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.

Humans keep discriminating and ruining for themselves


(Photo credit: TimothyJ)

by Marius Brusegard

Chuck Laszewski mentions the catchphrase “Environmental racism” in his article “The sociologists’ take on the environment”. This phrase means that people with less influence or wealth have to suffer from environmental hazards caused by landfills, hazardous waste dumps and dirty factories. Laszewski further claims that numerous reports have proved conclusively that environmentally hazardous businesses have been overwhelmingly established in poor or minority neighborhoods, hence the phrase “environmental racism”. Politicians were able to bring dirty factories etc. into these areas by claiming that it would increase the tax base and create jobs. Indeed jobs were created, but according to sociologist David Pellow, referred to by Laszewski, these dirty facilities were producing poor economic results, jobs hazardous to the workers, and a new source of toxic emissions in the neighborhood.

These types of environmental hazards have been placed in these areas most likely because of the knowledge about how environmentally damaging the hazards really are. I find it hard to believe that helping these poor areas grow economically was an important part of the siting process of these environmentally hazardous businesses. I find it likely to believe that the economic growth and increase of jobs for the respective communities were used solely as arguments to convince the people of these areas to accept having these environmentally hazardous businesses placed in their areas. This means that the influential and wealthy people are knowingly forcing the less fortunate people to live in an environment damaging for their health. Even if people wanted to move away from this new environment, most of them probably can’t afford it. After all, many of them are living in these areas because they can’t afford living anywhere else. If they were to move to another area within their price range, chances are that they would eventually have to move again for similar reasons.

Another aspect that I find disturbing is that by building these factories etc. in poor areas with lack of jobs, it makes the areas dependent on these factories. There have been some cases of this happening in my home country, Norway. Factories were built in small communities and these communities then experienced economic and social growth. Naturally, many people in these towns got jobs at the factories, and the population even grew because of people moving there for work. However, after several years, the market changed and there were either no more need for the factories, or they were relocated somewhere else more beneficial to the factory owners. This caused a lot of people to lose their jobs, and their lives were abruptly changed. People were forced to move in search for work, schools had to be shut down, and the formerly vivid towns had transformed into so-called “ghost towns”.

The fact that people do not want to have these hazardous factories in their own neighborhoods testifies how dangerous they are. In order to get rid of these problems, we would have to stop producing products that creates hazardous waste, and go over to using natural products as far as possible. However, this means that the human race would have to take some steps back from today’s modern society. But moving backwards does not seem to be something the human mind is set to do, even if this way of moving backwards could result in a healthier and longer lasting environment for the future.