Sustainability and Environmental Justice: Why Race and Class (Still) Matter to Sustainability

By Robin Morris Collin

The principles of sustainability force us to recognize the limits that our ecosystems impose on economic activities and on human lives. When one recognizes those limits, one must also recognize controversial and unavoidable distributional issues—the question of equal protection from environmental and health hazards, and meaningful public participation in decisions that affect the environment in which people live, work, learn, practice spirituality and play, or environmental justice. This is the definition of environmental justice adopted by the Oregon Environmental Justice Taskforce

Approaching sustainability in tandem with environmental justice forces one to acknowledge the current, inequitable distributions of environmental harms and benefits that create, for example, toxic hotspots, sacrifice zones, and sinks around communities of color and poverty. Sadly, the best predictor of the location of a toxic or hazardous waste site is the race of the community, not the location’s property values, hydrological features, or geology. The darker the community, the more likely that hazardous substances will be located there

It is no surprise, then, that “environmental justice communities” include minority and low-income communities, tribal communities, and other communities traditionally underrepresented in public processes.

The concept of equity is included in every international formulation of sustainability, and it is the answer to these distributional issues. It is often overlooked in United States sustainability policies and organizations, however. Sometimes equity is excluded intentionally in the United States by those who would reject social justice as an integral part of sustainability. And yet, sustainability requires inclusion of the community as an integral part of every decision.

The currently living generations have inherited a very unbalanced distribution of benefits and burdens in local and global systems as a result of deliberate human policy choices. Those policy choices have shaped our institutions and systematically affected the way that we treat the Earth and the ecosystems on which all life depends. The problem with history is that it isn’t over yet.  Past acts continue to affect present conditions.

Powerful systems of industrial energy generation, industrial food production, and mass transportation cumulatively poison vital natural systems and threaten environmental justice. For example, industrial agriculture significantly contributes to the toxicity of our freshwater supplies from toxic chemicals and additives, soil erosion, salinity of soils, and the greenhouse gas inventories. Beyond the environmental footprint and trajectory of food production, the people who work in this industrial sector bear the greatest burden of exposure to toxins in the workplace, including the cumulative effects of long-term, multiple exposures of workers and their families, whether in the fields or at home. Sustainability and environmental justice demand that we reexamine these systems and their impacts.

Areas of concentrated toxicity threaten all of us, eventually. Our ecosystems do not respect the lines of class and race. Many toxic areas have not been regulated at all, and even when regulated, environmental enforcement has been lacking.  That is especially true for communities of color. Unequal Protection: The Racial Divide in Environmental Law, Nat’l L.J., Sept. 21, 1992, at S1-12. The toxic impacts that accumulate in lands and in human bodies are growing ever larger. Toxicity migrates, ultimately threatening us all because Earth is an interconnected system—only as strong as its weakest links.  On a local level, the record of inequities has been made painfully clear in the 2009 report of Portland’s Urban League: The State of Black Oregon.

The environmental justice movement and the sustainability movement are inseparable. Sustainability focuses on radical transformation of the policies and practices that lead us to injure the Earth’s living systems. Environmental justice focuses on allocations of environmental benefits and burdens. Together, they require us to repair and restore injured places and communities. That work is unfinished and will remain unsuccessful as long as we leave toxic hotspots and sacrifice zones unaddressed.

Currently, in the US and in Oregon, there is a color line between the sustainability and environmental justice movements—and it’s not green. Equity and environmental justice require us to reconcile ourselves to the paradigm of community, transcending our issues of racial oppression and privilege in the interests of all.

These words are often attributed to Chief Seattle:

“Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.”

Some say this is just a bit of Hollywood scriptwriting, and in this spirit, I would rewrite it a bit:

“Whatever he does to the Earth and other Beings, he does to himself.” The same idea is found in Meditation 17 of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself . . . any man’s death diminishes me [emphasis added], because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Lady JusticeRobin Morris Collin is a professor of law at Willamette University. She is the co-author (with Robert William Collin) of The Encyclopedia of Sustainability (three volumes: Environment and Ecology, Economics and Business, Equity and Fairness), Greenwood Press, 2009. She has also been teaching sustainability since 1994.
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