One aspect of the environmental movement that makes large-scale activism difficult to create and sustain is the sheer diversity, complexity, and number of environmental issues, which range from population growth and over-development to wildlife and wilderness preservation to toxics and waste management. Another difficulty is that environmental issues arise within specific contexts. For instance, environmental issues that affect “urban” dwellers may and probably do not affect those in the “suburbs.” Thus, people’s issues are dependent upon where they live, where they grew up, and perhaps even their exposure to issues considered “environmental”. A critical problem then is to define issues in terms that are meaningful to all players. Historically, this problem has been used to fractionalize groups, e.g. by pairing regional economic interests with competing environmental initiatives. While compromising some environmental objectives to preserve jobs or whole industries often seems necessary, these difficult decisions are often handled by legislators, lawyers and “experts,” not the citizens themselves. Grassroots protest often occurs only when a local crisis or environmental issue is seen to directly affect a group of people. For instance, when residents of the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York discovered that they were sick and dying because a chemical company had dumped toxic wastes under their homes and playgrounds, they actively organized to demand redress from state and local government. This local, grassroots, brand of environmental activism was a foundation for the mid-century environmental protests. While not sustainable at the national level (think about the shift to legislative and economic strategies), protest again became increasingly more influential in the 1980’s with the development of the Environmental Justice movement.
The environmental justice movement has been directly linked with the Civil Rights Movement. This can be most clearly seen in what is generally viewed as the first environmental justice case, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation. Exemplifying many of the characteristics of the movement as a whole, this case was filed in 1979 on behalf of a largely African American, Houston, TX neighborhood. Two distinct characteristics stand out. First, the major focus of the case was on the fact that siting of a waste dump constituted a “locally unwanted land use” (or LULU). Second, the plaintiffs held that the siting violated their civil rights. Although the plaintiffs lost, the case remains a landmark in the environmental justice movement. The environmental justice focus on issues of the living and working place also harkens back to the environmental health issues raised by Alice Hamilton at the turn of the century—again emphasizing that those who do not attend to history are condemned to repeat it.
Better known, but also incorporating both aspects, was the community mobilization in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982. This situation involved the decision to use a landfill in Warren County for the burial of PCB-contaminated soil resulting from the clean-up of 200 miles of NC roadways where PCBs (a class of toxic, highly persistent, synthetic organic compounds) had been illegally dumped. The residents of the largely Black county protested that they would be subject to unfair environmental exposures and that the selection of the dumpsite was racially motivated. Supported by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, the community mounted a national protest. While the community, again, lost in their efforts to halt dumping, they drew attention from many national leaders, including the District of Columbia’s congressional delegate, Walter Fauntroy who requested a General Accounting Office investigation into waste site locations.
The 1983 report, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities (also known as “the Fauntroy Report”), focusing on non-industrial landfills, reported three sites located in areas with majority Black populations in the southeastern US. A similar, but far more extensive report issued four years later, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, found race “the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities.” Although methodological and analysis problems associated have been suggested for both studies (see for instance Been, 1994 and Foreman, 1998), these two reports form the foundation for environmental justice efforts.
While initially emphasizing environmental race issues, the movement shifted its focus during the Bush years (1989-1993) to issues of environmental equity and finally to environmental justice following Clinton’s election. Each shift signified a change in the focus of the movement, harking to the connection with the Civil Rights Movement, holds that institutional racism underlies the unequal distribution of environmental burdens. Environmental equity, certainly a less provocative and more positive label, refers to the equal distribution of environmental risks across all population groups. Although this label did not hold inequitable distribution the result of institutional policies of overt discrimination, it was seen as suggesting redistribution across communities, despite Benjamin Chavis’ exhortation that “We are not saying, ‘Take the poisons out of our community and put them in a white community.’ We are saying that no community should have these poisons” (as quoted in Foreman, 1998). The environmental justice label sidestepped many of these issues and advocated for “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" (EPA Office of Environmental Justice).
Public awareness of environmental justice issues was greatly raised with the publication in 1990 of Robert Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie that chronicled the disproportionate impact of hazardous waste sitings on minority communities. The following year saw the first People of Color Conference in Washington, DC, where participants articulated seventeen “Principles of Environmental Justice." Coupled with the publication of soon-to-be Vice President Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992) and the United Nations-sponsored “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, the environment became an election-year focus. In 1994, following his election, Clinton instituted Executive Order 12898 which holds that “to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law…each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission…” Although this edict has opened participation in the decision-making process to many formerly-excluded groups and individuals, implementation has often proved difficult and contentious (Foreman, 1998). Because participation in the process has not always resulted in participation in the decision-making, the results have not always been satisfactory. Foreman notes that this is largely because the mechanisms for decision-making were legislated far earlier in time when the decision-making influence and roles were assigned to others, e.g. businesses, bureaucrats, scientists, and even mainstream environmental organizations—not to community members.
It remains to be seen whether environmental justice groups and mainstream environmental organizations can develop mutually beneficial interactions. Many believe that because of the traditional interest group focus of these organizations, it will be difficult to transcend race and class issues. In fact, the increasing balkanization of even the mainstream groups has led, on several recent occasions, to their lining up on opposing sides.
- Been, Vicki. 1994. "Locally Undesirable Land Uses in Minority Neighborhoods: Disproportionate Siting or Market Dynamics?" The Yale Law Journal 103(6): 1383-406.
- Bullard, Robert D. 1990. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ. 1987. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on Race and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. New York, NY: United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.
- Foreman, Christopher H. 1998. The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Weinberg, Philip. 1999. "Equal Protection." pp. 3-22 in The Law and Environmental Justice: Theories and Procedures to Address Disproportionate Risk, editor Michael B. Gerrard. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association.