Environmental Justice For All
How to save our cities, revive the economy, and green the planet—all at the same time
image by Jeremy Traum
This article is part of a package on the new green justice movement. For more, read Global Warming Is Color-Blind and The Temperature Transcends Race.
Manuel Pastor ran bus tours of Los Angeles a few years back. These weren’t the typical sojourns to Disneyland or the MGM studios, though; they were expeditions to some of the city’s most environmentally blighted neighborhoods—where railways, truck traffic, and refineries converge, and where people live 200 feet from the freeway.
The goal of the “toxic tours,” explains Pastor, a professor of geography and of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC), was to let public officials, policy makers, and donors talk to residents in low-income neighborhoods about the environmental hazards they lived with every day and to literally see, smell, and feel the effects.
“It’s a pretty effective forum,” says Pastor, who directs USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, noting that a lot of the “tourists” were eager to get back on the bus in a hurry. “When you’re in these neighborhoods, your lungs hurt.”
Like the tours, Pastor’s research into the economic and social issues facing low-income urban communities highlights the environmental disparities that endure in California and across the United States. As stories about global warming, sustainable energy, and climate change make headlines, the fact that some neighborhoods, particularly low-income and minority communities, are disproportionately toxic and poorly regulated has, until recently, been all but ignored.
A new breed of activists and social scientists are starting to capitalize on the moment. In principle they have much in common with the environmental justice movement, which came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when grassroots groups across the country began protesting the presence of landfills and other environmentally hazardous facilities in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods.
In practice, though, the new leadership is taking a broader-based, more inclusive approach. Instead of fighting a proposed refinery here or an expanded freeway there, all along trying to establish that systematic racism is at work in corporate America, today’s environmental justice movement is focusing on proactive responses to the social ills and economic roadblocks that if removed would clear the way to a greener planet.
The new movement assumes that society as a whole benefits by guaranteeing safe jobs, both blue-collar and white-collar, that pay a living wage. That universal health care would both decrease disease and increase awareness about the quality of everyone’s air and water. That better public education and easier access to job training, especially in industries that are emerging to address the global energy crisis, could reduce crime, boost self-esteem, and lead to a homegrown economic boon.
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