Dump it on the neighbours

January 5, 1996

Ragnar Lofstedt and Rae Zimmerman report on the rise of the environmental justice movement.

North American academics have recently become extremely interested in a concept called "environmental justice". It is a term with varied meanings: but the US Environmental Protection Agency defined it recently as "the fair treatment I of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, income or education level, with respect to the development I of environmental laws."

Environmental justice was born in the United States in the early 1980s, spawned by a combination of public concern over the risks of hazardous waste, a movement towards grassroots environmentalism, and the taking up of environmental objectives by the civil rights movement.

One of the factors which led to the emergence of the movement was the way in which hazardous waste was dumped - sometimes in remote areas or on marginal land, which was either of low value to begin with or which became devalued as a result of the dumping.

Although early court cases arguing that waste site operators deliberately intended to dump or burn waste in poor, minority areas were mostly lost, they did provoke a recognition that something needed to be done. In 1994 the federal government approved a presidential executive order, mandating that environmental justice be taken into account in future federal actions - in an attempt to make the waste siting process fairer.

Should noxious facilities be spread out fairly? You can argue that they should, or that whoever creates the risk should be responsible for that risk; but in most cases richer communities are better able to fend off such threats than poor ones. Richer communities have more political power. They are more likely to vote and to complain. And they are able to spend more money fending off noxious facilities, by hiring top lawyers and organising political pressure campaigns. It is also the case that most minority communities have not been as concerned with environmental issues as have white communities - anxieties about money, drugs and crime preoccupy them more. (Hardly surprising considering that the main cause of death among black teenagers is homicide.) Research in Seattle showed that black community leaders refused to form coalitions with environmental campaigners because they regarded environmental issues as a problem for the white middle classes rather than for themselves.

Interviews conducted in rich communities suggest that the better-off even believe that poor communities benefit from waste sites because of the employment opportunities generated. As a result, politicians in rich communities try to persuade their poor counterparts not to fight proposed waste sites.

So are these lessons from the US relevant to Britain? We think they are. Although there are no large minority groups in Britain as there are in the US, there are still discrepancies between poor and rich communities. In fact there are several examples where developers have been able to site noxious facilities in poor communities with little or no resistance. But whether or not the development of environmental justice will have any effect in reducing siting inequality given the political clout of rich communities remains open to question Ragnar Lofstedt is lecturer in social geography at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey. Rae Zimmerman is professor of planning and public administration, Robert Wagner School of Public Service, New York University.

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