by Jerry Silberman
Question: Is environmental justice available under our law?
The Right Question: Is environmental justice the same thing as justice for the environment?
We usually think of justice as the concept of fairness and equity: that everyone should be treated with the same respect, given the same rights and treated equally under the law. The Cambridge Dictionary’s practical definition is “the system of laws by which people are judged and punished.”
These two definitions can easily be at loggerheads, depending on one’s view of existing law. To me, many of our laws protect and promote the grossest forms of unfairness, inequity and environmental destruction, e.g., fracking and mountaintop removal. Come to think of it, when you consider the impact on our health and future, environmental justice to me would mean the
long-term incarceration of anyone engaged in, or attempting to engage in, fracking or coal mining.
Since the environmental movement was founded, it has largely been a movement of privileged people seeking to retain their privileged enjoyment of natural beauty, access to the best food or protection from the effects of pollution. The environmental movement was, and is, largely a NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement, in denial about the consequences of the lifestyle its activists choose to follow.
In an effort to broaden the appeal of the mainstream environmental movement and scrub away its image as an elitist hobby, some environmentalists and labor organizations developed the “Blue Green Alliance.” It focused on promoting investment in so-called green jobs, such as renewable energy development, and was seen by its labor partners as a way to mitigate the impact of eliminating jobs in dangerous and polluting activities.
Their approach, however, didn’t address the downstream impact of polluting activities on the poor in this country or overseas. Fights against toxic incinerators in poor black towns like Chester, Pennsylvania, or cancer clusters caused by factory emissions in working class neighborhoods like Bridesburg were not on the radar of wealthy suburbanites concerned with preserving park land or fighting genetically modified crops.
In reaction to these enormous blind spots in the mainstream environmental movement, the environmental justice movement arose, demanding that the quality of life issues demanded by the elite should be available to everyone, and that, most importantly, polluting activities should be located equitably in rich and poor neighborhoods or stopped altogether.
An entire new vocabulary of struggle was introduced, which the mainstream environmental movement must pay lip service to, without ever changing its basic focus.
What the environmental justice and the mainstream environmental movements have in common, though, is a focus on the conditions of human beings without regard to the limits imposed by nature.
Environmental justice principles, by and large, still subscribe to the notion that a way of life comfortable and familiar to middle-class Americans is available to all without any nasty side effects. They believe that if the wealthy are forced to experience these side effects, then mitigation and prevention will be prioritized. Eliminating leaded gasoline and ending the discharge of ozone-destroying chemicals are the kind of victories that environmental justice advocates believe they can multiply.
But justice for the environment—that is, fairness and equity for the rest of the biosphere—is not so simple. Humanity’s continued existence, in its current level of consumption of resources, poses a serious threat to millions of species. The current rate of extinction, considered by biologists to be caused by human impact, ranks with the great extinctions of the past when more than 90 percent of all extant species
Of course in this next extinction, one of the species likely to go is the human race. Over the next few million years, evolution will result in millions of new species that will fill every niche available. Evolutionary change is a constant of life, although the speed of evolution varies radically depending on the rate of change in the physical environment.
Over the hundreds of millions of years that life has existed and will continue to exist on this planet, it seems the height
of arrogance to suggest the actions of a single species, on the planet for a trivial and
insignificant few hundred thousand years, are more than the operations of probability in history, to which no moral value can be attached.
So, environmental justice is justice for people—present and hopefully future. We are a resilient and adaptable species—generalists—a trait we share with rats, raccoons and roaches. But we are still evolved to be most comfortable and healthy in an environment we are putting at risk every day by overconsumption and overpopulation. Unless we are willing to reduce both of these fairly quickly, life will be very much different and less comfortable, even for the wealthiest among us.
The environmental justice movement, it seems to me, has a greater chance of coming to terms with the limits of growth than the mainstream environmental movement. But, at least for now, it has not found a way to integrate its core message of justice with the necessary message that nature has limits. We must recognize those limits if we’re to remain a part of it.
Jerry Silberman is a cranky environmentalist and union negotiator who likes to ask the right question and is no stranger to compromise.