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Environmental Justice

I'm working my way through a report (pdf) by the Inspector-General reviewing the EPA's commitment to implementing the idea of environmental justice as ordered by President Clinton in 1994. The findings are rather startling -- despite the fact that Clinton's executive order was titled "Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice In Minority Populations And Low-Income Populations," the current EPA maintains that it is aiming at "environmental justice for all," i.e. without special emphasis on disproportionately impacted minority or poor people. That position is consistent with the general Republican philosophy of willful colorblindness when it comes to racial matters, but it's pretty obviously inconsistent with the law on the books.

So should the law on the books be changed? There's a certain agreeableness to the idea of environmental justice for all. After all, a given exposure to PCBs will give a white person cancer at just the same rate that it will give a Native American cancer, so why should the latter get special protection? The report's rationale is:

Based on concerns raised in the early 1990s, these segments of the population were found not to be benefitting from the Agency's overall mission, and the Executive Order was issued in an attempt to draw more attention to this specific part of the population. The Administrator's August 2001 memorandum and the Office of Environmental Justices actions, returns the Agency to pre-Executive Order status, where everyone is assumed to be afforded protection under the environmental laws and regulations. It does not address the need to ensure that minority and low-income populations are protected from disproportionate environmental risks.

In other words, before the executive order the EPA thought it was providing environmental justice for all, but in actuality wasn't. The order is a corrective, pointing out a failing and urging the EPA to take especial care that it doesn't fall into that particular pitfall on the road to environmental justice for all. There's certainly some truth to that. For the reasons that I'll refer to momentarily in the context of a wider justification of environmental justice, it's easy for a mostly white middle-class group of bureaucrats in Washington to falsely imagine that their programs are providing equal protection to socially disadvantaged populations. Further, there's a real danger of discrimination by those bureaucrats (since in America the poor and minorities are the traditional targets of discrimination) that justifies taking explicit additional steps to guard against.

However, I think a justification of an environmental justice program explicitly targeting the poor and minorities can go farther. In the context of a society in which those groups are also disadvantaged in non-environmental ways, poor and minority populations have a special need for extra attention and extra protection.

The main issue is vulnerability. The impact of an environmental hazard is a combination of exposure (how much hazard you encountered) and vulnerability (how well you can cope with a given level of exposure). Disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards on the part of minorities and the poor is well documented (at least in the classic case of toxic chemical hazards -- in the US I'm not so certain about "natural" hazards like floods and wildfire). However, this disproportionate impact is accounted for under the rubric of "environmental justice for all," as there's no reason in terms of exposure why having four coal fired power plants in your neighborhood is worse if you're black than if you're white.

Where environmental justice needs to focus on the poor and minorities is the question of vulnerability. In general*, minorities and poor people are much more vulnerable to hazards. Because of a history and continuing condition of social disadvantage they lack the resources -- wealth, education, political clout, mobility, useful social networks, etc. -- that would enable them to rebound from environmental hazards. Thus, the impact of a given hazard exposure will likely be greater on a minority or poor community than on an affluent white one. The EPA's ability to affect the vulnerability side of the equation is limited (though the executive order does require cooperation with other agencies like HHS and HUD that could help with that -- indeed should help with that as a side effect of their non-environmental programs). So insofar as the EPA's mission is to achieve acceptable standards of environmental impact for everyone, it should take especial care with the exposure of disadvantaged groups to environmental hazards**.

As part of a liberal political system, the EPA shares in the government's joint mission of realizing substantive equality of opportunity for all its citizens. Thus, the EPA must confront the question of compounding, of which vulnerability is an example. Various forms of disadvantage (or advantage), both social and environmental, do not operate independently. They compound each other, potentially dragging people down by more than the sum of their disadvantages. An elevated exposure to an environmental hazard will thus not only disproportionately impact a poor Puerto Rican's environmental health as compared to an affluent white's, it will also disproportionately impact her overall achievement of social equality. Given that the EPA's ability to affect prejudice, the class structure, etc. is limited, it is irresponsible of the agency to allow exposure to environmental hazards to compound the factors holding poor and minority people back.

With each step toward substantive equality on the part of poor and minority Americans, the need to take specific account of environmental impacts on disadvantaged populations decreases. A successful environmental justice program would make itself obsolete. A concerted long-term effort by all government agencies as well as all non-government portions of society could concievably eliminate disadvantage, thus allowing the EPA to engage in a straightforward pursuit of "environmental justice for all."

*To avoid tempting the ecological fallacy, a more sensitive measure of actual social disadvantage than "minorities and the poor are disadvantaged, affluent whites aren't" would be useful, but the crude distinction drawn in the Executive Order is a good start and potentially less susceptible to opportunistic manipulation.

**The EPA's emphasis on the exposure side may explain why gender is not included among the categories of disadvantage that must be taken into account. Hazard exposures are geographically located, thus affecting communities, but the population is pretty evenly mixed-gender. Widespread heterosexuality and the random sex of children ensures there's no residential gender segregation on the level observed for racial and income-based residential segregation. Thus it's easy to think there are no "female communities" that must be especially protected, since for any given hazard men and women will be exposed more or less equally. This assessment, while intuitive, is probably not exactly true -- gendered social roles likely expose women to a different suite of environmental hazards than men experience. But I don't know enough about the issue to say what would be "women's hazards" that, by the logic laid out in this post, ought to have special attention given to them.


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