Sociologist Ulrich Beck states that 'poverty is hierarchic, while smog is democratic' (1). In this article, it is argued that this claim is misguided. The environmental justice movement has shown that environmental risks are unevenly distributed across class and race and, therefore, that environmental problems ore a distributive justice problem. However, a theory of environmental justice needs to address issues of recognition of group difference as well as issues of redistribution. This entails paying more attention to genuine participation of marginalized groups in environmental policy making. Moreover, a theory of environmental justice needs to take into account the special features of environmental risks and hazards such as the issues of: who is responsible for them; whether they are taken voluntarily; and how, and by whom, risk evaluation and analysis are carried out.
Keywords: risk society; environmental justice; genetic engineering
Is smog democratic? This question refers to the famous remark by Ulrich Beck that 'poverty is hierarchic, while smog is democratic'. The 'democratic' aspect of this formula points to the notion that smog is ubiquitous; it affects everyone equally and is, presumably, a matter of concern to everyone. The first aim of this article is to show that in the reality of everyday life this is not the case. But if smog is hierarchic, just like poverty, should we treat environmental problems as a distributive justice problem? My answer to that question is also no; at least, not exclusively. The second aim of this article is, therefore, to argue that there are some features of environmental problems, and environmental risks in particular, that call for a rethinking of traditional theories of justice.
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck is the founding father of the notion of risk society. According to Beck, in late modernity our society is changing from an industrial to a risk society. He distinguishes three stages of modernity: simple modernity; second, or late modernity (the transition stage between industrial and risk society); and reflexive modernity, or risk society (3). Industrial society, or simple modernity, was a society of scarcity in which the distribution of scarce goods was central. The most important issue in tiffs society was finding a legitimation for the unequal distribution of socially produced prosperity. However, in modern Western societies real material need is reduced by technological progress. At the same time, these technological developments have unleashed dangers of unknown proportions. Beck thinks that the dangers in this second stage of modernity are different in kind from the dangers of the industrial and pre-industrial era (4). For example, where risks used to have a local or personal character, the new risks are global; they affect the whole of humanity. Examples are nuclear fission, radioactive waste and the risks associated with genetic engineering. Also, new risks are not easily stopped and are not reversible. Finally, they are not readily visible and their causes are not easily found. So, typically, nobody can be held personally responsible for producing risks. They are a part of the normal functioning of all social institutions together and so appear unstoppable. For Beck, this means that in late modern society no longer do we need to legitimate social inequalities, but we need to legitimate the risks resulting from technological and economic developments. In fact, these developments themselves increasingly become the object of criticism. Beck calls this the 'reflexive character of modernity'; modernity 'is becoming its own theme' (5). He therefore characterizes reflexive modernity, or the risk society, as 'an epoch in which the dark sides of progress increasingly come to dominate social debate' (6).
Whereas the traditional industrial society was concerned with the distribution of social inequalities, reflexive modernity is concerned with the distribution of risks. However, according to Beck, legitimating risks in modernity does not simply entail legitimating inequalities. The generation of wealth and goods is a positive development, whereas the generation of risks is only negative. That is why the creation of risks itself needs to be legitimated. The actual distribution of risks--at least, on the local level--seems to be of secondary importance in Beck's eyes. We can ask what is meant by legitimation here? Beck does not address this question specifically, but in this context it could mean something analogous to the legitimation of the unequal distribution of goods in industrial society. Inequalities are often legitimated by pointing to the fact that they make everyone in society better off. So, the legitimation of risks is like a justification or an acceptance of the production of risks. The creation of risks would then be justified if the gains made this way would benefit everyone in society. In this light, it seems questionable to assume that the distribution of risks in a society is less important than its justification. It seems, rather, that the two are intertwined.
Risks lend themselves perfectly to what John Dryzek has identified as 'problem displacement': 'solving' environmental problems by simply moving them, for instance, to another time (the future), another space (e.g. another country) or even another medium (e.g. air pollution to water pollution) (7). In other words, if you move risks away, you do not have to acknowledge their existence and therefore do not have to legitimate or justify them. The environmental justice movement, which arose in the United States in the 1980s and has become more influential in the 1990s, reports on the growing amount of evidence of this problem displacement of environmental risks (8). In this case, we are dealing with spatial displacement of risks by the people who generate these risks and then pass them on to lower income groups and ethnic minorities. I will give two examples of the environmental justice movement's account:
Lead poisoning is correlated with both income and race. In 1988, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that among families earning less than $6,000, 68 percent of African American children had lead poisoning, as opposed to 36 percent of white children (9). Amatex, a Pennsylvania firm, dosed its U.S. asbestos facilities and opened plants in Mexico just across the border. There are no Mexican regulations to protect workers from asbestos, dust levels in the Mexican plants are not monitored and workers wear no respirators. Employees receive minimum wage and are told nothing about the hazards they face. Asbestos waste covers the factory floor and clings to the fence and the dirt road, behind the factories, where Mexican children walk to school (10).
These examples are not exceptions; they are paradigmatic of the way in which risks are dealt with: a disproportionately large part of environmental risks is borne by the poor and ethnic minority groups. Moreover, race is often a factor independent from economic status in risk allocation. Research on toxic waste patterns, for instance, has demonstrated that race was the central determining factor in the distribution of chemical hazard exposure in the USA (11). Robert Bullard, one of the pioneers in the environmental justice movement, points out that, 'race has been found to be an independent factor, not reducible to class, in predicting the distribution of air pollution in our society, contaminated fish consumption, the location of municipal landfills, abandoned toxic waste dumps and lead poisoning in children' (12). He argues that, 'institutional racism influences decisions on local land use, enforcement of environmental regulations, industrial facilities, etc.' (13). Bullard also points out that governments take fewer steps to compensate ethnic minorities for past environmental harm; for instance, when toxic waste has leaked into their ground water. He claims that, 'not only are people of colour differentially affected by industrial pollution but also they can expect different treatment from the government' (14). Of course, it can be argued that the United States lends itself more to environmental racism than other countries because of the existence of ghettos and effectively segregated living conditions. But the same has been found in a country like the Netherlands where this pattern of segregated living is not generally found. Caravan dwellers, for instance, are allocated a place to live that is often exposed to environmental pollution and they therefore run higher health risks than others (15). Similar situations exist in Australia where aboriginal peoples are fighting to stop the locating of waste and mining facilities in their communities (16). Consider the following example:
The siting of a uranium mine within the boundaries of Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory has raised numerous environmental and health questions. Potential radioactive leaks into surrounding wetlands not only severely endangers the fragile ecosystem of the Alligator River system, the river system so vital to Kakadu National Park, but also threatens the health of nearby Aboriginal communities who depend on the river for drinking water and food (17).
Many grassroots groups, which together make up the environmental justice movement, have fought against the unequal …