Environmental Racism – A problem with no visible solution

Save our water

Save our water (Photo credit: uusc4all)

by Jonas Horvei

The world as we know it is still very much an unequal society.  It is unequal because how others will treat us in our lives is already to a certain extent pre-determined on the day when we are born. Where we are born, our nationality, our family’s background, one’s looks, and the color of one’s skin and so on all plays different in how others will perceive and treat you. A few weeks ago I learned of another new concept related to inequality and discrimination called “Environmental Racism”. According to the USlegal (2013) definition, environmental racism can be defined in the following way:

Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. It is the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities. (2013, USLegal)

Hand in hand with the concept of environmental racism, we also have the concept of environmental justice. In short, environmental justice can be said to be a movement’s response to solve the issues of environmental racism. It is more or less a social movement who strives to put an end to environmental racism, or at the very least to create a more even distribution of both the benefits and burdens.

According to the basic principles of Environmental justice, the movement strives towards the following goals:

  • For everyone to be protected from environmental harm
  • The elimination of environmental threats
  • That everyone has the freedom to participate in environmental decision making

Whether it is possible to realize these ideals or not is a completely different question. What we can conclude so far though is at least, that social movements such as these do help, and they do have results. Pellow and Brulle (2007) describe in one article how the environmental justice movement has been able to fight against cases of environmental racism in the United States. They describe first how researchers managed to provide conclusive evidence that there was in fact a large bias in hazardous waste sites being located in communities where the majority of the citizens were minority groups. Through years of long battles the environmental justice movement helped stop the construction of over 300 garbage incinerators in the United States just in the period short period from 1985-1998. At the same they also influenced the large decline of municipal waste and medical incinerators also in the United States.

In such cases, we can clearly see that social movements do provide a very important element on the local level to stop the construction of sources of hazardous emissions. They highlighted the issues of environmental racism, and the dangers associated with chemical waste incinerators. Without the environmental justice movement, it is hard to say what the situation would be like, but it is evident that social movements do help.

As can be observed, the movement of environmental justice in America has had a strong impact on American society and has had a positive effect, whereas many of the most hazardous polluters have either been shut down or forced to relocate, and has made it difficult in the creation of new such polluting sources in America. Nevertheless even with such incredible results achieved, I cannot help but having this pessimistic view that there is still a long way to go and that future outlook certainly might not exactly be optimistic as many are to believe.

Then comes the problem, what do we actually do with the waste? With larger volumes of waste being produced, where do we put it, what do we do it? We put it somewhere else and ignore the problem. In my opinion, it seems like we are simply witnessing a relocation of the problem itself, that is to say that the problem is instead being transferred to somewhere else. Due to the influence of globalization, more and more industries take the leap abroad, often to developing countries. In such countries not only are labor costs cheaper, the emission restrictions are often much more relaxed. As a result the developed country can remove its pollution problem from its own border, while at the same time gaining profit from not having it in locating it their home country. So even if we might see an improvement in terms of hazardous waste and pollution in our local culture, it does not necessarily mean that the problem has disappeared. In fact in many cases it is highly likely just that it has simply been relocated somewhere else. America does it, Japan does, China does it, even Norway does it, and every country is guilty of it. For instance you have the case of Thor Chemicals, Inc, who during the 1980s moved its mercury reclamation processing facility from the corporation’s home in England to a village in South Africa. (Harper, Rajan 2004, p.3) Cases on international scale where the Northern countries move production, or move the waste disposal to southern countries are unfortunately far too common.

Then what is the solution to environmental inequality and environmental racism? Environmental emissions, pollution and hazardous waste are some of the biggest problems we are facing on a worldwide scale. There is no easy fix, it is as simple as that. Stricter restrictions, finding more environmental friendly solutions, raising awareness of the problem, and stopping making companies benefit from polluting rather than operating environment-friendly are some of the solutions off the top of my head. That is how we I believe we can minimize the problem. As long as issues of environmental pollution exist, inequality will also exist. As sad as it may sound, this is a natural part of human nature, we discriminate against those who are different. As long as we can get away with it, we discriminate, and as long as it remains more profitable to dump waste in neighborhoods with minority groups, or shipping off tons of waste to the Philippines or Bangladesh, environmental inequality will persist, without taking into account the health of other human beings that do not belong in our local environment.


