Sustainability

Poverty gap leads to environmental injustice

The luxurious life enjoyed by many Americans has more effects than we can ever fully comprehend. The plastics we use daily emit dangerous chemicals when they are made, the electronics we use require unsafe mining conditions, and the hazardous waste we produce often gets shipped out to foreign countries where others are forced to deal with the pollution and negative health effects. The majority of the time these consequences are not seen by the people who use the products that cause them. Therefore, in order for well-off citizens to enjoy their everyday products, poverty-stricken citizens must bear the burden of production and disposal.

Robert Bullard and Glenn Johnson, sociologists focusing on environmental justice and racism, discuss many examples of this in their paper titled Environmental Justice: Grassroots Activism and its Impact on Public Policy Decision Making. A main theme in this publication is how current conditions have “allowed poison of the rich to be offered as short-term remedies for poverty.” The authors mention “Cancer Alley” and other poor areas of Louisiana, where petrochemical plants thrive and gasoline, fertilizer, and other dangerous products are manufactured in mass. These plants and companies are skillfully located in an area that has a very high rate of African-Americans below the poverty line. As a result, these citizens have very little political influence. Also, they are less likely to oppose the construction of a factory nearby because it could be a chance for employment. This is where the “short term remedy for poverty” portion of the quote is clearly demonstrated.

Even though these factories may produce toxic chemicals that cause health problems, some communities are willing to accept that if the tradeoff is a steady paycheck. Unfortunately, according to the authors, “There is little or no correlation between proximity of industrial plants in communities of color and the employment opportunities of nearby residents. Having industrial facilities in one’s community does not automatically translate into jobs for nearby residents.” Therefore, plants are often constructed with the expectation of new employment opportunities, but these expectations are not realized.

Another example of environmental injustice can be seen on Native American lands with radioactive waste. In the past, Indian reservations have faced pressures to allow landfills, incinerators, and other waste facilities on their lands. They have been successful at fighting off these proposals, but currently the government and industries are taking advantage of the unfortunate economic situation facing many Native Americans. By offering $100,000 grants to store nuclear waste on reservation land, the Department of Energy is encouraging environmental racism and taking advantage of a poverty stricken community. Once again, this situation demonstrates very clearly how “poisons of the rich have become short-term economic remedies for poverty.” The Native Americans, just like the poor citizens in Louisiana, are willing to face the dangerous results of accepting radioactive waste in exchange for monetary benefit.

Overall, economic uncertainties and historic cultural patterns that continue these conditions allow communities to be exploited by industries and the government for production needs. Unfortunately, this practice encourages racial and economic discrimination that leads to environmental injustice. This leaves targeted communities with extremely high levels of pollution and more health hazards. Also, this practice devalues human life by deciding who should be exposed to harmful chemicals and who should be spared. This is just another example of how our current capitalist and materialist society is unsustainable and unjust. How can we change to accept the responsibility of dealing with the waste that accompanies our greed?

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