But in reality, the majority of them are e-waste.

MIKE ANANE: The bulk of the computers that are shipped here-- they're old, obsolete, secondhand computers-- are broken. They just don't work. So why would anybody want to give us computers that don't work? It is dumping, and nothing more.

PRESENTER: A large part of secondhand electronic goods come from Europe and the United States. Old CRT monitors are discarded, as many prefer a stylish flat screen TVs. At dump sites, names of institutions such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and other institutions from countries like Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, are found on discarded cases. E-monitors of well-known global brands litter the area.

MIKE ANANE: People in the developed countries bring them here, ostensibly to bridge the digital gap. But in actual fact, they are creating a digital dump. We don't need all these obsolete computers, because of the health and environmental implications.

PRESENTER: Local authorities worry that e-waste dumping could become a major problem, because there are no laws to regulate e-waste trade and recycling in Ghana.

WILLIAM ABAIDOO: We can't predict for now. But for years to come, it could be a problem. Because gradually, computers are creeping into our backyard. Other electronic gadgets that are home-used are all coming in. And let me say, the future could be bleak if care is not taken to come up with control measures.

PRESENTER: Today, dumping of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing nations is prohibited under The Basel Convention. EU law also prohibits the export of e-waste to non-OECD countries, like Ghana. Yet, there is a loophole used for exports from EU, declaring the e-waste as secondhand goods. Environmental campaigner say, laws alone can not stop the growing e-waste trade in West Africa.

KIM SCHOPPINK: Electronics produces should take responsibility by banning toxic chemicals from their products. And they should take back their products and recycle them in a proper way when they become waste. Only then can they prevent their products from ending up in developing countries like Ghana, where they pollute the environment and harm people's health.

PRESENTER: Young workers play football after a long day at the scrapyard. Most of them come from poorer areas in the northern part of Ghana, as well as neighboring countries. They are the ones who suffer the most from repeatedly being exposed to toxic chemicals. They do not have any idea how toxic chemicals affect their health in the long-time.

MIKE ANANE: We do not have the facilities to recycle them. They are killing our people. Because they contain a very heavy toxic metals that are not desirable for our health and also, the environment. They are fouling the environment for generations and generations to come. There is no way that we can deal with these problems. 


When you no longer want an electronic device that you own, what do you do with it? Where does it end up? Does it end up causing harm to other people? Who are these people? Do they deserve to be harmed by your e-waste? And what can you do about it? These are all difficult questions raised by our ownership of electronic devices. Furthermore, similar questions are raised by other items that we own and activities that we pursue.

Finally, it is noteworthy that environmental justice is not only about which populations suffer from the burdens of economic development (also known as environmental bads), but also about who has access to environmental goods: that contribute to human health. For example, poor communities and populations of color are often denied access to parks, open space, full service grocery stores, and hospitals. The environmental justice movement, therefore, has expanded to ask critical questions about which human populations suffer the burdens of economic development, and which benefit the most from it.

Consider This: Mapping Environmental Justice

Scientists, activist organizations, and stakeholders from different arenas have been working together to map out global environmental justice. The Atlas of Environmental Justice, for example, is a platform that visualizes hotspots of environmental justice across a wide range of fields (e.g., coal extraction and processing, landfills, deforestation, etc.). It is also a database of case studies of communities that grapple with and struggle against the disproportionate distribution of environmental “goods” and “bads.”