Environmental Justice For All
(Page 3 of 6)
The first wave was conservation, led first by Native Americans who respected and protected the land, then later by Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and other Caucasians who sought to preserve green space.
The second wave was regulation, which came in the 1970s and 1980s with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Earth Day. Increased regulation brought a backlash against poor people and people of color, Jones says. White, affluent communities sought to prevent environmental hazards from entering their neighborhoods. This “not-in-my-backyard” attitude spurred a new crop of largely grassroots environmental justice advocates who charged businesses with unfairly targeting low-income and minority communities. “The big challenge was NIMBY-ism,” Jones says, noting that more toxins from power plants and landfills were dumped on people of color.
The third wave of environmentalism, Jones says, is happening today. It’s a focus on investing in solutions that lead to “eco-equity.” And, he notes, it invokes a central question: “How do we get the work, wealth, and health benefits of the green economy to the people who most need those benefits?”
There are a number of reasons why so many environmental hazards end up in the poorest communities.
Property values in neighborhoods with environmental hazards tend to be lower, and that’s where poor people—and often poor people of color—can afford to buy or rent a home. Additionally, businesses and municipalities often choose to build power plants in or expand freeways through low-income neighborhoods because the land is cheaper and poor residents have less power and are unlikely to have the time or organizational infrastructure to evaluate or fight development.
“Wealthy neighborhoods are able to resist, and low-income communities of color will find their neighborhoods plowed down and [find themselves] living next to a freeway that spews pollutants next to their schools,” USC’s Manuel Pastor says.
Moreover, regulatory systems, including the EPA and various local and state zoning and environmental regulatory bodies, allow piecemeal development of toxic facilities. Each new chemical facility goes through an individual permit process, which doesn’t always take into account the overall picture in the community. The regulatory system isn’t equipped to address potentially dangerous cumulative effects.
In a single neighborhood, Pastor says, you might have toxins that come from five different plants that are regulated by five different authorities. Each plant might not be considered dangerous on its own, but if you throw together all the emissions from those static sources and then add in emissions from moving sources, like diesel-powered trucks, “you’ve created a toxic soup,” he says.
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