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):
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):
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.”