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Seeing the Forest for More than the Trees: The Social Dimension of Environmental Justice

aphorisnt's picture

    Small groups of people gather at the large coffee chain on the second floor of a Texas shopping center.1 Some are made up of teens and college students, some of older individuals, maybe groups of friends or coworkers, but no group seems to acknowledge the presence of any other. All of a sudden, twenty or so phones buzz or ring or chime and like clockwork, small groups of teens or students or coworkers all rise, make for the escalators, and walk quickly toward the corporate business interior of the complex. Someone gives a signal and the chanting begins: “No pipelines! No tar sands! No destruction of indigenous lands!” “Jobs at the [pipeline]? No lets can it! There are no jobs on a dead planet!” “What’s insane? This is insane! No eminent domain for private gain!” (Tar Sands Blockade). Within minutes protestors invade the offices of a corporate conglomerate working to construct a pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Houston, a project that could and most likely will have devastating effects upon the natural environment not to mention the exacerbation of global climate change from increased anthropogenic carbon production–yet none of the messaging focuses on protecting “nature.” Rather, all of the chants engage with social issues: ignoring the land rights of first nation peoples, placing profit margins and the bottom line above health and safety, forcibly taking the property of people whose only crimes were living in an area a corporation suddenly decided in needs to own. Tar sands oil and the pipeline meant to carry it are certainly environmental issues, but environmentalism no longer stops at trees, mountains, and endangered species. Environmentalism now includes justice–equal protection from harm, access to resources, and quality of life to all individuals regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, or any other factor–which is why most environmental action coalitions and groups have adopted the core tenant “environmental justice is social justice.” However, to what extent is this actually true? Protecting communities from the effects of pollution or corporate encroachment onto ancestral lands fit nicely into this designation, but historically the environmental movement has not always been in line with what might actually be socially just. Groups have put “the environment” ahead of people in creating parks and reserves since the 19th century and many people still decry the “defilement” of “nature” by humans. Modern movements have attempted to bridge the gap between the realms of justice for “nature” and humans, largely by disproving such a false dichotomy, while scholarship has illuminated the connections between past social justice movements and environmental themes, yet despite these efforts much work must still be done before environmental justice and social justice can really be considered synonymous.
    Still up for debate is the exact meaning of environmentalism or environmental justice. Most scholars erroneously traced the rise of environmentalism back to 1962 with the publishing of Rachel Carson’s seminal and highly controversial Silent Spring, but modern understanding now places environmentalism about two centuries earlier (Guha 3). Indeed, the first vanguards of the environmental movement were none other than poets, writers, and artists such as William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Thomas Cole (Guha 10). Individuals such as these men used different art forms to capture the beauty of nature in its pristine state–something entirely separate from humans and their dirty, urban cities. In that period environmental justice excluded the human dimension save for letting humans operate as the protectors and immortalizers of nature to keep the balance between industrialization and preserving the “wild” and “rugged” spaces. The social conditions of humans did not figure into the environmental justice equation until after that day in 1962 when the second wave of environmentalism broke over human consciousness. Carson did more than expose the threat posed to birds by DDT, she revealed that “‘in nature nothing exists alone...’ [and] that nature was, in sum, ‘an intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man’” (Guha 71-2).  Humans are not separate from nature, they are an integral part of nature, living with and from it, interacting with all the other animals and the plants, all pieces biotic and abiotic that form the environment. Following this thread, the concept of justice, though already a part of the equation, finally entered the scene in name. People recognized a need to protect the environment not just for the sake of the trees, but for the sake of everything and everyone: curbing pesticide use would bring back the birds and also stop poisoning children; reducing fossil fuel consumption could slow down global climate change and keep the icecaps form melting, and at the same time reducing the impact of such a global phenomenon upon the global south where nations least responsible for the carbon inputs bear the brunt of the climate change output.
    However, more resent scholarship has identified a socially-conscious environmental justice beginning long before 1962. In the cases mentioned above, the social justice thread sprang first from a desire for environmental justice first protecting the environment and then engaging with the social dimensions of that environmental issue: stopping the spread of tar sand oil first aiming to limit the effects on climate change or preempt any possibly spills, then incorporating the social justice aspects of destruction of native lands or economic consequences to the nation as a whole, to provide an example. Yet in other instances the equation is reversed. Harriet Tubman certainly ranks among top social justice activists considering her role in helping slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, but few realize she also, in fact, deserves a place among environmental activists. Beginning when she was a child, young Tubman’s father instructed the girl in ecoliteracy–how to read the environment around her, a knowledge that proved instrumental not only in her own escape but in helping others like her find their freedom (Taylor 281). Instead of environmental justice with a social component, Tubman’s experience provides an example of social justice with an environmental component. Even in modern cases the same reversal occurs, most often in the case of hazardous waste and polluting industry siting. A common assumption held that minority groups simply do not care about the environment because they are already too focused on issues of social justice, but this could not be farther from the truth, and not just because of the strong connection between environmental justice and social justice. Rather for these groups the “relevant environmental issues were poor sanitation, overcrowded and substandard housing, and vermin” (Taylor 286). The social problems, from the realities of poor living conditions to the longterm effects of institutionalized