Harper, Rajan. “International Environmental Justice: Building the Natural Assets of the World’s Poor.” University of Massachusetts, August 2004. Web 18.December. 2013. http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/working_papers/working_papers_51-100/WP87.pdf

Brulle, Pellow. “Poisioning the planet: the struggle for environmental justice” the American sociological association, 2007. Web 18 December. 2013.

Environmental Class Discrimination Takes on a Global Scale

by Miko Borys

Throughout the 80’s, less affluent neighborhoods began noticing that they suffered a highly disproportionate share of the pollution from the same industry that produced resources for all. Demonstrations such as the one in Warren County in 1982 where 550 citizens protested non-violently and were arrested, or in Southeast Chicago in 1987 where African-Americans blockaded 57 trucks from entering a waste incinerator, were happening all over America. Furthermore, the minority neighborhoods were statistically the most affected, having more toxic waste in their neighborhoods than any surrounding area: “of [the] nine proposed and constructed incinerators in the greater Chicago area… seven were in African American communities and two were in working class and/or white ethnic neighborhoods” (Pellow 90).The lesser chance of litigation in poorer minority neighborhoods supposedly made it an attractive option for industry initially. Groups like PCR, the People for Community Recovery led a movement in the US dubbed the “Environmental Justice” movement. The EJ movement believed, among other supporting ideals, that “all people have the right to protection from environmental harm” and they challenged the environmental inequality all over the U.S. Eventually, they successfully brought reform hindering the proliferation of environmentally unsound civil development. But where did the pollution go?

Thanks to such movements the environmental burdens of industrial development were seemingly abated. But the burdens were not abated in terms of distributing them more evenly, rather they were moved physically until they were no longer local. The regulations passed were so stringent, that environmentally challenging industry decided it would be in their best interest to remove their factories from the country entirely. The regulations and the effects weren’t exactly harmonious with what the EJ movement idealized. Even though the activists succeeded with getting pollution out of their neighborhoods the issue with pollution wasn’t resolved, it was just shifted further away.

Poorer neighborhoods might not be struggling with keeping pollution out as much as poorer countries are now. The pollution haven hypothesis states: when firms from industrialized nations seek to setup factory or office abroad, they will choose the country with the cheapest resources and labor, often at the expense of sound environmental practice. Even though the EPA might be seeing guidelines met in the U.S. for reduced emissions, the resolution might have just been “fancy bookkeeping” from the companies part. For instance, in Oregon the last coal-fired power plant is set to close by 2020. Yet the same town of Boardman closing down the power plant is considering the construction of a new large coal export facility. This coal export facility like others will take Powder River Basin coal from Montana and Wyoming and export it to the less environmentally restricted markets of Asia.

Even when we’re cautious to keep pollution out of our own neighborhoods it still finds its way to the climate through cracks in environmental policy elsewhere in the world. Even though one of the core fundamentals of the “Environmental Justice” movement was for “all people [to] have the right to protection from environmental harm” the movement stopped short when polluting industry crossed international borders. Even once the environmental movements cross borders, will pollution still find its place? Perhaps extra-terrestrially.


Environmental Racism” http://www.pollutionissues.com/Ec-Fi/Environmental-Racism.html

“Cutting Carbon Means More than Fancy Bookkeeping” http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2112907,00.html

David N. Pellow. “Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago”

Gunnar E. Eskeland and Ann E. Harrison. Moving to Greener Pastures? Multinationals and the Pollution Haven Hypothesis. NBER Working Paper No. 8888. http://www.ncpcbarchives.com/