Environmental justice: It’s not what you think

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

I will lay my cards on the table now and declare that I’m no expert on environmental policy; I’m not even particularly well-versed. I have a passing knowledge of ethanol and biofuels, I know my fair share of regional climate change partnerships, and, of course, I remember from grade school how cutting down the rainforest is bad news. That being said, I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation for very long with some of the brilliant minds here at Carnegie Mellon who bleed green. Still, I suspect that the number of people who are truly conversant in the realm of environmental issues is relatively small, putting me on par with just about everyone else on the planet.

A recent panel discussion and forum held in McConomy Auditorium during last Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations brought together a small group of local professionals trying to analyze and revitalize Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods through the lens of environmental justice. In light of their discussion, it seems that environmental issues for us — students in Pittsburgh, hundreds of miles away from any rainforest — are more familiar than we might have thought. Perhaps our definition of what the environment is suffers from outdated, narrow definitions.

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that “environment” and “nature” are terms that immediately conjure those overly simple diagrams depicting the ecosystem from third grade, with earthworms down in the dirt and a sloth and toucan up in the trees. Environmental justice, however, is far broader and, maybe not intuitively, posits the idea that equal respect should be given to the poor farmer who must cut down the rainforest as is given to the rainforest itself.

The environment is, in this simple sense, the setting of your life. Do you live in the ghetto or the suburbs? Is your water clean or dirty? Are there toxins in your walls and pipes? Do you enjoy new and well maintained infrastructure? The answers, of course, are largely dependent upon socio-economic and political status, which is often (but not always, as the panelists were quick to point out) a function of race and ethnicity.

Thus, environmental justice, which often rings annoyingly in many ears as a problem of crunchy-granola-eating scientists, is really the confluence of a scientific and a social movement. It has roots in biology and ecology, yes, but it has equal roots in urban studies, racial history, and social policy. With this more holistic concept of the environment in mind, one can ask whether enacted policies are “just” with respect to the environment that they create or, more simply, whether the environment, now conceived as an easily manipulated social context, is a just one.

To use a rainforest-less example from the forum, many wonder if it was just to force citizens of the Hill district off of their property and out of their once-thriving neighborhood to make way for Mellon Arena. This frequently referenced policy has been on the tips of Pittsburgh tongues for years, but the question has never been one of justice with regard to the citizens and their environment, but rather of racial tensions and lack of political power.

In reality, environmental issues and issues of agency and political power are two sides of the same coin. Lack of political power, low numbers of registered voters, and, frankly, discriminatory policies, deprive people of agency over their environment: They lack the ability to make infrastructural improvements, keep factories and landfills out of their neighborhoods, and generally fight against poor urban-planning decisions. Thus, the environment in poor neighborhoods becomes dilapidated and crime-ridden, posing severe health and welfare risks to residents.

Environmental injustices are not limited to racial minorities. Panelists discussed problems in Appalachia, where the population is virtually all white, in addition to discussing issues that concern all Pittsburgh residents. Those who have researched Pittsburgh’s water and sewer infrastructure know that the city’s dirty little secret, and incidentally, one cause of the ubiquitous Oakland water-main breaks, is that it has a dual-use sewer system that handles both runoff and waste water in the same pipes — pipes that are too old and too small. When there is too much runoff for the ducts, the excess slurry of rain and sewage defaults directly into the river. I won’t expound on the health problems associated with raw sewage in the rivers any more than to say that it poses health threats to all flora and fauna in the area, not just humans.

Maybe, in this way, we can sketch a parallel between a more conventional example of an environmental problem; say, animals perishing because of an oil spill in Alaska, and people at risk because of the effects of bad social policy in the Hill District. These issues are both appeals to environmental justice, a principle that extends the familiar environmentalist idea that men and nature can live in sustainable harmony to encompass the notion that men have by right a stake not only their life and liberty, but to a healthy environment; that it is unjust for one man to force upon another an environment that erodes his ability to work, play, and live without facing obstacles to his well-being.