Important questions have arisen within the field environmental studies/politics/ethics etc. Who gets to participate in environmental governance and more importantly who assumes the majority of the burdens of environmental degradation?
Environmental justice is, by no means, a new subject. Beginning in the 1980s awareness increased regarding the disproportionate distribution of environmental burdens being placed on the most marginalized segments of the population. In light of globalization, the discussion has broadened beyond the US’s borders. Regardless of where the conversation occurs, the subject matter is very charged and very important. We, as active or inactive citizens, should be aware of how our actions are affecting others or how other’s actions are affecting us–this also includes the actions of our country, state, or local businesses.
According to a compilation of thoughts by several notable Environmental Justice organizations (Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Environmental Health Coalition, People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition/Health and Environmental Justice Project), root causes of environmental injustices include “institutionalized racism; the commodification of land, water, energy and air; unresponsive, unaccountable government policies and regulation; and lack of resources and power in affected communities” . Therefore, as a alternative to current command-and-control environmental governance, Environmental Justice demands a reconnection with citizens. There is a public role in the private and public sectors of environmental governance. This can be accomplished by allowing community representatives to participate in industrial processes regarding facility location. This also permits a broadening definition of environmental policy, one that addresses factors related to lower qualities of life for poor and minority communities.
Some policy progress has been made. In fact, the EPA has an Environmental Justice division founded in 1992. In 1994 executive order 12898 sought “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” (Buchannan, 256). Regardless, progress is still needed. Much of what has stultified the progress, some claim, is that environmental justice remains margininalized as a viable policy approach due to its focus on redistributive issues. Such issues are highly polemic in nature and demand clear cause and effect relationships between pollution and its subsequent effects of specific populations. Furthermore, market incentives and not institutional racism may drive businesses to low-income neighborhoods because property values are lower.
However, new legislation, adapting civil rights laws, and adapting existing environmental statutes are three essential avenues policymakers must use to advance the cause of justice. Whether such avenues are easily accessed is not clear. What is clear, to me at least, is that environmental justice is incredibly important on equity grounds. But, social concerns are not our only concerns. The environment and even the economy deserve attention and consideration. Policymakers cannot base environmental regulations strictly upon the redistributive grounds; however, it should consider it. Policymakers can use an environmental justice approach to many urban based concerns and maintain an overriding policy directive based on sustainability, where the justice approach takes care of the social imperative.