Is environmental justice actually possible?

Is environmental justice actually possible?

Photo Credits: KIYOMI WATSON / AGGIE

And how should we define it?

One of my environmental policy professors concluded a recent lecture about environmental justice (EJ) by asking the class whether or not we think achieving EJ is actually possible. One student eagerly raised their hand as if they had some very strong opinions about this and said, “I have some very strong opinions about this. I don’t think that environmental justice is achievable until we completely dissolve capitalism.” Much of the class responded by snapping their fingers.

This attitude concerns me. I can agree that rogue, unregulated, Wild West capitalism is to blame for a substantial portion of the environmental injustice that we observe and feel the consequences of. We must acknowledge, however, that there’s an inflection point — the good that capitalism does and can do to protect society from the worst environmental injustices outweighs whatever smaller environmental costs are created as a byproduct. In other words, the baseline actions that protect us from the least tolerable environmental harms and injustices will always have some environmental costs, which are worth taking on. But they are only worth taking on if the systems meant to regulate and mitigate those costs and harms are functioning properly. Unfortunately, they currently aren’t.

Our institutions, like the EPA, can actually achieve a lot when they are not corrupted, as they currently are under the Trump administration. We need to ensure our environmental enforcement mechanisms are working, which can happen in a capitalist society. A lot of people don’t understand that capitalism and democratic socialism, which promises social justice, are compatible. People at the other extreme think that anything but pure capitalism is communism. Pollution regulation works and protects people when it’s carried out properly, so thinking that we have to tear everything down anyway implies that our institutions as we know them are not capable of creating change. This belief only creates indifference toward the increasing levels of damage Trump is doing to our environmental regulation apparatus. 

This indifference is misguided because the damage of this deregulation crusade is tangible and will have consequences that reach far and wide. If people become indifferent, they will learn less and less about the environmental injustices being ignored or exacerbated by the Trump administration. Consequently, these people become less conscious of how much their vote could actually make a difference. Ironically, this belief that the change we need is likely impossible can make people neglect the importance of achieving smaller environmental goals, like those that can be achieved simply by voting Trump out of office.

The more damage Trump is allowed to do, the harder it will be to defeat environmental injustices in the future. And confusion over what success looks like in terms of EJ issues makes it harder to assess our progress. Conflicting understandings of basic terminology has helped fuel this confusion.

The EPA defines EJ as “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. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” 

This definition is quite interesting because it promises procedural justice — that is, equal access to the decision- and policy-making processes. It then states what EJ would look like in theory but makes no promises about how to get there and no guarantees of actually achieving just outcomes.

The Environmental Justice Network has criticized the EPA’s definition and rhetoric. The Network’s website reads, “Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement’s response to environmental racism. ‘Environmental equity’ is not environmental justice. ‘Environmental equity’ is the government’s response to the demands of the environmental justice movement. Government agencies, like the EPA, have been coopting the movement by redefining environmental justice as ‘fair treatment and meaningful involvement,’ something they consistently fail to accomplish, but which also falls far short of the environmental justice vision. The environmental justice movement isn’t seeking to simply redistribute environmental harms, but to abolish them.”

I think that it’s possible to do our best to abolish these injustices while also trading a certain acceptable degree of environmental cost for some level of benefit. A recent story in The New York Times shed light on how Teviston and Fairmead, two small, low-income communities in the Central Valley with contaminated water supplies, have still not been connected to larger water systems. This story repeats across the Central Valley and across the country. But we’re not as far away from solving these issues as some would think. 

Research from UC Davis on the tens of thousands of people in the San Joaquin Valley who live in disadvantaged unincorporated communities (DUCs) — communities with less than 80% of California’s median household income that are outside incorporated city boundaries and lack adequate water infrastructure — is promising. The report found that in those DUCs, 44% of people live within 500 feet of a connection to safe drinking water and 22% live within a mile. This is encouraging. We just need the political will to accomplish these infrastructure projects in order to bring clean water to these communities and eliminate the environmental injustice.

When I saw this research presented as part of a lecture series at the UC Sacramento Center last summer, it made me optimistic that solutions to many EJ issues are attainable. But it requires us to push back against a resistant system, not tear it down. This takes work. And we will not be successful if we waste time, as a speaker at UCCS did a few weeks after that lecture when worrying about whether it was politically correct to refer to DUCs as “disadvantaged.” Let’s focus on actions, not words. These places literally don’t have access to clean water. That sounds like a pretty big disadvantage to me.

Written by: Benjamin Porter— bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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