Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles, Race, Class, and the Environment

By MacMillan, Ian | Capital & Class, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles, Race, Class, and the Environment


MacMillan, Ian, Capital & Class


David E. Camacho (ed.)

Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles, Race, Class, and the Environment

Duke University Press, Durham & London, 1998.

ISBN 0-8223-2225-0 (hbk)

ISBN 0-8223-2242-0 (pbk)

In the past decade one of the budding social movements in the United States has been the environmental justice movement (EJM). It seeks to reduce incidences of environmental hazards being placed in communities dominated by African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Latinos, and those with lowincome. The EJM has emerged through the intersection of race, gender, and class groupings. This has resulted in multiracial coalitions that are thought to perceive the nexus between racial and gender inequality, lack of healthcare and social services, housing, poverty, and economic barriers that in the past have been the focus of the civil rights and social justice movements.

Editor David Camacho has assembled a group of academics to explore the EJM and bring attention to political and social aspects of environmental problems previously dominated by 'scientific' thinking. The contributors of the eleven essays (divided into four sections) are predominantly political scientists from the southwestern United States with a sprinkling of authors from the northeast and northwest. Camacho begins by asking what is politics and answers using the theoretical framework of the `political process model' that rests on the assumption that wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few groups that deprive most people from influence over decisions affecting their lives. From this promising beginning the introductory section, (A Framework for Analysis), often lapses into an impenetrable and vacuous academic perspective that serves only to obfuscate rather than clarify issues through abstract models that do not address the existing political economy.

Fortunately the case studies of community environmental organizations, (in the sections covering Environmental Injustices, and Confronting Environmental Injustices), are illuminating and well researched, providing an understanding of how these issues are comprehended in contemporary American society. Specific chapters dealing with Hispanic and aboriginal communities in urban and rural settings in the southwest are grounded in empirical situations and demonstrate how the respective communities have organized around environmental justice issues to ensure access to a cleaner environment.

The last two essays in the concluding section of the book (on Environmental Justice) are less than satisfactory. Robyn and Camacho's 'Bishegendan Akii: Respect the Earth' has underlying elements of essentialism in employing Native American environmental values as a prospective model for broader society. In the last essay, `Environmental Ethics as a Political Choice', Camacho repeatedly asks `What is to be done?' to solve environmental problems through effective social, political, and environmental organizing.

However, the question is never asked or answered in the spirit of Lenin. Instead the reader is subjected to a schizophrenic (dare one say dialectical) debate between `the individual as rational actor' and the need for `collective forms of resistance.' In the absence of the latter Camacho concludes that `In the final analysis, changing individual behavior is the only way of responding to environmental problems.'

Class (and working class issues) are the singular universal factor in communities subjected to environmental injustices. Yet class appears not to be a fundamental organizing principle of the EJM, or at least of Camacho's book. …

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