The Ethics of Environmental Justice

This week in class we had some lengthy discussion about the many aspects of ethics, morals, and fairness. Today I’d like to apply what we deliberated on to an often overlooked subject pertaining to all three of these concepts: Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (United States Environmental Protection Agency). In other words, it involves making sure that everyone is able to partake equally from the boons their environment provides.

To be clear, a person’s local environment is a resource, in this sense. A clean, healthy environment, in fact, is what’s called a public good–something everyone is able to use and benefit from, since no one owns it (If it was owned, it would be called a “private” good)(EconPort). This is why my post today is titled “The Ethics of Environmental Justice,” rather than the “Morals” or “Fairness.” Ethics are basically morals held up at the cultural/societal level, and the value of shared public goods is clearly institutionalized–it’s even supported by law, in many cases. As with fire departments and paved roads, the environment is something we don’t need any qualifications to use. It belongs, in part, to everyone, so everyone should have their fair share of the benefits… right?

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever travelled between rich and poor communities that, regardless of how the environment should be treated as a public good, it certainly is not. For example: Ever notice how wealthier communities not only have nicer houses, but also cleaner air, more public parks and gardens, and stores that sell healthier food? Or how poorer communities (especially ones highly populated by racial minorities) are often very polluted, with trash in their streets, smog in their air, with hardly any food options in their vicinity besides some drug stores or a fast food restaurant (Mohanty)? It’s because the richer population has turned a clean environment into a private good.

When wealthy people are unhappy about something, they have the resources (i.e. money, stocks) to make it worth a company’s while to make it go away. So if a rich community doesn’t want a factory pumping grime into their air and water, for example, the company that owns that factory will relocate it to a place where those wealthy people won’t complain: a poorer community. Granted, the residents of that poor community may very well complain, but unlike the wealthy, they have no financial standing to influence a company which is only interested in money (Mohanty). Similarly, if a rich community wants a public park, or a store that sells lots of organic produce, they have the money to build and/or entice businesses to come install these things. Poor communities do not, and are left with their littered streets and greasy food. Since the companies that often dictate how clean an environment is are almost always driven by money, richer communities have the ability to literally buy a better environment, while poor communities continue to live in squalor (Mohanty)(Shiva). Remember, buying something can easily be equated with owning it, and once it’s owned, a good is no longer a public resource (EconPort).

To help put this in perspective, we can observe a fairly recent occurrance. California’s been going through a very bad drought this year. So bad, in fact, that the state’s governor Jerry Brown had to issue an executive order that all cities and municipalities cut water consumptions by 25-36%. This might seem like a fair way of balancing the shortage, but some of the more affluent Californians were quick to disagree. Steve Yuhas fumed on social media, “[People] should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful” (Durden). Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy estate of Rancho Santa Fe, a practical Versailles of Southern California ranches, gated communities, and country clubs which easily consume five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In an interview, Yuhas defended his first statement with the argument that he paid “significant” property taxes in order to live where he did. “And, no,” he added for good measure, “we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” When Governor Brown called for a reduction in water consumption by 25%, Rancho Santa Fe’s consumption rose by 9% (Durden).

I wonder, Yuhas, who do you consider unequal to you when it comes to the consumption of the most basic, organic, life-giving substance? The people who aren’t as wealthy as you? Or the racial minorities associated with that lack of wealth?

A strikingly similar example of this exploitation of the poor communities occurred in India when a Coca-cola plant was discovered to have been siphoning water out of a reserve poor Indians had been using to feed and water their families. Eventually the plant was coaxed into finding water elsewhere, but by then those who had been relying on the water source–who were already suffering in extreme poverty–had been forced to live in drought-like conditions for months (Shiva). This is an instance where, rather than have a large factory destroying their own landscape, American investors outsourced the environmental repercussions to a much poorer region, while simultaneously managing to pay its workers there significantly less than anything they’d make in the United States (Shiva).

There are many more examples of this sort of outsourcing, exploitation, and assumed ownership of the environment on the part of rich individuals and corporations, but I think by now you’ve got the idea. The environment, which should be the most implicite of all public goods, is being bought and sold exclusively by the wealthy elite. And hardly anything is being done to stop it. I didn’t come to you today with a solution, but I do hope this has brought this important issue of Fairness (with the capital “F”) to your attention. Rancho Santa Fe and Coca-Cola got away with what they did with barely a slap on the wrist, and they aren’t the only ones. My question to you is, what more can we do in order to stop environmental injustice?

Durden, Tyler. “‘We’re Not All Equal When It Comes to Water’ –Rich Californians Blast Conservation Efforts.” ZeroHedge. Media, LTD, 16 June, 2015. Web. 8 Sept., 2015.

“Environmental Justice.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 June, 2015. Web. 8 Sept., 2015.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Duke University Press, 10 Jan. 2013. Print.

“Private Goods v. Public Goods.” EconPort. Experimental Economics Center, 2006. Web. 8 Sept., 2015.

Shiva, Vandana. “Vandana Shiva: Our Violent Economy is Hurting Women.Yes Magazine. n.p., 18 Jan, 2013. Web. 12 Dec., 2013.

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