Introducing Equity: The Multidimensional Environmental Justice Movement Is Transforming Mainstream Environmentalism in the US

Article excerpt

SINCE 1980, an alternative to the traditional environmental movement has been slowly forming in the US, though so far it has gained little national visibility. It is called the "environmental justice" movement, and though it has some problems of its own, it represents a different approach to environmental protection, one that speaks to people about protecting the places where they live, work and play.

As Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy have documented, the fabric of the US environmental justice movement is woven from six strands: (1)

The civil rights movement. Apartheid officially ended in the US in 1964, but environmental racism is still all too common. The environmental regulatory system created during the 1970s and 1980s had the unintended effect of funneling pollutants into communities of color. Well-off white people can usually buy their way out of polluted neighborhoods, but people of colour and the poor often cannot. Pollution trading schemes, being promoted by some traditional environmentalists, may be economically efficient but they tend to heap additional burdens and injustices on the poor and people of colour.

The occupational safety and health movement. The US passed its first national job safety law in 1970, but since then enforcement has been lax or nonexistent.

Furthermore, the law excludes tens of millions of workers, such as farm workers. At least 60,000 workers die each year as a result of injuries and illnesses related to dangerous working conditions. Another 850,000 are made sick. (2) At least 35 million non-union workers say they would join a union if they could, to protect themselves, but US laws violate international human rights standards by making unionization an uphill battle. Added to existing unions, those 35 million would create the largest union movement the US has ever known, effectively shifting the balance of power between the corporate elite and wage earners.

The indigenous peoples' and native land rights movements, made up of Native Americans, Chicanos, African Americans, and other marginalized indigenous communities struggling to retain and protect their traditional lands. Partly these groups are fighting to control land resources, and partly they are trying to retain cultural lifeways that are threatened with extinction by the dominant society.

The toxics movement (also known as the environmental health movement) has been fighting for the clean-up of thousands of contaminated waste sites across the country since 1978. The toxics movement has also taken the initiative in discouraging toxic technologies such as municipal garbage incinerators, pesticides, so-called "low-level" radioactive waste dumps, coal-burning power plants, buried gasoline tanks, toxicants dumped by the military and more.

Solidarity movements, human rights movements, and environmental activists in the Third World are providing powerful allies and examples of extraordinary, fearless activism. In South Africa, Mexico, Burma, Indonesia, Nigeria, Central America, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, local groups are fighting the same battles being fought in the US but with fewer resources and against greater odds - sometimes sacrificing their lives in their persistent demand for environmental protection, sustainability, self-determination and justice. …