racism, formed the basis and rationale for engaging with environmental crises. The landmark United Church of Christ study, Race and Toxic Waste, found that “race was the most reliable predictor of residence near hazardous waste sites in the US” (Taylor 287). When environmental problems are a direct result of existing social problems, the only way to even begin ameliorating the environmental damage is to attack the forces of social injustice. Massive amounts of toxic PCB were dumped in Warren County, North Carolina not for a race-/class-blind motive such as proximity, but because such dumping was much easier to carry out in such an area based on demographics. In 1979, Warren county, the “sacrifice zone” chosen for environmental degradation, was 64% Black and 97th (out 100 counties) in per capita income (Taylor 287). Such a poor and minority-laden, and therefore largely disenfranchised community was easy to take advantage of, especially since the impacted citizens lacked access to the tools to fight back or the privilege required to be heard. Fighting against the specific environmental crisis, dumping of toxic waste or ash or construction of a polluting industry, will remove the system, but until one actively fights the root injustice, the cause of such crises will remain.
    Yet for all that, situations persist where environmental and social justice exists in opposition. Consider the events that took place in the Sundarbans, a group of islands located in the Bay of Bengal. Following the Partition of India into India (a largely Hindu nation) itself and Pakistan (a largely Muslim nation of which Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, was a part), refugees of tidal village Khulna jila were shipped off to a settlement camp as part of a resettlement program. “‘But people say it was more like a concentration camp or a prison. The refugees were surrounded by security forces and forbidden to leave. Those who tried to get away were hunted down (Ghosh 99). Responding to this prison-like sentence, resettlement victims rose up and fled, trekking miles on foot to return to the Sundarbans and establish a new home, which then did on the island of Morichjhapi. There, these individuals created a near-egalitarian society where Dalits–those of the lowest social class based on India’s traditional caste system–such as themselves could live and thrive, not to mention that as former tidal people, these individuals were well-equipped to live in the rather dangerous and ever-shifting environment of the tides, much more well-equipped than to attempt eking out a living in some far-off thin-soiled concentration camp. Subsistence, however, was never the issue.  The government and forest service had declared the area a nature reserve for tigers which meant settlers were not allowed. In 1979 they then carried out a program of forced depopulation, or more aptly, a brutal massacre of all those who had attempted to find a home. “The cost in lives is still unaccounted, but it is likely that thousands were killed. The eviction was justified on ecological grounds: the authorities claimed that the island of Morichjhapi had to be preserved as a forest reserve” (Ghosh). In his fictional account of the events in The Hungry Tide, Ghosh’s character Kusum condemns the lack of justice on the part of this effort.
    “‘[The worst part] was to sit here, helpless, and to listen to the policemen making their announcements,     hearing them say that our lives. our existence, was worth less than dirt or dust. “This island has to be saved     for its trees, it has to be saved for its animals, it is a part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save     tigers, which is paid for by people all around the world.”...Who are these people, I wondered, who love     animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them?’” (Ghosh 217).
Tigers are an endangered species, deforestation is a rampant problem, and the mangrove forests native to the Sundarbans help protect the land from the worst effects of cyclones and floods; and one can attribute the loss of or harm to all of these to humans so arguably justice for the environment itself, as a separate place exclusive of human beings, is indeed present. But where, then, is the social justice that environmentalism claims to uphold? These people seek only to live, or even just to survive, in the sort of environment they have always called home; they crave justice after the unjust treatment following forced internment. However, here the “environmental” detaches itself from the “social” in a policy that offers justice to one while totally denying it of the other. The political “powers that be” turn their backs on the humans and refuse them help or support, as if creating a sacrifice zone not of a marginalized community but of the very flesh of the community itself. If environmental justice means the murder of scores of people, then environmental justice is nowhere near social justice.
    The modern environmental movement does an acceptable job of incorporating social justice into ints work. Most environmental issues do indeed have a social dimension and are bound up in larger systematic social problems: institutionalized racism in the siting of hazardous facilities, extreme extraction of fossil fuels in regions where that extraction has become the sole viable economic opportunity, taking land from groups lacking the means to speak and be heard because of race/class/gender, a capitalist system that places the full coffers above healthy communities. What is more, only by dismantling these larger systems and destroying the foundation of these problems can environmentalists truly stop environmental degradation. Tar Sands Blockade, for example, is on the right path, rallying around the social issues, the issues most salient to those the pipeline impacts directly, but more organizations, more governments and political structures, more people, need to get on board. The truth is environmental justice and social justice are meant to be the same thing because each is so wrapped up in and a part of the other and both are part of the bigger picture, the desire to create a world in which everything and everyone can live and thrive together, and until environmentalism and those striving to protect nature in all of its forms grab hold of this basic reality the environmental movement will fail. The question, then, is not “to what extent is environmental justice also social justice?” the question is “how can people better bring together all the facets of the struggle for a better and more just world to achieve that better future?”

Works Cited

Ghosh, Amitav. "A Crocodile In The Swamplands." Outlook 18 Oct. 2004: n. pag. Web. .

Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

Guha, Ramachandra. Environmentalism a Global History. : Addison Wesley Longman, 2000. Print.

Stoll, Steven. Environmentalism Since 1945. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Taylor, Dorceta. "The Evolution of Environmental Justice Activism, Research, and Scholarship." Environmental

    Practice 13: 280-301. Print.

Tar Sands Blockade. "Songs and Chants! ." . N.p., 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 9 May 2014.