This article was originally published in June 1993 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in June 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors.
For many years, the large, mainstream environmental organizations such as The Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club exercised hegemony over the environmental debate in legislation, the media, and publishing. In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of challenges to those increasingly establishment-style organizations have been mounted by those who feel the Big 10 do not speak for them. Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism are two prominent examples of such challenges.
These three books and one videotape represent another challenge—one from the grassroots, from the people most victimized by environmental plunder. It is a growing movement which began under the name “environmental racism” and now goes by the more inclusive “environmental justice.” As it has grown, it has begun to incorporate a womanist/feminist critique of environmental abuses. The result is a movement of the less-powerful to demand an end to the life-threatening habits of industrial and military polluters that they have disproportionately endured where they work, live, and play.
Neighborhoods that have been degraded and poisoned by industry and the military—neighborhoods that are disproportionately the homes and worksites of people of color—are organizing to fight back against the agents of their peril.
The environmental justice movement began with anger, an anger informed by increasing awareness that communities of color bear the brunt of environmental pollution. Three-fourths of hazardous-waste landfills are sited in communities that are poor, African-American, Native American, and Latino. Penalties for violation of hazardous-waste regulations are 500 percent higher at sites having the greatest White population than at sites with the greatest minority population.
Anger over these issues was given expression at the historic First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference, held in Washington, D.C. in October, 1991. This was not only a conference to address the Big 10’s neglect of environmental racism, but also to draw together grassroots environmental activists from African-American, Asian, Native American, and Latino communities.
During the four days of the conference, activists from across the country told stories of the environmental degradation of their communities, and the action they have taken to defend those communities. The videotape of the highlights of that conference is an excellent place to start to get a sense of this “new” movement-one that actually has been building for decades.
Part of the appeal of video medium is that it captures the eloquent words and emotional urgency of individual statements. The conference was chaired by Benjamin Chavis, Jr. of the United Church of Christ Racial Justice Commission (now Executive Director of the NAACP). Chavis’ opening statement that “We are not organizing an antiwhite movement. We are organizing an anti-injustice movement,” sets the stage for hard-hitting critiques and moving personal testimonials.
The Highlights video includes Richard Moore of the SouthWest Organizing Project (Albuquerque, NM) saying that the conference is a movement building event, and movements must be built from the bottom up. Mililani Trask of Kiaaina Ka Lahui Hawaii (Hilo, HI) telling the story of being denied the right to sue the federal and state governments because Native Hawaiians are “wards of the state and Federal government and thus cannot sue for redress of grievances because they do not have standing.” Hazel Johnson of People for Community Recovery (Chicago, IL) talking about years of attending environmental conferences and being the only African-American person in the room. Young Hi Shin of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (Oakland, CA) calling for “jobs which do not slowly and permanently disable or kill us.” Or Dana Alston, then of the Panos Institute (Washington, DC), speaking to the Big 10 representatives on the dais (and bringing the audience to its feet with applause):” We refuse a paternalistic relationship. If you are to form a partnership with us, it will be as equals and nothing else but equals.”
Robert Bullard, University of California sociologist and the author of the pathbreaking 1990 book Dumping in Dixie, has collected an anthology of thirteen articles that reflect the building blocks of the environmental racism movement. Confronting Environmental Racism gives us in one book theoretical statements, results of academic studies, and activists’ firsthand accounts—capturing the perspectives raised at the 1991 conference. The contributors are academics and grassroots activists, predominantly people of color. Six of the 13 essays were written by women.
In addition to fleshing out the concept of environmental racism, new concepts of “environmental blackmail” (the promise of jobs in exchange for pollution) and “environmental equity” (an end to the injustice of Not In My Backyard movements in wealthy, White neighborhoods resulting in dumping in poor communities) are explored. The collection eloquently demonstrates that the mainstream environmental movement’s claim that people of color were not interested in the environment had more to do with the way environmentalism was defined than with any real indifference. The agenda proposed by Confronting Environmental Racism is a broad challenge to the eco-establishment to take up the issues of environmental racism, and to include people of color among its leadership.
As the environmental racism movement became the environmental justice movement, it grew in stature, breadth, and depth. This growth is reflected in the publication of yet another anthology, titled Toxic Struggles, edited by Richard Hofrichter. Toxic Struggles is also explicitly linked to the 1991 conference. At its core, it defines itself as a book inspired by the conference. Here again Robert Bullard’s essay early in the volume introduces environmental racism; later in the book, Vernice Miller gives an account of the conference and its importance in the growth of the environmental justice movement. But this volume is more ambitious. In addition to looking at environmental racism, it considers the causal role of capitalism in the environmental crisis, inequities perpetuated by the legal system, the global nature of environmental justice issues, the importance of hazards at the workplace, and the role of cultural activism. It is, in short, an attempt to move beyond the core issues raised at the 1991 conference to bring into one book all of the alternative approaches to environmentalism that fall within the scope of academic study.
The book is quite successful as a broad compendium of environmental justice issues, though its breadth makes it less satisfying, in some ways, than the more focused Confronting Environmental Racism. The intervention of academia has its usual positive and negative effects: more analysis and more information, but less immediacy.
Joni Seager, a geographer and feminist who teaches at the University of Vermont, has brought a feminist perspective to the environmental justice debate with her comprehensive account of the gender politics of the environmental crisis. Earth Follies is a wonderfully readable indictment of the structural causes of environmental degradation, the male identity of the causal agents, the disproportionate effect borne by women, and race and sex discrimination throughout the mainstream environmental movement. Seager highlights the crucial leadership role played by women at the grassroots, whose work is the heart of the environmental justice movement. The book is a groundbreaking one in that it occupies a place of affinity with Ecofeminism, while avoiding the essentialist equation of women and nature so often made by Ecofeminism.
A puzzling omission is Seager’s apparent unawareness of the recent events and organizing of the environmental justice movement. This is particularly strange because her politics are so clearly in tune with that movement (an essay summarizing her perspective appears in Toxic Struggles), and her book is an important complement to the environmental racism perspective. A deeper appreciation of the role of gender in environmental injustice has been needed, Seager provides it, yet the synthesis of the two perspectives has not yet been completed.
So, it is up to the reader to create that synthesis. One place to start is with the books reviewed here. To do so is an exciting and rewarding process, which will leave you alarmed, indignant, inspired, and challenged.