Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Christian Perspective on Environmental Justice

A Christian Perspective on Environmental Justice
by Jim Schwab

In The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton retells an old story from the desert monasteries of the Middle East.

     A master commanded his disciple for three years to give money to all who insulted him. His period of trial completed, the disciple was then freed by
his master to go to Athens and "learn wisdom." The disciple reached the gates of Athens, where he met a man who sat there insulting everyone who entered
or left. He proceeded to insult the disciple as well. The disciple burst into laughter.
     "Why do you laugh when I insult you?" the wise man asked.
     "Because," the disciple replied, "for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing."
     "Enter the city," the wise man said. "It is all yours."

For a little more than three years I worked on a book that details the rise of environmental activism in blue-collar and minority communities. The son of
a truck mechanic, I was driven to write this particular work by the long-standing conviction that the American environmental movement involved a peculiar
misfit between the nature of the injustice being addressed and the constituency that was given primary credit for addressing it. In the United States,
environmentalism has long been perceived as a uniquely white, middle-class, suburban preoccupation. As perception has a way of becoming its own form of
reality, working-class and nonwhite people developed an awkward sense that they did not belong to this movement. It is small wonder, then, that when environmentalists
needed their help, these latter groups tended to respond with great caution.

Yet the people most at risk from dangerous working conditions in heavy industrial plants are blue-collar workers. The communities most at risk from the
industrial toxins connected with these facilities are largely low-income, working-class communities. Why would they not lead the fight against pollution?
Our society has largely confined its definition of environmentalism to the recreational values of wilderness preservation but refused to challenge the
sanctity of industry's control over production processes that menace human health. When we discuss industrial pollution, we discuss it in terms of control
rather than prevention. With limited exceptions, industry may produce what it wishes in whatever way it deems appropriate. This makes it exceedingly difficult
to raise questions about the necessity of environmentally harmful products or of production processes that endanger human health.

In this context, workers and their families are particularly susceptible to propaganda that suggests that their only choice is between jobs with pollution
or unemployment without pollution. Such a choice is really not a choice at all, and environmentalists who have not been sensitive to this fact have alienated
countless thousands of disempowered poor people with their rhetoric about sacrifice.

Obviously, low-income people, minorities and workers do not accept this statement of their alternatives as an expression of their idealism. When they have
surrendered to this fatalism, it is because someone has killed their vision of justice. This death can be laid largely at the doorstep of all those who
insist that the poor, the poorly educated, women and disempowered minorities lack the knowledge and the sophistication to understand environmental issues.
In a society that glorifies technology and scientific expertise, that message has pounded people into submission for generations.

Despite these serious obstacles, many have persisted in the fight for justice, and their numbers are growing. In the last decade, a critical mass of organizers
and activists has materialized to facilitate the development of a major national network of blue-collar and minority environmental activists. Much of the
leadership, moreover, is female. Legions of mothers and homemakers, union members, and African-American and Hispanic activists are on the march, and because
of them, the environmental movement will never be the same again.

In the obstreperous manner of any young and aggressive movement, the People of Color environmental movement has set teeth on edge within some of the established
national environmental groups. (For more information, see "Principles of Environmental Justice," pp. 35-36.) The older mainstream groups have been accused
of racism both for their collective failure to hire and recruit adequate numbers of minority staff people, and for their failure to reach out to minority
communities in need of expertise in their fights against incinerators, landfills, toxic waste, chemical pollution, and other hazards of both inner-city
and rural life. Despite waste-industry denials, there is a disturbing pattern in the siting of toxic waste facilities. A 1987 statistical study by the
United Church of Christ found that race was the most prominent factor in determining their location.

Moreover, the health impacts of pollution are no laughing matter. Children growing up in Los Angeles, whose air pollution is by far the worst in the nation,
on average develop 25 percent less lung capacity than children elsewhere in the United States. Children affected by lead poisoning, whether through lead
paint in old apartments or through lead-contaminated air or soil, can suffer a range of neurotoxic symptoms ranging from mental retardation to hypertension.

Those on the front lines of occupational and environmental exposure to these toxins now argue that they should have a greater influence on environmental
policy. What they may lack in education and expertise, they often make up in real-life experience. The real danger for the mainstream environmental groups,
and for their largely white, middle-class, suburban memberships is that, perceiving the sometimes bitter criticisms of their past orientation as a threat,
they will fail to gain wisdom by repaying those who insult them with the help they deserve. They may fail to realize that there is much to be learned by
listening to the disenfranchised, however angry they may be.

Industry, too, must learn to listen. The new movement has often been labeled "NIMBY," or "not in my back yard." Indeed, many of the new grassroots groups
did start out by protecting their own backyard, but they have rapidly developed a far broader perspective than that. And who among us is not inclined to
protect his own backyard? How many affluent neighborhoods have suffered the same toxic onslaughts as those in the inner city or in poor rural areas? What
is remarkable is the degree to which the grassroots environmental movement has integrated such protests into a more comprehensive philosophy.

Not that the backyard protests cease to be relevant. A rear-guard action to halt a landfill may still serve a purpose, as Love Canal veteran Lois Gibbs
notes, by "plugging up the toilet." American industry, like American consumers, has developed a throwaway habit that must be cured. The grassroots environmentalists
propose to force that reassessment by blocking some of the easy solutions that incinerators and hazardous-waste landfills have represented in the past.
At the same time, they have advocated changes in consumer habits, such as recycling. They led the campaign that caused McDonald's to abandon its polystyrene
hamburger containers.

We can all play a part as consumers in moving this change along. We can buy our groceries at the increasingly prevalent organic supermarkets. We can use
recycled, nonbleached paper in order to reduce the market pressures that cause the release of dioxin into the environment from the use of chlorine bleaches.
We can use high-efficiency light bulbs and buy nontoxic household cleaning products.

We can also play a part as activists. Congregations that are not in affected industrial neighborhoods can open a dialogue with those that are, offering
their support for important campaigns and providing needed funding and expertise. Congregations that are in such neighborhoods can serve as crucial support
centers for social change, for community education, and for serious dialogue and negotiation with those companies that are willing to become good neighbors.

Finally, we can recognize that the environmental injustice that runs along class and racial lines in this nation is but a microcosm of the much larger and
far more dangerous that exists between the environmental privileges of rich and poor nations throughout the world. When we help our neighbors fight pollution
in inner-city Chicago or in rural Louisiana, we are learning in some small way about the vast environmental challenges that face millions of people in
poorer nations every day.

Jim Schwab, M.A., is the Senior Research Associate at the American Planning Association, a professional society for city planners located in Chicago. He
chairs the Environmental Concerns Working Group of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod and the the Region 5 Task Force on Care of Creation of the ELCA. Mr.
Schwab is the author of two books: Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out and, soon to be released, Deeper Shades of Green: The
Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism in America.


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