Renewed Vows: Infusing Justice and Diversity into Environmental Advocacy

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By Pax Ahimsa Gethen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2016; The Atlantic

In an excellent article in the Atlantic, Jedediah Purdy points out that perhaps it is well past time for the well funded wing of the environmental movement to get with the program.

More confrontational environmentalism will find new allies, like the Native American activists of Standing Rock and the military veterans who showed up there just before the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not approve the controversial pipeline route. It may also strain some of the relationships with wealthy funders and corporate partners that have become central to mainstream environmentalism. Activists will have to decide whether to cultivate alliances with other movements that have sprung up in recent years: the Movement for Black Lives, which has called for divestment from fossil fuels and pointed out that incinerators, waste facilities, and other pollution sources are often concentrated in poor and heavily non-white neighborhoods, or whatever comes after Bernie Sanders’s campaign, which blamed the fossil-fuel industry for blocking climate progress and promised to “keep it in the ground” in a rapid transition to renewable energy.

There has always been a connection between environmental issues and racial and economic justice, he writes. The environmental justice movement has existed at least since the Eighties as a lived criticism of the more elite wing of the movement, which is largely white-led and oriented.

Earlier this week, President-elect Trump announced his intention to appoint former Texas Governor Rick Perry, U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT), and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to the positions of Energy Secretary, Secretary of the Interior, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. All are supporters of expanding the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and have a history of fighting—and in Pruitt’s case, suing—the departments they are now being tapped to lead.

Clearly, these appointments have been a wakeup call to the environmental movement, but it is not the first time anti-environmentalists have led these important departments. During the first part of the Reagan administration, James Watt led the Department of the Interior and Anne Burford the EPA. Under their leadership, the administration slashed the departments’ budgets, diminished and eliminated environmental regulations, and created additional opportunities for drilling and mining on public lands. Both were forced to resign a couple of years after their appointment, and their successors worked to rebuild trust and reduce conflict. At the end of President Reagan’s eight years in office, much of the scaffolding protecting the environment, including laws, departments, and public lands, endured due to support in Congress, the courts, and the general public.

Litigation and advocacy, brought mainly by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law Institute, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Club (later renamed Earthjustice), were important tools for protecting the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and other laws and regulations surrounding waste disposal and public lands. Although successful, these actions looked to lawyers to transmit marginal voices instead of empowerment through justice organizations and others organizing poor and minority communities. Additionally, the environmental movement itself was seen as elitist and lacking diverse voices, since they were funded by large foundations that were themselves lacking in diversity. Many of the nonprofits themselves were led by white men.

Purdy writes that the constituencies and the issues are there to be taken up together:

Environmental activists and progressive state and local governments can press for enforcement of environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in ways that are consistent with the broadly egalitarian vision that informed their creation. To give just one example, lax regulation of industrial agriculture, especially animal-feeding operations where thousands or tens of thousands of livestock are jammed together in factory-like conditions, exposes people living nearby to a bunch of hazardous pollutants. These are concentrated in pervasively poor and significantly non-white areas of the country. Aggressive enforcement of anti-pollution laws against facilities like these would simply make these statutes do the environmental justice work they were originally intended to do.

Activists and administrators should also look for problems of inequality that are not conventionally treated as environmental. Consider the way that that the Farm Bill, which is currently pumping more than $65 billion dollars in subsidies into the farm economy over five years, makes calories from corn syrup and soybean oil relatively cheap and healthy calories more expensive. This price skew has controversial but plausible effects on obesity and related diseases like diabetes, which are all tied to poverty and race. Environmentalists should see the food system as a medium of risk exposure, like air and water. The fact that food intake always involves a personal choice doesn’t wash out the question of justice. Like deciding where to work, deciding what to eat is a choice made under constraint, and the background of law and economic inequality does a lot to define the constraints. The members of the long environmental-justice movement, who believed the fact that your job could make sick or kill you was no less an environmental issue because you had chosen your job, would say the same thing today about your meal.

Activists and scholars should also look at cases where environmental policy is making explicitly distributional decisions and ask what standards of justice and political accountability should guide those.

But, he writes, other priorities are sure to show themselves through new alliances: “Maybe even the labor movement, now both battling for its life and being reborn in grass-roots efforts like Fight for Fifteen, will find new points of commonality…Economic power, racial inequality, and the struggles of indigenous peoples are not optional or supplemental. They are at the heart of the work.”

Meanwhile, public opinion remains supportive of the environmental movement. An October survey by the Pew Research Center found 73 percent of respondents espoused a “great deal” or “some” concern about climate change, and this included 49 percent of people supporting Donald Trump for president. Additionally, a Gallup poll found 56 percent of respondents felt environmental protection should be given a priority, even at the cost of economic growth.—Gayle Nelson