An Environmental Victimology

By Williams, Christopher | Social Justice, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

An Environmental Victimology


Williams, Christopher, Social Justice


Introduction

I do not want to be a victim, and all steps should be taken to guard against my victimization.

If I am a victim, I want all available help, and expect government, industry, and community to come to my aid.

I do not want to be revictimized by governments, companies, courts, or the medical and legal professions.

THE EXPRESSION OF THESE DEMANDS FROM THE PERMANENT PEOPLES' TRIBUNAL ON Industrial and Environmental Hazards and Human Rights in Bhopal (PPT, 1992: 13) reflects the urgent need to address environmental victimization, not only in the form of obvious disasters as at Bhopal, but also the "creeping disasters" such as traffic pollution. Law is one form of response, but, as is lucidly argued by Peter Yeager in The Limits of Law (1991), even in state-of-the-art countries such as the U.S., statutes alone can never fully address the problems posed by environmental crime. The difficulties experienced in implementing statutory compensation in Bhopal provide a poor-nation perspective (BGIA, 1992). There is an obvious need for social justice approaches to parallel formal legal processes.

The Limits of "Environmental Justice"

The "environmental justice movement" has provided the most prominent alternative in recent years, at least in the U.S. (see Bryant, 1995; Hofrichter, 1993; Capek, 1993). Yet, although generating valuable insights and an effective basis for informed environmental activism, its broader application is limited, principally for three reasons.

First, "environmental justice" relies greatly on subjective (often self-) definitions of victimization. This may work well in relation to activism, but ultimately the development of justice perspectives, legal or social, requires objective benchmarks. Without objective definitions, how do we apply victim conceptualizations when (i) victims will not self-define? What of the "manic denial" of the Mormons in Nevada, who accept the health problems resulting from nuclear testing as a necessary sacrifice for the good of the state (Gallagher, 1993:217), or the Indian who attributes lead poisoning to karma, not to the illegal smelter next door? How do we accord victim status when (ii) victims cannot self-define, for example, with the unborn child or when the outcome is severe intellectual disability from radiation or lead pollution (Williams, 1996a)? How do we formally identify victims when (iii) national or community leaders will not acknowledge the victimization of those they govern? In the case of cross-border acid rain and Chernobyl, European governments did not argue for redress because they did not want to encourage precedents that might later be applied in reverse. What of the individuals among the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico who will eventually suffer health problems because their leaders encourage the importation of hazardous toxic waste to reap the short-term cash rewards?

Second, "environmental justice" bases its key arguments on (i) assumptions about power relationships and (ii) group identities, which (iii) reflect the gender, class, and ethnic structures of U.S. society.

(i) The assumption of the powerless as victim and the powerful as victimizer can lead to a stereotyped view that omits the victimization of those with power and wealth. If wealth and perpetrating environmental crime always go hand-in-hand, how do we conceptualize the Czech industries that polluted rivers then flowing through wealthy Germany, or the threat posed to Norway from Russia's decaying nuclear weapon facilities, or people in Hong Kong and Taiwan who suffer the pollution from mainland China?

(ii) When group identity is the prerequisite of analysis, this can omit the victimization of those scattered within populations who may be vulnerable because, for example, of their clinical status. The link between background radiation from nuclear testing and babies born with Down's Syndrome (Bound et al. …

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