GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Environmental Justice



Majora Carter grew up in the South Bronx, and in this TedTalk, she details her struggle for environmental justice where she lives. Her talk describes how marginalized neighborhoods suffer the most from flawed urban policy, and delivers some of her ideas for a way forward. Since giving this Ted Talk, Majora Carter has gone on to win an astounding array of International Awards and has been given numerous honorary degrees from prestigious Universities across the USA. Pay close attention to the causes and consequences of environmental injustice that Carter identifies. 

Credit: TED

Key Concepts in Environmental Justice:

Environmental Justice: 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.

Environmental Injustice: unequal protection from environmental and health hazards and unequal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

History of Environmental Justice in the USA: Struggles over unequal exposure to environmental hazards have been taking place for a very long time in societies all around the world, but the origins of environmental injustice as a concept can be traced back to 1982, when the State of North Carolina needed to clean up highly toxic waste (Polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, which is so dangerous to the environment and human health that the US banned it in 1979) that a company had been illegally dumping along highways across the state. After sending the perpetrators to jail, North Carolina decided to clean the highways and to relocate the toxic PCB-laden soil to a landfill, which they sited in the African American community of Afton, Warren County. The landfill was not a safe way to contain PCBs, and it represented a severe threat to the health of this community. However, African Americans have historically had very little political power in North Carolina, and it took over twenty years of lawsuits, protests, and public appeals for the state to take responsibility. In 2003, state and federal agencies detoxified the 81,500 tons of PCB-laden soil by burning it in a kiln that reached over 800 degrees. The residents' struggle in Warren County remains a powerful symbol for the environmental justice movement. 

White flight: a term used to refer to the large-scale movement of white people (of various European ancestries) from neighborhoods that were increasingly racially mixed in urban centers, to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions. 

Redlining. Click on the link for an article describing the process of white flight in the United States. Then, take a look at how Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston describes redlining:

Redlining is the practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents' qualifications or credit worthiness. The term "redlining" refers to the practice of using a red line on a map to delineate the area where financial institutions would not invest.

In the United States, from the 1930s through the 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insured private mortgages and helped encourage home ownership, commonly used redlining in urban areas as a way to maintain segregation. The practice also served to concentrate economic resources in white neighborhoods and to concentrate harmful sources of pollution in black neighborhoods. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the recent Atlantic article "The Case for Reparations":

The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods, where black people lived, were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.

Today, redlining is illegal, but the wealth gap that it created remains and continues to exert a huge influence on the geography of financial investment and toxic waste sitting in the United States.

Political Ecology:

Political Ecology is another approach commonly used in Geography, especially Human-Environment Geography. Like Environmental Justice, Political Ecology pays close attention to justice and equity and the ways environmental change and environmental policy impact different people differently. The three core assumptions of Political Ecology are: 

1. The costs and benefits associated with environmental  policy and change are unequally distributed.

2. Environmental  policy and change can either reinforce or reduce existing social and economic inequalities.

3. Those changes in equality and power relations have political implications.

Political Ecology is covered in depth in other Geography courses at Penn State, so will not be covered in detail here. However, because it is such a central approach in Human-Environment Geography, a number of the papers you will read for this course will be written from a Political Ecology perspective.